A Long Way from Liverpool; the Beatles in Outer Mongolia.
Ian D. Robinson.
The Mongolian’s are great monument builders; it’s something they inherited from the Soviets. Around the capital Ulaan Baatar there are colossal bronze khans both mounted and seated, monstrous guilt Buddhas that look like they could have walked there from Bamiyan. Not far from the city on the steppe there is a goliath Chinggis Khan, impressive astride his horse, forty metres of towering steel, there are also a few Lenin busts still around and there might even be a Stalin somewhere.
Walking through the small dusty park opposite the State Department Store in the centre of Ulaan Baatar it might have been forgivable to ignore the brick and bronze memorial in the middle as yet another tribute to an all but forgotten brave and/or brutal revolutionary hero. But as I got closer I squinted through the midday glare of Central Asian sunshine, “Is that the…” incredulous at the sight of the Fab Four frozen in bronze “…Beatles?”
No, I wasn’t hallucinating after consuming too much local vodka; John, Paul, George and Ringo really were strutting by fresh from their Sergeant Pepper days. But how had they ended up here? Mongolia was about as far from Liverpool as you could get!
After a fair bit of asking round I tracked down the man behind the monolith. It turned out the seemingly misplaced memorial was a shrine to a generation of Mongolian youth.
“We finished that monument in October 2008,” I sat with a cold bottle of Gobi Beer in a hotel restaurant with Dolgion Balchinjav, instantly recognisable by Mongolian rock music lovers by his trademark silk neck scarf, he is producer and judge of Mongolia’s answer to Idol and the republic’s own version of Simon Cowell, “it was all privately funded, nothing came from the state, but people here who love the Beatles were happy to help, some gave ten tugriks, some gave ten million!”
Built by locally renown sculpture Den Barsboldt, the guitar-shaped brick wall represents the division Dolgion and his urban peers felt from the West during rock n roll’s golden age. The side facing west which supports the friezes of John and co always seems to be in the sun, while the other side towards the east is in perpetual shade. Here a figure of a long haired young man sits alone playing his guitar, lonely and cut off from the rest of the world where everything was ‘happening’.
While Beatle-mania raged and most of the planet basked in the light of free love and peace during the 60s and 70s, Mongolia was isolated and, like the rest of the Eastern Bloc, was lost in the darkness of communism.
“All we heard at that time was communist ideology, many young people knew the Beatles and liked them but we couldn’t easily listen to them, at the same time young people in Ulaan Baatar felt disconnected from Mongolian traditional culture which was all about horses and the steppe, countryside themes which we didn’t relate to.”
In those gloomy days ‘Here Comes the Sun’ must have held a far greater meaning than it did for the rest of the world.
“We used to listen to LPs smuggled into Mongolia, mostly by the children of diplomats who had been living abroad wherever their parents had been posted, or by the children of foreign diplomats sent here. It was risky though, to be a fan of the Beatles in those days, we had to listen in hiding and turn the volume down in case the neighbours heard!”
Even in the new millennium, which Mongolia has embraced like a long lost lover, the Beatles monument is controversial, there are still old socialists who disapprove and nomads from the steppe lands just don’t get it, most feeling the money raised would have been better spent on another statue of Chinggis Khan or perhaps a memorial to the goat.
“By building this monument we also wanted to show to the rest of the world that Mongolia is not just horses and Chinggis Khan,” Dolgion explained, “we have a modern urban culture too, and that urban culture isn’t just something we’ve found in the last few years, just like the west we go back to the 60s, we know and love the Beatles, Clapton and the Rolling Stones just as much as the rest of the world.”
“As far as we know the monument here in Ulaan Baatar is the first of its kind in Asia, I heard there is also a statue of John Lennon in Cuba, Castrol admired him saying ‘he wasn’t a good socialist but he was a good revolutionary’!”
Since the Mongolian tribute however, Russia and Kazakhstan have followed suit with their own efforts to immortalise the lads from Liverpool.
“We invited Paul McCartney to the unveiling in 2008,” Dolgion told me, “his manager replied that he was too busy at the time to make it, we still hope he’ll come though and he’s said he might, maybe later, but I know Mongolia is a long way from Liverpool.”