Talking Mongolia with Jerome Campbell and Percy Dean

Recently a Friday night at the House of Vans played host to the UK premiere of Carhartt’s ‘Out of Steppe’ video, taken from a 2014 Mongolia trip which saw Carhartt heading to the country with photographers, filmers and skaters there to check out how things had changed since a previous Carhartt trip in 2004. We caught up with photographer Percy Dean and team rider Jerome Campbell to discuss the project, the country, fermented horse milk drinks and briefcase-wielding locals. Unfortunately HOV’s combination of high tunnels, over-excitable/drunk skateboarders and DJ’s made for an unforgiving ambient noise backing track, so swathes of the conversation have been lost to the dictaphone ether. Here’s the conversation that survived, along with some of Percy’s and Cyrille Weiner’s evocative photos taken from the book (available from Carhartt.)

All photos by Percy Dean except where stated

High pop, treacherous landing for Jerome.

This Mongolia trip was a return to the country for Carhartt, but a first time visit for everyone else right? What were your first impressions and biggest culture shocks as first timers?

Jerome: I think from my side, me and Percy went together and we had no idea of what we were getting ourselves in to. You landed and just felt so far away from everything, it just didn’t compute. When you fly somewhere normally you just land and, you know, go and find a coffee, do very simple things. When you land in Mongolia, you realise how far away from everything you actually are.

Percy: And I think to a certain extent, since the airport we’d been winding each other up about how fucking gnarly it was going to be. So we created this whole mass hysteria before we even landed, I honestly think we sent ourselves a bit nuts.

J: From the outset, even before we got on the plane, we were like, “We’ve never flown Air China before”- we were on Trip Advisor checking the reviews and they were all super thumbs down, minus one star…so we freaked ourselves out. And to be honest when we got there, it was a bit out there.

P: It was really strange because in Ulaanbataar the airport is pretty brutal but not as brutal as flying to India or something. But then the gap between the airport and the city, that showed a touch of how the real Mongolia was – the Mongolia we’d experience later on in the trip. Then we got to the city and it was really Westernised, kind of normal for us, but with an undercurrent of the Wild West. Like it was almost normality, but it just felt a little bit out of control.

J: My opinion is that it was really trying to be Westernised, trying so much…

P: It was like a veneer of Westernisation over that embedded Mongolian culture, years of living in the fields and herding horses….like someone had slapped this cheap veneer over the top.

Making friends with the locals

I guess it has been massively urbanized in the last ten years, hasn’t it?

J: That’s the thing; obviously it was new to me, Percy and a lot of the other crew, but a couple of guys had been on the previous trip and I think for them it was a massive shock in terms of what had changed in the last ten years. I think it’s all to do with mineral deposits and people coming in – I mean the infrastructure, the buildings getting built are fucking insane, there was so much being made.

Did you find that because there’s been a lot of movement towards Ulaanbaatar it was hard to hit certain spots, sort of like how bits of London are unskateable in rush hour?

J: Well I’ve been to China on skate trips and it’s not like that yet. There’s still more horses than there are people. I think that skateboarding is still a very bizarre thing for people to see…

P: It seemed a lot more real in China. When you go to China and skate the spots you get these huge, gigantic crowds of people, taking photos and clapping if you do shit. In Mongolia, it was almost like they didn’t give a fuck that you were a skateboarder, it wasn’t a novelty or anything.

J: They just didn’t get it. In China they still have that Westernised thing where they can, you know, share information, put things on Facebook or whatever. But out there there’s no frame of reference.

Phil Zwijsen, karma-baiting ollie

A Patrik Wallner-documented Converse China trip to the country a few years back saw the general atmosphere towards skateboarders come across as less than positive, people throwing rocks, trying to steal boards etc. Did you experience any of that from people?
P: There was one time Yoshi (Omoto) was skating a rail and…I think alcoholism is quite high in Mongolia. Anyway there were these two drunk guys, like office guys, walking down the street while Jerome was skating a bump to rail. Yoshi skated past and one of the guys with his briefcase just went “Fuck off!” and swung it into his face.
J: It did seem like you can’t gauge anyone.
P: There would be these big groups of guys…and Mongolian men aren’t small, so these big, heavy-looking guys and they don’t look like they’re in to what you’re doing, they’re borderline pissed off that you’re there. And they’re gangs of big, gnarly looking guys…
Moving away from the capital, how built up did you find towns and cities? The spots on the video vary but definitely lean towards the haggard end of the spectrum, does much of Mongolia bear much of the Soviet architectural stamp which makes Eastern Europe so good for skateboarding?
J: Well even in Ulaanbaatar, while there were mad structures, there weren’t the kind of marble, plaza-esque spots you’d find in, say, Russia. There still wasn’t that infrastructure; and I think it was also because they couldn’t get the materials they needed because it was that far away.
P: I think looking at all the spots we skated, there were 6 million other ones – say there’d be a perfect hip, or a perfect bank – and it would just end in some mud. With former Soviet countries and architecture there’s a lot of stuff and it seems to revolve around either cities or mines. You’ll drive nine hours across a fucking field and end up in a 1960s Soviet mining town, with amazing, weird war memorials and stuff…sorry I forgot the question?

The view from the van

Spots outside of Ulaanbaatar, and whether there was much to skate when you got beyond the city…

J: Outside of Ulaanbaatar it was really rare to see anything skateable – I don’t remember seeing anything really.

P: I don’t think we skated anything – apart from that one monument in the train station – we didn’t skate one thing of that era. It didn’t exist I don’t think.

Is there much of a skate scene in Mongolia? The original trip was to find a skatepark which turned out to have been demolished three weeks earlier, are there now many skateparks dotted around?

P: In Ulaanbaatar we did see kids with boards – when word got out that we were around, kids with boards would materialise. I mean it wasn’t like in London where you’d walk down the street and see 20 kids with boards. But then as soon as you leave Ulaanbaatar, there is no skate scene.

J: Literally you left Ulaanbaatar and left any trace of Westernisation…

P: And I think there’s still quite a lot of peer pressure from the families not to be involved…that kind of light hearted Westernisation where it’s not involved producing something, it’s a pastime.

J: You know, it doesn’t have an end goal, doesn’t have a future job in it. But then the life out there for a lot of people, it is still nomadic, it is still dependent on livestock. Skating is still new to that generation, new to that whole world.

Sylvain Tognelli backside flips for the expectant marmot crowd

Mongolia’s drinking culture is well documented, did you get involved in any Mongol boozing sessions? Or did everyone avoid the party scene for this trip?

P: To be honest, we spent three or four days in Ulaanbaatar and for those three or four days we were still kind of freaked out about being there.

J: You couldn’t ever judge the situation, so some nights you’d head out and start thinking, “Should we really be here?” – you didn’t really feel safe. You didn’t know the area, you didn’t know the people, you didn’t know what you were drinking. As funny as it sounds, you know, it’s very easy to think you can get food and you just can’t.

P: I never really felt too safe…until we got out the city anyway, it just didn’t seem like a place where you’d do that. I mean you go out here to drink for a good time, you wind each other up, take the piss and I just felt like you can’t do that over there, it’s not the same culture. I don’t want to disrespect that culture while I’m over there, if that’s what you want to go out and do then you shouldn’t even be going out there.

J: I have to say that we did go out on my birthday…I was in a really bad place in the morning, got up at whatever time for an eight hour drive to a Buddhist temple in the middle of nowhere. I still gauge hangovers by that one.

P: That’s a good place to end up on a hungover day though! The thing is, it wasn’t actually that easy to get booze there. A lot of nights, we didn’t even have any beers after skating. Getting food and drink wasn’t always easy.

I did read when I was researching this article that BBQ marmot is a Mongolian delicacy.

P: I’ll tell you what, driving around the countryside you seen hundreds of them, poking their heads out of the ground. I was the only person to try the local drink; fermented horse milk, out of this used plastic bottle. A used plastic water bottle, from someone at the side of the road, when you’re freaked out about getting ill anyway…but I drank that.

Spot fixing. Photo by Cyrille Weiner

What did it taste like?

P: Melted goats cheese, with a shot of vodka, warm.

J: It’s so gnarly man…

P: You didn’t even try it!

J: There were times, when you were in the middle of nowhere – I walked for two hours, just to get a Snickers. You’d step out of your yurt, look to the horizon, and just walk in that direction. You’d earn your Snickers.

Finally, what advice would you give to people planning on visiting Mongolia with skateboards?

J: With skateboards? (Laughs from both)

P: Dig out some books!

J: There are spots, but you have to be willing to really, really work for it and to skate really hard spots. Take spare griptape and boards because you won’t get any out there, take soft wheels, take a broom!

P: You know what, it’s good. It is really good, and I’m glad to have gone.

J: It’s a definitely a memory, an experience.

P: That’s skateboarding, you’re with the right people and you’ll have the best time. It’s all a bit rugged, but you can have a good laugh there.

J: It’s not like the UK, there’s no real planning laws there. The builders don’t have a clue so you’ll get say, five stairs, a handrail – and it’ll end in a bank. Stuff like that you wouldn’t see elsewhere, so there are spots if you put the effort in.

P: I’m made up really, it’s an experience you’d never get anywhere else. If it wasn’t for skateboarding there’s no way in my life I’d end up somewhere like Mongolia or wherever.

That seems like a good point to close with, cheers guys.

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