Skateboarding in Mongolia: An Interview with Jerome Campbell and Percy Dean
Back in 2004 Carhartt took a crew of skaters to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to skate a skatepark they had seen photos of. On their arrival they found the skatepark had been razed just three weeks prior, so they set out to find skateable spots in a country previously unexplored by skateboarders. From that trip we got the book, Dirt Ollies, and the film Mongolian Tyres.
Ten years later and with Mongolia undergoing drastic change, Carhartt returned with a new crew to once again explore the skateboarding possibilities. Along for the ride were skateboarders: Jerome Campbell, Phil Zwijsen, Joseph Biais, Sylvain Tognellia, Igor Fardin, and Yoshihiro ‘Deshi’ Omoto, photographers Percy Dean and Cyrille Wiener, filmmaker Stephen Roe and journalist Seb Carayol.
We took the opportunity to speak to Jerome Campbell and Percy Dean about the trip, touching on the local skate scene, finding spots, and the experience of being quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
Find out more information regarding the new book, From Dirt to Dust, and Stephen Roe’s film, Out of Steppe, over on the Carharrt WIP website.
Kingpin: Percy, Jerome, how aware were you of the first trip?
Percy: I was aware, it was my era more.
Jerome: From my side, I don’t think I was skating for Carhartt at the time but I’d obviously seen the book that was produced at that time, ten years before we went. That was all I had to reference it against. I think for Percy, he probably saw a bit more of it than I did? I think there was a video produced that I didn’t get to see. Is that right?
Percy: I don’t so much remember the video but I remember the book, we were still doing the magazine (Editor’s note: Document Magazine) and there was a deal. The book looked amazing, it was the first time that EU skateboarding, not a company but background…
Jerome: …had created like a really special piece.
Percy: I’d never seen a product like that come out of a European skateboarding background before: a hardback solid book containing all European riders. At that time I knew Chris, and I knew Muki and I knew Julian so I’d spoken to them about it as well. It was a really interesting piece of work, it took some balls to do it.
I think that’s even true now, with these kind of trips, it’s not just ‘we’re going to this place purely to get footage, we’re going to actually explore’
Jerome: I think that with content across the world at the moment it always engages at a certain level. But I think producing a book and having a film that is associated with it it caters to a generation that understands skateboarding to a certain level, and are bothered about what’s going on around the world, and are interested in other countries.
Jerome: “Everybody who went on the first trip said ‘fuck, I ain’t going there again!’”
Percy: “Have you tried going to the doctors and getting them to give you antibiotics?! They don’t allow you!”
Was it intentional to have a completely new set of people going on the trip? Was it only Bertrand (Trichet, Carhartt TM) who went on the first one?
Jerome: I tell you why it was intentional, because everybody who went on the first trip said ‘fuck, I ain’t going there again!’(Laughs) It’s the truth! Pontus (Alv) went then and I was pretty surprised! It was still really gnarly when we got there – knowing how fast that country is moving on. Ten years ago must have been another level altogether. We got there and were like: ‘woah this is fucking another world mate!’ Just things like the food, being able to get bottled water from shops and stuff like that. When you arrive there, you really feel like you could have quite happily arrived on Mars. It genuinely is that far away.
Were you given much information of what to expect before you went?
Jerome: Not really, I mean we were left to our own devices in terms of research. I could have researched a lot more than I probably did. But I like the idea of turning up and us not knowing what’s going on.
Percy: I liked the list that we got of Bertrand that said: bring vitamin supplements because the food doesn’t provide you with the vitamins that you’re going to need, bring antibiotics… – have you tried going to the doctors and getting them to give you antibiotics?! They don’t allow you! On the list it said: bring a broad spectrum of antibiotics incase anything happens out there because otherwise you’re fucked.
Jerome: I remember getting in touch with Percy’s wife about getting hold of antibiotics and getting your jabs and stuff. The weird thing was, the list was inter-spliced with stuff that was super simple: sleeping bag, then the next thing down would be like ‘have you had your jabs’, or make sure you bring like a fucking rectal tablet.
Percy: Clean t-shirts, a headlamp, and then broad spectrum of antibiotics.
Jerome: (Laughs) Yeah that was one of them.
Percy: But you know what: we didn’t need any of them, I didn’t need any antibiotics. One or two people got a dicky belly for a couple of days.
Jerome: Which is to be expected.
Percy: On that first trip every single person got gnarly food poisoning. They had a massive fight and all got battered, it was like the Wild West. Ours wasn’t anything compared to the first one.
Jerome: “When you arrive there, you really feel like you could have quite happily arrived on Mars. It genuinely is that far away”
Jerome: “You don’t want to jump off someone’s front porch if you know you’re going to impale yourself on a spike and not get seen to for five weeks”
Jerome: Yeah, but I don’t want to take away from the fact that by today’s standards it was still fucking out there, you know what I mean? It was like going to a jungle. Bearing in mind these people living in Mongolia – as clued up as they are on everything they’re involved with, their agriculture, architecturally they’re, super clued up. – But there’s still things, like you’d go into the middle of nowhere, and I mean the middle of nowhere!, and you’d find a whole heap of rubbish – plastic bottles all this shit. And it’s because they dumped it, not because they were trying to get rid of it, they had no clue that it was bad for the environment! They have no understanding that these plastics wouldn’t just degrade into the earth, they just thought they’d go somewhere. It was weird because you’re so far away from everything, but these people they understand how the world works, simple things like understanding recycling is a massively important thing we do in today’s world – they didn’t have a clue because they haven’t turned on the news, they don’t have the news to understand these things. It sounds ridiculous because admittedly you’re still not too far away from civilization in terms of a plane ride away. But realistically you are so far away in terms of getting medical help, from people understanding what you might need if you have epilepsy. It sounds super simple and you expect it to be normal, you expect to go on a trip and be able to get that kind of help, or if you want to get food you can go and get it, but you can’t, it doesn’t exist like that. You can’t just go to the store… We were speaking earlier about how we were lucky enough to stay with this family in a yurt town and a group of us were sat in the morning for a couple of hours debating whether it was worth us walking three hours to the nearest shop to buy beers and like a Snickers or something. It was the genuinely the furthest I’ve ever been to get a Snickers.
Percy: They were gone the whole day!
Jerome: Yeah, the whole day is gone walking to get a chocolate bar. You walk to the horizon, where the fucking earth curves, you walk to where the earth curves to get to the shop.
Percy: For 360 degrees around you you couldn’t see anything but a horizon.
Jerome: Things were so far away that they’d register as individual pixels in your mind. There’d be a red pixel and you’d like we drove past that on the way in, it’s 10 miles that way but I know it’s a shop. You know what I mean?
Percy: There’s no road, it’s just fields. You’re in the middle of a field and you can kind of see where last season or last year there was maybe a bit of a tractor driven that way and the grass is worn.
Jerome: It’d be a case of we’re traveling down a road, like we’re on a road that’s smooth we’re all looking at each other and nothing is jiggling and then the driver, Davaanyam, sees some mountain range or some star constellation and fucking just turns left into a field and then for fifteen hours we’d just go in that direction. There’d be no road left. And: I didn’t see him look at a map once! In fact he didn’t even have a fucking map!
Percy: I did see him get a map out, but what is he referencing on a map? You’re in a field with 360 degrees of field around you, what’s he looking at on the map?
Did you find it liberating?
Jerome: It was liberating to a certain extent. It was also relatively scary because you forget that we’ve travelled for between five and ten hours in one direction on dirt. To do that is pretty gnarly, not only because you know that you’re drifting further away from civilization, but it also means that nothing can get to you if you hurt yourself. With skateboarding being inherently dangerous you’re getting further and further away and it obviously effects the way you think about what you’re doing. You don’t want to jump off someone’s front porch if you know you’re going to impale yourself on a spike and not get seen to for five weeks. It’s a place where there are more horses than there are people, and that’s the truth!It’s not geared up to look after people in that type of way.
Percy: We’re saying it like it’s a negative, and I’ve encouraged that a bit as well. But it’s the fucking best to be in those situations because in hindsight to look back and say ‘we did that’, we went there, we saw all this, we experienced this thing’. At the time we were like fucking terrified, sat in the back of the coach thinking ‘fuck, we’re getting further away and further away, we’ve got another fucking two and half weeks together, we’re getting further away’. But now looking back at it, these are the stories that you’re going to tell your grandkids.
Jerome: “You walk to the horizon, you walk to where the earth curves to get to the shop – genuinely the furthest I’ve ever been to get a Snickers!”
Percy: “These are the stories that you’re going to tell your grandkids”
Jerome: There were certain situations where we were driving in this bus, we had this big bus that didn’t look like it should be on the mud for a start…
Percy: The Happy Valley Bus.
Jerome: We were driving it and there were certain situations where the geezer, Davaanyam, would say ‘right, can everyone get out of the bus’.
Percy: It would knock so much your face would be like here (gestures against his face) next to the glass.
Jerome: There were times when we were on the bus and the ground would be there (points next to his face), and he’d get everyone out of the bus. I’ve got photos of us where we’ve walked three miles away from the bus and it’s because we’ve been asked to get out of the bus and walk because the roads were just so bad – if we were in it, it would have just fallen over. There were times where the driver – bless him – was terrified. I remember a couple of times where we’d have tipped. It’s like being up Everest, it’s that far away from anything.
Percy: I remember driving along the motorway, before we were going to camp in the desert. The driver kept breaking really hard, it’s because the motorway for the like 6000 miles had fucking potholes in it.
Jerome: I remember him (the driver) saying something to the geezer we were with about that, about people taking bits of the motorway for something.There were reasons that there were holes in this motorway, we say motorway like it’s the M1 or something, it was far from it. But it was a piece of tarmac, with holes in it that seriously if you went down them the van wouldn’t be starting again until you got a new axle.
Percy: Yeah it would have snapped off. They were deep holes, not like a little gap in the road, seriously deep.
Jerome: I was in the front seat a lot of the time. And if you can drive and you’re in the front seat in a situation like that you know when you’d break as opposed to when he’d break. So I was always like putting my foot down on an nonexistent break pedal in the passenger seat, and he’s not breaking whilst I’m still pushing mine. The geezer that drove the bus could drive any fucking thing.
Percy: The only time we got stuck was when Bertrand told him to drive across this fucking thing and the bus got stuck.
Jerome: Yeah it was Bertrand’s fault (laughs). This bus was like a double decker bus without the second tier. It was really wide and it wasn’t meant for those roads. I remember when we stayed in the yurt, waking up at six in the morning because there’s fuck all to do you know, you get up be a person, you exist. You’d get up and there was dew everywhere, you couldn’t see because the light was shining off the grass, and I’d go and have a look in the bus. I’d look in the bus and there was no steering wheel on the bus, then I’d look under the bus and the geezer was there fixing something with the steering wheel, using it as a tool. So I’m thinking, I know we’re a hundred miles away from anything let alone a petrol station but the weird thing is you had complete respect for this geezer because you knew that he would get you home. We all had faith in this geezer because when you’re driving in this situation, you know how a car works; but this geezer took it to an extreme.
Jerome: “I was always putting my foot down on an nonexistent break pedal in the passenger seat, and the driver’s not breaking whilst I’m still pushing…! This geezer took it to an extreme”
With that idea of isolation in mind, what’s the skate scene like there?
Jerome: The capital is Ulaanbaatar and there are skaters there, it’s relatively Westernised. I say Westernised, though I only used that really really loosely, the internet is still basically a myth there – it doesn’t exist. All the power still comes from coal so there are two major power stations that generate energy through coal, which you think of and that’s almost prehistoric for us, that’s where there at right now. The water is heated by the ground, me and Percy shared rooms for the whole trip and hot water was a myth – you’d never have a warm shower. For skating, the people have seen things, they can engage with it and they understand it. They have a couple of boards, they have a scene, but to import a board to Mongolia is super expensive. It’s not like China or Mexico or wherever where you can get product so you just make things work for you. Boards last people months, years probably.
Growing up skating pre-internet we’d have our small town scenes and not really think about the wider world so much – is there a similar sort of innocence?
Jerome: Innocence is the right word. To them there is no outside world, I mean admittedly over the last ten years that has been a bigger issue. To this day I assume there is no engagement, they’re not checking out The Berrics for example or something as ridiculous as that. They’re not engaging on that level, to them it’s still like when you started skating as a kid and you didn’t know these extremes existed, you didn’t know that there were people making videos, it still is that. Only few people there do know about these things to a certain extent.
Percy: I’m sure they’ll have seen stuff at some point, but it’s not bombarded into their eyes every day. Maybe once a month or something they see a video.
How was it out of the city when you were traveling around looking for spots?
Jerome: It was exciting, because everything we came across we had to make work. It wasn’t planned, we didn’t have a selection of places that we wanted to go. We didn’t get to a town in the middle of nowhere and think we’ve got ten spots to skate here because we’ve already seen them, they didn’t exist, it was what we made of them. Which benefitted us a little bit because it meant we got cooler shit, it was never really about how good the trick was but more about how the space looked. Spots, they didn’t exist, we really had to work for what we got. That’s a bit of a lie, they did exist but they were never intentionally made as structures to skate on. Not that things in London are for example, but the people have no awareness that the spots could be skateable at any point. They built it, it existed, and skateboarding was never meant to happen on those obstacles. So yeah, we found them and made it happen.
Percy: “The kids there are not hunting down these spots and looking for things. That’s not part of the way they skate”
Percy: For example I don’t think we were ever taken to a spot by a local. The times we were taken to a spot, in the loosest sense of the word, was by Bertrand who had been there ten years before. The bank that Sylvain does the back nosebluntslide on and Jerome does the frontside nose grind on – that was there ten years ago. I think that was the only spot that we went to, but Bertrand took us there. So the kids aren’t skating in the same way as we skate, they’re not hunting down these spots and looking for things and then being like come to this, this is our spot. That’s not part of the way they skate.
Jerome: They’re doing the flat ground plaza thing.
Percy: They skate in a big square in the centre of town with their mates and they have such an amazing time, they’ll skate with you if you go there, but they’re not searching. I think that shows how limited a view of skateboarding they’ve seen. They haven’t experienced that kind of desire to find things.
Jerome: “Skating is still super grass roots: People wanting to find out what a skateboard is, do a kickflip on flat, and that’s it. Nobody’s thinking about what quirky shit Bobby Puleo is doing, that is so far from what they’re thinking about”
I suppose it’s similar to when you’re younger often just skating in the same place because ‘this is where we skate’ and then you’re eyes get opened more.
Jerome: Yeah, as you become more aware of what skateboarding is.
Percy: Your eyes are opened by outside influence. When we first started skating we’d skate the kerb because we’d seen people skate the kerb. As soon as you start seeing skateboarding videos you start thinking I want to go skate a bank like he skates.
Jerome: Because they don’t have access to this kind of stuff it is still super grass roots in essence in terms of it just being people wanting to go and skate, find out what a skateboard is, do a kickflip on flat and that’s it. It’s at that level. Nobody’s thinking about what quirky shit Bobby Puleo is doing, that is so far from what they’re thinking about it’s unbelievable. They’re just trying to get the fundamentals of skateboarding. Skateboarding in a ‘Westernised’ kind of sense is progressing so rapidly, it’s come to a point where it’s not about tricks anymore. It’s become about how a spot looks and all those other elements, how a skater skates the spot. But for them they want to do the fundamentals of skateboarding, they want to ollie a cone on flat, see their friend do a kickflip, it’s basic but it’s fundamentally that’s what skateboarding is. It’s almost like a cleansing to look at skateboarding.
Were they that bothered when you turned up, did they have an interest?
Jerome: I think it’s always going to be interesting, especially when you’re coming from a Westernised place as they don’t really have visitors in that kind of sense. I think they were interested in what we were up to, but from the point of view of being a professional skateboarder they weren’t bothered who I am, or who Sylvain is, they were just like ‘oh what is these guys can do?’ They were impressed by what was possible on a skateboard as opposed to who we were as people.
Through speaking to them did they have any favorite skaters?
Jerome: We weren’t really able to speak to them because of the language barrier. But there wasn’t really anything like that, as it just doesn’t exist because to them it’s so pure as a form and there is nobody that’s in a higher state of skateboarding. I can’t really draw any comparisons as it’s just a thing, it’s embryonic over there you know? It doesn’t have anything else other than four wheels and a piece of wood. It genuinely is still a toy. It’s bizarre to think they’re still doing it now and that it’s growing.
On that note that seems like a good place to end it, so thanks to you both and all the best.
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