Mongolia – Into the Gobi with Books

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

    As a writer of children’s books, I often conduct author visits to International Schools. In 2010 I spent a week each in South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, followed by a visit to the International School of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Students there had knitted warm scarves for nomad children living in the Gobi Desert. I took these, along with many books, on my adventure into the Gobi.  
Many years ago I had ‘met’ Dashdondog, a Mongolian children’s author. He helped me with the research for my book My Librarian is a Camel, an account of how children around the world get library books if they don’t have access to library buildings. Dashdondog shared stories and photos with me of his mobile library in the Gobi. He visits nomad families in gers (pronounced as in ‘Gary’; yurt is the Russian word for these nomadic tents) as well as schools in remote villages. He performs his poems, sings songs, reads books and leaves behind many volumes for the children.

Until I arrived in Mongolia I had no idea of how famous he is in his country. Take Robert Munsch, Pierre Berton and Raffi and roll them into one. Then you will get close to the popularity of Dashdondog. I discovered that every child, and indeed every adult, in Mongolia can instantly recite his poetry and sing the songs he composed. Many of them don’t even realize that these are texts that he wrote, they know them as their own national treasures. I don’t speak a word of Mongolian and Dashdondog does not speak much English.   But when he performed a poem about horses galloping across the steppe, I could picture what he was saying. I could just imagine their hooves and the dust.
Dashdondog graciously invited my husband and I to stay with him in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. The walls of his living room are hung with photos of IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) friends from around the world: Astrid Lindgren, Katherine Paterson, Uri Orlev and many others. Before leaving for the Gobi, we roamed the streets of Ulaanbaatar, walked in and out of many shops and sampled local foods. There was still snow, melting in shaded piles among the buildings. Sidewalks had treacherous holes or manhole covers missing. Many buildings had long cracks in their concrete walls. It was obvious that the Soviet regime had not spent much money on the upkeep before they left Mongolia to its own resources.

Dashdondog arranged for a trip into the Gobi to bring books to children. For 12 hours we traveled by train and then continued for 12 more hours in a van, following sand tracks with no visible landmarks, deep into the desert. Occasionally we came upon a lonely white ger. We would stop to hand out scarves, books and candy for the children who lived here. In return they served us tea with camel milk, fed us dried camel milk cheese curds and let us ride their camels.
When we reached our destination, Khovsgols Soum, a forlorn windblown town bobbing on a sand ocean, we visited the local school and shared books with children.   They were incredibly keen. Mongolia may not be wealthy by western standards but has a 95% literacy rate. From Kindergartners to high school students, they all were polite, attentive and eager hear stories. I always bring Emma long, a chicken puppet based on my Emma’s Eggs books. Here too, children loved the chicken and were delighted to chant “tok-tok-tok!”, wondering if she might be a real chicken! Many of the children lived in homes, since their families were nomadic and moved far away from the school locations.

We spent nights in different locations, including cots in the make shift hostel of a village administrative office. The outhouse was a long, cold walk across the barren, windblown desert.
We struggled with Mongolian food: it is similar to Canada’s Inuit diet: high in animal fat and void of vegetables and fruits. For breakfast we were served a large, communal bowl of meat in broth and salted tea. By lunch time the broth had jelled but we still ate the meat. At night, more meat was added to the broth.

During one of our days in the Gobi, we experienced a national holiday. Horse races were held, with children as young as 4 and 5 years old riding bareback across the hard packed sand. We were treated to horsehead fiddle music and presented with warm mare’s milk, and a tray of sugar cubes and cheese curds.

We left books with children in schools, in tents and on trains. Most of these books are paid for by Dashdondog himself. Through grants from Japan and thanks to being awarded the 2006 Asahi Reading Award for his innovative mobile library, this Mongolian Hans Christian Andersen is able to, single-handedly, put books in the hands of many appreciative children. As we left the Gobi to return to a more populated world, I listened to the haunting sounds of our new Mongolian friends as they sang folk songs. Seated on bags of camel wool, we drove back across the bumpy desert, secure in the knowledge that stories and books make the best of friends.