Observer review: Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia by Louisa Waugh

Louisa Waugh's account of her year living among a nomadic people whose lives belong to another age in Hearing Birds Fly is in a proper old-fashioned travel book style, says Jane Perry

Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia
by Louisa Waugh
Little Brown £16.99, pp271

The remote village of Tsengel, a settlement of about 1,000 people, is the most western village in Mongolia, home to the diaspora of Muslim Kazakhs and regarded as a forbidding place, even by most Mongols. So when Louisa Waugh expressed a desire to see the authentic nomadic Mongol life after two years in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, it was to Tsengel that she was directed. Waugh's account of her year living among a nomadic people whose lives belong to another age is a proper old-fashioned travel book, in that it allows the landscape and its inhabitants to dominate and doesn't need to rely on gimmicks or forced themes to keep the reader's attention.

Arriving in Tsengel to take up a position as an English teacher, Waugh quickly finds her romantic ideas smashed by the realities of poverty in a harsh climate. Temperatures in January can reach -48C degrees, the villagers tell her, as she begins to understand the widespread dependence on arikh, a cheaply produced vodka that lends the illusion of warmth and distraction. In an early journal entry she writes, with naive disbelief: 'I've never seen people struggle so much just to survive. It can't be like this all year.' Nor does her competent working knowledge of Mongolian provide her with the easy acceptance she has imagined; here in the border country, tribal divisions are complex. The Kazakhs are the region's ethnic majority, with their own language and customs entirely foreign to the Mongols among whom Waugh has previously lived, but the village is also inhabited by Tuvas, originally from the obscure neighbouring republic of Tuva, also with their own language, and ethnic Mongols (Halkhs). The village operates a kind of apartheid between Halkhs and Kazakhs, where Tuvas side with the Mongols; there is deep prejudice and little entente cordiale, which makes life difficult for Waugh, whose two friends are women from each side of the divide.

Waugh has captured the starkly beautiful landscapes in restrained descriptive passages, but the most fascinating aspect of her narrative is her portrayal of the villagers and the nomads she meets higher up in the mountains, tending their livestock through the cruellest elements. 'The mere fact of their survival here is a triumph of the human spirit,' she writes. Hearing Birds Fly is an extraordinary glimpse into a forgotten culture, where nature and humanity alike are 'whittled down to essence like the core of a fruit.'

Jane Perry

The GuardianTramp

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