Mongolia Must-Reads: Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia by Louisa Waugh
Ever wondered about the realities of daily life in rural Mongolia? The travelogue Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh describes the year the author spent living in Tsengel – the westernmost settlement in Mongolia set amidst the Altai mountains near the border with neighbouring Kazakhstan.
Having worked for two years in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, journalist Louisa Waugh wanted a different experience of Mongolia and after a few months of searching, she was invited to teach in the remote community of Tsengel. Tsengel means ‘delight’ which does seem to mock the town. In fact, Waugh writes exactly that:
‘This still seems a bizarre, almost mocking name for my former home: an unlit, windswept village where death and life were so raw, crude and compelling.’
Tsengel has a tough and stark beauty about it and feels like the end of the world where, as Waugh writes, life has ‘Been whittled down to its essence, like the core of a fruit.’
The book describes the daily reality for the villagers who she lived alongside and who become Waugh’s neighbours and friends. Such is Waugh’s connection with the community, we end up caring about each person as we take part in celebrations, traditions, customs, frustrations, hangovers as well as the mundanity of life. The book also describes the harshness of the seasons and the difficulties experienced in facing the relentless climate as well as describing the landscapes that forged the strength of character of the local people. In the words of Waugh:
‘… The mere fact of their survival here is a triumph of the human spirit.’
Hearing Birds Fly won the inaugural 2004 Ondaatje Award and was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year prize. If you’re wondering where the title of the book comes from, it is from the silence that Waugh experienced in western Mongolia. A silence so silent she could hear birds flying over her ger.
For more books on Mongolia – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/tag/books-about-mongolia/