Dashdondog Jamba is probably the best known figure in children's literature in Mongolia. He has written more than seventy books and is the founder of Mongolia's Children's Mobile Library, winner of the 2006 IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award.
This article was first published in Bookbird April 2008 issue (Vol. 46, Issue 1) and is published here with permission from Bookbird, Inc. It was translated from Mongolian by the OCHKO translation Centre, Ulaanbaatar.
It was boiling hot even though it was a day in September. It was like a summer day when the mobile library embarked on a new trip. I can't remember how many trips I have made - I have lost count.There are few places that I have not yet visited in Mongolia: an area of 1,500,000 square kilometres! We even started taking off our warm travelling clothes. As we were driving along the earth road, we saw two white gers (round felt tents used as dwelling by the Mongols) among the green hillocks. We left the road and drove through the yellow flowers until children on horseback came to meet us. Now, they know us very well - it wasn't like that sixteen years ago! At that time rural children did not have much interest in reading books and I used candies to attract them to the mobile library. They began to like books more and more. I wrote a poem, called 'Delicious Books' and set it to music. The children and I still sing the song to this day:
Candy will melt in your mouth,
But books will stay forever in your mind.
Further along our way we stopped at local schools, where the children gathered to read the books we were carrying. At last we reached a large river in the Khangai Mountains. The river had already begun to ice over and as we drove through the deep water the wheels of the van disappeared. A cold wind began to blow and it seemed that fall was coming. Once over the river we left the main steppes and approached the mountain region.
As we travelled further, two children, who were riding pillion on a yak, approached us. When we asked why they were not in school, they said that they didn't go to school, and we soon discovered that they couldn't read. When we read one of Andersen's tales to them they were very interested. So we gave them some nice books, saying that they should learn to read. The children were really happy and promised: 'We will surely learn to read!'
The stiff clouds that appeared on the horizon told us that the weather was about to worsen; maybe even snow. The next day it snowed heavily as predicted and the engine of the van was difficult to start the next morning. As we were driving along the van suddenly stopped: the summer fuel had frozen! Snow was everywhere! There was nothing we could do but wait. Just then a wild snowstorm reached us and we couldn't see anything. It is like being in an airplane that was flying in the clouds. What should we do so that we didn't freeze to death?
My son was the driver, my wife the librarian, and I was the boss, so it was up to me to make the right decision. But, there were more than just the three of us travelling in this mobile library: the characters from our books travelled with us. I began to think of a brave man (a character of one of Jack London's stories) who managed to overcome obstacles by fighting hard and the old fisherman in Ernest Hemingway's story. 'Let's go on,' I told them. 'But where to?' 'Let us find a ger.'
I had seen some horses running away from the storm, which meant that there could be a ger nearby. We drove on against the storm. As all of us were in our thin fall clothes, it felt as if a storm devil was biting us with its frozen teeth. I wished that I could ask Little Mook for his pair of magic slippers or Karlsson on the roof for his propeller from his back. We were very happy when we heard a dog barking. We had found the ger. But as we approached the dog snarled at us and barred us from going into the ger. I found a large wooden stick under snow and when I brandished it at the dog, it ran away yelping.
We went into the ger and found a little girl inside. She told us that her parents had gone to round up the animals that had run away during the storm. When we asked her how old she was, she stuck up five fingers. It was very warm inside the ger as she was continually burning the droppings they use for fuel. She offered us cups of hot tea and a plate of dried curds and clotted cream. She was busy cleaning the ger and brought some more droppings in to stoke up the fire. It is normal for children in the countryside to be hardworking from their early childhood. We complimented her on her hard work and told her the story of Little Red Riding Hood. She liked the story so much that she ran and took out her own red hat from a trunk. Meanwhile her parents returned, having found their livestock.
When I went outside the ger later the dog bit me in the thigh! Why did that dog bite only me - we were all strangers! Then I remembered that I had threatened the dog with a large stick when we first arrived and now the dog bore a grudge. The next morning the storm was over and as we left I gave a slice of meat to the dog to apologise according to Mongolian customs. The dog saw me off with a gentle look as if it was also saying sorry for having bit me. The snowstorm had blown over, and all around it was quiet as if nothing had happened. It was still cold and we had to burn droppings under the van in order to start it, but eventually we were able to continue our trip.
We noticed tracks of many different animals in the fresh snow. It was like reading a book as we tried to discover which animals had passed by. We found dog-like tracks, but much larger than usual. We followed the tracks until we saw a wolf. It was really a wolf! It was the first time that we had seen the king of the steppe. The Mongols say that if someone sees a wolf, he or she will easily achieve their goal. The wolf stood for a while on the mountain ridge, staring down at us, and then slowly began to move away without showing any fear. We drove on through the snow-covered valleys, warming the hearts of so many children with the stories and books we were carrying. Eventually it was time to go home.
On our return journey, the snow began to melt and the ground began to show through the snow cover, as if spring was coming. It also got warmer and the families were leaving winter camps and moving to their fall camps. Yes, it was still September, it was as if our trip to share the books with the children in the countryside had passed through all four seasons: but it had only taken two weeks and 2,800 km!
Posted March 2011