[The pages of this journal were found by a tourist near the border of Omnogobi (South Gobi) and Dundgobi (Middle Gobi) provinces in Mongolia. They appear to have been torn out of a standard composition notebook. The text is translated by Edgar Johnson, professor of Central Asian Studies at CUNY. -Ed.]
from Bulgan soum. One of them had a little boy, and brought a jar of buuz1 to give him. The father tried his best to make the buuz sound exciting. He took the top off of the jar and gave it a huge sniff and said “Delicious!” I don’t know how he did it. I could smell the buuz from where I was standing. The little boy ate one and then started picking at his mother’s tsoivan. The father was unhappy about buying another plate to serve his son, but Father did his trick of pretending to offer the plate for free; the man paid, as they always do.
Afterwards Father opened a bottle of vodka and shared it with the men. They toasted Batmönkh2, Sodnom, Mongolia and the Party until the bottle was dry and the men said it was time to go on. Akhaa3 whispered to me, “I wonder if they know which revolution they are toasting.” I told him to be quiet and began to wash dishes. I hoped they wouldn’t talk about it again, and they didn’t. When Father came back from seeing the travelers off he had Bankhar with him. He said that he thought a few animals might die tonight in the cold, and he didn’t want Bankhar to be one of them. It would be hard to find a good guard dog in wintertime. Then Father opened another bottle and he and Akhaa began to drink it. They talked about the cold and the animals and the travelers, and Akhaa told a story about Ulaanbaatar and Father told a story about Moscow, and they were still drinking and talking when Egchee and I went to sleep. Bankhar is sleeping next to my bed, as he always does.
3 February 1990
Without travelers coming there really isn’t much to do. The ger4 is unbelievably clean. I even took the slats out of the cabinet to clean in the grooves. Only five animals have died so far, and Father and Akhaa both agree that they were going to die regardless of the weather. I’m very proud of us for building the shelter last summer. The old one is crumbling, just as Akhaa said it would. At school there were fewer boys this week, as they were trying to save their animals. Father said that they should be punished for not thinking ahead, for damaging the Revolution; Akhaa joked that the dead animals clearly weren’t good proletarians. And so it always starts again. It’s been so much worse since the incidences in Ulaanbaatar began. If Akhaa was still in the City, would he be out there, too? I wonder if even he knows for sure.
Comrade Tuvshinbayar came to visit today. He is traveling the soum5 to talk to people and assure them that the disturbances in the City are under control. Even Akhaa knows better than to disrespect Tuvshinbayar. Father insisted that he stay for lunch, and Comrade said he would have stayed whether we invited him or not. Then he told a story about his son’s wife. “I took one bite of her buuz and bit something hard. I thought, ‘Did she leave a bone in here?’ Then I took it out. What was it? It was a nail! Now, her grandfather was at Khalkhyn Gol6, and her father worked under Tsedenbal7 and Batmönkh, so I know she’s a good Communist, not one of these troublemakers in the City. I know she wasn’t trying to kill me. But if she isn’t an assassin or a Western agent, what is she then? A bad cook! But I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so do you know what I said? What could I say? I said, ‘I was looking for this nail!'”
We all laughed. He continued. “Do you know what the problem is? She is tall and thin. The best Mongolian women are short and fat. They work harder. But then, the women in your family are beautiful, and they can cook. We should send your tsoivan to the City, give those protesters a taste of what a true Revolutionary family can do for Mongolia.”
Tuvshinbayar asked Father about any travelers passing through, and Father said that we hadn’t seen very many, which is true. I think people are afraid. What is happening in the City? Is it like Berlin or Beijing, or something else? The rumors are hard to understand. Not that many rumors make it here. Unless the animals have a way of spreading them. After Tuvshinbayar was gone Akhaa said something disrespectful about him. I didn’t catch what it was but Father slapped him across the face. Mother had to jump in to separate them. Egchee pretended nothing was happening, like she always does. Akhaa left on his horse and said that he was going to check up on the animals, though it was already too dark to see much, and the animals were all in the shelter anyway. Father opened another bottle and drank it by himself.
23 March 1990
So much changes, so many things happening, but everything stays the same and I don’t know and don’t care, really. I go to school and wait for it to end. Two more years? I can’t believe it. Will I go to Ulaanbaatar then to study? Will there be an Ulaanbaatar in two years? Batmönkh and Sodnom resigned on Wednesday. We learned of it on Friday. Akhaa didn’t say much. Father was in a terrible mood. Do I even want to go to university? What will I study? What will this world be in two years?
A traveler came today, driving from Ulaanbaatar alone, very unusual. He had a Communist Party pin on his hat and a military medal on his coat. He came and we cooked right away. Bankhar came in without permission and sat next to the man. He wouldn’t listen when Father told him to leave. Eventually Father hit him with a shoe and he left with his tail down. The traveler only said that he didn’t mind the dog, but Father said he would mind once the food was served and the dog started begging. Father asked the traveler a few questions about Ulaanbaatar and the traveler told him that the rumors are worse than the truth, that the City is calm and everything is under control. When he was done eating, the traveler thanked us and paid us without our asking, and then drove off into the desert. None of us have any idea where he was going. There’s nothing out in that direction.
Father doesn’t like Akhaa’s new books. They come from Germany, from the western part. Father says that if Altantsetseg wants to pollute her mind and be the ruin of her country that’s her business, but “that isn’t the reason why Father8 sent you to Ulaanbaatar.” Akhaa answered that nobody could pollute this country as much as Choibalsan9 had, and Father chased him out of the ger. After Father was asleep, Akhaa came back and continued reading by candlelight until he fell asleep, too. Now I will put out the candle and go to sleep myself.
5 May 1990
His name is Erdenebat, but Mother calls him Desert Boy, and when he isn’t here that is what we call him. I don’t think I’m supposed to remember his real name. That might imply that I’m paying him more attention that I should. He’s come every week for the past six weeks, showing up on Friday in the evening and then driving out into the desert. We see him again on Sunday, on his way back to Ulaanbaatar. What he does in the desert is a mystery. We never ask. To the few questions that we do ask he gives very brief and authoritative answers, like a Party official from a movie, like a Stalin or a Choibalsan. Akhaa makes a point of reading his heavy German books when Erdenebat is here. So far he hasn’t provoked any response, party pin and army medals notwithstanding. It’s like Akhaa pretends that he doesn’t notice Erdenebat, but Erdenebat really doesn’t notice Akhaa at all. So Erdenebat wins. I can tell that Father takes pleasure in this: the Old Guard putting the Young Turks in their place. Aside from his indifference to Akhaa, though, Erdenebat’s presence is gentle and warm. He is very polite and handsome. He isn’t old, but he’s much too old for me. Egchee teases me about him, though, and Mother mentioned once that if I was just two years older things could be different. At least he could take me to the City. Although I still don’t know what I’d do there. Anyway, if I was two years older I’d go to the City anyway, to study at University.
Bankhar loves Erdenebat. Father won’t allow him inside, so Bankhar sits by the door and whines like a puppy. I’ve never seen him so pathetic! I believe Erdenebat when he says that he wouldn’t mind a dog’s company; maybe next time I’ll let Bankhar in. I like Erdenebat, but not romantically. He interests me. I see the desert through his eyes now, and notice it in ways I never have before. We have lived here for years, maybe centuries, except for the nine years Father lived in Moscow, the three years where Mother joined him, and the six years Akhaa spent in Ulaanbaatar. Egchee and I have never been further away than Mandalgobi, and that place looks just like here. I imagine how our ger must look to Erdenebat when he comes. The yellow-gray desert, flat as can be, going on forever like a negative image of the sky, and then in the distance a tiny gray speck that becomes our tiny ger. Can he see it from far away? I can, but I know what I’m looking for, and I know where it is. I’ve lived here all my life.When I come home from school, or Mandalgobi, I first see the animal shelters, like misplaced shadows on the floor. Then the ger materializes. From far away it looks spotless. As I get closer I see the junk around it–wash pans, wood, coal pile, some bricks, bits of broken machinery, Father’s stool, the animal posts, laundry poles, and Bankhar and his dish. Our animals graze to the back, though there isn’t much grazing to do. Only when I’m getting close can I see that the desert is tamped down in front of our ger by two sets of ruts, one running up and down from Ulaanbaatar to Dalanzadgad, and the other running at an angle from Bulgan soum to Choir, more or less. That’s why we live where we live. We don’t go anywhere, but people passing through the desert on their way to someplace else always pass by us, and most stop for a meal. A strange way to live, isn’t it? You have to be close to the tracks to see them, but when you’re actually standing on them they disappear again, becoming just another lump and crack in the hard earth.
I read in school how some authors say they feel small in nature, but I feel big here. I’m the third-tallest animal as far as I can see. I’m the fourth-tallest thing, period, after the ger. I can ride out for as far as I can see, and then ride out for as far as I can see from there, and the land all looks like this. I don’t feel small. But I do feel as empty as the land. Akhaa would tell me that has nothing to do with the desert, and everything to do with Communism. I never thought of this until I realized that Erdenebat comes from the City every weekend and sees this. And then he goes out away from the tracks, into the Nothing. What does he do there?
19 May 1990
Every day is the same. Father and Akhaa can’t stop fighting. We heard the news on Tuesday from Tuvshinbayar. Free elections in July. Akhaa and Father don’t speak to each other anymore. “We are already a democracy. What you’re doing is lifting up troublemakers and losers and making them equal. Anybody can join the Party and work his way up. We can all discuss things as equals, not as enemies. These antisocial elements want to drag us all down to the filth they live in.” Akhaa quotes from his German books and Father hates him for it. I just want them to stop. If I could vote I would vote for them to both shut up. What does it mean to select our leaders? Can I select myself? No, because I don’t get to choose, because I am too young. What magic event will happen next year that will make me wise enough to choose a leader then if I’m not wise enough to choose one now? What tremendous growth in my mind will happen I turn a magic age? It’s ridiculous. When Erdenebat came I noticed that he had a new pin for the Party, and that his medals were polished. I wonder what that signified. Tuvshinbayar has asked questions about him. His comings and goings are starting to worry Mother. A high-ranking official coming to the desert every weekend? I assume he’s high-ranking. Tuvshinbayar says he hasn’t heard the name, but Erdenebat is young, maybe he could have known his father. But we haven’t thought to ask his father’s name. I don’t know that he would answer.
Oh, Bankhar is allowed to come in with him now. He sits next to Erdenebat and doesn’t whine or beg, he just sits. Now he only whines when Erdenebat leaves.
27 May 1990
Egchee asked him. He came back from the desert very late, later than normal. Mother tried to convince him to stay the night because driving to the City wouldn’t be safe in the dark, but he insisted. He has to work tomorrow. Can you imagine? He must get into the City at three o’clock in the morning to go to work five hours later. One of these days he’s going to drive off a cliff. While he was eating Egchee asked him what was out in the desert, why he went every week. She can ask these things because she’s stupid, or at least she looks stupid. Akhaa kept pretending to read but he was looking up over the top of his book. This one’s in English, and it’s taking him much longer to read it. Erdenebat took a deep breath and smiled. Then he seemed to relax and started to talk.
“Out there, about thirty kilometers from here, is a small hill, maybe one meter high. It’s covered in dirt, and has a few little plants on it. It looks natural except that it’s square. Natural hills aren’t square. You’ve lived here a long time. Have you seen it?” None of us had. “Have you heard about it? About something old in the desert? How long have you lived here?”
Father answered. “My great-grandfather lived here in the days of the Manchus, and his brother was executed by them not far from where we stand. I don’t know how long we have lived here. I don’t know a square hill. Thirty kilometers is far away in the Gobi.”
“This is true. It is far away. My family once lived over there, deep in the desert. They didn’t live alone, though. There were many people there. This was in the days of the Manchus, too. And even before them. It was called Erdene Tolgoi, and it had been built in the days of Altan Khan10. It was never big, there were maybe fifty believers, but it had been visited by the Dalai Lama, and by the Panchen Lama, and by the Bogd Khan11. There were many sacred relics. There were many scrolls that preserved the history of our people. It held the heritage of our people and our land. Zanabazar12 had taught there once, and a great gold statue of Buddha stood there. Then came Choibalsan. Not personally, of course. His men came. They dragged all the monks from their quarters and demanded that they renounce Buddha. Most of them refused, and were executed on the spot. Their blood splashed against the white walls of the temple and its stupas. They were killed in front of their families. After the first few were killed, the Communists began to kill their families, too. It became a melee. A few monks ran inside the temple and took what relics and scrolls they could, and gave them to children and women to hide, reasoning that the Communists wouldn’t kill them, but they were wrong. The Communists demanded that everyone renounce Buddha. They made the believers spit on the Buddha, and knock the statues to the ground. My grandfather was one of the last they grabbed, and when they grabbed him they grabbed his oldest son, too, and put a gun to his head. My grandfather surrendered. He spat on the Buddha and walked on the prayers and set paintings on fire, and smashed a relic of Zanabazar and ground it into the desert, and he and his family were spared. Then the Communists left. There were bodies everywhere. Men who had done nothing but good, to show us all the Path, lying in their sun with holes in their faces. They were courageous and knew that life was brief, but justice is eternal. My grandfather was a coward. He would have been the first to tell you. I am glad that he was a coward. He lived. That night he stole into the temple and took what he could, and buried the relics out in the desert as quickly as he could. He could only take small things, and he tried his best to take the papers, but much of it was already lost. In the morning the Communists came back with dynamite. They destroyed the biggest stupa first, blowing it into tiny pieces. They destroyed what they could with their guns and their explosives. The gold Buddha was taken to be melted down. Then they took my grandfather and took him away to Ulaanbaatar. He never saw his oldest son again. This happened throughout Mongolia. More than thirty thousand people were killed. There were more than three thousand temples before Choibalsan came with his Communists. When he was finished there was only one. The monks were taken to other places. They were separated from their families. I assume that the boy who was my uncle was taken to an orphanage somewhere. My grandfather was given a job at a factory in Ulaanbaatar, and married and had a child, who became my father. He raised my father to be a good Communist, but at night he told him the secrets of Erdene Tolgoi, and made him draw a map every night to the buried relics. And every night they’d destroy the map and promise never to speak about it again. My father became a good Communist, and studied in Tashkent and Leningrad, and was a colonel in the army. And when I was born, he taught me to draw the map in secret. Every night we drew the map, and every night we destroyed it. It was easier for us than for my grandfather. We could flush the map, but only after shredding it. I can draw this map without looking. I grew up to be a perfect Communist, and served as military attaché in Warsaw and Berlin, and I expected that when I had a child, I would teach him or her how to draw the map, too. But then the most amazing thing happened. Batmönkh resigned. The Politburo stepped down. Freedom is coming. I don’t have a child, but when I do, I will bring him or her here openly, without needing a secret map. The next day I took my car and came down to see. The desert changes a lot and a little and it doesn’t change at all, all at once. The small landmarks were gone, or moved, but I found the spot where Erdene Tolgoi stood. Its foundation remains, and so does a corner of one of the smaller stupas. I looked and I found my grandfather’s relics. They aren’t much, but they are real. And so I’ve begun digging. In Ulaanbaatar there are many who say that no matter what happens in this election, there will be freedom, and when that happens I will restore Erdene Tolgoi, and our Mongolia will rise again.”
I can’t describe how I felt. I thought I would cry. I think I did cry without tears. When he was finished talking Erdenebat stood still for a moment, and then his cold Communist face came back and he stood. He very politely thanked Mother for the delicious meal, and gave Father some money for the food. As he was leaving he petted Bankhar again, and before he got into his car Akhaa ran up to him. I think I heard Akhaa tell Erdenebat that he must visit every time he goes. They shook hands. Father didn’t say a word. He took a bottle of vodka and walked up the animal shelter, and hasn’t come back yet.
31 May 1990
Father and Akhaa have avoided talking about Desert Boy all week, but today Tuvshinbayar came by to explain to us about the election. He explained how everything will work. Voting will take place at the school, and he expects everybody to come. “Tuya is too young, but she can come and see how it is done. Mongolia will be a beacon for the Communist world. We will lead our brothers and sisters into a new era.” The last place I want to spend a day this summer is at the school, although maybe if there are many people there it can be fun. Will I have to dress up?
Mother already says that she won’t go. This past year has convinced her that politics is a waste of everybody’s time. “I’m not voting for those troublemakers, and I’m not voting for the fools who lost control of this country, and there isn’t another choice, now, is there?” Egchee say that she will vote for the Communists, but she is stupid so nobody asks her to explain why or cares about whether or not she even has a reason. Father and Akhaa sat silently for a time after Tuvshinbayar had left. I wonder if Tuvshinbayar knows that people pay us for the tsoivan? I’ve never seen him pay. I know that we don’t have permission to open a restaurant. Mother says that people pay us in exchange for kindness, and only enough to cover the cost of the food and the oil, in the true Communist spirit. “Mongolians are naturally Communist. Even before Marx we were Communist. We share everything, and take care of each other. We’ve been this way since before even Chinggis13.” But we charge them more than it costs to make the food. We can go to Ulaanbaatar, we can build a new shelter for our animals, our clothes are purchased and not made. This is what we talk about in school, how the Revolution is only as strong as its revolutionaries. This is why our government is strong, because it must be aggressive against our enemies, some of whom are foreign agents but many of whom are just fools. They are seduced by materialism and laziness and the empty promises of the West and the past, and refuse to see the truth that we only rise up when we rise up together. They will drag us all down into ruin to satisfy their own childish greed and foolishness. Father is a true believer, and so is Tuvshinbayar. And yet, we run a business without permission, and Tuvshinbayar in his “kindness” doesn’t even bother to cover the costs of our feeding him, even though he knows that with our salaries we wouldn’t have enough to feed ourselves. He would be our best customer if we were a business and he was paying. Does it count as theft if you steal something that shouldn’t be?
As soon as Tuvshinbayar left Father said, “We will show that no matter what these troublemakers like to believe, the will of the people is embodied by the Revolution.”
From there Akhaa immediately began yelling. “Communism has been the greatest catastrophe of our modern times. In this Worker’s Paradise we work longer hours for less pay under unsafe conditions to produce very expensive low-quality goods that we can’t even afford to buy.”
“Longer than whom? Less safe than where? America? For some, certainly. But do you want to be a black woman in Mississippi? Do you think she lives in any kind of paradise? When you dream of the West you dream of a rich banker in New York or London, or Frankfurt. You don’t think of the men in their rusted cities who don’t have jobs, who can’t get jobs because their factories are closing and the only way to go to another factory is to drive a private car, and they can’t afford the gasoline. Because the roads are paved by the poor to be driven on by the rich, and the factories are closed because the very rich only make big profits, not huge profits, and if the men at the bottom can’t find jobs then that is ‘God’s way.’ And their children turn to drugs and violence. This is the freedom you want? Do you think most capitalists live in beautiful houses with servants? Where do those servants live?”
“I’ve seen the numbers. The average American earns three times what the average Soviet earns, which is a lot more than an average Mongolian earns.”
“And they spend it all on frivolity, because it brings them no pleasure. I’ve seen the numbers, too. What would you and I do with twenty thousand American dollars? We couldn’t spend that money if we tried. We’d give it back to the Revolution. But what do Americans do? They spend it! They spend it all and more. They buy more cars and bigger houses, and hide their money in tax shelters and buy newer and younger wives and kill themselves at work trying to make twenty-five thousand, or thirty thousand, because it is never enough. It is a society without a soul.”
“And we have a soul? Did you see Altantsetseg’s new car? Eleven years on the waiting list and it shows up with only three tires. The fourth may appear next year. Is this the product of workers who are proud of their work? Of workers who live in paradise? Who have a soul?”
“Altantsetseg purchased a car! How wonderful for her. Without the Revolution she would have been a nomad, an illiterate nomad giving her little wealth to the temples and the nobles, who sat on their cushioned chairs and never produced any work, who sometimes condescended to offer a prayer. She would have been ignorant, wasting her whole life away, and the men who took her sheep and her money sold her and her land to the Manchus without a thought. But now the Revolution she so hates provided her with an education, with dignity, with a job that she could never have in the West as a woman, and she uses her position to destroy all that is around her. Maybe she wants that car so she can go back to a nomad life.”
“The twentieth century brought her those things, not Communism. Without Communism she could have had more.”
“Do you think so? Is that what happened in Tibet14? How did they enjoy their freedom before Communism? How much of the twentieth century did their lamas show them before Mao, and where is their freedom now?”
“Where is our freedom? Why does Desert Boy have to hide his actions?” Father rose up then and15 opened another bottle of vodka. He passed it to Akhaa, and between them they drank the bottle. Mother took a few sips, as did Egchee. I wasn’t offered, and didn’t ask. Father pulled out his violin. Mother requested Shostakovich, and Father did his best.
8 June 1990
It’s a pleasure to be finished with school for the year, and I’m not interested in thinking about it for next year, but Altantsetseg came by today to tell Mother and Father that I had the highest score in Russian Language, and so next year I will be studying in the new English Language program. All of the language teachers are going to Ulaanbaatar to study English, and in September I will be in the first class to learn English. I thought that learning English would be very difficult, because Akhaa is still struggling with his books from England, but I guess I will find out for myself in September. These are very unusual times we live in. Finally, the disturbances in the City affect me personally! I hope this means I don’t have to study Russian anymore. Two languages at once might be difficult. Because it is summer there are more travelers coming, and all week we have entertained guests. Today was the biggest group. Erdenebat arrived from the City as he usually does, and came into the ger with Bankhar. A little while later a wagon with six people came. It was a father and mother, plus their son and grandmother. Also there was a driver and herder going to the City. They were excited to sit with a Communist Party official, and Erdenebat actually answered all their questions. He even asked them questions about their animals and their towns. Before long I think that we all forgot that he was with the Party because the visitors started asking more and more questions about politics and the elections. I tried not to listen, but I was a little curious. Tuvshinbayar came then and Father introduced him to everybody. Now there were two Party officials in the ger! I must admit, it made me feel important to be the host of such a symposium.
Tuvshinbayar is running in the election to serve again as our soum’s Commissar, and the guests were interested in what he planned on doing in the new climate. He said that he will work with Ulaanbaatar to keep the spirit of the Revolution alive in Mongolia even in changing times. Erdenebat isn’t running for office. He says that his is an appointed position, and the new government will decide whether or not to keep him. “Whatever happens I hope I will continue to serve the Mongolian people to the best of my ability and opportunity.” They all toasted to that. Father did not offer vodka until Tuvshinbayar asked him to. Everybody drank except for Erdenebat. He explained that he doesn’t drink anymore for health reasons. “I don’t know of any illness that vodka can’t fix, but every man must be himself.” Tuvshinbayar and Father drank most of the bottle themselves. Neither one is driving anywhere, they explained.
One of the travelers asked Erdenebat if he expected any big changes. There is a rumor somewhere that the Lamaists will be invited to restore the monarchy if the Democrats win. Erdenebat nearly laughed. “The Bogd Khan is dead and buried. That part of our history is over.”
Tuvshinbayar joined in. “Maybe the Lamaists will make some amazing magical trick and create a new Bogd Khan. They’ll say, ‘He is right here, in a cake box! All this time we were just saving him for the right occasion!'” There was laughter. Erdenebat concluded by saying that if what the Lamaists believed was true, and that the Bogd Khan comes back after he dies, then the true Bogd Khan is living somewhere in Mongolia as a common man because nobody was allowed to look for him and tell him who he was. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a Communist official now!”16
“Of course, if the Bogd Khan could come back after death, can we expect Choibalsan to come back, too? It seems fair, a strong man who could put an end to all this rumor-mongering and unrest. But that whole superstition is silly.”
Erdenebat drank from his tea while the others laughed about superstitions. Finally he spoke. “It isn’t entirely silly. I suppose every person believes in reincarnation in some form. We say a person has his father’s eyes. We say a man has his grandfather’s will. We might say an artist captures the spirit of a forebear. Consider that this Dalai Lama was told from a young age that he was born again for the fourteenth time, and then taught about all of his previous ‘lives.’ He would absorb these lessons, and before long he would carry within himself the lessons of all those who came before. Is he not in some way a reincarnation? So we say for a good Communist–” he gestured to Father–“who embodies the ideals of Lenin, or of a strong-headed boy–” and here he gestured to the traveler’s son– “who has Chinggis in his heart. It is a comfort to all of us to know that the things we love will not end so abruptly. It also appeals, I think, to our sense of justice. But it doesn’t have to be so literal that a good man is reborn a prince and bad man is reborn a cockroach. The Buddha teaches asks us to consider milk, which comes from a cow and can be churned into curds and then butter and then cheese. It never stops being milk but it becomes something different every time.”
“You sound like a true Lamaist.”
My heart stopped for a moment, but Erdenebat is calm and authoritative in his answers. “Nonsense. It is important to understand all forms of belief, to help you understand the true way, to help you sympathize with those you disagree with or even despise. Understanding must come before judgment. Besides, as Mongolians Buddhism is our heritage. No matter what we do, the centuries of Buddhism in this land inform our view of the world, and to step outside of ourselves and make progress as a people we must first recognize what is our habit and separate if from what is our future.”
Erdenebat excused himself afterwards. On his way out he walked very close to me and snuck some money into my hand. He must have known not to pay us in front of Tuvshinbayar. After he left, Father and Tuvshinbayar stepped out of the ger to finish the vodka and talk. The travelers paid Mother directly and then finished their meal. The grandmother mumbled something to herself with her head down. I believe it was a prayer. I’ve never heard somebody actually do it. She is so old, maybe she is a secret Lamaist like Erdenebat’s family? Her family also closed their eyes while she prayed. I wonder what is under the surface in Mongolia. After the travelers prayed they left, and Father returned without Tuvshinbayar.
9 June 1990
Father never discusses politics with me. With Mother, yes, and with Akhaa maybe too much. I never thought of this much. It’s because I’m his youngest, I think. I’m still his baby, maybe. This morning with Akhaa there was a fight. I didn’t catch what it was about, but they said “Desert Boy” a few times. I know Father doesn’t like Erdenebat. Father and Akhaa fought for real, with fists, and Akhaa left in tears. I’ve never seen that. Father was shaken, too. He drank a bottle of vodka and fell asleep. Egchee and I did all of their work, and served two wagons of travelers as well. By evening Akhaa still hadn’t returned, so Egchee and I went out to look for him. He was asleep, too, beside a shelter on the way to Mandalgobi. Egchee tied his horse to hers, and I let Akhaa ride on mine, though he didn’t wake up. We tossed him in his bed and let him sleep. Father woke up very late and sat outside with Bankhar for a long time.
Their fights get worse and worse the closer we get to this election. Sometimes I think that Akhaa argues just because he can, but then sometimes I think that he really hates the Communists and that he wishes he had been allowed to stay in Ulaanbaatar. Erdenebat said you must understand before you judge, and I wish that Father and Akhaa could do that. Father can’t help being who he is, and neither can Akhaa. I think they both wish they could have stayed away after they finished university; it’s cruel that Father had to leave Moscow, and Akhaa had to leave Ulaanbaatar, and both ended up here in the Gobi. Father would have been a good Communist. He could have been in the nomenklatura if only things had been different. And Akhaa could have protested on Sukhbaatar Square if he’d gotten the residence permit. I wonder if they hate each other for that. I went out to check on Father after dinner and found him sitting up awake. He didn’t send me away, so I sat next to him. Bankhar rested his head on my lap and whined a little. Father began speaking, but not necessarily to me. He was speaking to the desert.
“Since I was a boy they always talked to us about Communism. It seemed so natural and obvious and inevitable. We would all work together. If I had something and you had nothing, I would share what I had, because I knew that somebody else would share with me if I ran low. Greed would have no place because it would be sharing that was valued, not selfishness. How can I enjoy what I have when I know my neighbor has nothing? In a Communist world there was nothing we couldn’t do as a people because we would do it all together. But where was this Communism? It was over there somewhere, just over the hill. First we must have socialism. Socialism would get us to Communism. And every year they told us that Communism was close, and every year we waited. And it never came. Corruption, greed, mismanagement, incompetence, our struggles against the West–these came, but we would finish them first and then Communism would come. And it’s still over there. Marx’s flaw was that humans can’t achieve harmony, and so his vision is as remote to us as Heaven to the believers. We could never erase greed, and greed kept us on this side of the hill. Are we foolish for having tried? We were going to remake the world but we failed, and who knows? Maybe we made it worse.” He took a drink of vodka. “I can’t believe that, though. Before, every man in Mongolia worked all day, scarring his body with labor, and then the lords came and took his goods. And what they didn’t take, they gave to the lamas. If he didn’t have goods, he gave his children. The lords promised protection, but they gave us to the Manchus, who shamed us and killed us. But the lamas were worse. They gave us back nothing but chants and incense. They told us that we deserved the Manchus because of the sins of our past lives, and that maybe–maybe–we could have better lives next time. How many people died because of this ignorant complacency? The lamas and the lords lived in wealth and didn’t raise a finger, and the people suffered because they knew no better. But look at you. My daughter, a smart young woman, who will go to school and university, and dedicate your life to ending ignorance. You should have been a slave, or a fat lama’s wife. That was all. People tell us that this is a veil, that this deserves to be torn down, and in a few weeks we will do that. The greed will come back in full bloom and nobody will do anything to try to stop it, because greed is democracy, and this greed is good for us. The lamas will return, and those of us who don’t become lords will go back to being slaves, and go back to giving what we have to those that tell us to be quiet. The twentieth century may have been one of failed glory, but the twenty-first will be the failure of humanity. This is what Desert Boy wants for us. This is what we all want, if we don’t try to stop it. Maybe we can’t stop it. But we have to try.” His voice trailed off. He looked so tired. Father aged ten years this week. I didn’t know what to say. After a long time I went back inside.
21 June 1990
I must remember everything. Tuvshinbayar stopped by the house in his truck. He came in and we served him. He looked happy. “What do you know about the gentleman who went into the desert?” Father looked away. He definitely looked away.
Akhaa answered Tuvshinbayar. “Nothing. He goes into the desert. Why do you ask?”
“When did you last see him?”
Akhaa guessed. “Last week?” I remembered. It was the eighth. The day Tuvshinbayar met him. Mother looked tense. She turned her back to us to clean. Tuvshinbayar ate his tsoivan while he talked.
“He was found dead by a herder. I believe he was engaged in illegal mining in the desert, and must have overworked himself in the heat. I am driving him to Ulaanbaatar. He didn’t have a permit for mining.” He kept eating. Mother stopped cleaning for a moment. Akhaa stormed out of the ger, and Father and I followed. Tuvshinbayar had to wiggle out of the seat first to join us. The body was on the back of the truck, still in his good clothes, with the Communist Party pin on his lapel. He was covered by a sheet which Akhaa pulled back. Tuvshinbayar yelled at him not to. Erdenebat’s face was covered in blood and dust. Just above his left eyebrow the blood was very thick and dark, and also over his right ear. I only looked for a second but I know those were holes. His eyes and mouth were still open in what looked like shock. There was a fly crawling on the blood that came out of his forehead and another on his mouth. Tuvshinbayar pulled the sheet back and covered him. We all stood there. He adjusted his shirt and wiped his mouth. He looked straight at Akhaa. “This is still the Mongolian People’s Republic.” He turned to Father. “Thank you for the excellent meal.” He turned to me. To them he had been hard. To me he became more gentle. “Sweet girl, the desert is a dangerous place, as you know. He was a City man, and this is the risk he took by going out there alone. I am sorry you had to see this.” He reached out and patted me on the cheek like a child. “You’re growing up proud and strong. You will be a great leader for our people someday.” And with that he drove off. It wasn’t heat stroke. Erdenebat was still in his work clothes. There are no herders out there where he was. His words ring in my ears. This is still the Mongolian People’s Republic. Those were bullet holes.
30 July 1990
They offer us nothing but prayer and incense, Father said. I haven’t been able to write but I’ve been thinking a lot. The radio announced the elections. Nothing changes17. This morning I rode out into the desert. I tried to follow the tracks but it was harder than I expected. Eventually I found a small hill where a set of tracks stopped. It is very small, maybe five meters on each side, and it is square. In nature nothing is square. On the far side there were some tools still, and one corner of the hill has been torn up, revealing brickwork. Tuvshinbayar and his men took most of Erdenebat’s things later, mostly camping supplies, but they left a few things. A typically sloppy job. He would have had a shovel, though. I’ll need one, too. It looks like maybe he had a pick axe, too. Maybe those weren’t bullet holes, after all. I won’t use a pick axe. There were footsteps that led away from Erdene Tolgoi. Tuvshinbayar wouldn’t have known to follow them. I doubt that Father repeated the story to him in much detail. I followed the footsteps out deeper into the desert, leaving the mound far behind. I read in the newspaper that the Dalai Lama will come to visit Mongolia soon, and there are rumors that the Bogd Khan is in India. The monastery in the City has already reopened and they say it will take in new students soon. Father said they offer nothing, but that isn’t true. I followed Erdenebat’s footprints in the desert for a long time and came to a hole in the desert that he had been digging. There were small figurines that he had pulled from the ground and arranged around the edge of the hole. There were some scraps of paper written in different languages. I recognized some as Chinese, and some as old Mongolian. The others must have been Tibetan. I need to learn to read Mongolian letters first, I think. Then I’ll learn the others. I reached into the hole and dug with my fingers. I found a broken seashell. I have found hundreds in my lifetime and I still find it amusing to find seashells in the desert. Underneath the seashell was a rock that I worried for a while until it come loose, and when it came loose I saw it was a part of a figurine. It was a round head the size of my thumb, carved into a black rock. The hair was in tight curls that went up like a pyramid. There was nothing realistic about it but it looked nice. The face had a warm smile under closed eyes. I held it in my hands and passed my thumb over the features, wondering about the carver who had been the first to do this. How long ago? What made him want to do this? My whole life I have wanted nothing. This person, whoever it was, wanted to make this little Buddha head. Why? What is the difference between us? Is my complacency worse than his? In a hundred years what part of me will someone dig from the desert, and what will it say about my life and my hopes? Father insists that the lamas offer us nothing. Akhaa says the same about the Communists. Tonight I will stay here, at Erdene Tolgoi, and sleep beside this little Buddha. And tomorrow I will begin to dig. Father says they offer us nothing, but already they are offering me more than I had before. Already I sense that
[At this point, at the bottom of the page, the narrative breaks off. Other pages are presumed lost.]
- Buuz are steamed dumplings about the size of a man’s thumb; tsoivan are stir-fried noodles with small chunks of mutton and fat mixed in. These are staples of Mongolian cuisine. ↩
- Jambiin Batmönkh (1926-1997) served as Mongolia’s Head of State from 1984 to 1990. Before that he had served as Prime Minister, a post held in 1990 by his close ally, Dumagiin Sodnom. ↩
- “Akh” and “Egch” mean older brother and older sister, respectively, but can be used to refer to any older relative or family friend. As such, and because the text never explicitly states the relationship between the characters, I will leave the term untranslated. The suffixes “-aa” and “-ee” add a measure of respect or endearment without clarifying the relationship for us. ↩
- The traditional Mongolian felt tent, often incorrectly referred to as a “yurt” in English. ↩
- “District,” the second administrative subdivision in Mongolia, roughly akin to a county in the United States. ↩
- The Battle of Khalkhyn Gol in 1939 was the only major battle fought by Mongolia in World War II. Japanese forces were checked by a joint Soviet-Mongolian operation that stopped Japanese expansion into northern Asia. ↩
- Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal (1916-1991) was ousted as Mongolia’s Head of State in 1984 by Batmönkh. ↩
- The Mongolian original, “manai aav,” means “our father,” but can also be used to refer to “my father,” as Mongolians often pluralize their possessive adjectives. ↩
- Khorlogiin Choibalsan (1895-1952) was Mongolia’s Communist leader, both de facto and de jure, from the 1930s until his death. He was very closely associated with Joseph Stalin. ↩
- Altan Khan (1507-1582) ruled Western Mongolia and was the first to use the term “Dalai Lama” to describe the leader of Tibet’s Gelupka Sect. Under Altan, Mongolia converted to Tibetan Buddhism. ↩
- The Bogd Khan, the eighth Javzandamba Khatagt (1869-1924), was the spiritual leader of Mongolia’s Buddhists and the third-highest ranking official of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. He was Khan of Mongolia from 1911 (the fall of the Manchu or Qing Dynasty) to 1921 (the establishment of the Mongolian People’s Democratic Republic). ↩
- Undur Gegen Zanabazar, the first Javzandamba Khatagt (1635-1723), was a great spiritual and artistic figure in Mongolia, sometimes compared to Michelangelo for the depth and breadth of his talents. ↩
- Genghis Khan, properly transliterated as Chinggis Khaan, the founder of the Mongolian empire and revered across Central Asia. ↩
- Under the Qing Dynasty, Tibet and Mongolia were administered jointly. In 1911 both countries declared independence; Mongolia was recognized by the Soviet Union in 1921, and together they fought a short war against China. Mongolia’s economic and political life was closely intertwined with that of the USSR, especially under Choibalsan, whom Stalin counted as a personal friend. Tibet was not recognized by any foreign power, and remained isolated until being invaded by China in 1950. Its status remains a sensitive issue in Mongolia. ↩
- Although the sentence reads continuously, it appears that some pages from the text are missing. The word “and” occurs at the bottom of the handwritten page; it is written in a hurried, even sloppy, hand. The following word, “opened,” appears at the top of the page; though it is clearly the same handwriting and even perhaps the same pen, it is written neatly and unhurried. Missing pages would also explain the sudden change in tone. ↩
- After the death of the Bogd Khan, the Mongolian People’s Republic was established and the search for the next incarnation of the Javzandamba Khatagt was forbidden. The ninth Javzandamba was identified in Tibet in 1936, but his identity was kept a secret until 1991. ↩
- The elections of 1990 were won by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, which took 357 of the 430 seats in Parliament. The elections were described by international observers as being free and fair, and the new government would later cooperate with democrats to rewrite the country’s constitution and open the country up to the free market. ↩