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Gombojav Mend-Ooyo: Altan Ovoo (Golden Hill)

This is one of the rare cases of a Mongolian novel having been translated into English, thanks to the efforts of translator Simon Wickham-Smith. Sadly, it was self-published in Ulaanbaatar and is therefore very difficult to obtain.

It is a novel but the author, Gombojav Mend-Ooyo, is like most Mongolian writers, a poet and this novel is very much a poetical novel. We follow, in no particular order, the life of the unnamed narrator and, in particular, the stories he has to tell, the myths and legends he both recounts and whose paths he crosses in his travels around Mongolia.

We first meet him, when his father gets him out of bed and takes him to Golden Hill. This hill, like most hills/volcanoes/mountains in Mongolia, is important because of various ancestors worshipped at the foot of the hill but also because various gods live there or are associated with it. Indeed, in his later travels, he will tell us of these gods/spirits associated with individual hills/mountains.

In their travels, he and his father will come across various places associated with Genghis Khan. While we, of course, have negative reactions to Genghis Khan, in Mongolia, he is very much considered a great man, almost akin to a god, and there are many places associated with him which our narrator comes across and recounts the story of. For example, on this first journey, there is the place where Genghis Khan fell off his horse on the way back from fighting and felt he was dying. Our narrator sees a grave and asks if it is Genghis’ but his father points out that, at his own request, Genghis is buried in an unmarked grave.

While we learn a little a bit about our narrator – how he got a job teaching in the Gobi area, how his father died and his travels around the country – much of the book is stories he recounts. These can be exciting, such as the story of Toroi Bandi, a Mongolian bandit, a sort of Robin Hood, who evades the police whenever they try to catch him. They can be quasi-religious, such as the one about the monk who fell asleep in a monastery during prayers, who is to be punished, but when a man on a white horse turns up and says that he was dreaming of Golden Hill, he is forgiven.

Some of the stories are about animals, such as stories about a wolf, about cranes, about camels, about an orphaned foal, about an injured cygnet and even about a python. Others are about magic and the magical properties of various landmarks. For example, there is a story of a woman who is lost and meets a shepherd playing a flute. She falls asleep and when she wakes up, she is back home.

Several are, of course, about Golden Hill. We learn of a stone taken from the hill that has eighty magical powers. Our hero always carries some wormwood taken from the hill on his travels to protect him. According to his father, Golden Hill is fire, water, iron, wood and earth. All are present there. We also see Golden Hill at different seasons.

We do also learn about other people. As well as Toroi Bandi, there are also horse thieves active in the area. But we also learn about Dashteren, a smart trader who becomes rich, and about Bööjöö Darchi, a wise old man, Crazy Tseren, the well digger, and Monkhooroi, who makes sewing machines entirely from wood.

We learn of the origin myths of Mongolia, about a universal mother, who became the sky and the air, the sun and the earth and then sacrificed herself to create the universe and earth. From that, he leads on to Genghis Khan’s mother, who is considered as a sort of saint. Our narrator then writes a lovely letter to his own mother on his fortieth birthday, thanking her and extolling her.

I am travelling along the path of history, along the path of the dignitaries’ silks, the path of the calloused feet of poor, the path of Toroi Bandi’s trickery, along the path of war, the path of my own suffering, the path which will determine the world yet to come, he states.

It is certainly a fascinating read, giving an insight into a culture that few of us know anything about. Yes, it is as much (if not more) poetry than prose fiction, with lots of poems in the text but it works well as we follow his travels and the myths and legends of Mongolia. We must be grateful to Simon Wickham-Smith for translating it. It is only a pity that it is not more readily available.

Publishing history

First published in 1993 (self-published)
First English translation in 2012 (self-published)
Translated by Simon Wickham-Smith