When I received the book “Hearing Birds Fly” as a gift, I was immediately excited to start reading as soon as I saw the word “Mongolia” under the title. Anything that has to do with Mongolia excites me because I am fascinated by the Mongols’ culture and history.
The book has won the Ondaatje Prize, an annual prize that is given by the Royal Society of Literature, and it is easy to see why. Louisa Waugh told her story clearly, and the fact that she was able to write it so well makes it deserving of not only a prize, but everyone who is wanting to read a captivating book.
The book tells Louisa Waugh’s story of the year she spent as a nomad in a village in Mongolia called Tsengel, which is located in the “extreme west” of Mongolia, as she worded it.
Waugh worked in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, before she decided to move to Tsengel, but her experience in the capital and in a small city with brutal seasons and radically different culture from the one she grew up with in England proved to be a definite curveball.
Tsengel means “delight.”
“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,” Waugh said.
In fact, Waugh even wrote in the very beginning of the book that she would “either love or hate” her stay in Tsengel. Her day-to-day life was filled with moments that made her smile, cry and realize how much she ultimately cherished her year-long stay in Tsengel.
Waugh described her first day in Tsengel in detail. She wrote that she was put in a clinic because “no one else knew where to put me.” She felt very lonely when the other woman in the clinic, Baadie-Guul, left one morning, even though Waugh knew that she would come back.
Waugh learned how to chop her own wood, keep a wood fire pot heated and collect her own water from the freezing Khovd River. At first, she wasn’t used to the work it took to complete these tasks.
But as time passed, she would learn that these duties would be the least of her worries. Her loneliness would often reach its lowest point when people acknowledged her as “gadaad-neen hun,” which means “foreigner,” even after she had been living in the village for months and the other villagers knew she was there.
There were many times in the book in which Waugh talked about her “extreme loneliness.” She eventually made close friends in the village, but even then, there were times when she wished she could be back home. At times, the complete and constant silence didn’t help her feelings of loneliness at all.
The book got its title from this silence. It was so incredibly silent that Waugh could literally hear the birds flying over her ger. (A ger is a Mongolian tent that is made mostly of felt.)
There were times, however, when Waugh didn’t mind the quiet at all. She often took walks by herself around the village, visited other villagers and thought to herself.
While the village life proved to be unbearable at times, there were brief moments that sounded amazing. Waugh saw “the best of Mongolia” when she was traveling with other villagers. They stopped at a mountain that had ice and snow prettily packed in every crevice, which sounded absolutely gorgeous in the book. The sight was simply breathtaking.
That moment was one of the few that seemed to help Waugh through her challenging times in the village. The raw beauty of her surroundings served as a small yet present reminder that Tsengel has had a tremendous impact on her.
As I reflected on the book, I realized just how important it is to be grateful for the good things in life, even if they are small. I now appreciate apples and hot showers so much more because Waugh never had them during her year in Tsengel. Her experience made it quite clear to me that being grateful is arguably one of the best things you can be, and even if you don’t have very much, it is still important to be thankful for what you already have.
I admire Waugh for her courage. It’s not easy to set off and go to a village that doesn’t even show up on some maps.
Her story was told with brutal honesty. It was raw, powerful and captivating every step of the way. I appreciate Waugh’s resilience and her ability to put herself in new situations, even if she didn’t want to at times.
I give this book four and a half out of five stars. I would have given it five, but throat singing was never mentioned, which means that I had to take away half of a star.
Waugh’s story had a huge impact on me, and I hope when you decide to read it, as it will have an impact on you as well.