A clash of values on the fast-disappearing Mongolian grassland
Author: Surina 苏日那
Born in 1992 to a traditional Mongolian family who pastured sheep and cattle on the steppes of Inner Mongolia, Surina is now a radio host in Changchun, Jilin province. She enjoys rock music and literature, and describes herself as an urban dweller whose inner child has settled permanently on the grassland. She began to write in 2010 and is a contracted author on Douban.com and a magazine columnist. Her fiction has been published on Douban and Qidian.com.
Genghis Khan once said, “No descendant of mine shall ever live in a city.”
It was six months after Old Hu’s death that Darkhan heard the news. Darkhan had run out of money, so he asked around for a loan, but no one was willing to lend him money again. He thought of Old Hu, who used to herd sheep with him. Old Hu once said that after his son graduated from university and got a job, he would be able to give up herding and go enjoy life in the city.
Darkhan found the sheep’s owner and got Hu’s address. He hadn’t been to the city for five years, but this time he had a plan. When he found Old Hu, he would drink with him first. Old Hu seldom got drunk—in the past, when they herded sheep together, each of them could finish two bottles of Grassland baijiu.
Darkhan pestered the lamb dealer until the latter agreed to take him along when he transported lambs to the city. The dealer had just one requirement—that Darkhan should never ask to borrow money from him again. Darkhan smiled and agreed. When did he ever borrow money from the lamb dealer? He had long forgotten it.
There was no doubt that the lamb dealer would mistreat him. Darkhan would have to huddle with the lambs at the back of the three-wheeled truck. It was still hot in early autumn, and the air was filled with the stench of sheep dung and mud. Wherever the truck passed, people would cover their noses. Darkhan wasn’t afraid of the smell, because he had slept with the sheep when he worked as a shepherd. After he got drunk, he couldn’t smell them at all.
The lamb dealer said they would leave after dark. Since they would spend most of the night on the road and arrive in the morning, Darkhan thought he had better eat something. He decided to go to a restaurant that he frequented in the banner and staggered to the door. The restaurant had just a shabby sign that said “Mutton Noodle Soup Restaurant” in Chinese characters. It also had its Mongolian name written in vertical script, but like all other restaurants, it was so small that almost no one could read it.
Darkhan couldn’t read Chinese characters, though he could vaguely remember their forms. He arrived at the restaurant, but before he could pull open the door, the young waitress pulled back the handle and said, “Go away! Go away!”
Darkhan pulled the handle in the other direction. He didn’t even need to use his full strength to struggle with her, and he even had a smile on his face. His beard was so long that it quivered as he smiled, and his amber eyes crinkled up at the corners with a gleam of humor. He said, “What’s the matter? I don’t come for two days and now you won’t let me in?”
The waitress’s face flushed with anger, and she said, “Go away! It was because I let you buy noodles on credit the other day that my boss wanted to fire me.” Hearing this, Darkhan released the door handle. He brushed the dust off his deel and sat directly in front of the door to the restaurant. He took a tobacco pouch from his pocket and poured some tobacco out, and then he started to puff on his blackened pipe, which no one knew how long he had used. As he smoked, he said, “Little girl, don’t be afraid. I’ll go to the city today, and I’ll pay my bills after I come back. I just want a bowl of noodles, only a bowl of noodles.”
Of course, the young waitress didn’t believe him. Who didn’t know Darkhan? Every day he said that he would make a fortune and pay his debts. However, he didn’t know how to do anything but herd sheep. Although the waitress ignored him, Darkhan didn’t say any more and just sat at the door by himself. The sun was scorching at noon, and there wasn’t any shade on the grassland; even in town, everything was exposed to the sun. Darkhan’s greasy sweat glittered in the sun, and he gradually fell asleep.
It was the young waitress who woke him up. She handed him half a bowl of noodles, pointed off to the side, and said, “This was left by a customer. He took two bites and didn’t like the taste. You can eat what’s left. Go sit there. Don’t bother our customers.” Darkhan was only half-awake, but he took the bowl and looked at the spot that the young waitress pointed to. It was really a good spot. There was shade there and the sunlight was blocked out.
Wearing a smile on his face, Darkhan took the bowl of noodles, and walked over and squatted in the shade. He found a twig on the ground and broke it in two, and used them to slurp the noodles. Mutton noodle soup only tasted fresh if it was made from lambs slaughtered in the morning. It should be boiled in cool water, and no salt should be added. Then the newly made noodles could be put into the soup, and it could be seasoned with some salt and chives. This way, the mutton noodle soup would get a wonderful flavor. How could people not like such delicious noodles? There was only a little minced mutton in Darkhan’s bowl, but he carefully picked the pieces out and ate them, and then he chugged down the mutton soup. Sweat broke out all over his body, and he felt quite at ease.
If only he had a cup of baijiu—Darkhan lifted his hand, pretending that he was holding a cup, and then he raised his hand to his lips and tossed his head back, just as if he was drinking liquor. To complete the scene, he also made some slurping sounds, and this made him feel as if there really was a stream of baijiu flowing down his throat and into his stomach where it mixed with the mutton soup. He touched the objects hidden under his deel and felt satisfied. He took the bowl to the well, cleaned it, and drank a few bowls of well water. He smacked his lips—well water really was tasteless.
Putting the clean bowl on the doorstep where he had slept, he knocked on the door, and left. The young waitress came out and took the bowl back into the restaurant. Huh, he certainly washed it carefully. Seeing that she had slipped Darkhan some food again, another waitress exclaimed, “You gave him your noodles again? Now what will you do if you feel hungry? Why don’t you tell him he can come to our restaurant and wash dishes? Then he’d have noodles to eat every day.”
The young waitress didn’t answer. She didn’t like Darkhan, but she sympathized with him and pitied him. She also understood why he would never accept a job washing dishes, because he reminded her of her father, who was now dead. They would rather herd sheep forever than work in a place like this.
Darkhan went back to the place where the lamb dealer would depart. Squatting beside the road, he smoked and waited for the truck to arrive. As he waited, he remembered Old Hu. Old Hu’s name was Huugjil, and they had grown up in the same banner. They had known each other since their youth, but not well. At that time, Huugjil was the wrestling champion of their banner, and was already famous for it when he was only 16 years old. When Darkhan was young, he had been the most capable horse trainer. No matter how wild the horse was, it would be tamed by his urga.
Those were the good days—girls still liked boys who were good at riding, wrestling, and herding sheep, so both he and Huugjil were always surrounded by admirers. Even the five charming daughters of the banner’s chief would smile and sing to them, “Hey, brothers! We lost our sheep. Have you seen them?” At that time, they didn’t know about alcohol; at that time, they had nimble limbs and strong bodies, and they didn’t know the meaning of growing old.
Every story had to have an end. Just as one couldn’t be a wrestling champion forever, one couldn’t always be young. Darkhan didn’t care about politics and didn’t understand it. He thought that he would be a shepherd his whole life. He would marry a bad-tempered Mongolian girl with wide hips who could deliver many babies. Once he loosened her belt, she would become his woman. They would herd the sheep in spring, shear the sheep in summer, slaughter the sheep in autumn, and rest in their yurt in winter.
But one day the banner suddenly implemented a new policy. Your sheep were no longer your sheep, and instead, they became the public’s sheep. The public’s sheep belonged to the public, not to you, so you couldn’t slaughter them or sell them or herd them at your will. Your horses and cattle also became the public’s horses and cattle. Thus, Darkhan suddenly turned from a wealthy man to someone like the cripple who lived next door. He didn’t understand what had happened, but everyone said it was a good thing, so he had no choice but to accept it.
After that, he discovered alcohol. The first time he drank was when the banner chief found him and told him that they were no longer allowed to herd sheep in this area, because this area had to be used for farming—wheat, buckwheat, and corn would all be planted there. At that time, he didn’t pay much attention to the chief’s words, and he said, “The grassland is so big. I can herd sheep somewhere else.”
Instead of answering, the chief just took gulps of baijiu. The sight tempted Darkhan, so he stared at the chief’s mouth and asked, “Can I have a sip?” The chief smiled and said, “Alcohol is a good thing.” Darkhan was 20 years old at that time, and this was the first time he had tried alcohol. It was so spicy! The taste made his mouth pucker. The chief laughed loudly at the sight.
Darkhan felt embarrassed, so he took a few more sips, and he started to feel dizzy. He lay on the grass and felt that the stars were revolving. The chief’s face and his five daughters’ faces mixed together, and he felt that he was riding on a horse and he was filled with joy. He was so happy that he sang to the sheep in the sheep pen and patted the horses’ rumps. He felt that nothing had changed. When he drank alcohol, nothing had changed.
The lamb dealer finally arrived. Darkhan lay in the back of the truck, huddled with the lambs. As the truck started and rumbled, he suddenly saw a woman by the road. He knew her; she was one of the five charming daughters of the chief. Of course, they were both old now. They had spent their youth on horseback, but they didn’t know that one day when they dismounted from their horses, they would no longer have the strength to climb back up.
That beautiful girl was old and heavy now. Her waist was thick. She wrapped her head up in a scarf and sold yogurt by the roadside, and there wasn’t any expression on her face. People who were unfamiliar with her didn’t know that she used to sing like an angel. Sitting in the truck, Darkhan looked at the woman as she receded farther and farther away from him; the grassland was also getting farther and farther away. Then he looked at the endless road, like a scar on the land.
Darkhan hated going to the city. He didn’t like the fashionable clothes and the cubic buildings. He didn’t like the Mongolians in the city, who spoke fluent Mandarin that he couldn’t understand. Although the lamb dealer cursed all the way to the city, he was still kind enough to help Darkhan find Old Hu’s home. Then he hurried off to sell his lambs, for he had to send them to the restaurants before dawn. The lambs would be slaughtered at daybreak—people living in the city also liked fresh mutton.
Darkhan sat at Old Hu’s door without knocking or calling out to anyone. He just sat downstairs, looking at the sky. There were only a few stars in the city, but the dawn rose early here. When the streetlights went out, daylight broke. When the morning dawned bright, Darkhan knocked on Old Hu’s door.
A little boy opened the door. He didn’t recognize Darkhan, so he ran inside shouting in Mandarin, “Dad! Dad!” Then a man in his thirties walked out. He wore a crisp shirt and his hair was tidy. He looked at Darkhan and asked in broken Mongolian, “Hello! Who are you looking for?” Finding that the man spoke Mongolian, Darkhan grinned, revealing his yellow teeth. He said, “Is Old Hu living here? Huugjil? We used to herd sheep together.”
That man frowned and said, “Oh, you’re looking for my dad. Come in first. Have you had breakfast?” Darkhan answered as he followed the man into the room. When he took off his old-fashioned white malgai, he saw the man’s clean hair, so he brushed the straw off his own hair.
Then he was in the room. He finally saw Old Hu, who was a photo on the wall. Confused, he first looked at the photo and then at the man. The man stood before the photo and brushed off the dust with his clean shirt, and said, “My dad passed away six months ago. In spring, before the snow had melted, Dad got drunk. He fell down by the roadside and fell unconscious. It was such a cold spring. There was still snow on the ground. Quite a few people froze to death this spring.”
A strange feeling rose from the bottom of Darkhan’s heart. He remembered Old Hu happily telling him that he was going to live in the city. Darkhan touched the objects hidden under his deel without saying anything. Old Hu’s son said, “Uncle, have you had breakfast? Let’s have breakfast first.”
Darkhan sat at the table, and the little boy sat down as well. The boy immediately started eating large mouthfuls of his food and gulping down his milk. Seeing this, Darkhan finally opened his mouth. “Kid, how can you eat before your elders?”
It was hard to tell whether the boy understood Darkhan’s Mongolian, but he answered, “When Grandpa isn’t here, I eat first.” The man brought a plate of dumplings and put it before Darkhan. Then he patted the boy’s head and said, “Eat up, then I’ll take you to school.”
The dumplings were stuffed with mutton, and their wrappers were thin. When Darkhan bit into them, mutton juice spilled out. Darkhan hadn’t eaten such delicious mutton for a long time—good quality lambs were all sent to the city. Darkhan quickly polished off the plate of dumplings, and then looked at Old Hu’s son and asked, “Do you have tea?”
Old Hu’s son nodded as he answered, “Yes. I almost forgot.” He turned and walked to the kitchen, and took out a small bag. He tore it open and poured out some powder, mixed it with hot water, and brought the drink to Darkhan. Darkhan picked up the cup and studied the drink for a while. Did they call this milk tea?
He silently put the cup down. “Did Old Hu suffer when he passed away?” he asked.
“He was smiling when they found him the next morning,” the man assured him. “They say that only alcoholics smile when they die.”
After sitting for a few more minutes, Darkhan stood up and walked out. When he got to the door, he suddenly remembered something. He touched his deel and took out two bottles of Grassland baijiu from his pocket. He opened one and put it before Old Hu’s photograph.
The photo had been taken when Old Hu was young, when he was still a wrestling champion. His face was square, his long hair was braided, and his eyes were narrowed into slits as he smiled. This was completely different from how he looked when he herded sheep with Darkhan—when his back was bent and he had lost almost all his hair. Then Darkhan opened the other bottle of Grassland baijiu and gulped it all down. The sixty-degree alcohol was so strong that it brought tears to his eyes and made his stomach ache. Ah, Old Hu, we really are old now. Just one bottle of Grassland baijiu can do it for us.
Finishing his drink, Darkhan put the empty bottle back into his deel and said to Old Hu’s son, “I’ll leave now. Remember, your dad was a hero in our banner. He used to be the wrestling champion! He won your first school fees by wrestling!” Reeking of liquor, he pulled the little boy toward him and shouted, “Hey, you brat! In the future, don’t you dare pick up your chopsticks before your old man starts eating! That was the rule set down by our ancestors!” Saying this, Darkhan stumbled out of Old Hu’s home. It was now completely bright outside, and the roads were full of people who wore fashionable clothes, drove cars, drank soy milk, and ate Chinese dough sticks sold by the road.
Darkhan walked for a long time, and he finally arrived at a sculpture of Genghis Khan in the city. He fell down on the step and looked up at the magnificent figure. What else did they remember except this? Darkhan took out his blackened pipe, and some tobacco from his tobacco pouch. He rubbed it and put it into the pipe, and then he lit the pipe and smoked it. He felt absolutely full, and he hadn’t had such a feeling in a while. The mutton dumplings were so delicious. He hadn’t drunk Grassland baijiu with Old Hu in a long time. When he finished smoking, he poured out the ashes from his pipe and took off the filter tip. Then he took out a piece of cloth from his deel and slowly and carefully began cleaning the filter.
Darkhan felt a little dizzy. Genghis Khan’s horse seemed like it was about to start galloping. He wiped the filter tip clean and staggered to his feet. He had to find a place. People who saw Darkhan all hurried to avoid him, for they had seen too many alcoholics like him. Those alcoholics were so annoying. They were a disgrace to Mongolians.
Darkhan didn’t pay attention to their stares. He searched and searched, and he found it at last: Yongji Pawnshop. Its name was written in big Chinese characters and small Mongolian script, so it took Darkhan a long time to see it. He walked into it and threw down his filter tip in front of the clerk.
The clerk seemed to be familiar with people like Darkhan. He took the filter tip and carefully examined it under the magnifying glass. It was made of jade, and the jade was of high quality. Although it had been used for many years and was blackened by smoke, its color was still brilliant when it was wiped clean.
“Eight hundred yuan.” Darkhan understood this sentence. He first nodded, and then he shook his head. The clerk was a little confused. Why did this customer only nod and shake his head? He should haggle. The clerk took out 800 yuan, and then two 50 yuan bills. He handed these bills to Darkhan and said, “I’ll give you 900 yuan! But you can’t buy your jade back again.”
Darkhan didn’t understand those words. He just took the bills and counted them, and he handed the two extra 50 yuan bills back to the clerk. Then he stumbled out of the shop. The clerk put the bills into the cash box. How strange; he wouldn’t even accept extra money. The jade was quite excellent. It could be sold at a good price.
The lamb dealer had said they would return to the banner after dark. Darkhan went back to the place where the lamb dealer would depart. There were many restaurants in the area, and a few of them were hosing off the blood in front of their doors, probably left from when they slaughtered the lambs in the morning. Seeing Darkhan, the lamb dealer joked, “Didn’t you say you came to borrow money? How much did you get?” Instead of answering, Darkhan took out the bills from his deel and asked, “How much do I owe you?”
The lamb dealer looked at Darkhan. He didn’t know why Darkhan seemed so different after this trip to the city. He suddenly smiled and said, “What are you talking about? When did I ever lend you money? You must have borrowed from so many people that you got mixed up!” Saying this, he put the money back into Darkhan’s deel. “Let’s go! There aren’t any more lambs in the truck. You can have the back all to yourself!”
Darkhan fell asleep as soon as he got on the truck. He was drunk, though he’d had just one bottle of Grassland baijiu. He dreamed about Old Hu, himself, and the five charming girls. He dreamed about how one of the girls had secretly slipped him her jade filter tip just before she married a Han businessman; about how straight Old Hu’s back was; about how, when other people offered him work in town, he would crack his whip and say, “My ancestor Genghis Khan said, ‘No descendant of mine shall ever live in a city!’” He remembered his own past—how in the coldest days of winter, he could only warm himself by huddling with the sheep, for he had to hand in even the cow dung to the government.
He was drunk; totally drunk. Grassland baijiu was an excellent thing. It was top quality. There wasn’t any liquor in the world to compare with it. He wanted to open his eyes, move a little, and check the alcohol content of that bottle of baijiu, but he couldn’t open his eyes or move his limbs, so he gave up. He continued dreaming about his past and the fascinating grassland. And that young waitress, who always gave him noodles. Eight hundred yuan…he could pay her back…and then she wouldn’t lose her job…
– Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)
Author’s Note: I never left the grassland before the age of 10. Later, as I tried to assimilate into city life, my childhood made me feel very insecure. But as life went on, I gradually discovered that my time on the grassland is the most precious thing I have. The drunken Darkhan in “Sixty-Degree Grassland Liquor” is a common figure from my hometown. They were full of spirit and vigor when they were young, but have been regretfully left behind by the times, much like the way our nomadic lifestyle is now a show put on for tourists. The marvelous happenings in “The Doctor” were taken from the stories my granny told me when I was a child. They’re not always innocent children’s stories, but contain the deepest Mongolian wisdom. I’m delighted to bring you these tales of the Mongolians—maybe one day, our nomadic lifestyle will go extinct, but I hope I can preserve more of our stories before that happens.
“Sixty-Degree Grassland Liquor” is a story from our issue, “Disaster Warning”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.