Wheat Cakes

Luvsandamba DASHNYAM (Mongolia b.1943) is President of the Mongolian Knowledge University and of the Academy of Humanities. Educated in Moscow, Dashnyam studied economics and philosophyand became one of the ideological leaders of the pro-democracy movement which brought about a peaceful revolution in Mongolia in 1990. He was Vice-Speaker of Ardyn Ikh Khural (Parliament) in 1990-1992, and in 2001 ran for the presidency as the Civil Will Party candidate. He has published more than 30 books of poetry, fiction, and scholarship, most recently Hero Esukhei (2003, about Genghis Khan's father). His work has been translated into Russian, English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Bulgarian, and Kazakh.

Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, lies at a meeting point of mostly unpaved roads that radiate outwards into the vast open spaces of the Mongolian countryside, into regions of steppe, desert, taiga forest, and high mountains, marked here and there with nomad camps, monuments, and isolated towns. The sky saturates the land with light and gives the traveler a feeling of endless expansion. Driving even a short distance can easily turn into an adventure: cars break down, fall into ravines, run out of gasoline, get stuck in rivers or break through the ice. Arrival at a destination is often late and never entirely certain. As a result, drivers become almost heroic figures, and old movies show them in dramatic scenes, finding their way through blizzards. They are also the people who, in many ways, serve as intermediaries between distant towns and villages, between the city and the countryside. In addition to merchandise for local stores, trade goods from China, and countryside products like milk, cheese, and animal skins, they carry with them news, mail, gossip, jokes, and stories. As telephones, televisions, and internet stations increase in the countryside, and as paved roads expand, year by year, however this role may change, and the traditional image of the driver may be lost.

The Mongolian writer L. Dashnyam wrote the story “Wheat Cakes” in 1970, in part to create a portrait of the road trips and drivers he remembered as a young man. “Wheat Cakes” is a story about a college student returning to his family’s countryside ger—the round felt tent that many Mongolian nomads live in—after his first year away from home, in the capital city. His journey takes on a metaphysical quality as a kind of quest to return to his origins. The homesickness that he feels at school permeates the narratives with an overwhelming sense of exile and longing. The loss of his expectations is both personal and universal, suggesting a profound lacuna between intentions and consequences, between one world and another.

Damchaa, the driver in Dashnyam’s story appears as a guide for the in-between space of the journey. A liminal character himself, traveling back and forth from the city to countryside, accustomed to picking up passengers from all strata of society, his conversation is a chaotic mixture of colloquialisms, jargon, slang, obscure proverbs, and high diction, interrupted by songs and folktales. Continually parodying others and himself, his use of language resembles Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia; as a linguistic microcosm of his society’s totality, Damchaa’s speech, echoing a variety of conflicting voices, breaks apart any sense of a single, unified style. These heteroglossic traits, in a sublter fashion, pervade the story as a whole. The narrator also has a multifaceted identity and voice. He is both a college student in a modern city and the child of a traditional herding family.

In translating, I choose to preserve this linguistic multiplicity, rather than unifying it and smoothing it out completely. There are several places in the text where the narrator himself cannot understand the driver’s speech, and it seemed right that the reader should share, to some extent, his confusion. There are other parts, however, where I added small bits of information that a Mongolian reader would already have—such as the location of the narrator’s home in relation to Bayan Olgii, knowledge which the reader needs in order to understand the driver’s teasing words. Often single words and phrases in Mongolian have rich layers of meaning which are lost in their English equivalents. For me, one of the most important of such phrases was “dald orokh” in the story’s last sentence, a combination which literally means, “to enter” into “mystery, secret, that which is hidden” and which can be translated as “to disappear, to vanish, to be hidden, to pass away, to die” (as defined in the Mongolian-English Dictionary compiled by Charles Bawden). At the story’s end, the driver’s car does more than just disappear over the mountains; the Mongolian words may suggest that the car seems to pass into a remote, metaphysical space in which all differences in the story’s linguistic and social worlds might be unified and resolved.

Katherine Ives
Iowa City, Fall 2003

All this happened 25 years ago.

The day after exams, while all the other students were going home, I stayed behind to wait for my mother.

She had let me know that she would try to come sometime after my exams, so I decided to wait for a few days. My poor mother had never been anywhere like a city. It would mean a lot to her if she could see the capital with her son. Since I’d spent a whole year studying in Ulaanbaatar, I would have no difficulty showing her all the places she wanted to see.

She said she’d come, but after a whole day, she still hadn’t arrived. One day of waiting had seemed like a month or a year, that was how I measured time in the scale of my homesickness. Ever since I left for school last fall, I thought about home constantly, and I sometimes spent entire nights crying in bed. I was so ashamed that I hid my homesickness from everyone, even from Dondog, my childhood friend.

As I waited, I realized that something must have happened to delay her. My patience finally gave out. So be it, I thought, if we pass each other on the road, we pass each other. Let’s see if I can find a ride. I went out to look for cars heading in the direction of home.

My preparations for the countryside were simple. I bought a little candy and pastries for my neighbors, but I wanted to buy a really nice present for my mother. The only thing I had for her was an expensive Chinese hairbrush from the market, yet all the other students had scolded me for having purchased such “a useless, unnecessary thing.” Now I no longer had enough money to buy something big. But I could not bring myself to buy something that wouldn’t match my feelings for her. I didn’t know what to do until I remembered how, when my older brother Sambuudorj was going to come back from the city, my mother had said, “I expect some wheat cakes from him.” The thought of having something to bring my mother filled me with joy. I ran quickly to the kiosk in front of my dormitory and bought some wheat cakes. I carried them back in my hands, wrapped them with care--separate from the “tokens of appreciation” I had purchased for my neighbors--and put the package in an old suitcase.

Thus I got ready to go out on the road. My luck was such that I easily found a ride. The driver was a rotund man with curly tousled hair that drooped this way and that as he turned.

“Older Brother,” I said to him, “Which way are you going?”

He didn’t seem to care much. “If you’re heading towards Arkhangi, climb in. As long as there are cafés with good dumplings, companions with fine conversation, and a golden road to follow, why shouldn’t we go?” he said straight out in a dry, grandiose voice.

I was delighted. I ran around to put my bags on the car roof. In order to reach the top of the driver’s mountainous luggage, however, a student like me had to leap and climb, and even a mountain goat would have flailed and scrambled and looked as utterly helpless as I did.

The driver lifted the hood of the car and leaned over until nothing but his large rear protruded above it. For a minute or so, he tinkered with some engine part, then he raised himself up and came back, his face as purple as a plum.

“So then, would you have any '70 for a liter’ or '100 grams to warm the stomach’?” he said.

I had no idea what either of those phrases meant, but I emptied out my breast pocket and showed him the money I had saved for the trip home.

“That’ll do, that’ll do…You know how to take care of yourself” He nodded his round head and drawled out the words, his black eyebrows wrinkling and his speckled eyes shifting and blinking like those of a ferocious yak who had just been chased away by a herdsman.

Soon we had started down the road. My driver sat with his lips pursed and silent until we had passed the tollbooth. He turned the steering wheel with care and furrowed his eyebrows, “So then, having passed over Pentsen Pass, one continues on to Eg Pass and Doloon Pass, generally speaking. But where, in Arkhangai, are you actually going?”

“To Ord Tamir.” I said.

“Well that’s even easier. We’ll be there in the time it takes to eat lunch,” he said, and without waiting for a response, he began to sing in a cracking voice:

A lake only a lake, they say

My hometown lake is full of color

A secret only a secret, however

My beloved is full of wonder

If only I could get home quickly, I thought. What would happen if my mother passed us on the road? The driver seemed to guess what I was thinking. When I asked,

“Will we be there tomorrow?”, he replied, “Don’t speak of it, my dear! If we take our time, it’s a good ten days’ journey.”

I felt as if I were sinking. “Don’t drivers usually say that Bayan Olgii is ten days away?”

“Ah! If we were going to Olgii, that would be nothing. Three days’ll get you that far,” he said in a careless tone, as if he had never said anything to contradict that statement.

Bayan Olgii was much farther away than Arkhangai and Ord Tamir. I understood that he was playing games with me, and my mind relaxed.

The driver didn’t say too much to me directly, but he didn’t keep his mouth shut either: he sang several songs, all to the same melody as “A Lake Only a Lake”; sometimes he even started a folktale, “Once upon a time-o, as big as a mountain-o, a long, black monster-o, was or so they say-o,” and then he stopped and became quiet for a while.

“So then,” he said, “In what high government department do you fulfill your duties? What rank and title do you bear?” He stared at me, his eyes wide and pompous. When I said nothing, he continued. “All along, I’ve been thinking you were some big ministry official person. Won’t you drag your poor older brother up out of his misery, help him become somebody important too?”

He must have noticed how much he was tormenting me this way because he switched to an ordinary tone of voice, “What school do you go to?”

“The Pedagogical Institute.” I said.

“Have you been in the city long?”

“Since last fall.”

“Oh really? Everything comes easily to you. In ten leaps, you’ll be a provincial governor or an army officer,” he said, returning to his absurd, affected mannerisms.

The two of us, one joyful, one joyless, thus continued with songs and other such things over several mountains and hills.

A high ridge rose up before us. The driver ceased making noise, and only the motor hummed quietly as he leaned forward again and again to peer farther out the window, his expression changed. As soon as we reached the top of the pass, he said, “Eoi! You didn’t think Gear-Shift Damchaa would make it, did you?” He laughed out loud.

The driver stopped the car, parked it against the wind, got out, gave a few kicks to the tires, and looked at me.

“Need to go funnel some water,” he yelled. He left the road and stood stooping over. I also got out to stretch. The driver opened the car door and took out an elegant Russian bag from under his seat.

“Let’s break out something to eat! 'From time to time eat a little something, and after you put your cow to sleep, you’ll have a real feast,’ as the proverb goes! Have you heard that one?” he said.

I worried a little because I hadn’t brought anything to eat on the road, but I didn’t try to be polite and pretend I wasn’t hungry.

“I don’t have anything with me. Will we pass a cafeteria along the road?”

“What?” he said, “Could you call cafeteria food a meal, or a wife a princess? Don’t be shy. Have some of your older brother’s banquet.”

Then out of his bag, he got some boiled meat, ribs, and marrowbones. As he sliced and swallowed his meat, his large white teeth dazzled like struck flints. Now and then, he cut off some meat and gave it to me.

“Take what you like, feel free. Not much of a cow, is it?” he said in a sociable way.

He ate a shoulder and four large marrowbones and called it a meal. I had never seen anyone eat that much and I thought, what a monster-like man, no matter how much he eats, he never seems full. My driver, however, apparently finished, arranged his leftovers and gazed at me.

“You hardly ate anything. Wrap it up and hide it away for later.”

I shook my head.

“What’s good is what you think is good,” he said, “But a man who’s going to the countryside needs to eat and drink well, and without ceremony, so he can be a tiger to the women and girls. My friend, after you’ve become an official, you’ll be able to tell the difference between what’s really good and bad.” He stretched himself out comfortably. “Now, let’s have a little nap, and in the cool of the evening, we’ll plod along again, shall we? What’s the meaning of human existence if not to take pleasure in a starry sky?”

I said nothing.

My driver spread his arms out and lay looking at sky until he began to snore heavily. He startled himself awake and jumped up.

“We’ve got to go. If you sleep too much, your love will leave you. If you think about last year, you’ll lose your girlfriend,” he said, spilling out proverbs from who knows where. He gave the tires a few more kicks.

We continued on the road. At the end of the hills, the driver sang again, beginning with “A Cup-like Hoof,” to a different melody from “A Lake Only a Lake.” Suddenly giving that one up, he started “Hopelessly Beloved.” Whether he thought it suited me or whether the song just came to him, he sang his favorite, “A Lake Only a Lake” borrowing eighty or ninety percent of the tune of “Hopelessly Beloved.”

As we went, I got quite used to the driver, and I told him everything: how my mother was supposed to come to the city, how I was worried that we might pass each other by on the road, and how homesick I was. My driver wasn’t much moved by my story.

“So what?” he said, “You’ll see each other soon enough. Good-for-nothing mothers always claim that they miss you so much they’ll dry up and die. But indeed no one ever dies of that. If you come and go for a few years and do reasonably well in your studies, even your mother’ll get used it.”

I thought that if I got the driver to understand that I missed my mother terribly now, he would speed up the car, but I was wrong.

We drove all night, and in the morning, we arrived in Dashinchilen. At first it didn’t appear that we were going to stop in the town center. We were driving straight through the town when he pulled over abruptly at the door of a little white building marked “Store.”

The driver got out and went into the building for a long time. He came out followed by a ruddy, round-faced girl, the two of them laughing loudly, nudging and pushing each other. She must have been the store clerk. She didn’t seem to notice me as a human being. There was nothing funny, but she kept giggling.

“You should know,” she said, “Wouldn’t you do it for me?”

The driver stopped as if to say, “What shall we do?” and looked at me, “My little brother here is homesick. He’s having a tough time. That other thing can wait. We’ll go later on, what does it matter?”

“So, so I see what you’re like. You’re trying to make me beg for it. Just wait, later on, I’ll be the one making you beg,” she said and pulled at him.

The driver did not seem to pay much attention to the pulling, but he stood still, thought for a moment, and looked at me with ingratiating eyes. He turned towards the girl, “All right then, hurry up. We’ll dash over there and come back.”

The red-faced girl seemed overjoyed. She hurried to the store. Her breasts shook unpleasantly on her heavy body as she ran. The driver climbed onto the car roof and organized the luggage.

“So, my little brother, get out and wait right here. If we part for a moment, what’s the harm? Your older brother is going with this young woman to make a short visit. Then the two of us will go on with that song about Gandan Mountain, without further delay!”

I didn’t ask him what he was abandoning me to; silently I got out of the car.

The red-faced girl came towards us with her arms wrapped around a large bag. As soon as she took possession of my seat, the driver started up the engine, and the car left, passing over a hill, sending up streams of dust behind it…

I walked along the storefront and found a bench to sit on. People coming from all directions went in and out of the store, putting candy and cakes in bags, and talking about this and that piece of merchandise.

I worried about the wheat cakes, which I had left in the car and which were probably getting crushed.

Compared to Ulaanbaatar, Dashinchilen was much closer to my family’s ger. After we had passed Sharhov Mountain, the wind had begun to smell like it did at home, but here the smell was gone, and everything seemed remote and desolate. I was afraid I would have to spend the night there, and the fear must have affected my senses.

The driver and the girl seemed to have disappeared completely. The sun began to slip down the sky. Two trucks full of people came from the other direction. The passengers got out and ran here and there; some entered the store. Others, curious, read the notices and posters. How greedy people are to see new things, I thought as I watched them, they open all the doors, stare like ghosts at all the advertisements.

“Tsermaa guai, aren’t you going to get out?” one of them said, “Tsermaa guai!” The sun seemed to rise within me as I heard my mother’s name. I turned in the direction of the voice, and my mother was indeed sitting in the back of the truck. I don’t remember how I ran over there. Only half-aware of what I was doing, I climbed up the truck…but then…I saw a completely unknown woman before me. I greeted her with a stupid expression and jumped back down.

How could there be another woman who looked so much like my mother and had the same name? I turned away and left. My throat tightened. My eyes were brimming with tears, but I tried to hide them from the strangers.

The driver and the girl returned at sunrise, and we set off again. As soon as the driver came back, I wanted to take out some of the wheat cakes to make sure that they weren’t crushed, but I didn’t want him to say something like, “you’ve gone along with me so far and you still don’t trust me?” I tried pressing them from the outside, but I couldn’t feel anything through the thick suitcase. The driver and I talked about various subjects, from time to time, we sang, and I hardly noticed the time passing. In this happy state, we covered the rest of the distance.

There was no difficulty finding my ger. My family usually camped alongside the road, so even someone who didn’t know where the exact place was could find it without too much trouble. When we arrived, my mother was sick in bed. Poor thing, as soon as she saw me, she began to cry uncontrollably with joy. She wanted to get up and make us tea, but she was too dizzy. I straightened the pillow under her head and made some tea for the driver. I was going to cook a meal for him, too, but he said, “No, no, there’s no need for that. I have a lot of work ahead of me. I’m hoping to make some deliveries today. I’ll stop by on the way back to the city.” He stood up flustered.

“What are you thinking?” my mother said, “You’re not leaving until you’ve had something to eat.”

“Don’t worry about it, my older sister,” he said, “We’ll eat together some other time. I enjoyed getting to know your son. My name is Damchaa. Gear-shift Damchaa as many people know me.” He burst out laughing. “Well, good-bye.” he said and went out.

I accompanied him to the door. My mother called out to the driver from behind us, “What a good person you are. Come back and visit me, my son.” Her voice was faint. The driver got into his car.

“Oh dear,” he said, covering his mouth, “I forgot to tell you something important. Yesterday, when I went on that visit, I took a look in your suitcase and saw some wheat cakes on top. I gave them to the family there. Wretched me, I had to give them something for a present…”

I cut him off, “What? What did you do?” I started to lunge towards him, then I stopped suddenly, feeling powerless, and tried to compose myself.

The driver looked nervous, “How stupid of me. I should’ve told you in Ogii, but I forgot. We probably could’ve gotten some there.” He started to curse himself.

I couldn’t say anything to him.

“Well, what’s to be done? Your older brother’ll buy some more wheat cakes from the provincial capital and bring them on his way back.” His playful expression was completely gone. He groped for his keys, found them, and started up the engine.

I stood next to the ger, falling behind the car as it drove away. I wanted to shout until the whole earth shook.

The sun seemed to smile. The deep blue sky stretched limitless overhead. No matter how loud I shouted my voice seemed to make no sound.

I leaned, worthless, against my brown ger. The felt covering was hot on my back.

The car drove farther and farther away, becoming a tiny black point, then passing altogether out of sight into the other side of the mountains, into the secrecy of distance.

translated by Katherine Ives

Katherine Ives spent two years in Tsenhermandal Som, Mongolia, as a Peace Corps volunteer. She is currently a graduate student in the Writers Workshop Fiction program at the University of Iowa.