Wide open spaces

<strong>The Cave of the Yellow Dog</strong>

Byambasuren Davaa and Lisa Reisch<br /><em>Virago, 160

Byambasuren Davaa is the Oscar-nominated Mongolian film-maker whose unforgettable work - including The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog - blends documentary, natural history and traditional story-telling to show us modern life on the Mongolian steppe in all its strange glory.

Like her films, this beguiling book can't be defined exactly as memoir, travel or current affairs. It contains accounts of the author's emigration to Germany, extracts from traditional folk songs, calligraphy, stunning photography, Soviet and post-Soviet Mongolian history and an insider's guide to the habits and culture of some of the world's last true nomads.

Davaa left Mongolia in the 1990s to study film in Berlin and experienced one of the biggest culture shocks imaginable. Coming from a place where soft-soled shoes curve up at the toe so that your tread is light enough to leave the precious grass-stalks intact, she was bound to be hit hard by the harshness of German life.

She was told to go to film parties to make friends and contacts, but these so-called parties seemed hellish with their huddled ranks of black-clad cigarette-smokers. "Was I supposed to elbow my way through crowded rooms, shouting at people's backs and introducing myself at top volume? As far as I'm concerned, celebrating with friends means singing. A party, by definition, means singing and fresh air."

Taking matters into her own hands, Davaa decided to whip up a traditional mutton stew to celebrate her national day. The recipe was simple enough: add meat to the pan, throw in some stones, cover with water and simmer. But German stones are unexpectedly angular and brittle, and they shattered in the pot, rewarding the cook and her guests with painful mouthfuls of masonry-heavy mutton.

You might think a shared taste for meaty snacks would unite her with her German hosts, but in fact it was while viewing a documentary about different styles of butchery that Davaa saw the spiritual gulf open up between them.

Her class watched some Mongolians slaughter a sheep in the normal way - knife goes in, blood gushes out, guts dumped in a pail. But many of her classmates walked out, leaving Davaa wondering if they found her in some way disgusting, too. Next came a film about the German method of despatching dinner. After the electric shock to the head, "the animals hit the floor heavily, hooves protruding through the iron railings of the pen. Not a drop of blood. No knives. No intestines. Nothing. I study the footage for evidence of a conscious effort to face up to the animal's death. I find none."

In Mongolia, her uncle would allow a sheep to gaze up at Father Sky before it died. "The slaughtered animal dies with dignity, for all living creatures are precious. If an animal is killed by a wolf, we don't eat the flesh because its last waking moments were filled with suffering and fear."

Eventually, Davaa found some like-minded Germans, including her co-author, Lisa Reisch, and returned to Mongolia to look for a family to film over the course of a summer for The Cave of the Yellow Dog. Happily, she came across Batchuluun and Buena, a couple in their thirties who range around the steppe with their flock of 300 goats, sheep, yaks and horses, sometimes breaking camp every week in pursuit of better grazing. They have a beautifully furnished "ger" or yurt, and are the proud parents of three beautiful and bright children, including seven-year-old Nansaa, who "stars" in the film.

Nansaa, like all nomadic children, lives in the city during term time, because education is paramount in this post-communist, almost totally literate society. And it soon becomes clear that Batchuluun is considering moving them to the city full-time to become traders, rather than producers, of the animal products that underpin the economy.

Urbanisation is the question mark that hangs over all nomadic life, complete with warning tales of unemployment and alcoholism. But if ancient enemies such as wolves and bad weather threaten to drive the nomads off the steppe, so, too, does that insatiable, modern beast the Chinese luxury goods market, whose inflated cashmere prices encourage herdsmen to keep only grass-decimating goats, rather than a more sustainable mixed herd.

Davaa knows she is recording a dying way of life, and this beautifully realised book honours it as memorably as do her glorious films. Turn to this book not for an introduction to post-Soviet nation-building, or to cinematic anthropology, but for lessons about fun, survival and community that only Mongolians can provide:

The dainty foal is gentle

Pull the reins softly whilst mounting

Things are not easy in strange territory

Adapt to your surroundings with love.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state