When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter's Tale

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Overview

At 23, Matt Davis moved to a remote Mongolian town to teach English.What he found when he arrived was a town—and a country—undergoing wholesale change from a traditional, countryside existence to a more urban, modern identity. When Things Get Dark documents these changes through the Mongolians Matt meets, but also focuses on the author's downward spiral into alcohol abuse and violence—a scenario he saw played out by many of the Mongolian men around him. Matt's self-destruction culminates in a drunken ...

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When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter's Tale

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Overview

At 23, Matt Davis moved to a remote Mongolian town to teach English.What he found when he arrived was a town—and a country—undergoing wholesale change from a traditional, countryside existence to a more urban, modern identity. When Things Get Dark documents these changes through the Mongolians Matt meets, but also focuses on the author's downward spiral into alcohol abuse and violence—a scenario he saw played out by many of the Mongolian men around him. Matt's self-destruction culminates in a drunken fight with three men that forces him to a hospital to have his kidneys X-rayed. He hits bottom in that cold hospital room, his body naked and shivering, a bloodied Mongolian man staring at him from an open door, the irrational thought in his head that maybe he is going to die there. His personal struggles are balanced with insightful descriptions of customs and interactions, and interlaced with essays on Mongolian history and culture that make for a fascinating glimpse of a mysterious place and people.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Both a raw personal examination and an insightful look at Mongolian history and culture, Davis’ illuminating memoir sheds light on a remote region." —Booklist

 

 "A lively, frank look into the Mongolian psyche...a work that offers a rare glimpse into a little-understood part of the world." —Kirkus Reviews

 “Matthew Davis’s portrait of Mongolia is riveting, insightful, and deeply honest.  He captures the timeless elements of this remarkable country —the glorious history, the wide-open landscapes —but he also writes about the forces that shape today’s Mongol society.  As a teacher he experiences it all firsthand: he lives in a nomad-style ger; he drinks too much, like the locals; he witnesses the mass migration to the cities and foreign countries.  He even finds himself caught up in a quarantine for the plague.  It’s rare for a young person to have such intimate contact with such a distant country, and even rarer for him to write about it so well.”— Peter Hessler, author of Country Driving,  River Town, and Oracle Bones

 

 “Mongolia is a bewitching land, and Matt Davis captures the exotic and the quotidian aspects of living there in this sweet and utterly engaging book. Braving an outbreak of the plague, surviving in minus-40 degree cold, drinking vodka and fermented mare’s milk just like the locals, Davis looks past Mongolia’s desperate challenges and finds moments of touching humanity. Davis has a forgiving eye and a sharp pen. A lovely, memorable book.”—Seth Faison, author of South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China

"When Things Get Dark is an intimate, sometimes ambivalent account of the terrible beauty and the sometimes squalid underbelly of modern Mongolia, by a young American who lived the real Mongolian life, including serious drinking, for two years. The warmth and hospitality of the Mongolian people shine through despite moments of desperation and despair, both his and theirs. It made me remember the coal and dung smoke and the mutton stew.  It made me want to go back."—Steve Bodio, author of Eagle Dreams and Querencia

 “WHEN THINGS GET DARK is a beautifully written, vivid book that presents a very well observed picture of Mongolian society. I was quite moved by many of the passages. The universal themes of love and growing up will appeal to people anywhere with or without an interest in exotic, far away Mongolia.” –Jasper Becker, author of Mongolia and Dragon Rising

 

"...a sincere account of good intentions gone awry and an entertaining splash of cultural anthropology." —Washingtonian

Kirkus Reviews
A lively, frank look into the Mongolian psyche by a young Peace Corps English teacher. Based in the central mountainous city of Tsetserleg from 2000 to 2002, Davis was just 23 years old and fairly inexperienced in many things when he arrived in Mongolia. However, he was easygoing and not terribly fussy about heat and personal hygiene, preferring to live in a ger, the distinctive felt-covered tent spawned from the Mongolians' nomadic way of life. His entertaining travelogue/memoir is divided into nine sections, "Nine Nines," by which Mongolians demarcate the long, dark winter season. Perhaps as a result of their 70-year socialist period-ending with the fall of Soviet Communism in 1991-the mostly young-adult native students were keen to obey the teacher's authority, though quick to cheat when they could get away with it, often lazy and rarely given to creative expression. After the Soviets had largely obscured Mongolian history deriving from Chinggis Khan-as the name of the founder of the Mongolian Empire is written here-the great warrior has been rediscovered with a vengeance, and Davis provides a serviceable history of Mongolian politics (the country is only now emerging as a democracy). Mostly, there are stories from the lives of the people he encountered: marriages and families complicated by a deeply ingrained drinking culture, promiscuity, domestic violence, low wages and yearning for Western goods and education. While traveling the country, Davis explored the Mongolian hatred for the Chinese, the attempts at regeneration of the Mongolian Buddhist heritage and preservation of the traditional herding ways. A nicely organized work that offers a rare glimpse into a little-understoodpart of the world. Agent: Ken Wright/Writers House
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312607739
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 2/16/2010
  • Pages: 306
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

MATTHEW DAVIS is a MFA graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. A chapter of this book has won the 2005 Atlantic Monthly prize in nonfiction and another chapter was a "notable essay" in the 2006 Best American Travel Writing series. Matt lives in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue: The Stories I Learned

I LEARNED THREE winter stories in Mongolia. The ones the Mongolians told. The ones the foreigners told. And the ones I told myself.

The stories Mongolians told dealt with loss and rebirth. One begins with a herder riding on the steppe with his sheep and goats. The wind shifts, the sky grows dark, a blizzard pounds him and his herds off their path. Lost for a week, he sings to his horse to keep both the animal and himself sane, a long song, an urtiin duu, a haunting, ghostlike melody drawn out in one breath from the mouth, like someone is literally pulling the song out of the vocal cords. The family never loses hope of their father/husband/son returning, and they walk to the Buddhist temple on the mountain, its bright colors shimmering in the snow, to light butter lamps and pray for his safe return.

Foreigners told stories of adventure and toughness. Of retrieving water from frozen rivers. Of waking to negative temperatures with their toothpaste frozen. Of surviving long jeep rides with no heat. “Man, we were on an eighteen-hour jeep ride in below-thirty temps,” they begin, “when our driver spotted a wolf out in the distance. He chased it down, one hand on the steering wheel, the

Matthew Davis

other grasping a ri. e pointed out the window. We skidded into a pile of snow, the gun went off in the air, and we were stuck outside for two hours while we waited for someone to pull us out. It was FUUUUCKED UP.” But there were other stories that foreigners told, the ones that were fucked up for a different reason. The story of the man who tried to destroy his ger with an ax. The story of the woman who did nothing but bake doughnuts for two days straight. The man who began hearing voices and stayed home for an entire week. These stories were told to laugh at the craziness of others, and I did, uneasily, with a chuckle. I understood, knew what it was like to spend six months locked inside with little but another novel, letters from home, and the friends you made in town. I already knew the fear of being swallowed by the cold and the dark that lasted from October to April. I just liked to hear the stories so I could feel comfortable with my own thoughts.

The stories I told myself were that I knew what I was doing, that I could handle the isolation and the vodka I had begun to drink in large amounts. “It’s what people do here,” I told myself. “And you are here. You survived the winter last year and you will survive this one. These feelings you have, Matt, that sick lump in the bottom of your stomach that won’t let you sleep at night but won’t let you get up in the morning, that, that is okay.”

Mongolians mark the progression of winter with the Nine Nines, nine series of nine days that describe each phase of the season. Though I lived in the Mongolian countryside for two winters, for two years, I liked the structure of the Nine Nines. I liked their rhythm and cadence, the way my friends steeled themselves for the middle nines. “Ah, it is amar cold outside,” they said. “We are in the sixth nine.” Then, the visible sense of relief as we approached the Ninth Nine, the season ending on day eighty-one regardless of what came after. When I had left the countryside, I came to see my time marked as the Nine Nines.

When Things Get Dark

While there, though, I marked winter’s progression by the light. Once October arrived, and an extra layer of felt was laid on my ger, and the wood had been chopped, and the winter’s sheep killed, the sun did not rise over the mountains until nine. And it was a diffuse light, the morning winter light, as smoke from ger and baishin .res mixed with the smoke from the twin chimneys of the central heating plant to leave a layer of smog that hovered over the small provincial capital where I lived. The sun cut a thin arc over the southern horizon and dipped behind the mountains around four. Seven hours of sunlight, then, less than a third of the day, and when it gets dark, not much to do but listen to the .re crackle, read, write, think, and drink.

Excerpted from When Things Get Dark by Matthew Davis.

Copyright © 2010 by Matthew Davis.

Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2010

    Great insight

    Great insight on Mongolia, without being sentimental.

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