Today he is considered the country’s poet laureate, and an important figure in the fight to retain its traditional culture. As its fast-growing economy puts its modernization into overdrive and draws its population away from its nomadic roots, he has his work cut out for him.
Born into a nomadic family, he spent his early years moving across the steppe, herding goats and sheep throughout the day and listening to his elders play traditional music on horsehead fiddles at night. “We would move 20 times in a year,” he says. “Nomads feel the land has spirits and a soul, so we have songs about each new place we move to.”
Riding horses since the age of 3, Mr. Mend-Ooyo grew up when Mongolia was under Russian control. His father taught him the indigenous Mongolia script by drawing it in the snow that fell outside their circular tent, or ger, during the long winter months — “since classes at school were taught only in the Russian-influenced Cyrillic script,” he says. The family prayed nightly in secret, hiding their Buddhist statues in a box during the day.
As a teenager in the countryside, he got interested in writing, thanks in part to Dorjiin Gombojav, a controversial poet and translator who had alienated officials in Ulan Bator. As punishment, Mr. Gombojav had been sent to teach at the rural school Mr. Mend-Ooyo attended.