Life With the Tsaatan
I had been to Mongolia twice before, but this time my focus was the extreme north, past the Khovsgol Nur. This is the summer pasture of the reindeer herders of Mongolia – the Tsaatan. I traveled from Ulan Bator to the town of Moron and then began the search for the Tsaatan.
Aug 1, 2010
I reached Moron yesterday after umpteen hours on dirt tracks that masquerade as roads. This is a large town by Mongolian standards, especially those west of Ulan Bator. There is the usual sprawl of ramshackle houses, many of them broken and decrepit, squares of scruffy grass from which dirt roads lead off in different directions and a general air of the wild west of America in days of yore. Men in dels ride horses down the street next to beat up cars. Russian vans rev their motors alongside top-of-the-line SUVs and four wheel drive jeeps splash through the mud puddles. Motorbikes, the new vehicle of the well-to-do nomad go roaring past every so often.
The local dress runs the gamut between traditional dels and the jeans-and-t-shirt for the men to tights, t-shirts and high-heeled shoes for the women. The makeup some wear would vie with that worn at the Carnival, bar the ostrich feathers. Scruffy dogs lie around on the streets or behind walls and fences. Most are like the Tibetan mastiffs I remember from before and I give them a wide berth as I wander.
There is a market here – that is the place to find out about transport to Tsaagan Nuur, I am told. There are no buses or regular transport and I need to find other people who are heading that way and then share the cost of transport. The guesthouse is a part of the apartment of a local family and is spotlessly clean, the shower hot and the bed comfortable. The lock on the door does not work but no matter; there is nobody else so I have the place to myself. I am only too happy to stay put for a day or two while I figure out the next bit. And I get to do laundry. Woo hoo!
Aug 2, 2010
I spent most of the day trying to find other travelers and/or locals who are headed to Tsaagan nuur but it is not that popular a place. Surprise, surprise! On one (of many) trip to the market I spoke to a milkman who had a brother whose wife’s cousin had a friend whose brother might be going that way in a couple of days. I should check back later. Checking at the couple of other guesthouses for other likely travelers, I found Jonas. He has been wandering around Mongolia for a while, hitch-hiking for the most part and seemed intrigued by the Tsaatan. He will go. Great, so now we only need thirteen more people. The driver insists he will only go if there are fifteen people!
It started raining and and I holed up in a guanz eating boz. It was there that I heard of another group that has been looking as well and suddenly our pool jumped from two to thirteen and we are suddenly set to leave. I rushed back to pack and came back to the market.
The driver is still hemming and hawing but seems to have come around. Rumor has it that very often a couple of people will straggle in when we are about to leave. This is no luxury limousine. We are going to be squished in five to a row, four in the middle aisle with two sitting on sacks of flour, one riding shotgun and two drivers. Seventeen people in a ten person van!
Aug 4, 2010
We finally left Moron around 7 pm, paid our respects at the ovoos and rattled off. Dark came quickly and the conversation inside the van became a shade more animated as the bottle of vodka made its rounds. Most of the people in the van were locals – a group of ten young men who are off to try their luck at gold mining. Completely illegal, they were going to be dropped off at some point enroute and then hike up to their hideout. Wise-cracks and comments peppered the air, mostly from their self-proclaimed leader, with his mowhawk haircut. With them was a young woman who was to cook for them. She seemed to take it all in her stride and nodded off soon after we left. An old man clutching a huge bundle was going all the way to Tsaagaan nur to visit his family. A couple of other women were also going to Tsaagaan nuur.
In the beginning they were hesitant to interact much with the tourists but by the time we stopped at a guanz at 2 am I had become included in the group. Seeing me shivering, Mr. Mowhawk even offered me his jacket. The volume of vodka he had imbibed no doubt did away with any need of warm clothing.
We drove all night and by the time the frosty dawn colored the sky, we were only too happy to tumble out of the van and spread out on the grass. Oh what a relief to stretch – one joint at a time it seemed! Later that morning we stopped.
The gold rush gang collected their many sacks and set out on foot to their hideout yelling their goodbyes. We continued on. A tad more adventure awaited us – we got bogged down in the calf-deep mud and it took a while before we reached Tsaagaan nuur late in the day.
Jonas and I made our way to the TCVC guesthouse, more than ready for several hours of sleep. Tomorrow we will look into getting to the Tsaatan.
Aug 5, 2010
The guesthouse is charming, built of wood with photographs on the walls. There is a ger in the yard for those who choose to sleep in it and space aplenty to pitch our own tents. Barho, the caretaker brings to a friendly gnome. He is supposed to arrange for horses but right now they are busy skinning a couple of sheep in the yard and he couldn’t be bothered. He did call a friend of his on his cell phone – a friend who has horses and can rent them, he said.
His friend arrived in a ramshackle jeep and we sat down to a discussion. The Tsaatan had moved their camp, and it was going to take us a couple of days on horseback to reach them – maybe more but he couldn’t say exactly. The price quoted was not exactly cheap and Jonas decided that he had neither the time nor the money. He is going to hang out here for a day or two and start hitching back to Moron.
I got into their jeep and off we went to take a look at the horses. I was going to rent one but one look at my riding skills had the man refusing to rent me a horse unless his son Bathoyor accompanied me. So we agreed. We were going use my gear and I would pay for both the horses as well as the guide in the form of Bathoyor. I came back, packed and we left in the mid-afternoon.
Aug 6, 2010
The path we rode on was beautiful. Gently undulating meadows dotted with wildflowers were hemmed in by wooden hillsides. Small streams gurgled by and when we stopped we would picnic at one of these. The horses were fat and well-fed and mine has a reputation of being lazy. That suited me just fine but Bathoyor was clearly not enthralled by my (lack of) speed on horseback.
Shy and soft-spoken, it took a while for the ice to melt and for him to talk. When he was not sighing at my lack of expertise, we chatted. He is twenty-one and really wants to leave here and go to the big city of Ulan Bator. In the meantime he helps out his father. I got the sense that he doesn’t not like his father who apparently has a drinking problem, but he does this for his mother. He has been so very patient with me – he is a really good kid.
When the light faded we stopped. I pitched my tent but Bat (as he prefers to be called) just curled up in his del, turning up his nose at such fripperies. I staggered off the horse when we stopped and fell in a heap. Come tomorrow, I just know I will discover muscles I never knew I had. Not the pleasantest thought to take to bed!
But the night sky makes up for it. I remember that from being in Mongolia before – this incredible sight the likes of which I have seen in very few other places. There are so many stars! There isn’t even an empty space large enough for a pinprick.
Somewhere near Barun Taiga
I woke up today with every joint sending out vociferous protests and muscles threatening to go on strike. Some stretches later I was marginally better but still dreading getting up on that horse. But there was nothing to be done. Up I went and off we went down the trail. Bath smirked as he looked at me – he cannot fathom how anyone can be this incompetent! But there was good news – we passed a man on his way to Tsaagaan nuur and he said the Tsaatan encampment is closer than we thought – we could make it in one long day.
We passed through some woods and I saw some wood cabins and animal shelters with sod roofs. I noticed old khatas tied to trees as well as some offerings laid across branches. Shamanism is alive and well in this part of the world. I wonder if I will meet a shaman – I would really like that.
We had started climbing, squelching our way through water-bogged mires – I realized now why it was necessary to be on horseback. There were still patches of snow on the ground this late in the year and the wind held a keen edge as we topped the treeline. The taiga lay before us. Stunted scrub bushes grew here and there and boggy permafrost lay underfoot. High above us soared an eagle and twitters of birdsong split the air sometimes. Something scurried from one boulder to another – probably a marmot I thought. We went down one long wide valley and up another.
Toward late afternoon it started sleeting. Sharp and cold, it felt like a showers of needles on my face. I had long since given up being able to see – my glasses were coated with little pellets of ice. Huddled into my fleece and jacket I tucked my head under the hood and let my horse take me where she wanted. It was so cold that my teeth chattered and I was shivering uncontrollably. Rain jacket and pants notwithstanding, I was soaked through. How I wanted to just get off the horse! It is a good thing I thought, that she is going to follow the other horse without any direction from me. Some couple of hours later Bat stopped, turned back in his saddle and pointed. And there in the distance was the encampment.
But these were no round gers that I am used to. These were teepees like the native Americans! As we trudged towards them, I soon saw the reindeer. One or two grazing on some bushes and then whole herds of them! Cold, wet, miserable though I was, I was grinning like a fool.
I spent the day wandering, chatting, taking photographs and playing with the children. They are a lively bunch and eager to show off their skills with their tsaabock as the reindeer are called. I still can’t get over all the reindeer milling around.
When we arrived yesterday, I wanted to stop at the first one but Bat took me to the two ortz, (as the teepees are called) that are pitched to the west of the wide meandering stream. Across the stream were seven other ortz, each belonging to a family. And I met Dolzag. There was something about her that I liked and I had a feeling that it was reciprocated. She had decided that we were sisters and wanted me to stay in her ortz. A strenuous argument later we compromised. I pitched my tent close to her ortz. As her insistence we then trooped in out of the rain into her ortz as she started feeding kindling into the stove, preparing tea for us.
Built like the teepees of native Americans, it is made of long wooden poles, their bottom end arranged in a circle and the tops tied together. Over these are canvas sheets tied to poles. Some places are covered in blue plastic tarp, the made-in-China sort that has found its way just about everywhere in the world, even here. The door is set to one side, made of a canvas strip with short poles lashed horizontally to give it definition. It is the top pole that one lifts to open the door, always on the same side – right side when entering and left when leaving, The edges of the canvas lie on the ground and are weighted down with rocks. A door flap that is closed and weighted down is an indication that the owner is not home – the concept of a lock does not exist here.
Inside is a circular area with belongings set against the canvas walls. There are bags of sewn furs, a few boxes and some piles of blankets. Some ortzes have beds made of planks covered with blankets set on logs, about six inches off the ground while others simple have furs and blankets laid out on the ground. The beds and sleeping areas to the right of the entrance is for the meant for the family and the one to the left is for visitors. Most of the ortzes have solar panels and some have a radio or even a TV. Some even sport a satellite dish.
Tied between the poles or tucked under the canvas are everyday utensils. A toiletry kit swings between two poles. There is a string with drying cheese – the stone hard kind I remember from Tibet although these are made of reindeer milk and not yak milk. Some ortzes have strings of drying meat as well – preparations for the long hard winter, no doubt.
Immediately to the right of the entrance is the pile of brush, roots and twigs that is the kindling for the stove, foraged from the surroundings. Sometimes they fell trees and chop them for firewood. Do they not use dried reindeer dung for fuel? Like Tibetans use yak dung, I wondered. Next to the wood pile is a plank set on two logs – the pantry, with some bowls, spoons and ladles resting on it. In the center of the ortz is the stove – a square metal one like the ones I have seen in juat about all nomad tents. The stove pipe leads up straight out of the central opening at the top of the ortz.
Directly across from the doorway I would think is the place of honor. But there is no altar here. Although they recognize the name of Dalai Lama and some Buddhist rituals and I have seen khatas but there are no signs of this or any other religious objects. But high above, tied to the poles are bunches of drying herbs – medicines to be used by the shaman. It was then I realized that Dolzag is the shaman of this tribe. And here I was, befriended by her. I grinned to myself.
I woke up today to a harsh rasping sound and the sight of my tent swaying precariously. Peeling back my hat from my ears I listened for wind. Was it raining? Sleeting? But there was no roaring sound of wind outside and it was sunny. Then I saw the shadow on the tent wall. Long antlers gave it away. It was a reindeer rubbing against the tent and licking it! One of the children came running up and shooed it off. But they are curious creatures. They will come up, turn their head and stare. Then come up some more and sniff. Waving means nothing – clearly they have not been taught to be afraid.
It is the chore of the children to herd the tsaabock. They take them off to other meadows and valleys to graze in the morning and bring them back in the evening. They may nibble at the bushes but it is the lichen that grows on the rocks that is their staple. Come evening, they are brought in and milked. The young are then allowed to nurse.
The women spend a good part of the day making cheese. They were eager to teach me but I failed abysmally. I was even worse at splitting wood. So I was shooed off with the children to gather kindling. I was marginally better at that.
I have been trying to teach the children. Attempted math lessons dissolved in laughter when one of the children ran to his ortz and came back flaunting a calculator. Needless to say that was the end of today’s lessons.
We had a couple of visitors today. They had been to Moron to do some shopping and have just come back. As in every ortz, visitor are treated like royal guests. They sprawl on the furs and are given tea made from brick tea. The loud slurping noises are compliments to the host.
I had brought some food with me as gifts – rice, sugar, noodles among others – things that they cannot get here. Dolzag made sute-pota – a sort of porridge-like mush made of rice and milk. This is clearly a delicacy to them and they laughed to think I did not like it. I like phirch instead, I said. Absurd, they said as they laughed shaking their heads.
Dolzag told me she and I would go visit some people today. Oh no, I thought, do I have get on a horse? Yes, she said, but it would not be so far. Mentally gritting my teeth at the prospect, I succumbed.
We entered the ortz and were asked to sit. I have begun to get the hang of the pasha-like sprawl and stretched out. There were a few of others in the ortz as well. One man was fiddling with a screen and the others were watching intently waiting for whatever program they wanted to see.
One of the young men turned to me and said
“So you live in New York?”
“Yes” I replied.
He thought for a second and then asked
“Have you seen Lady Gaga?”
It must have taken me a good five seconds to scrape my jaw off the floor. This encampment was remote enough that from Ulan Bator which is itself fairly remote, it had taken me weeks just to reach them and here is this man asking about Lady Gaga! The rest of the world may not know how the Tsaatan live, I pondered but they are quite aware of how the rest of the world lives. How strange is that?
Dolzag’s friend was at the stove baking bread she said. How are you baking without an oven, I asked. She just smiled and told me to wait and see. And voila, out popped a loaf of bread in a cake-like shape. Just like magic, they said as they laughed.
I have to leave today. It is almost the end of my trip and I have to get back to Ulan Bator. I have to get back to Tsaagaan nuur and then arranging transport from Tsaagaan Nuur to Moron was iffy at best. It might take days before there is a van. I don’t want to leave just yet and definitely am not ready to get atop a horse again!
It was freezing cold last night with some sleet. The children wanted to sleep in my tent so I hunkered down in Dolzag’s ortz. This morning when we woke up it was still raining and cold. We had tea, then some of my coffee, and then when I couldn’t procrastinate any longer, I packed up. Dolzag gave me one of her jackets. I am bundled up to the eyeballs and will likely roll off the horse but it is so much warmer than my own layers! But how am I going to get this back to her, I asked. She smiled and said, not to worry, I would be back here again.
Getting back to Tsaagaan nuur was quicker than I had expected. Once we had reached the edge of the meadow, Bat and I met a friend of his on a motorbike. Bat, patient soul though he is, was no doubt heartily sick of my snail-like pace on the horse. So we swapped. His friend rode one horse and trailed the other and Bat drove the motorbike while I bounced along riding pillion. This I do so much better that anything on four hooves! Compared to the wind-swept encampment with its few ortzes, Tsaagaan nuur with its ramshackle buildings seemed like a teeming metropolis.