Days of car travel and 7 hours of horse riding through grassland, forest and ice-topped mountains bring you to a magic, remote place where you find yourself surrounded by hundreds of extremely friendly reindeers. Yes, quite a trip, but what a great experience.
Two small Tsataan communities live at the Taiga in northern Mongolia, together with their large herds of reindeer. A visit to this place has itched for over a decade already, and it is finally about to happen. We will visit the East-Taiga, not an easy place to reach.
During the long and bumby car ride to Tsagaan Nuur I feel my excitement grow, only a few more nights followed by hours on a Mongolian horse to reach the Tsataan community.
As everywhere in remote Mongolia we pass many gers, also known as yurts, spread out widely and surrounded by wide open fields and impressive surroundings. Herds graze and are watched by the nomads. Young children are home for a 3 month summer holiday and watch over the new born sheep, goats and calfs to prevent them from drinking all the milk. Sometimes the road conditions are so bad the four wheel drive get stuck or cannot cross the rivers. We are lucky it hasn’t rained and manage to get to Tsagaan Nuur without too much trouble in time to enjoy the sun set, while rain and thunder color the sky at the other side of the lake.
Very early the next morning we prepare for the last 2 hours of driving before the horse ride. Even though we are ready to go we have to wait for the son of the family to come back from his fishing trip so our lunch can be prepared with the catch of the day. After mutton and beef with noodles for 2 weeks we are more than willing to wait for our lunchbox to be filled with rice and fish. The only vegetables added are the by now familiar, tablespoons of sour carrots and pickles.
I start to get a little nervous, are we gone make it, how is it gone be, will I like it? After the short drive we see a group of people sitting at the ground, and horses still calmly enjoying their fresh grass breakfast. It does not look like we are going to leave any time soon … again. The horsemen seem to have enjoyed a nice evening the day before and do not look very well rested.
Our guide starts to pack our food for the coming days and gives us caps and leather bootstraps. And yes I will definitely wear that, given my lack of experience in horse riding. A paper with do’s and don’ts for Mongolian horses and a 1 minute instruction telling us not to approach from the back, watch out for the trees and control your horse (dûh, yeah but how?!). Finally ready to mount our horse. Mongolian horses have no name, but are referred to by their color. So my horse “Black” is my best friend for the coming hours. Another horse carriers our supplies and bags.
It is quite uncomfortable and does not get any easier over time. Soon after we left we stop, the Tsataan see deer. One of the horsemen gets his gun and walks towards them. We continue our trip and after a while we hear 2 shots, of which the second seem to sound different from the first. At the edge of the forest we have our fish lunch and the hunters join us again. They are not sure whether they have hit the deer, but they could not find it.
From the other side of the forest we see people approaching, and they seem to be relieved to get of the horse which is not very hopeful as we are not even close yet. We share our fish lunch, as they tell us they only had cup noodles for days because the dogs stole their food the first day they arrived at the Taiga.
The forest is densely grown and my horse likes to bump in to every one of them to get rid of the enormous number of mosquitos and flies. We only go up and once in a while we get a glimpse of the beautiful surrounding. My beacon for the day is the spot of ice on the top of the mountain, which does not seem to get any closer. The horsemen and our guide are so busy with themselves that we fall behind without any support, kinda scary and especially my friend is fed up with the horse trip and “will not go back on a horse, but walk”, lets see.
Finally at the top we have to wait because one of the extra horses that were used to bring Tsataan people down to Tsagaan Nuur escaped and has to be caught again. At the top we dismount and walk down with our horse on a leash, this is actually the most fun part. Almost down we get back up and see the tipi like tents, at last. We are welcomed by a group of barging dogs, which tips my friend really to the other side of the edge as he is a little scared of dogs. He most really like me, otherwise he would not have joined me all the way to the end of the world.
We are welcomed by the wife of our horseman with tasty pan-baked bread and home made rhubarb jam. After the first relaxation we are shown are tent, and it did not get any better for my friend. Our bed is nothing more than a wooden pallet, and by that I really mean only a wooden pallet. We ask for something to cover it and get some fabric that can only serve to protect our sleeping bag from being torn apart. The tent itself is not even a water and wind tight shelter, this will be a tough 3-night stay.
But than … the reindeer come to welcome us! how cool! everything challenging is forgotten as we meet the world’s most friendly animals. They come close, don’t mind petting and lick your hands, especially if covered with salt. The herd is not yet complete, in summer the herds wander off on their own if there are not too many wolfs around and part of the herd, around 300 reindeer, has been gone for 20 days already. The horns are still young and soft and new-borns call for their mother if lost. Every reindeer belongs to a certain family of the community. This community has 20 tents, of which 5 for visitors. Today our horseman’s wife has only 1 reindeer to milk, the rest is with the big group in the mountains. Some families cut a mark in the fur of the reindeer, give it a coloured necklace, but our horsemen’s wife just knows her animals by the pattern of their fur and the way the horns look.
In the evening I get a try of milking a reindeer too. Slowly but surely I manage to get some milk. Not more than a small cup is the result and it is only used for the milk tea. I like this milk tea better than the salty yak milk, as it is a bit smoother.
Night falls, we make a fire and get into our sleeping bags. We fall asleep quite quickly, to wake only a few hours later because the fire went out and temperature dropped 20 degrees or more. I try to make the fire again but fail in the dark. This is definitely not a holiday after which I get back to work well rested.
In the morning we get water from the river to make tea, boil eggs and enjoy the pan-baked bread. It is nice to have the sun out again, and I quickly walk to the reindeer which centered themselves between the tipi tents. Still worth all the hardship. During the day I take so many pictures that I am happy I brought my laptop to already make a first selection.
People here have very little and I find it hard to imagine living here, especially as a teenager or young adult. The very little children get balloons, frisbees and drawing books from the tourist to kill time. The adults hunt, work in and around their tents, cut trees for firewood and make handcraft from reindeer horn to sell at a weekly mini-market. While we are there they also make a new Shaman drum. In the morning they got a fresh cow skin to stretch it over the old wooden drum frame to leave it for the sun to dry. Shaman use this drum to get into trance to connect to the spirits and conduct a Shaman ritual to answer questions of the locals and do fortunetelling.
This trip is one a kind, worth the effort, but I have to admit after 3 nights I am happy to leave too. But if cuddling a reindeer is your next thing to do, the Taiga is the place to be.