Because I like to give credit where credit is due, there were some stupendous alternate titles provided by Bradley (who has so many ideas that I secretly thinks he wants to write his own blog). 1) “We really could see Russia from our backyard” – quite clever, since we were so close to the Russian border that we had to get a permit and 2) “Move sheep, get out the way!” – a nice blend of dirty rap and running livestock, what could be better?
I met Brad in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s giant, bustling urban capital city on August 29th, after waking up ate 1:30 AM in Bishkek to catch a 4:15 AM flight and listening to my Bishkek taxi driver tell me about every American he’s ever met before in his life. Ulaanbaatar means “red hero” in Mongolian but the joke is that the city is so polluted in the winter that it should be called black hero from all the coal smoke and exhaust in the air. It is the world’s coldest capital city and many people burn coal to heat their homes, which creates quite a smog layer. Luckily, we weren’t here in the winter and so were able to go outside and breathe comfortably. Approximately 50% of Mongolia’s 3.2 million citizens living in ULB, so it’s quite congested. Fortunately, that means the rest of this giant country is completely empty.
We spent the day visiting some sites in ULB, including monasteries and other Buddhist temples (where we learned, among other things, the story of a female Buddhist deity who befriended a monster to win his trust, slept with him, was impregnated, killed him and then gave birth and killed and ate her monster baby – Buddhism is neat!), statues of Chinggis Khan, palaces of former Mongolian rulers, and Soviet memorials. Though Mongolia has purged its last Lenin (I weep!), the hammer and sickle and communist star still make more than a few appearances. In fact, the city was being gussied up for Putin’s visit on September 3, so a large hammer and sickle banner was displayed prominently in the central square. Mongolia is interesting because it was never formally absorbed into the Soviet fold, but is unofficially considered the 16th Soviet republic since its leaders were complete puppets of Moscow. Our guide for later in the trip would dispute this characterization and was very proud that Mongolia retained its independence. Apparently Stalin guaranteed Mongolia’s “independence” (you know, as long as its leaders did exactly what he wanted) so he’s a bit of a local hero. Well, not exactly a hero, but I guess its easier to excuse the 30,000 monks he slaughtered and all of the monasteries he burned since he safe guarded their independence.
What is definitely no longer Soviet in Mongolia is the language. Russian used to be the second language for Mongolians, but this is being quickly replaced by English and most young people no longer know Russian. Which meant that I had to try to quickly replace my terrible Russian with a few even worse Mongolian phrases. Mongolian is a Turkic language that is written in Cyrillic and sounds like someone has strung 75 consonants together and then forcibly hocked them out of the back of their throat. It’s impossible. Just completely impossible.
The next morning our English-speaking guide and interpreter, Batorgil (we called him Bat, after he quickly tired of us massacring his name) picked us up and we all took a turboprop flight north to Murun, a dusty little town with dirt roads nestled into a wide valley that serves as the provincial capital and gateway to the northern region. We would, for the next 7 days, camp and horsepack our way to the far north, to the taiga forest that stretches from Mongolia into Siberian Russia, with the goal of visiting the Tsaatan reindeer herder people.
Our driver, Dakh, picked us up at the airport in a giant, primer gray, ancient Soviet beast van (apparently used as an ambulance during soviet times). Dakh is from a town 280km away from Murun (about 180 miles), on the Russian border, that takes TWELVE HOURS to drive to because of the road conditions. This seemed impossible to me until we actually started traversing some of these dirt roads. Then 280km in twelve hours suddenly seemed optimistic.
The van was stuffed with food, horse gear and camping supplies and smelled perpetually of gas from the large propane tank we were carrying. Next to Dakh’s head, on the inner top rim of the driver’s side window, a large bolt jutted out and came alarmingly close to his head as the van careened off of boulders and ditches (Brad joked that this must be the Mongolian version of the driver’s side airbag). Dakh has been a driver for 30 years in this van and knew it inside and out. He eschewed a tent, choosing to sleep in his van. He used the dome light cover as a water glass. He used a portable camp shower to lovingly wash the van (but not himself) after a particularly brutal day of driving. Brad and I mostly sat in the back, on a springy bench seat that acted as a sling shot to launch us into the air over the pitted dirt “road” we traversed. Dakh was constantly cranking the wheel, pumping his clutch, and hitting the gas to rev out of deep ditches and water. If sitting in the car was an athletic event (which it was) driving it was basically the Olympics. He honked to show respect every time we passed a stone or wooden ovoo (Shaman symbol of respect for the natural environment to bless the journey) along the road and had a photo of the Dalai Lama on his sun visor. After the first hour in the van, I felt like it was completely reasonable to pray to every possible deity.
Once we checked all the supplies and bought drinking water, Bat, Brad, Daldei (the smiley, candy bar wielding cook and camp assistant), Dakh and I loaded into the van and headed out of Murun, quickly leaving the paved road and crashing out into rutted dirt tracks through the steppe. Side note here – yes, Brad and I were alone on a guided trip and somehow we were provided with THREE people to take care of us. I didn’t know this until we got picked up. But, honestly, it was pretty great. Regardless of how many people are provided, rural Mongolia is nearly impossible to travel on your own – for example, our guidebook lists public transit times to Tsaaganuur as “8 hours to half of a year” and I think they are only kind of joking. Most travel is off-road and requires an experienced driver and navigator. People in rural areas are welcoming and friendly, but don’t speak English so an interpreter greatly adds to your ability to communicate. And having the cook – well that was just a pretty sweet bonus :).
Anyway, back to the drive. The landscape was beautiful – thick, wind blown grasses covering wide valley floors, criss-crossed by crystalline streams and punctuated by slabs of dense evergreen forest and spinous rocky ridges. Mountain peaks surrounded the valleys and gathered storm clouds in the afternoons. White gers (Mongolian yurts) dotted the hillsides, while herds of shaggy yaks, fat cows, sheep, goats, and sturdy little horses roamed free (and often wound up in the path of our oncoming van, only to be scattered through vigorous honking). With very few exceptions, almost every bit of land in Mongolia is available to nomadic herders (who comprise 1/3 of the population) and for public use. While this may sound like it would destroy the landscape, it most definitely does not. The people are very connected to the land and density of human habitation is incredibly low. The animals live the way they were intended to, roaming free, moving seasonally to follow good grass and water, with their owners following. As a result, the animals have very few diseases. I asked a number of people about common horse ailments we see in stabled, managed horses in the United States like colic and laminitis. They just don’t see these things here – the animals are fat and happy and healthy. One horseman told me he once tried to give his horses hay and grain and they refused it because they prefer the grasses. The biggest threat to their animals is wolf attacks. Yes, wolf attacks.
It also isn’t like people live this way because they are poor or uneducated. The literacy rate in Mongolia is 98% and school is required from 6 years of age. Nomadic children are sent to the nearest small town and live in free, government-provided dorms for school. Many people have hundreds and hundreds of animals and are rich in resources, if not cash. Most nomads have a solar panel and radio or TV to keep current on news and politics and cell phones are ubiquitous. I can’t tell you how many times we waved down a passing horseman or nomadic herder on a motorbike, wearing traditional Mongolian costume and asked them to take our photo, which they did with Instagram-level posing and adept use of portrait mode. So no, they aren’t shunning modern life. They just like to live this way, off of the land and off of their animals, in these stunning landscapes.
In the afternoon on the second day of driving down potholed, rocky dirt “roads”, Dakh guiding his Soviet beast wagon through the least horrifying sections of rivers and muddy ponds in a choose your own adventure of route finding, we made it the rendezvous point for meeting our horse guide and horses. For the next 3 days, we would ride semi feral Mongolian horses while Dakh and Daldei careened off of boulders in the van, driving ahead and setting up camp. Our horse wrangler was an old Mongolian cowboy named Lagua who wore a del (traditional Mongolian robe with a yellow sash) and had a perpetually half-smoked cigarette hanging out of his mouth. While we tent camped through the frosty nights in relative luxury with a nice Thermarest pad and warm sleeping bags, Lagua wrapped his del around him like a blanket and used his saddle as a pillow, sleeping outside. As Bat told us “these men do not need comfort.” This appeared to be true, as Lagua impaled his thumb with a knife trying to make a hole in the cinch for one of the horses and seemed irritated by Bat’s insistence that the hemorrhaging wound be cleaned and wrapped.
My horse was a fat little buckskin gelding with a thick zebra-striped mane and an overwhelming urge to eat constantly. He didn’t have a name, because Lagua owns around 200 horses who basically roam free and he catches them when he needs them. I dubbed him “fat brown.” Fat brown was pretty lively – no dead-broke trail horses here – and, when not allowed to constantly munch grasses, would throw his head around, prance sideways, and try to run. Brad rode a calmer gray horse he called “Bob.” Bob also liked to eat, but didn’t do it with quite the gusto of Fat Brown.
Like the drive, the landscape for the ride was beautiful. As we rode up the valley (the Darkhad depression), we climbed into the hills and the scenery became more dramatic. One afternoon, nearing sunset, we rode along a ridge overlooking a river with a watercolor tableau of wildflowers, grasses, and craggy granite rocks. Massive birds of prey soared overhead, their wings so large and the landscape so silent that we could hear the air moving as they flew. We camped on top of the ridge, forcibly “enjoying” some cups of straight vodka with a bonfire at dinner. I don’t know if it was the scenery or the added milk-filtration (because everyone loves milky vodka), but I’ve never enjoyed straight vodka quite so much as I did at these campsites.
On the second day of riding, we passed through the village of Tsaaganuur (White Lake), where Lagua’s family lives. Tsaaganuur was lovely – a tiny collection of bright, multi-hued roofs clustered along the shore of a large lake and surrounded by grassy mountains. We had lunch at his family’s house, where his wife, a sturdy woman with a wide smile, plied us with gallons of milky tea, fresh clotted cream, home-made bread, and mutton dumplings. And this was just the appetizer. The main event was fish, freshly caught by her son from the lake and roasted over a fire. We ate heartily, to her delight. She told us over and over again how most tourists won’t eat any of the food and, through our willingness to eat, she could tell that we are “good people with positive energy.” Never before has my natural piggishness won me such kudos, but this is basically my dream. Will eat for appreciation. After lunch, Lagua’s son Saura joined us with a few pack horses. Saura was a miniature, even more stoic version of Lagua. He also sported a del, slept outside, and one night climbed a tree in the dark to get us more fire wood. You know, so we could have a warm, comfortable night while he went and bedded down on a pile of rocks.
On our third day of riding, we left the Dakh and his van behind and entered the taiga, the swampy, boggy, mossy forest where the Tsaatan people live. They had just moved to their autumn location two days prior, which is closer to the road and, therefore, required less time horse packing through terrain that was like walking on a wet, cratered sponge. The forest was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, a tapestry shag carpet of pink, red, orange, gold, green and white lichens and mosses covering every single inch of boggy ground, lush with leafy greens, huckleberry vines, and blueberry bushes. The evergreen trees were thin, elegant, and spaced out such that sunlight could reach the forest floor and illuminate the painted ground. I’ve never seen a forest that looks like this. It looked like something imagined by Tolkien. But, beautiful though it was, it was absolute hell to ride horses through. Every step was a game of Russian roulette, with the horses sinking, tripping, and flailing through ground that gave out from under them, concealed boulders and logs, and sank into pits of mud and water. Fat Brown used every fall as an opportunity to grab some chunk of bush or leaves because, you know, they were at face level and seemed so appetizing. I admired his dedication. Why worry about drowning or sinking into a mud pit when you could enjoy a nice snack?
We finally arrived at the Tsaatan’s autumn camp in the evening. The Tsaatan people live in both Mongolia and Russia, but the groups rarely mix. Even within Mongolia, they are split into a larger western Taiga group and the group we visited, in the eastern Taiga. The eastern Taiga Tsaatan group is comprised of approximately 20 families and approximately 700 reindeer and they live a nomadic lifestyle, moving 3-5 times per year as necessitated by the weather and feeding conditions for the reindeer. They live primarily on reindeer milk (which they drink hot and diluted with water, as a weak tea), reindeer cheese and yogurt, berries foraged from the forest, and bread, noodles, and beef (bought during monthly forays into the closest town). They rarely eat the reindeer – only when they have reached the end of their natural lifespan. Tsaatan people live in wooden-framed teepees lined with canvas, which are easy to move. In most of the homes we visited, the families had made wooden planks to lie on the ground so the floor of the teepee wouldn’t be straight dirt. Additionally, most families had low wooden benches built around the inner perimeter of the teepees with a stack of blanket and pads for sleeping and a small corner dedicated to kitchen supplies (one or two large pots, a thermos, and tea cups) and a small quantity of food. Personal belongings were sparse, aside from the ever-present solar panels, batteries, and satellite phones. The odd teepee even had a solar-powered radio. The teepees were heated with wood stoves, but it is BRUTALLY cold in this part of the world for most of the year and, really, they are essentially lying on the ground with a thin pad. Brad and I slept in a teepee for the two nights we were there, on a mat thrown onto the lumpy ground, with drafts blowing in under the canvas of the teepee. It was far colder and less comfortable than a tent. We visited with people in their 60s and 70s who have lived in this forest for their entire lives and are sleeping on thin pads on the cold, hard ground. I don’t want to pretend that this experience is going to make me less likely to complain about the occasional hard hotel pillow, because I’m sure I still will, but maybe at least I will think about it more? IDK, one can dream.
We spent our time doing our best to participate in the daily activities of the Tsaatan (mostly herding reindeer around the forest while they hooted at each other and ate lichens) and talking with families (obviously with the interpretive help of Bat). Everyone was EXTRAORDINARILY impressed with Brad, due to him being a pilot. The oldest man in the community told us that no pilot had every visited there before and, up until that very moment, he had thought that planes were flown by people with remote controls on the ground. No one cared that I’m a veterinarian because I’m pretty sure that here “veterinarian” basically means a person who sells dewormer.
Every family we visited immediately poured us a giant glass of hot reindeer milk tea (made from the weakest possible tea you can imagine and hot, fresh reindeer milk) and plopped down a bowl filled with that day’s bread (sourdough-style from wild yeast). During the conversation, the reindeer milk tea would be refilled. And refilled. And refilled. I have never had so much milk before in my life and hope never to again. It wasn’t bad – kind of rich and earthy in taste – but it was just so much milk. So much milk. Which is why I ended up needing to use moss as toilet paper to deal with the inevitable urinary aftermath of milk overload.
During a visit to one family, a proud couple who told us they have never lived anywhere but the forest and still speak the Dukha language that is native to their people, I decided to ask how they feel about tourists coming to see them. Tourism to the Tsaatans has been on the rise and I’ve always felt a little weird about “ethnotourism” because it is inevitable that tourists change the culture of the community. Obviously, bringing money into these areas can be beneficial but not without its drawbacks. In answer to my question, the man talked for five minutes straight, without pause. Bat, bless his little heart, managed to remember and translate most of his answer. The man said that tourism has been great… for some families. Those that let tourists sleep with them get money and those that make reindeer antler crafts can sell them. But the community has started moving its camps closer to roads so it is easier for tourists to visit and, in a lot of cases, the locations are not ideal for the deer. He has seen the health of the deer decline and has seen members of the community start to care more about tourist dollars than about maintaining their lifestyle. Some people are buying cars while others, like him, rarely see a dime of tourist money yet have been forced to watch their deer population decline due to less ideal habitats. He acknowledged that for families that are seeing tourist dollars, their lives are becoming easier and more luxurious (though that is not a word I would use to describe this life!) and, in many ways, better. But it is an unavoidable truth that these people are changing their way of life to accommodate tourists and, while they are still largely living off of their reindeer, as tourism increases who know what will happen.
We loved visiting the Tsaatans, meeting the gentle reindeer and listening to them hoot at each other and scuff at the ground for lichens. We loved wandering in the fantasy-land forest, picking blueberries and huckleberries, often accompanied by one of the tribe’s resident (or non-resident interloper) dogs. We loved sleeping in the teepee and listening to the nightly rainstorms strumming the canvas, despite the discomforts. We loved talking with the people and learning how they care for their animals, how they live through the winter, how they keep up on current events and send their kids to school, and also learning their concerns for the community and the future. It was definitely good for us that we visited. But was it good for them? I’m not sure. It depends on how you see it and who you ask.
After our two nights in the forest, we rode our horses back through the gauntlet of bogs and marshy forest back to the road, where Dakh and the trusty Soviet wagon awaited. Lagua sent us off with a goblet-full of cheap vodka, which we dutifully drank, and we set off back down the bone-rattling roads toward civilization. It took two days to reach a paved road and we stopped to camp on the way at yet another lovely site by a river. For those of you keeping track, this was SEVEN days without a proper shower, washing our hair (really more of a problem for me than Brad) or using an actual toilet. I understand that the people we had just visited live their entire lives this way, so I have no right to complain (clearly I’ve already failed on my pledge from a few paragraphs ago), but holy crap I needed a shower.
Once we emerged from the depths of rural Northern Mongolia, we went promptly to a tourist ger camp on Lake Khovsgol, the largest freshwater lake in Mongolia (containing 1% of all freshwater in the world), where it was cold and rainy but there were hot showers so it could have literally be armageddon outside and I would have been content, in my cocoon of warm water and soap. We stayed in a private ger with a heater! And electricity! And plugs to charge things! The next morning, we went on a short, chilly hike and then started back toward Murun, stopping to visit some Bronze Age deer stone monuments and finally staying the night at an absolutely lovely ger camp along the Delgermurun river. Also with hot water! So many showers in the last two days! This morning, we flew back to ULB and tomorrow we head out west, to the Altai mountains for more backpacking and no showering. I now know that I can survive seven days without a shower… so I’m prepared to do it again.