Imagine the American West, maybe 200 years ago, unmarred by roads and buildings. Then picture the rolling hills and vast plains littered with sheep and their lambs, cows/yaks and their calves, goats and their kids, horses and their foals, and so on. That’s what the Mongolian countryside looks like during calving season.
I went to Mongolia because my friend J was there on a Fulbright and it was a good excuse to spend some time with him and have a totally different kind of vacation. He had been studying a remote community of ethnically Tuvan reindeer-herders about 50 kilometers from the border of Siberia; and, though he had some hesitation bringing me there, I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else. I wanted that totally immersive experience and I wanted to see how remote it really was – not to mention I wanted to see a baby reindeer (Tuvan: yanzeg)!
Given that Mongolia’s infrastructure is rudimentary to non-existent, getting to the Taiga – where the Tsaatan live – from Ulaanbaatar was quite a journey. I had traveled from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh on a local bus and over switch backs from Buonmathuot to Da Lat on a 15-passenger van with 20 people in it, but neither of those experiences could have prepared me for the Mongolian road system during the spring thaw. However, given the extraordinary beauty of the landscape and the amazing hospitality of the Mongolian people, it all seemed worth it. En route to Tsagaannuur, the last outpost before the Taiga, we stopped at a ger (yurt) and were served clotted cream made from yak milk; we bought two liters of milk which we later made into rice pudding (yum!). We spent that night in a not so sanitary but empty hospital and cooked ourselves pasta on a traditional stove in the hospital room; and I ate my first and only khosher (fried mutton pocket) in a creaky little gwanz (restaurant) in the Darhad soum of Ulaan-Ule the following day.
As we were trying to arrange pick up by horse from the end of the “road”, we discovered that one of the Tsaatan community members had mysteriously died while doing ninja gold mining, one of the only ways people from this community can make money. (We later learned he was probably murdered for gold nuggets he had on him.) It seemed like a bad time to be visiting in some ways, and it was hard to determine what it actually meant, but when we got to the drop-off point we were met by all the siblings of the deceased’s parents, the older generation of Tsaatan. And as it turned out, they would return to Tsagaannuur in the ubiquitous “Foregone” Russian van we had bounced around in on the way up, and we would return to the Taiga on the horses they had walked down from their camp. It seemed like a good exchange, though I was sorry that the patriarchs and matriarchs would be missing from my experience. Fortunately, a maverick unmarried woman and sister to J’s host father, Buyontoktok, took care of us by milking the reindeer, feeding us the fatty milk, and baking us bread throughout our stay; and warming us by the fire when we dismounted, frozen and sore, from the horses that first night. She turned out to be a woman of many talents, and seemed as if she were virtually running the whole community while we were there. Her most brilliant trait perhaps being her seamless midwifery of the yanzeg, which we got to see en vivo. Brilliant.
When we returned to Tsagaannuur, a moose kill, a mink skinning, a flash snowstorm, and three days later (which seemed an eternity since life is so slow in a teepee in the middle of nowhere), we visited the mourning parents in their home. The corpse was in a ger in the yard. We had no money to speak of and that was the only thing we knew was custom, to bring cash to help with the funeral costs. It was an awkward (as I, the foreign stranger, was far too much the center of attention, and I didn’t really know what they were talking about) but beautiful experience for me. J was welcomed like family and we sat, drank tea, and ate sweets and noodle soup as I breathed in the sadness of this small community.
Our last few dollars in Tsagaannuur had been spent on accommodations for the first night, in which the mourning family members had stopped by to visit, several vodka shots into the evening. There was an incident that resulted in a few locals being accused of stealing (though we happily shared, as is Mongolian custom), which J had to straighten out with the police the next day. Turns out they were teenagers he visited on a basketball court!
We didn’t realize quite how dire the situation was that we were without cash and 12 hours from a bank, but two days later, cold and seriously hungry, we were fortunately on our way. In good faith the driver returned us to Moron where we could pay him for the ride. That trip took 16 hours, involved several pick ups of gold miners who emerged from behind rocks and woods like serious ninjas (including three very tough ladies), and required my riding largely on top of the engine cover of the van (another “Foregone”) next to the driver throughout the long haul.
My last day in Tsagaannuur was telling. I felt an empty pit in my stomach, feeling that I was on the downward slope, quite literally, of my extraordinary journey. As we left the office of the border police, who stamped our permit for departure, I felt the most surreal sense of closure that I have probably ever felt. In silence we walked down the hill together, the wind streaming across our faces and over our ears.