Aug 20, 2013

Reindeer Herders of Northern Mongolia

It felt like a dream, it felt like a nightmare, it felt like anything but reality. Eleven hours into a 12 hour horse trek into the northernmost mountains of Mongolia, I had convinced myself that exhaustion was a drug and I was tripping hard. It was 10:00 PM and the sky was about midway through it's seemingly never-ending sunset. Our brave but tired horses slowly traversed through the muddy slopes of high mountains whose snow-capped peaks fed the the endless number of streams as water frantically began it's weeks long search for some far-off ocean. The fading light was enough to illuminate the jagged peaks rising from all directions as though they were a crowd in the bleachers and we were the weary entertainment for the night in the valley below.

The initial plan was to spend two days making this journey. That timeline became compressed despite our late departure and for reasons not apparent to us. The sun came to its final resting place with about 45 minutes left until our destination. What followed was an arduous journey downward through mud, rivers, muddy rivers and mud full of rivers. Our brave horses never faltered in their sure footing. My heart was racing, either out of fear or to keep me warm. Amanda and I were about to surrender when suddenly – the sound of a barking dog in the distance. Then there were two, then four, then a dozen barking dogs. Was the dream turning south? Or had we finally reached the reindeer herding nomadic Tsaatan tribe?


We entered the teepee and were instantly greeted by perfect American English. Zaya was born in Mongolia, raised in Colorado, educated in Shanghai, and now lives amongst the snow, the mountains, and of course, the reindeer, in the Taiga of Northern Mongolia. She welcomed us into her home and Amanda, myself, our guides, and Zaya proceeded to polish off the bottle of vodka we brought as a gift while we warmed up around her stove.

We awoke in the morning to the sound of reindeer scratching at the canvas walls of our teepee. This particular tribe of about 25 families moves with the seasons four times per year. They decided to spend this summer in a beautiful grassy valley at the base of some slow rising hills at, what seems like, the top of the world. Reindeer are everywhere. We drank their milk and ate their meat. They are the beating heart and soul of the Tsaatan people. The nearest hospital was a 12 hour horse ride, followed by a 12 hour jeep ride. We were truly witnessing a lifestyle that lives on the fringes of society. Yes there were satellite dishes and televisions running from solar panels. Yes, they wore western clothes, yes they used a chainsaw to cut down their fuel, yes they live in one of the coldest parts of the world, outside, herding reindeer. It was an incredible experience to say the least. We stayed in our own private teepee and left the next morning. As I sit here with Amanda on the shoreline of Tsaganuur (White Lake), I ponder all the events that have taken place in the last five days. We will never forget this experience. It was extreme, it was beautiful, it was other-worldly. I could never choose to live amongst the animals in such a cold clime but I certainly saw the appeal. Nature truly provides for these people as it has been doing for thousands of years, the way all of our ancestors once lived.  

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