A Side Trip: Visiting the Reindeer People
Khatgal is my last cycling point in the north of Mongolia. After exploring the forest on the western shore of Khovsgol Nuur, I then cycled back to Khatgal and took a truck back to Moron and left my bicycle there in a guesthouse in Moron. Time is running out for me, visa restriction seems to dictate my path. I only have a few weeks left before I should leave Mongolia and I wanted to spend the last few weeks riding the Gobi Desert, so I decided to take a bus from Moron back to Ulaanbaatar. But I wanted to spend the last few days in the north exploring the forest north of TsagaanNuur before going back to Ulaanbaatar, so I took an old Soviet era van to get to TsagaanNuur… to visit the exotic Tsataans, the reindeer people of the north.
I left my bicycle and my gears in one of the guesthouse in Moron and took a 13 hours very bumpy van ride to TsagaanNuur. Now I had another experience, on how the Mongolians here travel by public transport to get to places. Its not really far, TsagaanNuur is only some 250km from Moron but the journey was a long 13 hours of hell bumpy ride. Only some 30km out of Moron the road was paved, after that it was going through the steppe, sand, mud and river crossings. I felt not so good and really dizzy during the ride and having a drunken old Mongolian man overdosed with alcohol inside the van really helps. It was an old Soviet era type of van that is very small, but there were so many luggage inside it together with 8 people inside it, which made us look like those fishes inside a sardine can.
After the 13 hours journey, I thought it was over… but its not. I then took another 2 hours of even worst bumpy ride from TsagaanNuur to the forest in the north, where the Tsataan people dwell. The van ride is no usual van ride. It was worst than riding a horse. I think its more like sailing on a very small boat in a wild ocean under a big storm heading to the Bermuda Triangle. Its only a few kilometers from TsagaanNuur to get to the forest but the 2 hours ride seems forever. It was a very good experience though. When I finally reach the forest, I felt so happy and wanted to celebrate it, that I went through the worst ride in my life. I felt like I just successfully climbed the Everest with just wearing sandals or cycled through the Antartica with just a Tshirt.
Upon reaching the Tsataan camp in the middle of the forest, everything was exotic to me. The tent here is not like the normal Mongolian ger, but its more like a south American style hut. It’s a shape of a cone and staying inside it making me feel like Im in a forest of Peru more like Mongolia. The Tsataan people are the minority and only living here in the forest. Theyre the people of reindeer. Reindeer is everything for them. Their lives depend on it. The number is about 300-400 people left but I see no more than 30. Maybe because theyre scattered all over the forest looking for a place to settle for the summer which is coming soon. Theyre real nomads, they move a few times a year and they really have to. Staying in the winter camp on summer is dangerous for the reindeer, as they will be vulnerable to insects and parasites.
They depend on their reindeers in almost everything. Reindeers shaped their lifestyle, their clothes, diets and transportation. They get cheese, milk and meat from their reindeers for food. Their clothes were made from the hair of the reindeer and most of their tools came from the horn. They make fire from the reindeer’s dung and also woods from the trees and the grass when its dry. These people are really survivors and theyre strong. I met an old woman who has survived 58 winters in her life, she told me that the winter here is harsh, the temperature can read up to -55 celcius on January/February, turning the Tsataan people to becoming ice cream. She is a very nice woman, serving me some soup and hot reindeer milk tea and telling me besides reindeer, another good friend of them especially during winter is fire. They will keep sitting near the fire when the temperature plummet below -50 celcius in winter time, since they cant afford any Mammut of Northface sleeping bag.
I spent a night sleeping here in the Tsataan camp before taking the same van back to TsagaanNuur. It was really a good experience sleeping in the cone shaped hut, since I’m now so used to sleep inside the traditional Mongolian ger. Almost the same size, but I guess its easier and faster to build, since it looks simpler. The van driver told me it gonna be cold that night, maybe at some -10 celcius but I think its more like only 0 celcius. Having a fire inside the Tsataan hut makes it very comfortable night, I had a good sleep compared to sleeping inside my tent here in Mongolia with totally a wrong choice of sleeping bag.
The next day after saying goodbye to the Reindeer people, I went back to TsagaanNuur, with another 2 hours of bumpy ride, this time the van is packed carrying Tsataan kids out of the forest to TsagaanNuur, since theyre going back to school after a long holiday. 2 hours of extreme bumpy ride is enough to make me melt like a chocolate. Spent another few hours in TsagaanNuur exploring the frozen lake before another 13 hours of bumpy ride back to my bicycle in Moron. At first I was afraid to walk on the frozen lake here, but I changed my mind when I saw people were riding their motorbike over the lake! They were walking over and over again to the middle of the lake to get fresh clean water… since their source of water comes from this lake. Views here are gorgeous, I can imagine how nice this place will be on September, under the colours of Autumn, where the trees give nice yellow and orange colours under the blue sky, and when the rainbow showing off her beauty through raindrops, lit by the sun. This place must be heaven during late summer and autumn season. I will miss it since I’ll be leaving this country soon, but I hope I will get the same view in the mountains of the Kyrgyz by that time.