Once Upon a Time in Mongolia

Myth and reality collide on a trek across the taiga.  
Once Upon a Time in Mongolia
Illustration by: Beatrice Cerocchi

Reality is messy, and people instinctively try to shape it into recognisable story lines. The travel narrative for Mongolia usually involves the “mysterious,” highly photogenic Tsaatan people, who live in a fairy-tale forest where the Mongolian border leaps north to kiss Siberia. According to this mythology, this lost tribe of nomadic reindeer herders remains untainted by the modern world, and only the brave can hope to discover them in their native wilderness.

Cue the eye roll. A brief trawl through Instagram quickly reveals that you don’t have to be exceptionally tough to visit the Tsaatan. Anyone with enough time on her hands can do it.

Me, for example. I hadn’t intended to take this trip—I was disenchanted with the hype. You want remote and fantastical? Mongolia has more than 15,00,000 square kilometres of roadless Nowhere, complete with nomads, camels, and (depending on how far your credulity stretches) a Mongolian death worm, which lives in the Gobi desert. How had one overspun narrative become the country’s go-to adventure?

On the other hand, I’d just spent a year chasing stories as a freelance writer in Mongolia’s only major city. Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital on Earth and suffocates in coal dust and construction debris. Eventually my congestion outweighed my cynicism. When my friend Anudari suggested the taiga as the destination of a lifetime, I jumped in her car, no questions asked.

***

The tsaatan have herded reindeer through the subarctic taiga forest for centuries, first in their native Tuva and then, when borders were redrawn under Soviet influence in 1944, in Mongolia. They’ve become a tourist attraction only in the Internet age, as the world’s hidden corners have been discovered by search engines. Tour companies now offer adventure packages to the taiga, where visitors can experience what the Tsaatan call daily life: milking reindeer, making cheese, harvesting pine nuts, and sleeping in their traditional teepee-style tents, called ortz.

That’s not to say it’s easy to get there. The taiga is remote, even by Mongolian standards, and overland travel is time consuming. Mongolia is three times the size of California, but it has fewer kilometres of paved roads than Rhode Island. The forest itself can be navigated only on horseback. This is one trip where the journey really does outweigh the destination—we would spend eight days travelling for two days at a Tsaatan camp.

The first part was simple. Anudari steered us expertly out of Ulaanbaatar’s motionless traffic and onto one of the country’s rare highways. The sky unfurled as we turned west, the landscape shifting from urban-blight brown to pristine green. Anudari spoke excitedly about how she’d always wanted to visit the Tsaatan, how this would be a magical trip. I wondered which of us was about to be proved wrong.

It took two days to reach the dust-and-plywood town of Mörön, where we secured a driver, a guide, and provisions and arranged for horses to meet us on the taiga, all for $150/Rs10,300 apiece. We were not asked if we knew how to ride. Most questions concerned weight—our own and our overpacked bags. Mongolian horses are small and can carry only around 90 kilograms. They’re also half wild from fending for themselves on the steppe. They respond to only one command: tchoo. It means “go faster.”

I had another two days to ponder my lack of riding experience as we drove north from Mörön. It was pouring rain, and our battered van sloshed over waves of mud while I huddled in the back, pretending not to be seasick.

The sky cleared to ocean blue as we lurched up to the edge of the taiga. The pine forest stretched into forever. Our Tsaatan host, DelgermagnaiEnkhbaatar, was waiting with the horses. Though there was snow on the nearby mountains, our route was mostly swamp. Our mounts staggered through the bog like drunks. After hours negotiating mud slicks and churning rivers, we arrived at camp in chilly darkness.

A lake mirrored the rising moon. Reindeer stood spindly-legged around the family’s ortz. The sky was streaked with shooting stars.

Rats, I thought. This might just be a little bit magical.

***

Once Upon a Time in Mongolia 1

Illustration by: Beatrice Cerocchi

The tsaatan are not an ‘undiscovered tribe,’ ” admonishes the herding community’s website. Yes, they have a website. And Tsaatan means “people with reindeer” in Mongolian—not their native language. The herders call themselves Dukha.

“You will not be the first or last person they have hosted,” the website continues. “They are a modern people who have welcomed visitors from all over the world.”

We had passed a few of these visitors on our way into the taiga on horseback, their nylon waterproof jackets vivid against the darkening forest. Our guides greeted each other warmly. The foreigners exchanged tight little nods, each regarding the others as interlopers. Then we rode on, pretending the encounter hadn’t happened.

For all our arrogance, it quickly became apparent that the only lost tribe on the taiga was us. We had armed ourselves against physical remoteness with maps and GPS, but there was no app for cultural dislocation.

This wasn’t just embarrassing but potentially dangerous. The taiga isn’t a forgiving landscape. Enkhbaatar had bear and wolf teeth among the carved trinkets he sold. Hypothermia was a real possibility, even in August. We even received a visit from the Russian border police, who were combing the forest for escaped convicts. The sheer scale of the wilderness felt threatening; the only way in or out was on horseback through the trackless marsh.

I am an experienced traveller, know Mongolia, and speak a bit of the language, but I brought nothing useful to the experience besides a can-do attitude.

Meanwhile, Enkhbaatar’s family was clearly at home with both their ways and ours. The kids knew how to swipe through smartphone apps and shake a Polaroid until the image emerged. They were delighted with the toy cars we brought and made vroom vroom noises while pushing them up the poles of the family’s ortz. Most of their play, however, mimicked the adults’ work—making fires, fetching water, tending the animals.

My ineptitude was brought home when Enkhbaatar offered to take us into the eastern Sayan Mountains. He prepped the reindeer while his toddler daughter attempted to saddle up the family dog with an old blanket.

I hoisted myself clumsily onto my mount, and Enkhbaatar demonstrated how to steer with the single guide rope. We were interrupted by a strange sound: a “Für Elise” ring tone. Without a word, Enkhbaatar handed the rope to his child and disappeared into the ortz. “Bainauu?” I heard him answer the phone. My own cell hadn’t picked up a signal for days.

I abruptly realised I was sitting on a reindeer with no clue how to ride it. If it bolted, I’d be halfway to Siberia before Enkhbaatar returned. I looked at the 18-month-old holding my reins.

“You’ve got this, right?”

***

Storytelling is reflective. The words we choose to describe the Tsaatan—mystical, lost, exploited, endangered, noble, wise—imply our own roles in the story as well. We might cast ourselves as adventurers, self-righteous sceptics, or even the comic relief. None of these versions are really about the herders at all; it’s just us wandering around the taiga looking for a mirror.

Such reflections are as problematic as they are compelling. They invariably lead to discussions of “authenticity,” which is just the erudite version of talking behind another culture’s back. The topic came up one afternoon as Anudari and I sat in Enkhbaatar’s guest ortz, wearing the carved-antler necklaces his wife had sold us as souvenirs. Was tourism undermining the Tsaatan’s traditional culture? Did the fact that others had come here before us invalidate our own experience in the taiga?

Meanwhile, one ortz over, Enkhbaatar’s dad had satellite TV. He powered it with solar panels hauled into the wilderness on the backs of reindeer. The family knew all about the outside world, took what they wanted, and were content to keep the rest at a distance.
So I was right and I was wrong, and it really didn’t matter anyway.

Sitting in camp on our last night, I counted shooting stars against the sweep of the Milky Way. The sky shimmered yellow at the edges as a full moon rose behind the mountains. Such sights are indelible, no matter how the story might be told. I was just glad I had a part in it.

  • Erin Craig is a freelance writer based in Asia. She tells stories at posieonthelamb.com—generally as the comic relief.

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