Through a heavy snowstorm, the night bus takes us from Ulaanbaatar to Mörön. We are on our way to the Northern highland of Mongolia, adjoining Russia, to meet the Tsaatan. The indigenous reindeer families living high in the mountains deserted from the modern world.
Khövsgöl National Park, taiga and partial Siberia. Home of the last 44 Tsaatan Families. Their nomadic life is all about their reindeers. When there’s no grass left for the reindeers, they move to the next place. This happens five to ten times a year and it’s the reason why it’s hard to find them. Our guide knows one of the families and takes us to them. From Mörön we go by jeep. When it gets to steep to drive we go further by horse. The autumn sun shines through the endless yellow colored trees. Over the snowed trails, the horses take us higher into the mountains. Late september is the best time to visit the reindeer families. It’s more easy to find them, because they live on lower grounds. During autumn it’s cold enough for the reindeers. We pass yak, wild horses and abandoned camps where nomads live during winter. When we climb up the steep mountains, the horses sometimes lose grip, little stones fall down the abyss. We hear someone yell. ‘Thats Batmu, he tries to scare off the wolves’, says Tumuru, our guide. It smells like distilled wood and we see smoke coming out of a tipi. The small man standing next to it, is waving at us.
Meet the Tsaatan
Still amazed by the peculiar horse trip we look around at our new environment. Four horses, a dog, beautiful trees, a huge blue lake, a chunk of wood with a hatchet lean against the tipi, and a friendly looking man who welcomes us in between the snowed mountain peaks. We are at the end of the world.
It’s getting cold, we enter the tipi. The ground is covered with yak skins and in the middle there is a furnace which is also used for cooking. On every side we see stocks of fire wood en there is a big iron teapot. We sit down close to each other and warm up with a cup of yak tea. ‘Yesterday I woke up in the middle of the night, because there were wolves walking around my tipi. I was scared they would attack my reindeers’, says the Tsaatan. Most of the time he lives here alone with his thirty reindeers. His wife is with the kids, who go to school in the city.
During sunset, the reindeers arrive at the tipi one by one. My almost frozen hands warm up against their soft fur. I feel like I’m in a Christmas movie. Back in the tipi we cook a meal. Meanwhile a cup of vodka goes around. ‘After three rounds, you’re allowed to refuse’, says Tumuru. With pleasure we join a couple of rounds. Batmu tells us about his peculiar life while Tumuru translates.
‘I was born in a tipi and I will stay here till I die. I don’t like the city, I like to hunt, I love the mountains and my reindeers.’
When we ask him if he misses his wife and kids and if he’s feeling lonely, he smiles.
‘My reindeers keep me company, and my wife and kids come visit me sometimes.’
I’m looking at Batmu and wandering. He has a nice and warm appeal. Although there are wolves around us, I feel safe with him. I feel honored that we have the change to speak to him and sit around his fire in his tipi in the middle of nowhere with thirty reindeers around us.
Batmu makes a living from hunting. He uses the moon cycle to declare if it’s a good day for hunting.
‘I have shot down three bears in my life. Actually it’s forbidden in Mongolia, but the rich in Ulaanbaatar pay a lot for the fur. I use the money to pay for my kids school.’
Overnight in a tipi
I have cold shivers all over my body. Quickly I pull up my thermo legging and trekking pant. The breath coming out of my mouth, looks like smoke. I see the shapes of the mountain peaks against the dark night sky. Slowly I walk back to the tipi, carefully balancing my weight with every step I take. When we arrived this afternoon, the horses sank half way into the snow where I am walking now. But now that it’s freezing, I luckily reach the tipi with dry socks.
We overnight with five people on 2,5 square meters around the fireplace. No visit from wolves this night, and the tipi stood still. After we said our goodbyes to Batmu, we walked with the horses into the woods. I look behind and wander, is this real? When we step down the horses I look at Iris and smile: ‘Yes we did it, we met the Tsaatan before they pass away.’
We booked our trip with Ecovoyage Mongolie. They know a few nomadic families in Mongolia where you can stay. It’s possible to book a French or English translater/guide. The English website wille be online soon.