The guidebook said: “It is extremely difficult to get to the Tsaatan reindeer tribe. No more than 50 tourists a year make it all the way to the nomadic village”. Excellent, I thought to myself, that’s exactly where we’re going next.
Fortunately, every tour operator in Mongolia’s capital city of Ulan-Bator seemed to offer a trip to the Tsaatan village. Unfortunately, they to take the visitors to a typical fake “ethnic village” arrangement.
Grouping tourists in dozens, the tour operators would put them in pimped-out SUVs and take them to the nearest site, where formerly nomadic Tsaatans would perform their Native Song and Dance. A lavish lunch with the imported beer would be provided, after which the formerly nomadic mountain reindeer, now sick from living at the low altitudes, would be arranged neatly for the photo opp. For an additional fee, a properly costumed Scary Shaman would read your fortune and vaccinate you against an evil eye and the mortgage rate hikes.
Not exactly what I had in mind.
A couple days later, the Universe sent me my new guarding angel, Miss Saraаngerel. Born and raised in a small settlement all the way up North, Saraa is a true Mongolian Woman and an unstoppable force of nature. Within 36 hours she confirmed the current coordinates of the nomadic tribe, arranged all the travel, stopped the rain and took me onto the 100%-local route to the Northern mountains.
It started with a 24-hour haul across the Mongolian offroad inside a beat-up Soviet van. Saraa put me in the VIP seat next to the driver, while about a dozen of illegal gold miners packed in the back. The remaining space got filled with their gear and what looked like barrels of berry jam.
The van went on an all-night mad dash through the low hanging clouds and the steppe grass. Every five seconds it would skip over a bump, smashing everyone’s heads against the ceiling. The crowd behind me didn’t seem to mind, never stopping drinking, smoking and singing the endless folk songs. My girl Saraa was blooming like a centerpiece in the middle of the motley crew, singing along and flirting all around.
Meanwhile in the front seat I was guarding my head against the jumpy ceiling while trying to keep my motion sickness at bay. Every now and then my scrambled brain would shut down completely, making me curl into a tight ball on the front seat. Every time that happened, a teenage-looking driver would take one hand off the wheel, probably jeopardizing the whole car, and cover my head so I don’t fly up too high over a bump – the Mongolian hospitality at its best.
Mid-way down this road to hell we made a pit stop. The full moon was illuminating an array of limp wooden shacks amidst an open field. The boys scattered from the van and sprayed every vertical surface in sight. I followed the gang into a dark shack: a couple of crude tables, a single bulb under a low wooden ceiling, and a California-king wooden platform in the corner. A sleepy-looking young woman turned on the fire and started on the Chef’s special: home-made noodles with dry meat. Two toddlers were sleeping on the floor stove-side.
Exhausted beyond words, I sprawled on the make-shift bed in the corner, feeling my new friends stretching alongside in front and behind me. In the distance, Saraa’s voice encouraged “You rest, honey, only 12 hours of driving left, and then we switch to horseback”…