Lonkh gathers some moss and starts the fire. His hands are dark and leathery. Lonkh is a small guy and could be anywhere between 28 and 52 – it’s hard to tell, as it often is with the nomads living the hard life. But turns out Dekke and Lonkh used to be classmates in summer school for nomadic children, whenever their parents would be able to bring them there. Dekke leans over to tell me that “Lonkh” means “half-bottle”, because he’s as tiny as a small bottle. Bottle of what, I’m thinking to myself, but don’t go there.
The most striking thing about Lonkh is his riding style. Most of the time he slumps in the saddle, half-hanging off the horse, very much unlike Dekke who is riding with a very straight back. I ask him why and he gestures that this way is better if you need to place a girl in front of you in the saddle (just in case he finds one randomly roaming around in taiga, I guess). As she translates this pipe dream, Saraa breaks into her typical explosive laughter. Dekke just rolls her eyes and shakes her head. Clearly, they are not rooting for the old classmate. In response, he just sends them his best smile (with whatever teeth are still in place). I really wish I could have been there when this Fresh Prince was courting the girls of the nomadic school when they were all teens.
Dekke is married now and has two grown sons back in the nomadic village. Her husband drinks and often tries to beat her up, so she avoids him by spending weeks in the taiga with her horses, sometimes alone, sometimes guiding people between the mountains and the settlement down in the valley. She often eats what she finds in taiga and usually sleeps outside, in a makeshift bed made out of saddles and a blanket. It’s really comfortable, she says. She can’t sleep inside other people’s homes anyway. The spirits of other people’s ancestors come to her at night and bother her, so she prefers to sleep in open air. You see, Dekke’s father was a famous local shaman, so she has a gift. But she was a bastard child, and thus he passed on to her no knowledge. So she just sleeps outside, away from other people’s family altars, summer or winter, and it’s better, she says – fresh air, and my horses can see me, and we are happier that way. I look at her calm weathered face and think to myself, I don’t think anybody can beat this woman up even if they tried. And then I think maybe she is the spirit of this taiga herself. The Taiga Spirit in red Mickey Mouse sweater.
As for Saraa’s life – that could easily be produced as a Mexican telenovela. The very traditional marriage, the baby, working as a nurse in the settlement’s hospital to feed the family, her desire to study more and maybe become a doctor, the classic mother-in-law, who called her a whore for wanting to go the city to study, the divorce, the long hungry years of being a single mother in a settlement with very few jobs, her first business: taking reindeer loaded with barrels of vodka to the illegal gold-mining camps deep in the mountains, at night, in the dead of winter, the mind-blowing profits coupled with the very imminent danger, and a sound advice from a kind old man at the camp who warned her one night – woman, it’s time to leave the camp now, before it’s too late. Her next venture was a bit safer: she figured the local prisoners had too much free time on their hands, they should be carving traditional souvenirs from reindeer antlers and she would find how to sell them.
Her fate took turn for the better shortly after: a young and handsome military officer met her at the post office and started courting her. She held her guard up as long as she could. He had been proposing for to her for 5 years, and all those years she was telling him – listen, been there, done that, you can move in, but I ain’t gonna promise you nothing. The officer eventually won the battle – she married him right after she realized he had become a real father to her son.
Saraa works as a tourist guide now, having learned English on her own, and that’s how I know everything that’s going on: she’s local, she’s a woman, she’s plugged into the grapevine and she likes to share, if you like to listen. Dekke is her close friend, too, and strangely enough, right here right now, deep in the middle of Mongolian taiga, with no connection to the outside world, I feel absolutely safe and protected with these women by my side.
We get back on our way. The taiga is stunning, the ground a mix of purple, orange and emerald green. The forest is still whispering all around us, but now it feels friendly. You get under its spell, you feel like you belong, you stop taking pictures to avoid producing that foreign sound of camera clicking.
On top of the mountain we ride up to a bunch of piled up stones. These are oovos – a shamanic tradition, a way to please the local spirits. Some are decorated with blue silk scarves – the color of the sky, some with animal skulls. There are Mongolian banknotes tucked between the stones, and there are also cans of beer. Everything you need for a spirited party, in other words. We circle the mounds on horseback three times clockwise to ask the spirits to protect us on our way.
But I already know I got nothing to worry about in this neck of the woods.