You can’t help falling in love with the reindeer.
Among all the animals roaming Mongolian expanse, the reindeer stands out as the most sophisticated, the most touchable and definitely the tastiest one. While a yak stares at you with all the emotion of a pommel, a reindeer casts a diva-like glance from under the long eyelashes. A camel always wears the unsightly brown crust on its ass, but a reindeer’s classy butt is heart-shaped, while its antlers are gift-wrapped in velvety baby fur. Camel milk tastes like the sour wind of the Gobi desert, but reindeer milk is clean, heavy and feels like hot silk in your mouth. A horse has to constantly waive off the relentless taiga flies with its tail, but no flies swarm around a reindeer – the otherwise lethal taiga insects descend only to create a beautiful shimmering halo around reindeer’s head for a brief moment of pure adoration, before moving onto the usual prey. Standing in the middle of sheep or goat herd, you get DOLBY surround sound effect of the relentless group farting, but when the reindeer run past you like a beautiful stream of snow white and herring gray, all you hear is the delicate sound of ankle bones rustling – tsa! tsa! tsa! – and that’s why “tsaa” is the taiga people’s name for the reindeer, and Tsaatan people call themselves just that.
Among Tsaatans, reindeer is very much a member of the clan. Every family chooses a special reindeer to be sanctified by a shaman to carry inside the living spirits of the locale. The designated reindeer wears a pretty scarf, usually of blue silk, it never gets eaten or even tied down, so it develops a habit of roaming around the village, sneaking inside empty yurts or following somebody around.
The spirit reindeer of my family happened to be angel-white and totally shameless. The relentless beast viewed me as a personal entertainment channel with the 24/7 access. My pet-owning friends often complain how awkward it is for them to act naturally in the bathroom in the family dog’s presence. Now imagine yourself on a mountain, in pristine taiga, ankle-deep in the early morning dew, preparing for the inevitable in the endless open space, with no doors or walls to create a comfort zone. And now picture – three steps in front of you – a very patient white reindeer, staring. You have to go urgently, and he’s got nowhere urgent to go. Guess which one of the two has more fun playing this game and doesn’t ever get tired of it.
Sometimes reindeer are used as cargo transport for moving the tribe from an old pasture to a new one. Loaded with pots, pans, solar batteries and other household stuff, a reindeer occasionally readjusts the cargo weight by shaking its skin, the pots and pans rumbling as if the animal is performing a shaman ritual to procure good luck for its own upcoming journey.
But the very best moment in a reindeer herders’ place is when a herd pours back into the village at sunset, preceded by a delicate sound wave of ankle bones clicking, as if a flock of angels is descending upon you. And you feel it’s the perfectly magical moment to make a wish, yet you can’t remember anything you ever wanted before, but it’s all right, it is actually quite all right with you.