Way beyond Rudolph

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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.

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99 problems

Grandma’s oldest son walks slowly, dragging his right foot a bit, and has a sad look. Apparently, the guy had a stroke recently when he turned 40. High blood pressure is a growing problem among Tsaatans, who have switched to Chinese and Russian diet, including processed foods and alcohol, and it’s literally killing them now.

-He’s a weak one, – explains says Grandma, pouring some of the fire water into a cup. – Just needs a little vodka from Mom’s hand, it’s good for his health.

The dude can barely hold a cup straight. He stares at the ground, shoulders slumping, with all the energy of a busset hound. Five minutes of silence and heavy sighs. I start feeling very bad for him, wishing he’d stop drinking with his bad-ass mother and spend more time outside. Or something.

Finally, he downs his medicine, and suddenly lightens up.
-I’ve been to Paris, you know.

Sure, I nod, Paris, Mars, whatever is going on in that head of his. He gently puts the cup down on the ground, wipes his sad mouth with a dirty coat sleeve and limps out of the yurt. I turn to Saraa, who can barely contain herself from bursting with information.

-Are you ready for this? – she giggles and lays it all out for me.

Turns out, the dude really HAS been to Paris.

Apparently, a French woman once visited the village and got totally smitten by our stud-muffin, still pre-stroke back then. (Dark and brooding – what’s not to love?) So she returns to France and sends him an invitation to visit. And off he goes. (It blows my mind trying to imagine this road trip – horseback through marshes, hills and vulture-guarded canyon to the Tsaagannuur village, from there – 14 hours of bumpy road on a Russian van to Murun village, followed by a 21-hour bus ride to the capital Ulan Bator, and then it’s just a straight shot to Paris in a big metal flying machine).

So our Love Ambassador spends 2 months in Paris and comes back, clouded in mystery. Tells everyone the French woman set him up in her apartment, and he had a cappuccino from this special machine every day, and developed the taste for croissants, and everything was fine but he’s back because he missed the mountains.  Couple of months later he gets married to a local woman, eventually fathering 5 children with her, and so the life goes on.

Until a few years later, when the French woman returns to visit a Tsaatan festival at the nearby town, bringing with her a kid, that looks suspiciously like our playboy – says EVERYONE IN TAIGA.

So now the dude has a French ace up his sleeve and a very vindictive Tsaatan wife, who, when angry, always curses at him to “go live with your French whore and her bastard!”

As for the others in the village – they really, really enjoy this story. It’s a good one to tell the visitors.

And it’s actually pretty funny, n’est-ce pas?..

The Salt of Life

The Old Man is from the next village over. Been friends with the Grandma for ages. Smokes his pipe non-stop and likes conversing with the newcomers , using plenty of long meaningful pauses for added dramatic effect.

This was the right person to tell us about the behind-the-scenes of the nomadic tribal life.

-So… – we start, nonchalantly, – how is married life in Tsaatan taiga? Villages are so small… People ever cheat on each other?

The old man gazes at the sky for a moment, then puffs on his pipe, stretches out his legs and stares at the mountains.
-Well… I’ve been married to my woman for 50 years, and yeah, at times I felt like strangling her, but it all worked out…. We’re very happy. The youngsters – those do fool around sometimes…

An inquisitive tourist draws nearer, all tingly with curiosity:
-But… where? The whole village is wide open, with only 5 yurts around… how do people pull it off?

The old man blows out the last smoke, taps out the pipe, shuffles his feet, glances inside his coat.
-Well, you got yourself enough room – the hills, the valleys, the waterfalls… Or when you need to ride down to the valley for salt, or some other errands…

Just like we thought.
It’s no different here from New York, Shangai or Moscow.
Just closer to nature.

Grandma the Wailer

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-Wanna see a trick?

Before I have time to focus my camera , the Grandma picks up a small twig from the ground, lights it up and puts it in her mouth, letting out a whole lotta smoke rings.

Whoa. Let’s just say I am surprised. Cackling at my facial expression, the fiery Grandma turns to Saraa and taps her special cup:
-Brought some?

You see, Grandma is famous all over this side of taiga for two things: her singing abilities and her love for vodka. It’s a packaged deal, really. She gets drunk and she loves to sing. A local Tom Waits of sorts. I feel a tad ambivalent to feed her alcohol addiction, but I’m told she’s always craving new audiences for her performance, it’s really a win-win, so we prepare the required social lubricant and walk over to the celebrity yurt.

Having successfully wowed the newcomer with the burning twig, the star downs the well-deserved booze, stares at me for a second, making sure the camera is on, and then motions to her now-empty cup. I think that means “welcome to act 2”. We pour again.

The Special Song is solemn and beautiful and you almost want to cry at how fragile she looks.

Act 3 (following another inevitable shot) is a story: she tells us about some regional singing competition where she arrived unannounced and walked through the door, immediately getting mobbed by the legions of fans. Everyone begged her to sing, and she had to oblige – provided they would pour her some. (Vodka, in case you’re lost). Three rounds, according to the Mongolian tradition. Which they did. And then she sang. Needless to say, she won the main prize – a large sum of money.

I look around the empty yurt. There is an old iron stove in the middle. We are sitting on bare ground.
There are a couple of old mugs tucked away in the cooking area, and that’s pretty much it.

I ask what she did with the prize money. She looks at me as if I’m stupid.
-Bought some vodka! What else?…

Both Saraa and Grandma are now literally R.O.F.L.ing at my question, and I say to myself – duh!, pour another shot into the communal cup and go with the flow.

Girl Power

The Oldest Sister is 18 and she’s on senior duty when parents are away – milking the reindeers every two hours, sweeping the yurt with cedar twigs, cooking for 8, making tea non-stop and playing cards with the little rascals for hours.  She wears pink and dreams of traveling all around the world.  Asked which countries she’d like to visit, she lets out a passionate “All of them!!” – and you immediately recognize the pitch.
 
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Girlies are about eight years old each and come in a pack of 4. They go everywhere together, holding hands, and love singing in unison. Cute as hell, but if you are looking for some quiet time in the mountains – tough luck. The ever-attentive Girlies will follow your fresh tracks, smother you with affection, suffocate you with hugs and assault you with singing. The only way to lose them is to throw Shorty and his crew into the mix and hope the Girlies get distracted long enough for you to run and blend in with the mountains.
 
Female friendship rules in a remote Mongolian village are still the same as everywhere else: stick together, have fun, look good on camera.
 


 
 

Wild Things

The nomadic village is only about 30 people strong, half of which is kids. The whole tribe is just 5 teepees and everybody is a relative of some sort.
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DjeeJig – “ the little one” in Tsaatan – is the tiniest one yet he’s the grandest character of them all.  He’s 7, looks 4 and can’t stop eating.  I call him Shorty.  The villagers call him “The Boss” and for a good reason – he’s got quite the temper on him.  To compensate for his small size, he stays raw.   If the older sister (18) wins at cards, he grabs a piece of firewood.  If the mother denies him candy, he wields a knife.    He slaps deer bucks across the nozzle, saddles up the village dogs, refuses to wear boots even in snow and growls like a wild animal when angry, which is pretty often.  Everybody laughs, but obeys.  Shorty’s got a card blanche at the village, and it’s equally scary and fascinating to watch him  – but better to do so from the distance.

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Troubles is Shorty’s brother, 8 years old.   Totally one with Nature.  Refuses to wear anything but grey pants with a huge hole on his bare ass.   His job is riling up the crowd, tickling the funny bone, serving as Shorty’s sidekick and, occasionally, a pack mule.   Falls asleep like a dead rock when it’s time, can monitor the mountains through the binoculars for hours, and can’t wait to grow old enough for the horse parking duty, like his older brother.

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Joker is a same age cousin.    Sports a red Snoopy sweater, disrespects the idea of footwear, and should have been born in Hollywood.   He can sense you turning on your camera 600 feet away and jump smack to the center of your frame  in a nano-second – Hello!  Special Smile!  It’s practically impossible to take a picture in the village without him in the frame’s foreground, background, middle-ground, or flying through diagonally – whether you wanted him there or not.

The three have no iPads or iPhones,  no babysitters, no day care, no schedule, no meal-time or bed time.  All day long, left to their own devices in a pristine taiga, eating whatever they find in any of the teepees or on the ground,  it’s a round-the-clock horse play.  Often literally.  But you can already tell which one would have been destined to become a CEO if raised in a much less fortunate environment.