Grandma the Wailer


-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 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.
oldest sister
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.

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.


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.


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.