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5 October 2018

Meeting with the Tsaatan: at the edge of Mongolia

Uda is a nomad man from Mongolia. He lives in a yurt, the typical circular tents that sporadically interrupt the endless uniformity of Mongolian landscape. He is a horseman, and sometimes he lends some of them to who is crazy enough to follow him in the taiga.

Today Uda is with us, or better we are with him, riding a horse not completely domesticated, that is not afraid to show you who is in charge. Uda sings traditional songs, breaking the silence and making our day even more mystical.

It’s early June, and we ride in a coniferous wood, uphill. The hooves of the horses sink into the mud as the snow begins to fall, settling all around us. It’s fresh snow, almost pure. It makes the silence even quieter, muffling the faint sound of our breaths.

When the dogs start barking, Uda makes a sound towards the core of the forest, and an equal one arrives back in response. Uda smiles at me, showing the emptiness left by the absence of one of his incisors, and shouts one of the few English words he knows, the one he will pronounce most often in the following hours.

Reindeer! Reindeer! Two reindeer show up among the trees, followed by a boy wearing the typical coat of Mongolia, the deel, and a UFC cap with the plastic still inside so not to lose its original shape.

We got off the horses, and with our legs still soring we observe the scene in front of our eyes. A large wooden fence as big as half a basketball court, packed with reindeers of all sizes watching us curious behind the mustache on their snout. Five tents, similar to the Native Americans’ teepee, sheltered among the trees. One of them a little far away, at a certain distance from the others.

They lead us to one of the tents and let us in. A wood burning stove in the center, blankets laid on the ground, covering the grass. Objects of all kinds along the perimeter. Reindeer horns used as hooks, meat hanging to dry. That will be our home for that night.

We meet our new family for that day. The Mom holds a six months old chubby little girl in her arms and she keep apologizing for having drunk a couple of glasses of vodka. It is Mother and Children day and she celebrated with some guests. There are two more children, a two-year-old handful little boy and a six-year-old girl who looks like she comes out from a Disney movie. We will meet the Father later that day for dinner.

Everything looks unreal. The tents, the reindeer, those children playing barefoot on the snow-covered grass, the snow itself. An almost mystical halo surrounds the area, rising when we are told not to approach the tent separate from the others, because that one belongs to the Shaman.

Unfortunately, he is not there. He is in a spiritual retreat away from the camp. If we want we can reach him with three more hours horse riding. We prefer to leave him with his rituals. A few other times our legs have been so grateful to us.

The day continues in a rather unusual way. There is a lot of looking at each other between us and the Tsaatan. Although we do not speak the same language, we still manage to communicate the essentials. The tents are open to anyone who wants to get in and sit down, on the ground, with the others.

The observation of their daily life is something fascinating in itself and raises numerous questions. How can someone choose to live their life like this? Are they really living in conditions that are worst than us? Do they really have so little, or we have too much?

There are still a lot of surprises. The biggest one is for sure when our “foster father” takes from a box a telephone with an antenna and attaches it to a big battery very similar to the ones used for the cars, and makes a call. Their reality is not so far from ours, after all.

We get even more surprised when we are used to make prank calls to people who live in other tents, or maybe in other camps, we will never know. For sure, although we don’t understand a single word, the confusion in the voice of the people on the other hand of the line, is pretty clear.

Time goes by slowly, there is no actual schedule for the Tsaatan. Traditions are very strong indeed, and they must be respected. I was called back to order twice because I was pointing my soles towards a little bag hanging. It is a religious object, and you need to be respectful.

Dinner is very late, reindeer meat soup with pasta. It is cooked by the father, who looks at us silently but carefully, strong of his authority, enhanced by the scar running on his face. We picture him wandering about our weird habits, so different from his.

He looks at us even more carefully while we change our clothes, take our contact lenses off, and do our many little things before going to sleep. How bizarre we must look to the eyes of someone who sleeps with the same clothes wearing during the day, on the same blankets use for living.

The night is cold. Thanks to their kindness, that bring them to give us some of their blankets, we don’t freeze. At that time, we really felt as part of the family. We fall asleep trying to see the stars from the hole on the top of our tent.

The next morning is maybe the most unreal moment. The warm sun starts to melt the snow very quickly, and the reindeers graze staring at us while we are looking for a bush designated as the official bathroom.
Few more hours, and it is time to say goodbye to everyone, and to jump back on the horse. During the horse riding we still try to understand if the last hours were real or not. A lot of questions keep our heads busy and gave us new awareness.

Somehow, we all are pretentious, very pretentious, to believe that our is the only right and acceptable way of living. We are pretentious assuming that we are better, or simply different.

Of all the things we learnt up in the taiga, one is the strongest. We learnt it playing snowball with the kids, eating on the ground, or making prank phone calls. It is the awareness that we are all human beings, it does not matter where we are, where we live or how we live. Too often we forget it.

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