“Four good legs are better than two lousy ones.” When travel author and adventuress Gill was diagnosed with an incapacitating illness, she did the opposite of what most people in her circumstance would do. 30 years ago, she packed her bags and headed out to Mongolia, where horses outnumber people. Her mission? To see the tribes of the last reindeer herders in Mongolia.
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The Last Tribes of Reindeer Herders in Mongolia
It was evening when we reached Tsagaan Nuur, the White Lake. After ten long days’ travelling across the Mongolian steppe we had come to the very edge of the Central Asian grasslands, and the outriders of the Bolshoi Sayaan, the mountains which form Mongolia’s border with Siberia, were tinged with pink under their cover of snow. Tomorrow, we thought…
Carol and I were on our way to seek out one of the last two tribes of reindeer herders in Mongolia, the Tsaatan, who were currently living a couple of miles south of the border. We had found horses and guides in Tsagaan Nuur: the dour Erdenejav, a local official, and his friend Tokhtbat, a herdsman. We had come thus far on four wheels; but as we rode north on the first day it quickly became apparent why we needed a change of transport.
A Different Kind of Horsepower
We had travelled by jeep over the two hundred miles from Mörön, capital of Hovsgol Province. The dirt tracks managed without luxury of bridges, and we had forded the numerous rivers on the way. Now, though, the internal combustion engine had met its match.
Ahead stretched the quarter-mile span of the Shishhid River, which flows out of Tsagaan Nuur to join the mighty Yenisey on its course to the Arctic Ocean. The ferry that crossed it was a simple raft riding on oil drums and pulled across by a wire. Human passengers walked on via a plank; the horses were led into the water and persuaded to jump aboard, which they had obviously done before.
The furthest drum leaked; slowly the raft tipped. One corner was submerged by the time the last horse was aboard, so that the first was standing fetlock-deep in water. Yet we made it safely, with Erdenejav joining the ferryman at the rope. At the other side the contraption slowly righted itself as the horses were unloaded, the drum spitting water as the load lightened.
Unlikely Travel Companions
Travelling across the steppe that first day we came to know our companions a little. Erdenejav was an authoritarian figure, widely travelled in the Soviet Union in its Communist days, naturally compatible with its uncompromising doctrines. The laughing Tokhtbat was a natural joker, what a shame that he spoke only Mongolian, and we couldn’t communicate with him except through Erdenjav. Both sat their tiny Mongolian horses with accustomed ease, enduring the continuous, bone-jarring trot which is the usual speed of travel on the steppe. Neither knew what to make of the two women who had entered their world. “I feel like another bit of baggage!” said Carol cheerfully.
From now on we followed the Hogrog River, a tributary of the Shishhid. We forded it again and again, each time the horses throwing drops of water over us as they swished their long, wet tails. The men sang as they rode, rousing songs in time with the horses’ tread that encouraged them to step out. Soon Tokhtbat decided it was our turn. We discussed briefly, then sang Jerusalem, following up with a series of hymn tunes, the only rhythmical songs we could drum up on the spur of the moment.
A Mad Gallop
Clouds were beginning to gather when we saw the white dots in the distance of Tokhtbat’s family gers, the round felt tent of the steppe nomad known further west as yurt. As these grew in size and substance a storm broke behind us. Tokhtbat led us all in a mad gallop across marshland strewn with enormous boulders. Dismounting, we raced the rain to the nearest ger, reaching it just in time to avoid a torrent that drilled holes in the roof above, breaking through the smoke-hole to land, hissing, on the hot stove-pipe. We drank tea – milky, salty Mongolian tea, quite unrecognisable to us westerners – while the pet cat crept from one to the other of us, probably getting more fuss than it normally had in a month.
Meanwhile our sweaty horses were hitched to a rail to stand in the wet without food or water. Not until the rain eased were we allowed to go out and see to them. It was the first of many disputes we were to have with our companions, who had very different ideas on horse management from ours.
As the sky brightened into evening, the horses and all the rest of the animals were attended to. Calves had to be corralled, cows milked, horses brought in from the steppe and tethered for the night. We couldn’t help noticing that the women and children did most of the work, while the men sat and smoked and played cards. They all came and laughed when the time came for us to put up our tent. Professional tent-dwellers, they were unimpressed by our tiny two-man tent, which even raised a smile from the usually grim Erdenejav.
Before we left the next day, our journey was blessed by Tokhtbat’s mum. (We never knew her name; it was disrespectful, said Erdenejav, to ask such a thing of one’s elders.) We learned she was from the Tsaatan. She had given up herding the reindeer to spend a comparatively settled life with a Mongolian herdsman, to whom she had born fourteen children. She had, though, retained the shamanist culture of the reindeer people: the ancient veneration of the spirit world, present in rocks, water, wood and numinous places.
We must not set off without first paying our respects to the the local divinities. Inviting us into her ger, she took a glass of arkhi and, using the third finger of her right hand, threw drops to the four points of the compass. We each in turn took the glass and copied her; then drank a few drops and passed on the cup, Carol and I trying not to gag at the rough taste of the liquor.
She mounted up and joined us, taking the chance to visit her family. A very different landscape greeted us on this second day. We had reached the very brim of the steppe – the grassland which extends from Mongolia westward to the Caspian sea and beyond towards Europe – and were entering the taiga, the pine forest of Siberia. Broken only by the Sayan Mountains, this stretched northwards until it, in its turn, gave way to the Arctic tundra.
The rain had come to stay. It pursued us all day, periodically drenching us with violent outbursts. From the start we were squelching through boggy heathland, relieved occasionally by stony paths. A few miles into our journey a lad on a grey pony appeared from nowhere to join our small party, and rode on with us. Gradually the mountains began to rise around us. It was well into the afternoon before we reached a point where the dense scrub drew back from the path and the ground was firm enough to dismount for a halt. Tokhtbat dove into his saddlebags and produced a bag of hard tack biscuit, baked from flour and mutton-fat. It was unappealing, but we ate with gratitude, having had nothing since breakfast.
By now we were all soaked. Erdenejav, with heavy oilskins, was the dryest; I, having badly juggled weight of baggage against likely necessities, was the wettest. He took great pleasure in pointing out both extremes.
“Why,” he now asked for about the fifth time, “do you want to make this journey?”
“Tell him we’re on holiday,” answered Carol. “Tell him we want to enjoy ourselves!”
Remounting, we plunged back into the forest and arrived at the top of a steep slope. We dismounted and led the horses down, plunging with them among rocks and soggy pine-needles. Arriving at the bottom, we found ourselves in a wide, treeless valley which bent sharply at the point of our entry; the right-hand branch swinging down out of sight to the south-east, the left running north uphill – our route. Marking the meeting of the ways was a small obo – the sacred cairn of the Buddhists. We stopped to pay our respects, while Tokhtbat’s mum took strips of cloth from her pocket, tying them to the central post in honour of the local deity. Unprepared, Carol and I could only leave pieces of hair from our horses’ tails.
The Final Stretch
We now set off on the final stretch, plodding endlessly up the long valley. Neither beast nor bird stirred on its forested slopes; as the cloud came down to meet us and we rode on into the gloom, we wondered if this piece of the globe had remained untroubled by evolution. Towards the top the grey monochrome was shattered by a bank of globe flowers, their brilliant orange relieving our eyes. Above stretched a bank of snow. Suddenly, the thought of reindeer seemed to slot into place.
A large obo crowned the pass; gentians bloomed all around. This time we made the full three circuits demanded by custom, and stole more hair from our horses’ tails to decorate it. The mist fell away into the bleak valley behind, and for the first time in hours we could see clearly all about us.
Face to Face with the Tsaatan
We were surrounded by great mountain peaks. Three valleys branched off ahead of us. At the end of the furthest, a ten-thousand-foot ridge marked the Russian border. Opposite, a river swollen by the day’s rain swirling down in a crashing of white water towards the distant Yenisey. Straight ahead, in the valley from which it issued, we could just make out a scattering of tiny white dots: the tepees of the Tsaatan.
A few miles up the valley we were overtaken by a stampede. Four hundred or so reindeer came charging around the corner of the mountain, running as if pursued. They were… by a handful of lads riding like madmen and whooping like cowboys. Tokhtbat and Erdenejav whooped back; then set off equally madly, setting our exhausted horses into a headlong dash among boulders and through peat-hags. For the second day we ended our long march at a flat-out gallop. Figures began to emerge from the tepees: everyone from oldest to youngest coming out to meet and sort through the reindeer, tethering them in family groups. All I could think, though, was the promise of warmth and dry clothes held in the smoke curling from the tops of the tepees.
It is the practice of nomads worldwide to welcome strangers into their midst and offer hospitality. The Tsaatan were no different. Minutes after dismounting for the last time, we were inside, drinking hot, salt tea and steaming gently by a burning stove.
Gill Suttle is a true adventuress and has a lot of stories to tell. She wrote a book about her experiences with the reindeer herders in Mongolia. If you’re interested, check out: Steppe by Steppe: A Slow Journey Through Mongolia. Gill’s other books include her journey across Syria on horseback: Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea: A Syrian Journey and her exciting adventures across Turkmenistan on horseback: Black Sands and Celestial Horses: Tracks Over Turkestan.
If you like to learn more about horse riding in Mongolia, make sure you browse through our Mongolia archives. Or you go and find out yourself how it feels to ride the Mongolian ponies through the steppes! You can find amazing horse riding tours in Mongolia in our free Catalog “Horse Riding in Every Country”.