Taiga Travel diary to Dashing through snow
Taiga, which is located in northernmost Mongolia, sounds unreachable, remote and farthermost place to me. Yes, Taiga is sacramental, untouched and isolated landscape and also known as boreal forest or snow forest, the world’s largest land biome characterized by coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces, and larches.
I just remember like yesterday, a group of people who united under one main goal to photograph was prepared and looking forward to starting our trip to Taiga.
In the afternoon, on the day of memorial of Great October Socialist Revolution (7th of November), we started heading to northernmost Mongolia to capture the beauty of Taiga and Reindeer herders. Even though the road was completely blocked due to a heavy snowstorm and slippery ice we have arrived at our destination by the night with the help of our experienced driver and a good car. In order to start our trip earlier in the next morning, everybody just went to bed directly after arrived. So, following morning, we prepared to start our trip with a local experienced driver. We loaded travel blankets, jackets, gifts for locals, rice and flour and other traveling stuff and of course, our most important photography tools into our vehicle. And then, started heading to the most popular and populated destination of Tsaatan to stay with them for a while. Same goaled five of us and one driver went through Alag-erdene soum of Khovsgol aimag, Uliin Davaa, Toomiin Davaa and crossed over the Ujig River more than 20 times to see a flock of Reindeers. And Tsaatan ethnic group.
A group of nomads was coming to us followed by a group of majestic heavy hairy yaks and galloping horses in the middle of frozen steppe full covered with beautiful white snow. Those Mongolians greeted us, taken pictures together, made good wishes for our trip and continued their journey.
These locals also mentioned that lots of migrations will be moved from northern soums to Alag-erdene and Khatgal soums due to heavy snowfalls and cold weather. They usually travel for 20 days till their destination in one way but on the way back in spring, it takes about 1 month because of newborn baby animals. The family wife reminisces that it is not that warm nearby ‘Mother Ocean’.
There are 13 sacred ovoos worshipped by Darkhad ethnic group at the top of Uliin Halzan Davaa Pass, on the way to Ulaan-uul soum of Khuvsgl Province. These ovoos are shaped as Tsaatan yurt-teepee and standing stone statues which show us local costumes, culture, and traditions of Darkhad ethnic groups. In the evening we stayed in the guest house in Tsagaan Nuur soum and following morning headed for Tsaatan winter huts. Tsagaan Nuur soum is broken off from Renchinlhumbe soum in 1985, and newly located at the down side of Tsagaan Nuur Lake as a home for Darkhad and Tsaatan ethnics.
When you arrive at the Bridge of Shishged River just after 10kms from Tsagaan Nuur soum, you will see a beautiful Shishged river which flows out from Khoridol Saridag Range and continues for 334 km long. Chilling wind almost freezes your fingers in between getting out from car to photograph and getting into a car. In summer and autumn, it is possible to drive till the place called Teleg and Khatirt, then from there, locals lead you by horses or reindeers to Tsaatan. But in winter, all rivers and mud freeze which gives you a chance to drive directly till these winter places.
A family of Ganbat, leader of East Taiga, lives in the wooden house has got winterized coverings inside, door side ventilator is covered with plastics against the wind. Here, they have everything from modern usages such as phone, satellite TV and antenna. Same as the other Mongolian nomads, Tsaatan also roams freely all year round depending on the weather condition and grasses for reindeers, and the elders of the tribe discuss when and where to move by observing the weather condition. Middle of October is time to stay in their winter hut and this is where they are now.
Tsaatans have got a slightly yellow face, short and flat-nosed, eyelid without a fold, not strong teeth and they are quite short and seemed shy for me.
There is no shop in taiga and few people so then if someone offers vodka for them and they are very welcome to drink and get drunk easily. Only the elders speak Tuva language to each other but kids and younger generations haven’t got any other chance to receive information only in Mongolian that is why their language and culture is dying quickly.
Since we are here to feel and photograph their real daily life and situation, we decided to stay in Tsaatan’s teepee same as them. They only set up the fire for cooking and boiling tea and in winter they melt clean snow for drinking water, prepare chopped wood for firewood.
Every night, they keep their reindeers close by their teepees, and in winter keep only a few for riding and rest will be taken away and fenced in the mountain. Recent years, they are herding their reindeers in between 2 mountains with the help of a donation from foreign tourists, they just come back to check, so stopped guard them always.
I was personally prepared to feel real freezing cold there before we start our trip. So I took warm blankets, jackets and many more with me to keep me warm. But, in fact, I realized many of my stuff were useless except for weight luggage. Also, I was really surprised by Tsaatans to wear just a light Mongolian Garment-deel and leather boots and looked they are not cold at all. Before I go there, I imagined that Tsaatans are alike ‘Eksimos’ who wear heavy hairy dress and reindeer skin boots which it was exactly the opposite way of my imagination. Maybe It’s because of warm itself in the forests and they never worn my heavy skin jackets and hairy hats when I gave them. We can recognize Tsaatans seeing their appearance and language from Khalkh Mongolians, otherwise, they are all same as Mongolian herders wear light deel and leather boots it makes difficult to find any special traditional dress belong to them. But I have found it as special that there was a baby cradler to hang from their teepees.
Then 8 of us including 3 local guides and 30 reindeers started riding forward to our last destination. Even though it was not really comfortable to ride reindeer I felt like almost fell off, maybe because of it’s my very first ride, but I really admired by natural beauty there and made meditation in my heart into the depth of my silence while hearing the walk of reindeer through deep snow range.
Instead of riding whip, they use a long wooden stick to use as a cane for deep snowdrifts while use as a tool to make it go faster. There is almost no chance to get off easily like horse riding, and once if you are dismounted, seemed very difficult to mount again without somebody’s help. Also, I fell off from my reindeer while he was running fast but fortunately, didn’t hurt at all because of landing on the very thick snow. But when I remember now, all these become very nice memories.
Our local guide Sanchir, a son of a famous hunter, used to tell us exactly what wild animals like moose and how many of them passed by what time in detailed. Even though hunting is the main life source here, unfortunately, because of Protected Area’s policy it is strictly prohibited now. In the middle of Kultus steppe when I was singing softly and trying to talk with my inner person, a flock of Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) disturbed by us and flew away while cutting my thoughts. After 2 days of long and endless journey crossing over the Kultus steppe, finally, we have arrived at our last destination and prepared our own ‘home thing’ by putting just tent-cloth on top of readily crossed wood which is completely open on top, possible to observe millions of stars at night through that hole. But our 3 local guides just put woods crossing each other and set up a fire in the middle with hardwood and put a piece of cotton on themselves and completely slept all night. Having especial Mongolian blood and flexibility we were also stopped being cold and went to bed to sleep in yurts but weren’t brave enough to sleep outside under the stars.
About 400 reindeers come closer to our yurts in the morning because of salt on teepee’s cotton and try to bite with their mouth and tear with their horns but then go back to the mountain in the evening. They lick salt with their thick soft lip, paw the ground with front legs to find moss to eat to get strength and fitness for winter.
If it is the snowy year, reindeers don’t lose their strength and fatness but gain more, in the spite of it, they lose more weight in the less snowy year because of lots of running and roaming around. Reindeers like cold and lots of snow so in summer, stay permanent in one place because of flies. In autumn and spring season, they roam freely mostly away from home so owners always follow them to provide them from wolf’s attack. They don’t have any sweat glands so use their mouth to excrete sweat, light-limbed, walk through the snow by their chest, their biggest enemy is a wolf, milk is good for the stomach -all these facts are very special and interesting. But it is very strange that Tsaatans usually don’t eat reindeer meat.
When we arrive, there was moving meat trade by Russian van. Tsaatans use usually different meat, flour, and rice the same as the other nomads. And mostly eat homemade bread baked on the stove, cheese and dried curd made with reindeer creamy milk. In autumn, they pick lots of blackberries and blueberries so eat different fruits and make jam.
Due to reindeers eat moss, live on top of high mountains and Taiga forests. Tsaatans not only use reindeer meat, fat, milk, skin and hides but also train them to ride in the forest for migration and transportation in the difficult weather condition. Furthermore, they drove natural stones to make necklaces, cut reindeer horns and boil horns inside bark of a tree to create natural brown color to do different carvings on their horns and knives to merchandise for tourists to increase their family income.
So, then our 1000km long adventurous journey by reindeers is finished here and came back at winter hut. On the way back had a good chance to photograph famous Delgerkhaan mountain’s top and went back to Khovsgol Lake. Delgerkhaan Mountain is said that ‘The King of the mountains’, always check the strength of the climbers, the highest point in the Khoridol Saridag Mountain Range, 3190 m above the sea level.
On the way back, in the area of Ulaan-uul soum, pretty young wolf passed by us and was staring at us for a long before run away which shows us we were quite lucky guys and seemed as we were born with the silver spoon in our mouth. That night, we stayed at Khovsgol Eco Tour Ger camp located in a place called Dood Modot. While Mother Ocean’s wave was at the heaviest and strongest, lake sharp frost was chilling my cheeks.
We all were not only very tired from a long trip but also were very satisfied with our photographs, so we were all happy to go back homes and see the photos on the big screen. So we were offered by meals in the local homes and the following morning, went back to UB. Even though all roads and mountain passes were almost closed due to slippery road and snow storm, luckily had a good car and experienced driver, all arrived at homes safe and satisfied. Although every trip is full of memories and happiness, the road leads home is the best and happiest. Our adventurous trip was not only the most memorable and unforgettable but also had enough good luck to take pictures of ‘The reindeers are steaming up from their mouth under the full moon night’, later won the best prize ‘World Best Animal Picture Award’-all these seemed we were really blessed by sacred ‘Khangai’.
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M. Munkhjargal 2017.11.29