Into the Back of Beyond. Visiting the Darkhad and Tsartan People

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June 23rd 2009
Published: June 23rd 2009
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‘This winter it’s very bad’ said Ulzii, our hired translator for the trek, ‘at worst it’s maybe -52C or something, many people losed cattle and this spring it’s very sad and the cattle is still so weak’ she explained as we marvelled at how she’d managed to learn English so well having lived her entire life in such a barren outpost, in addition to ‘Darkhad’, ‘Tsartan’ and her native Mongolian languages. ‘That is why nobody, they don’t really want to hire their horses to us because they still so weak and the horse it’s very important’.

The scent of fresh pine sap carried in the soft breeze over Tsagaannuur became only stronger as we arrived at the departure point of our trek; a small log cabin on the edge of the taiga forest where we would be leaving behind our vehicle and driver for a planned 5 days of trekking into the mountains to visit the ‘Tsartan’ - literally ‘reindeer people’ in English, or as they refer to themselves in their own language, the ‘Doukha’ (apologies for my terrible phonetic representation!) - one of the many ethnic minorities who live in Mongolia.

With the horse we’d managed to hire
Our first host.  Our first host.  Our first host.

Part of the Darkhad minority of Mongolia
for carrying our luggage fully loaded and ‘Oktber’, our somewhat unnecessary ‘trail guide’ happily perched upon his (because as we later discovered, Mongolian men don’t walk anywhere, it’s below their dignity!) we slowly and belatedly departed into true wilderness; to the places where vehicles can’t reach.

In Tsagaannuur itself we had managed to chance upon two ‘Doukha’ ladies whom Ulzii was acquainted with and she took the opportunity to ask them where exactly we could find their camps at this moment in time - important given they live a semi-nomadic way of life which means their location cannot be guaranteed from one month to the next. Wearing their traditional ‘deels’ - a heavy winter trench coat often as much as one inch thick - each with a brightly coloured sash bound around their midriffs like a belt holding the ‘deel’ closed, they gladly explained to Ulzii their current location although also revealed a saddening piece of information in addition; ‘This winter because it’s very cold many of the cattle, they die, so the Doukha men don’t have any money and they have to go the illegal gold mines in the north of here to get money, and one of them, he die’ she explained, clearly quite upset although holding back tears. ‘When he go inside the mine it collapse, he is (was) only 34 years old’.

Having already read about the gold mines in our perpetually inaccurate Lonely Planet guide of Mongolia, we decided to ask what truth there was regarding how they are attracting thousands of economically desperate Mongolian nomads into their crumbling shafts, in search of a quick buck when times are hard. Ulzii explained the situation to us briefly which I’ll summarise as one paragraph for the sake of better reading: ‘Many of the Mongolian men they are poor and sometimes the students who need the money for university go to the illegal mines. It’s not safe and they take their own tools look for gold, but sometimes the mine it’s dangerous and the roof fall down, maybe somebody die. Because their education is not so good they use the bad way (arsenic) to get the gold from the ground and sometimes they hurt (poison) themselves. If they get the gold can sell it to the man illegal and get maybe $20 for 1 gram. There are always Chinese men to sell it to illegal
En-route to the second Tsartan campEn-route to the second Tsartan campEn-route to the second Tsartan camp

About 30km north of here, as the crow flies, and you would be in Siberia
and they take it back to China but the (Mongolian) government doesn’t do anything about it’. In later conversations she would also divulge how Chinese traders have visited Tsagaannuur before and tried to encourage the locals to illegally hunt bears and wolves, and pick rare wild flowers for use in Chinese medicine, yet their government also does little about the problem.

Anyway - back to the trek! We soon found ourselves ascending an expansive valley with large bare green hills on either side of us, occasional glimpsing the large ice-capped peaks that lay beyond our immediate horizon. The biting wind howling against us from the north gave little reprieve as the suns periodic rays struggled through the thick clouds looming above. Further into the valley and sparse taiga forest started to appear in infrequent patches flaunting a full array of orange hues that radiantly contrasted against the solid black of the tree bark - clearly spring was late arriving here.

Despite the areas remoteness, there were perhaps as many as five gers well spaced out along the ten or so kilometres to the end of the valley and the start of the taiga forest proper - the gers nominally positioned in areas of relative shelter and away from the strong winds gusting down the valley. Every person we sighted wore a traditional deel, perhaps displaying something of their determination to hold on to traditional culture - after all, clothing is often the first piece of cultural identity to be eroded when two cultures meet, and looking at history, politicians and people in positions of power have recognised this. For example; Mustafa Kemal outlawed the fez in Turkey because he understood the link between the fez and Turkish traditional culture, and the link between their culture and old ways of thinking - therefore he banned the fez with the aim of modernising the country. Seeing Mongolian people still wearing the deel in everyday life perhaps suggested their culture has survived…. or perhaps only suggested no modern garment of clothing could replace its function so cheaply and effectively, but it did make me wonder.

Having only trekked for around 4 hours, Ulzii suggested we stop for the evening with a family camped on the bend of a slow flowing stream as the next gers were pretty few and far between. The location was simply beautiful; on a river bend, across from a small patch of forest with steep hills rising in the east and west, and straight ahead one of many ice encrusted peaks, forbidding yet enchanting at sight.

Over a cup of steaming brown salt tea shared by the family, which I was starting to get used to despite the somewhat off-putting description, we met the members of the Darkhad minority family, trading smiles and gesture in absence of our ability to communicate in a common tongue - and Ulzii translated the rest. The Darkhad are an ethnic minority of Mongolia who mostly reside around the Darkhad Depression, and to be honest, from all I can tell, are only distinguished from Mongolians because they speak a dated version of the Mongolian language which other Mongolians can’t understand without having studied it.

Inside the gers thick woollen walls and roof, the light entering from a small opening in the roof illuminated the many brightly coloured rugs hung around the circular walls and the furniture decorated in vibrant hues of red, blue, green and yellow in a style that wouldn’t look out of place in a traditional narrow boat in the UK. A central fireplace fuelled by both dung and wood quietly heated the ger to a temperature suitable for shorts and t-shirt, despite the outside temperature, and provided some well appreciated respite from the biting cold, and a chance to take off some of the heavy layers of clothing we were all wearing.

After being plied with plenty of home-made bread and tea we decided to explore of the local area and climb high up one side of the valley to appreciate the view and see if we could determine where our final destination might be. We had been given a choice from the start regarding whether to visit the ‘east taiga Tsartan’ people, or the ‘west taiga Tsartan’ people, aptly named by Ulzii because of their camp locations relative to Tsagaannuur. We eventually decided upon the ‘west taiga’ which would take us into the mountains some 50km south of an area in Siberia called Tuva; the place and culture from which the Tsartan are descended.

The youngest member of the family we stayed with; a completely uninhibited child of perhaps five years old with a beaming smile and no shortage of confidence decided to accompany us and explore the valley - or should I say lead the way! I quickly decided ‘mountain feet’ was a better name for him. Ascending the valley with two full grown men he never once tired, fell behind or even looked the slightest bit fatigued and sometimes even looked at us perplexed as to why we were puffing and panting. I suppose whilst to us it’s a mountain, to him this is just his garden and he’s used to it. Descending he amazed us yet again at just how sure footed he was for a child of five years old. We descended the valley quickly as it was getting dark and yet again he kept up. Perhaps I’m getting old!

That evening we shared food; the family provided some and we provided some; as would become standard routine throughout our trip of Mongolia. I was very interested to hear about the lives they lead and also to just observe their daily life. It quickly became apparent that their lives totally revolve around their cattle which numbered around 150, mostly sheep and perhaps 20 cows. The responsibility for their care and wellbeing is shared between the family members who take turns to brave the winds in order to tend and herd them across the best grazing pasture. They explained to me how the severity of the winter not long past had directly affected them, how hard it was to cope with being outside for hours on end in below -30C and how at times it had been necessary to keep the cattle inside wooden barns, specially constructed for the purpose, to protect them from the elements. The sheep had fared better in the extreme cold because they can gnaw down through the snow to reach the grass beneath, whilst the cows cannot. This winter had been so cold that even the sheep couldn’t reach down to the grass for long periods and consequently the casualties were many. The cattle are not just their jobs; they are their lives, livelihood and lifestyle too.

They depend on the cattle for milk, meat, wool, hide and sell them for money to buy the other necessities of life. In purely economic terms they would be considered desperately poor, as would most nomads in Mongolia, but it struck me that in many other aspects of life they are actually incredibly rich. They possess strong family values and live tightly knitted lives where helping each other in times of hardship is not an option, but a way of life where help does not need to be asked for, it is given freely and without question. They have the necessities of shelter, warmth, food and fresh drinking water straight from the mountains and through my eyes at least, they live a life beautiful in its simplicity; devoid of the trappings of modern life. Their environment is amazingly free of pollution and such is the structure of Mongolian society, they are completely free to roam wherever they please - by all accounts the Mongolian governments attempt to create a real estate market by encouraging everyone to claim a piece of land as their own has failed - almost nobody outside of the towns bothered - they remain nomads.

It’s fair to say they don’t have cars, computers, DVD players or the luxury of unnecessary travel for pleasure, but personally (with the benefit of my western education I hear you say) I’ve always considered these things not to be life improving objects, but more the necessary distractions that make our busy, stressful and demanding western lifestyles tolerable, and the tools by which western societies keep us trapped as proverbial lemmings contributing to the global economy - ironically our only reward for doing so; the money with which to buy more ‘distractions’ in the ever perpetuating quest for more. Would they swap their lifestyle for mine? Well actually I was pleased to discover they do appreciate their lifestyles. Under Soviet rule monadic families were forced to collectivise and work in communes closer to the towns where they had better access to food, healthcare and education amongst other things however, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Mongolia many of them returned to nomadic life and once again ventured into the distant reaches of the country to live the lifestyles they lead today. That said, they would probably still swap their lifestyle for mine given the opportunity. I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side…….. (and that would be important to them!)

As a gift for the family we brought a bottle of Chingis vodka with us, however the family insisted on sharing it with all of us as we realised that for them, a nice bottle of vodka is an event and something to be savoured equally amongst everyone. In Mongolia vodka is taken straight, in a ritual common throughout the whole country. The leader of the family fills a single glass with vodka and passes it to the person next to him. Once the person has taken as much as they want, the glass is given back to the leader who refills the glass and passes it to the next person, and so on around the ger until the vodka is finished. Each time prior to the vodka being consumed, the person ritually dips their right hand ring finger into the glass three times. After each dip the vodka is flicked skyward as an offering to Tengger (God). “It’s because many years ago the king of Mongolia, he go to meet the king (emperor) of China, and they give him tea, but before he drink the tea, the man with the king put his finger into the tea to make sure is safe, and he die because is poison, so the king don’t drink the tea - the Chinese they want to kill the king but this man, he save him. In Mongolia we call this finger after that man’s name”. Each time their turn came, every member of the family performed this ritual, often only symbolically as opposed to literally like we were, until eventually the vodka was finished. I loved the way they really savoured the occasion, each only sipping a small amount each time to make it last longer while sitting, relaxing and chatting with each other without care in the world.

Having read a fantastic novel-come-societal critique (which I would recommend everyone reads) called ‘Wolf Totem’ about a Chinese man sent to live on the Inner Mongolian grasslands with native Mongolian people during the cultural revolution, and the aim of destroying the ‘four olds’, I was intrigued to learn about the wolf in Mongolian culture and folklore. “The wolf is sky animal” said a member of our host family; the sky being Tengger, and Tengger being God. In more recent times sky burials have all but disappeared, but traditionally Mongolian people were given a sky burial, like in Tibet where they believe that eagles eat you and carry your soul up to heaven with them. In Mongolia the tradition is the same except they believe that wolves carry your spirit to heaven. I asked them if they had ever hunted wolves: “of course, we have hunt many times but the wolf is very difficult to catch because he is so clever and fast, but bears are very easy to catch because are a little stupid and slow. We sometimes have to hunt the wolf because it kills cattle” the eldest male member of the family explained, rummaging for something in a draw which turns out to be a museum relic of a rifle, like the sort I’m sure Vlasily Zaitsev used in the battle of Stalingrad - one that fires a bullet so big it would probably leave a 6” hole in any living thing it hit. Much to my consternation, he also pulled out a six inch long bear tooth which he’d made into a necklace. Obviously concerned as to the scale of their hunting, I asked them if wolf and bear numbers had increased or decreased since the end of communism, though thankfully he said their numbers were now bigger than he could ever remember - an upshot of the fact that hunting these two animals was made illegal by the Mongolian government a number of years ago and their products no longer appear in shop windows.

We went to
First Tsartan campFirst Tsartan campFirst Tsartan camp

This is the one where we didn't really like the people - but the people after were cool
bed to the sound of a roaring fire, but awoke the following morning to desperate cold - not because it was any colder than the previous day, but more because without a fire, inside quickly becomes the same temperature as outside - and that’s cold! We said our farewells to the family, thanking them for their hospitality and leaving them some food and cigarettes we had brought for the purpose as gifts, and set off on our second day of trekking further into the icy mountains. Unlike the previous day which had been cloudy and grey, this day we were blessed with a deep blue sky and soft bulbous white clouds brilliantly contrasting each other in the painting landscape of lush green hills and ice-capped peaks.

The valley became steeper and more windswept as we travelled further towards the start of the taiga forest, until eventually we arrived at its fringes and began our steep trek upward through the trees. Not long into the forest and we arrived at the first ‘urts’ we would see. The Tsartan can be distinguished from other Mongolian ethnic minorities because they live in ‘urts’, or in English I suppose you would call them tepees or wigwams i.e. a tent consisting of long poles spread wide at the ground in a circle, converging at a central point above, and then wrapped in canvas leaving a small hole at the top for ventilation and smoke from the fire to escape. It turned out this was the urts of the two Tsartan people whom we had met in town lived, and consequently only their five children were resident upon our arrival. Firstly I was amazed at how they had been left to look after themselves for days, the youngest being five years old and the oldest being perhaps twelve years old, but also how they showed us the same hospitality we had come to expect from adults, quickly brewing tea and sharing bread with their newly arrived guests with the kind of maturity I suppose is necessary for the lifestyle they lead.

After half an hour’s rest, we set back off into the forest, climbing steeply, weaving in and out of the long shadows in what I was coming to think of as a ‘Rupert Bear’ landscape. Like the famously illustrated Rupert Bear books of the 1950’s my Nan read to me as a child, seemingly the only colours available in natures palette were orange, black, grey and white - our steps made silent by the carpet of soft orange pine needles under our feet and the sweet scent of nature awakening from winters slumber in the air, re-arousing my senses long suppressed by a year of city life. I felt the quadri-tone landscape perhaps represented something of the simplicity of their lives. We in the west live in a world of deadlines, nine-to-five work, parking restrictions, bills, health insurance and 24 hour neon lit shops to fuel our 24 hour multi coloured multi faceted and non-stop lives with solid colours for solid demands; red is red; black is black, white is white - there is no room for compromise because if your contract says be a work for 9am; you are there for 9am or down the river. The people of Mongolia live a life of simplicity by comparison with none of these modern demands and stresses to care about. Moreover, it warmed me to think how within each of the four limited colours of their landscape, were represented an infinite variety of shades and hues of each colour, which I felt represented the richness and value of what little they do possess.

Eventually the forest opened up and we crested a wide and boggy hilltop with a view of a gargantuan natural arena; a depression waterlogged by snowmelt and surrounded by hills, perhaps kilometres across. Across to our left we could see four urts in the distance on the fringe of the forest, slightly below the snow line - our first destination. Of the four of us travelling; Liza, Eddy, Caroline and I, we would be lying if we said we felt at all welcome upon first arrival in the Tsartan camp. The lady who agreed to host us appeared to do so as nothing more than a formality, or a hassle made bearable by the reward of money at the end, barely engaging us with her narrow beady eyes which none of us particularly trusted from the outset. She could have just been shy, but my instinct was she felt more indifference towards us than shyness, and most of the others resident at the small camp simply avoided us. We we’re surprised to find they also dressed in western style clothes and shoes, wore western jewellery, and only dressed in their
Wolf or dog???Wolf or dog???Wolf or dog???

Dogs in this part of Mongolia live practically wild - so breeding with wolves isn't out of the question.
deels to go outside.

Tourism has obviously changed their lives; they now make souvenirs from reindeer hide, bone and antler, and we could even have stayed in a ‘tourist urts’ they’d built especially for the purpose had it not been waterlogged. It’s a strange situation because although they only receive in the region of 100 tourists a year, it’s clearly influenced their lives a lot - they even told us how they don’t have to hunt as much anymore because the money they receive from tourists has replaced that part of their income. Ulzii, our guide, was never too keen on taking us to visit these particular people as she had previously found them somewhat cold and distant, and thought they were only interested in money. This was very much the impression we got too. In this camp they were not interested in gifts, only money, and that evening we were expected to cook food for the entire family. If we were willing to pay, they would even dismantle camp and move for us.

I’m in no way insinuating they aren’t the ‘real deal’, they are. They live their lives on the brink of civilisation, two long days
Grandma herding reindeerGrandma herding reindeerGrandma herding reindeer

Despite the fact she's 67 years old, she doesn't escape the chores!
by horse to the nearest town or roads in an area best suited to reindeer, not humans. Their surrounding landscape is beautiful in its own stark way, but for the income of a hundred tourists a year no one in their right mind would live in a putrefying peat bog herding reindeer for fun, fully exposed to Siberian winters if they weren’t genuinely determined to continue their dying way of life. They’re perfectly entitled to ask for money when people stay, and should - after all any tourist making it that far will have considerably more money than they do, but through my eyes (which is of course the only way I can see it), there are more tactful ways of asking. Perhaps tourism is just a cost they are willing to pay in order to survive, but that doesn’t mean they have to be happy about it (though it might help!), or perhaps they’re just sceptical of tourists after too many disrespectful missionaries of various Christian denominations offering them gifts and clothing, and after they have accepted, telling them they must now worship the bible or ‘burn in hell for eternity’ in no uncertain terms. Thankfully they told us they don’t like hosting missionaries anymore after too many bad experiences. (Missionaries have a lot to answer for - the world over)

We spent that night with the Tsartan family, soon discovering that urts are indeed much colder and less comfortable than gers. That aside, we happily left the following morning having felt so unwelcome we almost considered abandoning this part of the trip and just walking back to Tsagaannuur, but after much deliberation we decided to venture further into the mountains to another, slightly larger encampment higher up.

Crunching and squelching through the water logged taiga forest undergrowth, often through ankle deep water stained brown by the rich soil, we clambered upwards across mounds of moss and lichen, over broken trees and we skirted quagmires, all the time leaving no trace as we created our own path - the earth absorbing our every step and returning to its original form like a sponge after being squashed. As we crested the snow line ever ascending into the farthest extremities of the valley, the forest became sparser and sparser until it became nothing more than an open windswept plain dotted with the hardiest of hardy trees clinging for dear life. On all sides lay rocky peaks towering towards 3000m cloaked in hard ice, the snow line starting from our feet and disappearing away to somewhere upon the many summits. We soon arrived at the birthplace of the stream we’d previously camped next to some two days earlier; a mountain lake still veiled under a thick sheet of ice, but with a stream emerging from it - the stream walled on each side by overhangs of ice still thick enough to support the weight of a human, even under the midday sun. It really did feel like the end of the earth. Farther ahead we sighted around five urts perched amid the snow each with thin trails of grey smoke rising from their roofs contrasting against the white snowy backdrop, and around thirty reindeer roped together close by. The scent of firewood drifted downwind enticing us to arrive and share its warmth, and encouraged us to hasten our walking speed - but I was in no hurry to hide from possibly the most striking landscape I’d ever seen and took my time, lagging behind the others, periodically stopping and closing my eyes to inhale big lungs of the cold crisp air, or simply to stare in awe at natures supremacy in this cold and inhospitable landscape of sheer magnificence. The home of the Tsartan.

I feel I should now dispel a few notions we had falsely read about the Tsartan. We had been told they number around 400 - they don’t - Ulzii was insistent there were only 56 Tsartan people still living this lifestyle spread across two locations and within the location we visited there couldn’t have been more than 25 people in permanent residence, which would do nothing to dispel that notion. It was suggested by our terrible Lonely Planet guide that their entire existence depended upon the reindeer they herded, from which they made their clothing, shoes, got meat, milk, and used their hides to fasten around the urts for warmth. In an indirect way (i.e. they sell them for money) it does, but in reality, they wear either normal western clothes or Mongolian clothes and whilst they do wear traditional boots, they’re not made from reindeer and we even noticed how one of the ladies changed out of the traditional boots in exchange for some pink plastic wellington boots when the time came to herd reindeer. Their houses are canvas, not hide, and they only eat reindeer for meat in times of desperation - not as a matter of course. It is true however, that they use the reindeer for milk which forms an important part of their diet for fat and protein and they do live a very traditional lifestyle none the less. None of these things really detract from the experience, but sometimes it irks me how someone can be employed to write an article in a book about somewhere they clearly haven’t been!

We were greeted warmly by an elderly lady dressed in a traditional deel and Mongolian leather boots that curled upwards at the toe, and a bright red headscarf - her huge rosy red cheeks swore testament to a life spent on windswept plains. We were invited inside and of course, promptly plied with milk tea, salt tea, bread and also some kind of flour mixture deep fried in reindeer fat which I can only describe as a chapatti type food, albeit with no seasoning, but tasty none the less. It quickly became apparent I had committed a cultural faux pas before even meeting anyone, as two people from an urts farther ahead came to complain I had taken a picture of them. Really? What picture, I was wondering? I quickly flicked through the photos I had taken walking towards the camp, sure that I hadn’t, and after a lot of examining I found the offending photo - the semblance of a human represented by about ten pixels somewhere in the bottom corner of a landscape shot I’d taken. Explanation was fruitless, showing them the photo was fruitless; they were still offended. Strange I thought, perhaps even somewhat unreasonable, but I was in their home so just apologised and forgot about it (something they proved incapable of doing). Ulzii seemed to think they might have been a little jealous and bitter because we had decided to stay with a different family; therefore they would get no financial gain from our staying. Who knows. This would be the only negative experience of our time staying with these people, which would in turn become one of our best travel experiences since setting off a year and a half ago, and in no way detracts from the fantastic time we spent there.

We were soon introduced to the man of our urts; a portly man of perhaps 40 years old with a disarming smile and sense of humour that instantly made us feel welcome. The kind of character who loves telling jokes, but laughs at them himself just as vehemently as anyone listening. We later discovered he was the village Shaman - a religious man supposedly in contact with the spirit world. (Shamanism is still practiced by a few minorities on the fringes of Mongolia who believe in ancestor worship and worshipping the four elements of the world; earth, wind, fire, water - I’ll come to this later in my next blog!)

After an hour’s rest, we were invited by the elderly lady to herd reindeer to their grazing grounds; the places where soft mulchy lichen grows - an opportunity we of course couldn’t miss. Wrapped in every layer of clothing I had taken with me; a scarf, a hat, gloves, long johns, three t-shirts, a sweater, a cardigan, a fleece, a coat, and two pairs of socks - Caroline and I departed with the lady and our herd of 23 reindeer - each tied with a short rope between their neck and one back leg in order to restrict their movement and make sure they couldn’t run away. Slowly traipsing in silence across the sparse forest herding reindeer, so placid they showed no emotion if you leant against them as they ate, was a blissful experience we’ll never forget. The experience was made complete when snow started falling in what would become a white-out some five minutes later. It was desperately cold and visibility dropped down to perhaps ten metres as the snow blew horizontally in torrents, carpeting everything in its sight, including us, in inches of snow within minutes. Despite the cold both Caroline and I had huge smiles on our faces which refused to leave during the whole time we spent outside. I mimed to the lady asking if she was cold, and her laughing in reply suggested it was perhaps a stupid question to ask - given it was something between -5C, or perhaps -10C at worst, and she had just lived through a winter where it probably dropped below -55C at times. To her this probably seemed like summer by comparison. Both Caroline and I had resorted to walking backwards into the wind and snow, so painful was the biting cold against our faces, yet she just carried on, not even flinching as she walked bare faced into the rapidly developing blizzard.

After being outside for a couple of hours, returning to the urts roaring fire was almost painful it was so hot. A few cups of steaming salt tea though, and we soon felt re-acclimatised and ready to prepare some dinner. The family provided some reindeer meat jerky, which they in turn spent about an hour preparing for the meal, and we provided the rest. By now it was almost dark and as we sat forth in front of the fireplace spewing heat at our feet like a volcano erupting molten lava, the fires golden hues illuminated the faces of those sat around the urts through its diamond shaped ventilation holes. I decided to ask the Shaman about his practices and if he could tell us about anyone he had ever helped, and Ulzii translated.

“once there was a lady she is very bad (ill), she can’t walk and can only lay on the bed. It was so so bad. She go to the doctor but he can’t help her so she go to visit the Shaman. Only one week after she
Home of the TsartanHome of the TsartanHome of the Tsartan

About 30km north of here, as the crow flies, and you would be in Siberia
is better.”

”So how did he help her?”

”I speak to the spirits, and ask every spirit I can find to find out why her aura is black. I search for every spirit who know her; grandparents, friends and relatives and ask them to help. I ask everyone I could find to help her. Sometimes the spirits tell me I need to make medicine from flowers and they show me where to find them and what to do”

He explained a few examples of how he has solved people’s problems in the past, although often diverting my questions into more important questions for me about what the reindeer are like in my country and where I think the best reindeer come from. He seemed disappointed to find the UK doesn’t have reindeer, but was he pleased to hear Liza tell him about the reindeer in Russia, which he had heard were very impressive. I decided to ask about how he became a Shaman.

”The gods, they choose me. I do not choose to be Shaman. I know I am Shaman because I went ‘stupid’ for about 2 weeks when I was young and didn’t sleep or rest at all. I just wonder around, not talking to anyone, my thoughts inside my head and nobody can talk to me. Only the spirits talk to me. They tell me what I must do. I spoke to the spirits for 10 days and after, I was Shaman”

I’m not sure if I believe any of this kind of stuff, but one thing is for sure - he believes it.

The following morning, stiff with cold from the night’s sleep and a heavy draft which had been blowing across my head all night, I sighted a clear blue sky through the roof of our urts. Outside in the crisp and cold air I admired again the beautiful arena ringed by rugged mountains we found ourselves in and the soft magenta hues above the mountains illuminating the early morning sky in a divine light. Rock strewn, barren and forbidding, yet captivating is the depression these people choose to call home. In total isolation from civilisation their natural arena is viewed only by the hardiest of birds, the gods above, and a hundred or so tourists a year who are willing to drive for 4 days and then hike for 3 days from the nearest city (Ulaan Baatar) in order to visit them. We thanked the kind and hospitable family we stayed with and by midday departed on our trek back to civilisation. It had only been a short visit, but a worthwhile one. This is the kind of place I travel for.

Additional photos below
Photos: 72, Displayed: 46


Home on the edge of Taiga forestHome on the edge of Taiga forest
Home on the edge of Taiga forest

Where we collect our hired luggage horses from

3rd July 2009

wowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! such a nice trip! lucky you two:))
10th July 2009

Alright Lee! It's been a real pleasure to read this, it's so beautifully written and the photos are just incredible. A real gem of a blog. Am in the very slow process of writing mine about Mongolia now but all that just seems like a different world now that I'm back in England and I'm finding it very hard to do. Hope you're trip's going well, would be interested to know where you are now. Let me know if you want any tips about travel in West Papua. All the best, Ed.
2nd September 2010

Mongolia adventure
Hi there I have been reading your blogs about Mongolia. Your photos are beautiful and great descriptions. I see that you were looking for others to share the trip with. We would have been keen if the timing was right! If you don't mind, do you have any information that might help us? We have 12 days in Mongolia in September as part of the trans-mongolian railway journey. The guesthouses all offer tours but we have heard stories about drunk van drivers and 'tourist theme parks'. It sounds like you had an excellent guide who took you to some really untouched spots. How did you come across him? Pre-arranged or sorted out once you arrived in UB? We would like to avoid the unfriendly tourists camps that you mentioned too! Any information would be really appreciated if you have the time. Many thanks, Anna and Chris
5th September 2010

Mongolia adventure!
Hi Chris/ Anna, We arranged our trip with Idre's Guesthouse in UB. I did a lot of research on LP Thorntree before we went to Mongolia and Idre was recommended lots of times, so we used him. It turned out to be an excellent choice and I'd absolutely recommend using him again. Idre is a super friendly guy with excellent English. We basically told him what we wanted (i.e. to visit a few key places, hire local translators in each place, stay with locals where possible and not to stay in tourist camps) and he had arranged much of it for us prior to our arrival. He seems to have contact with local guides all over the country. This is much better than taking a guide from UB as a local guide will know the local people, places and be more accepted by the locals than guides from distant cities. Not to mention the fact they are normally cheaper! This also means you don't have the expense of a guide during the days spent on the road where you really don't need one (and it's impossible not to waste days on the road in Mongolia - the going is tough and the distance between places is huge). Of these 'tourist theme parks' you talk of, I can imagine the kind of places you mean - almost all of them are located in the centre of the country a day or two west from UB, and mostly used by tourists from the trans-mongolian railway who have just a few days to spare. In my honest opinion they are not the best way to experience Mongolia. Seeing as you only have 12 days, my advice would be to just pick and area (I picked the far north for example) and go as deep into it as you can. Mongolia isn't about the towns and cities, it's about the journey and people you meet along the way so don't worry about not seeing 'all' of it. After a day and a half driving any direction from UB you'll be long away from the tourist hordes. Anyway, if you have any questions please just email me back and I'll help you if I can. Idre has a website: (it looks like a huge operation, but i assure you it isn't! The guesthouse is lovely too) Hope this helps Lee

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