Well, we got back into Ulaan Baatar last night after six days in the frozen north. And there was definitely an air of the Dr. Seuss to it all -- on the one hand a little surreal, but on the other, just so different to be mind-boggling. Two things did become immediately apparent:
* There is no camera lens wide enough to capture Mongolia.
* Words can come close, but only if you take scene by scene apart and try to treat each one on its own. I am going to have to attempt a few sketches rather than try to sum it all up -- in part because the experience in part and whole has an element of magical realism to it.
I will say this first: we were blessed with a great driver, Rinchen, and a great cook, Baagi, all courtesy of the folks at Hovsgol Travel. It sounds a little schwanky to say we booked through a travel company and had a driver and cook, but we might seriously have stood a good chance of dying if we hadn't. This is not to say we had near-death experiences or that these guys insulated us from hardship, but it is to say that visiting the Tsaatan is not something you just decide to do by yourself. If anyone is contemplating a trip to Mongolia, all three of us would heartily recommend contacting these folks and seeing what they can do for you.
Exhibit A: When we were told it would probably be an 12-hr cross-country trip to get to the Tsaatan winter grazing grounds, they were only exaggerating slightly. It took 11-hrs of what can only be likened to an 11-hr rugby or hockey game. I will post video once we get back to the US because Annie's internet connection can be finicky uploading big video files. This first pic was taken at our first pee-stop -- and this is a great stretch of road. We are actually in the middle of a herd of yak, who seemed entirely diffident to our being there. And yes, you can tell this is a 'main road' because there's a power line alongside it. The first part of the trip took us up to Ulaan-Uul -- which as the Wikipedia entry tells you is "the southern part of the Darkhad valley, a basin that is considered remote even by Mongolian standards." As that entry also tells you, we did pass over the Öliin davaa pass -- and this second pic is of the ovoo there, the totemistic cairns that mark almost every significant pass in Mongolia.
Exhibit B: One of the interesting things we all noticed as we drove north was that while there were still plenty of gers to be seen, town (som) architecture was now primarily wooden. As we drove north from Ulan-Uul, we passed through the village of Tsaagan-Nuur where we checked in at the local military checkpoint. As I had mentioned before, we needed a special permit to be this far north and so close to the Russian border. We wondered at the landscape everywhere we went, but couldn't also help imagining how beautiful it must be in summer once the rivers had melted and green had returned to the countryside.
Rinchen's genius as a driver quickly became obvious once we left the town to get to the grazing grounds some 30km away. (I don't know the actual distance, and speculate that '30km' is the generic distance used in Mongolia to describe symbolically how far away from civilization you are and that you are now in the hoodoo, the countryside.) I realized having driven some 'rough' timber roads in Maine in the winter that his genius was not just getting there but getting there so you could get back. There is no tow truck that will come get you if you break a leaf-spring or blow your transmission. And once we had left Tsaagan-Nuur, we were on tracks that were primarily intended for use by horses not forgons. While it was relatively rodeo-like, watching him thread this 4x4 van through the trees was pretty impressive.
We stayed in a family's ortz, for which the closest analogy would be to a Native American tepee. There are probably many analogies that could be made between the Tsaatan and the indigenous groups of North America -- and interestingly, one of the Tsaatan men had said that he had seen pictures of Colorado in a magazine and wondered if where we were was actually similar. And in many ways it is.
Exhibit C: We knew there were reindeer around as several would come up to you as you stepped out the ortz and follow you, wanting to eat the now-salty snow where you had been to the bathroom. But when we woke up the next morning, it had clouded over and as we wandered from the trees out into the taiga it was like being in a Rick Bass short story (as Annie said) and a Russell Chatham painting. The light and cloud cover put a veil over everything, muting the whites, greys, buffs, and browns of the landscape and the deer, the tsaa. Just as you would focus on a feature, an ortz, a tree, the shamanistic khadag tied to a tree for good fortune, a shape would move and you'd realise it was a deer.
Here's me with a handsome looking deer. It seemed they would turn them out at night and then bring them in and tether most of them during the day. I'm not sure if this was to give them better predator protection during the night (they could at least try to out-run a wolf, a chon, in the dark) and to keep them relatively domesticated during the day. On a side note, I would heartily recommend Pier's Vitebsky's The Reindeer People if you are interested in reindeer herding culture.
This is a nice picture of Meg reading inside the ortz, but more importantly a nice pic of Annie-bagsh helping one of the young women in camp, Saren, with her English. As it was the last time, it was incredible having Annie with us to translate. While Mongolians are generally highly literate and multi-lingual -- it's a safe bet to say that, as a percentage, more Mongols know more English than Americans do Mongolian -- we could not have done the things we did without her there. (Generally, the folks at Hovsgol Travel will also send you out with a translator, as well as a driver/cook.) But it was fantastic to see her help this young woman work through her English -- and also remark on how relatively useless the English she was learning might be to her life. This is no different from most foreign-language learning programs -- I remember the useless things I learned while learning French and German. Meg used to teach ESL and has some experience trying to help non-native speakers learn what will actually be useful to them -- as opposed to what will merely stigmatise them further.
Enough for now. I need breakfast. There will be a lot more.