Let’s Go to the Taiga! (Tsaatans 1/2)
I didn’t really have time to rest during the few days I spent in Khatgal. Sitting in the car between one of the wrestlers I met yesterday and the frozen carcass of his horse, we drive towards Mörön at the pace of an overloaded car. There, he will sell his meat and I will take a minibus and reach the winter camp of a group of Tsaatans, the Mongolian reindeer herders. Let’s go to the taïga!
Because of the low temperature, Lake Khövsgöl is considered frozen enough to be driven across — a discordant opinion as the recent ice festival has been canceled. The minibus is packed, and it’s better like this. Of course, it means that I have to forget about comfort, but being squeezed also means being warm. I don’t feel comfortable at the idea of driving on a lake in an overloaded vehicle. Also, knowing that going across the lake by night implies a risk of getting lost doesn’t help — Lake Khövsgöl is 136km long and 36km wide. I have no choice but to commend my life into the hands of the driver.
A lunar landscape passes before my eyes and I almost forget what weird thoughts remind me soon enough, we are driving on water:
— What if the ice breaks?
— Considered how far we are from civilisation, I am not sure any of us would survive…
— And what if the minibus breaks down, huh? Did you think about that?
Night has fallen altogether with temperature. The driver stops and goes out. Heads twist and turn, trying to see what’s happening. I can read a mild worry in the eyes of the passengers in this metal box. The driver comes back and the trip goes on. Half an hour passes, maybe even an hour. I experience some difficulties with time since I’m in Mongolia. Then he halts the bus again. Why does he have to turn off the engine every time he stops? Puff-puff-puff… Will it start this time? You already know the answer since you’re reading those lines. Driving on ice has got an advantage: it’s flat, relaxing. However, I can’t fall asleep; who knows why. Would it be the frost-covered window on which my face gets stuck? In any case, my neighbour seems to appreciate my shoulder. I observe the moon through the window of the roof. And then, we stop again. Suddenly, everything shakes. I can feel the minibus climbing an incline. The tense looks become relaxed, tongues are loosened and the radio is on. There is definitely a universal language among humans and I understand that we just landed. Phew!
Hours pass by. Sitting in a very uncomfortable position, I can’t feel my toes anymore and I envy the reindeer skin boots of the lady in front of me. At least, she can sleep. Too numb to be concerned about my reluctance of contact with strangers, I huddle against my neighbour. My eyes close, my soul gets away for a moment… and we stop once more. Brutal waking up for a warm pause at one of the passenger mother’s yurt. She gets her son back before we set off again. I go back to sleep, we’re arrived. How long did it last, one hour? Two hours? Ten minutes? Once again, I have no idea. The only thing I know is that we left almost ten hours ago. In the house of my hosts, I am blessed with smiles from ear to ear, hot tea and cream stuffed cake. Children are curious and the few words of Mongolian I have learnt make the family laugh. I feel in tip top form. No luck, it’s time to sleep.
Waking up around noon, right after the family. I am not riddled with guilt. Neighbours come to visit us. Tea, biscuits, a hot meal, … then a bottle of vodka: a few friendly drunkards came. Then starts an armchair debate between their rudimentary English and my Mongolian, even worse. We speak about Gengis Khan, Napoleon, Staline, Hitler, … Bush, Sarkozy; “Same!” exclaims my new friend before bursting out laughing and translating the discussion to his friends. The driver just finished checking his Jeep, an unbreakable relic that needs to be cranked. We can go.
Click, click, click, … Vroooooom! With a thunderous roar we drive towards the taiga. I was complaining about the lack of comfort in the minibus only because I didn’t know what to expect. I am worried by a bunch of electric wires dangling next to the gear lever. Rightly. Between two wedges, a thick smoke comes out of them. Emergency procedure, everybody out of the car! Luckily, no fire, nothing more than smoke. I always carry with me a thick roll of tape that I use to fix approximately everything. I propose some to the driver. He fixes the car. I can already imagine the face of the mechanics if they knew that we could fix our cars with tape…
We arrive safe and sound at the Tsaatan’s winter camp. The ground is still covered by snow. A welcoming committee — of the hairy kind — weaves in and out of the pine trees, sniffing us and asking for caresses. Once accepted, we walk towards a small wooden house where Gamba, one of the village shamans, lives with his family. I will quickly learn that this is the place where everybody comes to hang out. Following the tradition, we walk inside — without knocking at the door — and sit down for a tea. There, I am proposed a family to live with for the nine following days, at the winter pace of the Tsaatans.
To be continued…
This post has been predated in order to fit best the time I’ve been experiencing these moments.