Party with the Reindeers (Tsaatans 2/2)
Getting out of the five layers of woollen blankets, ultimate shields against the frozen nights, does involve an extra effort. As I walk out of the teepee I can see the morning fog crystallising into tiny diamonds that sparkle in the air. As they see me, reindeers stand up straight and stare at me with black and globulous eyes expressing both suspicion and curiosity. My stay with the Tsaatans starts here at the pace of winter.
On reindeer back
Living from reindeer doesn’t only mean living by its meat. As the other people depending on this animal, the Tsaatans use reindeer for everything: transportation, food, art, etc.
Our reindeers’ steps sink deep into the powder snow. Around us, only white taiga and silence. A feeling of well-being overwhelms me. Despite its adapted hooves my mount looks odd with its round eyes and a protruding tongue. Yet I am quite thin! I feel sorry for the poor animal carrying my friend Oko, right in front of me, which is about twice my weight. Anyways we reach the summit, an arid berm covered by frost and blown by cold and constant wind. A stunning panorama unfolds on Tsaagannuur (white lake) and the white chain of mountains at its edge. From up there it’s like if we were the only humans on the planet. No trace of our species anywhere, even in the perfectly blue sky. One exception though, the altar made of stones on which we pay tribute to the spirits by burning juniper and scattering droplets of milk that freeze in the air.
We ride back down to the camp, frozen to the bones. The dog that came with us has another idea. I watch her climbing this summit eyeing me up. From there, she gives a look at us and runs like crazy in the deep snow. A bestial incarnation of happiness.
At the pace of winter
Half an hour and a fall later the winter pace catches me up:
– Enter at a neighbour’s place
– Sambeno! (Hi!)
– Drink a hot tea, sometimes with reindeer milk and its fruity taste
– Eat the biscuits and the meat & pastas soup that are offered to you. Sometimes, if you’re lucky enough, you can be proposed some “sausage” — meat-stuffed reindeer intestines, a rubbery experience!
– Smoke a cigarette (if you’re a smoker)
– Possibly play one or two games of poker — the local kind
– Bayalta! (Bye!)
– Enter to the next neighbour’s place.
Useless to say that after a couple of these visits my stomach orders me to stop being social. Then comes the moment to watch time pass, an absurd concept for our westerner mind. Time is a luxury to us; here I am a billionaire.
Despite this peacefulness it can occur that your heart panics. That’s what happens to me on the way to a teepee yet unknown. A dog runs towards me, stops dead, bare fangs, and barks at me. He is quickly followed by an other dog, and a third one. Becoming buddy-buddy is not worth considering. I have no choice but to face up bare teethes in an attempt to intimidate them. Nothing can be done, I am frightened and they can feel it. They take one step backward then two steps forward before trying to circle me. I panic and almost fall in the snow. I need to get hold of myself. Inhale, exhale… I feel calm again, keep on facing up to the dogs and back up making sure they do not circle me. Step by step I get closer to a teepee. Phew! Saved! Despite this frightening experience I will go back there tomorrow but this time, more confident, I will reach my goal — photography is often a good way to stretch your limits!
Women’s day — Every reason is good for a party!
Winter in the taiga is long and days look more or less the same. What better way to break this monotony than by having a party? There is a worldwide one that you’d better not miss: the women’s day. Everybody takes out the bottles hidden under the bed and here we go! From teepee to teepee, one invites each other for a drink. Beer, red wine from Germany(!) and Bulgaria (!!), and of course vodka.
Women of the village met at Gampa’s house — the chaman — around the table and fill up the only glass before passing it to each other. They challenge themselves while men are taking care of the cooking and wait for their turn. As night comes, it continues at our place: about twenty persons under a teepee, the party is in full swing! Some try to marry Tsarko, my host, to Valérie, a French lady that came to spend nine months here with the Tsaatans. Laughs give place to music. Traditional songs are sung, a guitar — fixed with cord — is played… then the lights are switched off and the radio on. For a moment the teepee becomes a night club. Everybody is dancing, faces are redden by the glow of the stove and they look like some disturbing masks of fire. The magic shades off as fast as it came when the awful light of the led reappears. But in a few seconds the teepee is abandoned. Party is over.
Winter pace or not, nine days fly by. Sun is shining and weather turns warm. Dogs are sunbathing and the camp is basking in a picnic atmosphere. There are unmistakeable signs, spring is coming. The Jeep too, heavily loaded. But why are there so much toilet paper rolls in the trunk? Maybe because it is kind of a supermarket on wheels…
Now is time to open up a couple of beers and to knock back another bottle of vodka while smoking cigarettes. Happy hour, kind of. One hour later we squeeze into the car. The driver pushes the crank handle. Vroom! This is the end of the adventure. There is only one thing I will not miss. Guess what?
Reindeers running towards me when I pee…
Why do they do that?
For the salt contained in my urine…
Hum! A strange way to finish a blog post, isn’t it? ;)