To the Edge of the World
First published Life and Leisure Magazine
This is unexpected. I look around the terminal. It's 4am. I am in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, home to 1.4 million, and the beginning of my journey to the fringes of sub-arctic Siberia.
In a few days, I will ride to the Tsaatan reindeer tribe in the Jigleg Valley, a remote location attainable only by horse. I once sat on a horse. For a few hours. Twenty years ago.
I am in Ulaanbaatar; my luggage is not.
Three hours later, I'm flying to Murun in the Khuvsgul Province with what I'm wearing and a day pack. For ten days, I will walk and ride and sleep in the same clothes, and, at the end of each day, smelling of horse, crawl into a borrowed sleeping bag.
Below is a barren and parched panorama, an exquisite, expansive emptiness. Treeless hills rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall, as if the land were gently breathing. A meditation.
Airplane becomes SUV. The Yamaat Canyon mountains are bald and rugged. Many are covered in rust tinted stones, painting whole mountains terracotta.
There are herds of yak: long-haired, long-horned, bulky, prehistoric-looking bovines. Ragged fur hangs pendulous from their flanks. They move, chew, move and chew, extracting the tiniest nourishment from bone-dry grass as it percolates through four stomachs. There is no mooing or bellowing, just a quiet studious munching.
Vultures loiter on mountains like street hooligans, awaiting death and decay. They cast piercing looks over razor, carrion-stripping beaks. While raptors, they are not killers. They are undertakers, engineered for processing the dead. A third eyelid protects against blood and flesh. Elastic stomach linings facilitate gorging. They are nature's gold standard recyclers.
Once aloft, a tilt of wing catches air currents, transforming them into regal 3-metre winged gliders, circling at heights of up to 7km.
On the curve of the horizon is a white spot. It grows to a round white dome: a gur, home to a nomad. Beside the gur is the 4WD epitome of communist ideals - the ubiquitous Russian Phurgon, gunmetal grey since 1965. It is the van of vans for nomads, who lovingly store spare parts under their beds.
Herds of horses roam the plains, nuzzling each others’ flanks, bathing in wide rivers, tails swishing. They trot and neigh and toss their heads with the exuberance of freedom. They are the last of the world’s wild horses.
Twilight lingers. The day stretches. The nights truncate.
SUV becomes horse. A grubby white, short-legged, stocky horse, with a broom-like mane and a crazy fleck in her eyes.
I sit statue still, gripping the reins. Sudden movements, our guide Tulga warns, might get you thrown.
With a sliver of disappointment, I relinquish control for comfort. Byambaa will guide my horse. She is rosy-cheeked and as robust as my horse. Without English, her default response to questions is to grin.
She rides in front, pulling a rope secured to my horse. Wherever her horse goes, my horse goes, albeit reluctantly, snorting and tossing her head.
"Nice accent," I say to Tulga across the small shrubs between our horses. "Sort of upper class British."
Tulga laughs. He wears a funky bandana and a 'deel,' a long traditional coat, black with a sash around the middle, and knee-length riding boots.
Educated in the People’s Republic of Mongolia (1924 - 1992), Tulga went to London to learn English.
"I was very anxious before coming to England in 1994,” he says poshly, reining his horse nearer mine. “I have been taught there were all murder in the street, bombing, shooting down and burgler, raping all over places."
27 years on, Mongolians are recovering communists, still adjusting to democracy and capitalism.
A mist creeps in, bringing the smell of rain. We squeeze between mountains and ride past glinting rivers of white. My horse pushes through swamp and scrub and long grass with soft pink flowers swaying in the afternoon breeze. Her flanks ripple with effort. She emanates warmth. She smells of wet and sweat.
Then it rains. And rains. It rains on the only set of clothes I have. My knees ache. My feet are wrinkle-wet. Between the mist and rhythm and song of drops, the Jigleg Valley comes into view.
The mountains wrapping the valley are a swampy coniferous forest: larch trees with slender, linear trunks, branches filigreed with needle-like leaves. A fast-flowing serpentine river bisects the valley.
Under angry grey are clusters of teepees. Whispers of smoke semaphore from their tops. Reindeer. Love at first sight. A fairytale valley with fairytale creatures: adults with majestic antlers, fluted and fanning from an arch atop delicate fawny heads, bright-eyed babies with smaller velvety nubs.
Clusters of reindeer are being herded across the river from a day of grazing for lichen. Others meander between people and teepees and shrubs, a front and rear leg bound together. They make eerily human sounds, like snoring. Creatures of the cold, antlers regulate body temperature, and dark moist noses warm the icy air before it enters their lungs.
Then the fairytale is interrupted. There are satellite dishes and solar panels and the dissonant sound of a chainsaw and a motorbike.
We ride across the river, up to a post with an enormous set of bleached antlers pinned to it, like a crucifix.
Nearby stand an elderly couple. They wear long grey 'deels', secured around the middle with a bright yellow sash. They are old, but how old? Men have a life expectancy of 65, women 75. And climate and toil have woven patterns on their leather faces.
"This is Ganbat and his wife Purevee," Tulga says. They are tribal elders, offering age and advice.
We grin and nod and shake hands. It's clear they don't understand English.
I have my own teepee. It's wrapped in thick charcoal canvas around long stakes, wide at the base, narrow at the top. A smokestack punctuates a hole at the top. A rusting potbelly stove sizzles when raindrops land on it. Triangular geometry pushes woodsmoke-scented heat down.
A teepee has no wall for artworks. No shelves for ornaments. No ensuite. No kitchen. No mortgage. Around the perimeter, log beds with thin mattresses serve as seats. An incandescent bulb clipped to a car battery swings in this low tech dwelling.
Nomadic, the Taatsen follow nature’s ebb and flow, seeking an optimal reindeer food supply. They unwrap, leaving a teepee skeleton, relocate, then rewrap over last season’s stakes. An ensuite would be difficult to transport on the rump of a reindeer.
I dump my day pack on the bed and marvel at how little I have, how unencumbered I feel and how in a week I'll have a hot shower. A life with less appeals. And just as I veer towards minimalism, the Taatsen edge towards its opposite: consumerism.
I strip and hang drenched clothes on strings between stakes. The teepee feels like a laundromat. I feed logs onto glowing embers and blow. Smoke billows out. Flames flicker
I walk around the rusty potbelly, with mud-cold soles, hands reaching towards the warmth, easing my aching knees. Gradually pale turns pink, the goosebumps subside, moisture dries. My skin glows. Spits of rain reach my face. The sounds of nearby reindeer seep into the teepee. The memory of the ride vibrates like a tuning fork. All of a sudden, I'm aware how alive I feel.
“We'll get the kids to race the reindeer!” Tulga announces. He's bounding around, grinning with childlike enthusiasm. “I do it every time.” What he loves best is what happens when the race is over. He zaps out instructions to nearby kids. Soon children around the village are rushing to find their reindeer, grins matching Tulga's.
A dozen rosy faced cherubs clambour onto their reindeer, assembling in a small field.
They cajole and urge and prod and shriek their reindeer on, but in the end, they trickle over the finish line. One or two recalcitrant animals head in a different direction.
Everyone is laughing. Tulga, eyes sparkling, gives each child a tugrik note - they are all winners - which they receive solemnly in two hands, raising the note to their faces, studying the paper in awe.
Mobile phones, chainsaws and motorbikes are fuelled by tugrik. Reindeer produce yogurt, cheese, and milk tea, not SIM cards.
Antlers, once used for tools, are sold as medicines and decorated with delicate reindeer images for a growing tourist economy.
Children are sent to boarding school. Teenage boys return, called by parents and the reindeer. The girls get smart haircuts and attend higher education. The world stage opens up. Tulga calls it the "gender problem" and it threatens this 1,000 year old culture. The girls move to cities. Feelings blossom for smart men and smartphones. They leave the reindeer boys … to their reindeer.
Byambaa crosses a river. We are halfway up the mountain, the Valley of the Reindeer fast receding. I'm overwhelmed by the power these horses have. The tether spans the water. Then her horse clips a rock and missteps. It rears up. Byambaa flies into the air. Thump! She smacks the ground, her cheek meeting rock, water cascading around her.
"Whoa! Whoa!" I've no time to think.
My horse jerks sideways, then rears, snorting. We collide with a tree, slamming my knee. I pull the reins. Hard. The horse snorts and jerks, mouth flaring against the bit. Shh...shhh..I pat her neck. I feel her agitation. Whoa! Shhh. Shhh. She calms. Amazing. Did I just do that?
Byambaa is up. She gives an awkward laugh. Her cheek is blushing. She walks to a tree, steadies herself, then places her bruise on wet leaves.
"I'm going on my own," I say. Where did that come from? I cross the river, splashing through a shallow section, and begin weaving through larch trees, feeling spikes of adrenaline. I guide my horse down a muddy slope. Surely her hooves will slide out from under? I lean back in the saddle, feet straining in the stirrups. At the bottom, she does a little tap dance, then steps over a large moss-green log.
For a while, we are knee-deep in swamp, her hooves sucked down by mud, beaded wet blades brushing my thighs. Rain seeps into my eyes. Needles are dappled with diamonds. I pat my horse, feeling pleased. She snorts, shifting on her hooves. Fair play to her. She's worked hard. I'm not independent. I'm interdependent.
Suddenly, something shifts for me. I see the carefully packed luggage I never missed; texts I didn't write; an isolated valley on the edge of the Earth; the alluring minimalism of the Taatsen nomads; the slender-limbed forest, craggy mountains and rugged canyons; the regal cadaver-cleaning aviators and prehistoric bovine; women, heads flattened against flanks, milking fairytale reindeer; the sparsely populated plains of meditation; endless twilights casting me adrift from time, space and direction; the entire globe in gravitational rotation, and, from this height, there are no lines between countries and I think: we are all in this together. Interdependent. I feel a great wave of warmth. Everything looks beautiful. A moment of absolute consciousness. Bliss.
Why can't it be like this always?