26th June 2012
This country is incredible, and we’ve just had the most amazing first week riding in northern Mongolia. There are over 3 million horses here and they’re not only a prized possession of a Mongol but the means of living and survival. Riding defines the nomadic culture and any nomad can ride as well, perhaps even better than he can walk. The horses here are small, with strong chests and despite their short legs are incredibly tough and know how to shift if you give them their heads.
As seems to be the case with the majority of our riding trips, alcohol tends to be a priority - obviously for medicinal purposes to help keep the pain at bay after spending long hours in the saddle. So for my group, there was no surprise that as well as the duty free purchases, which included whisky, brandy and Kahlua (from the Aussie contingent of the group) we caused quite a stir in the supermarket, as we managed the perfect supermarket sweep, that even Dale Winton would’ve been proud of, and emptied the shelves of red wine, Golden Gobi (the local beer), vodka and a token couple of bottles of Pepsi – I can safely say that I never expected to be sitting in Mongolia, around the camp fire, drinking Black Russian cocktails
We headed north into Siberia, to East Taiga to visit the Tsaatan (reindeer people). Arriving into the village was like arriving into another world, it was surreal; we’d had a tough, slow ride across the mountains in the morning, slowly picking our way through the bogs before descending down into the valley; as the trees started to clear we could see the tops of the tee-pees and hear the reindeer below; it was unbelievable, the whole group seemed to stop breathing as the exhilaration and excitement passed through us all. We were witnessing one of the most remote ethnic groups in the world - to put it into perspective on how remote these people are, it’s taken 4 days travelling time, by plane, 4WD and horse to get here.
Once we’d got over the excitement of the reindeer snoozing in the sunshine we were ushered into a tee-pee to have our first taste or reindeer milk and some lunch. The first tee-pee we were invited into was the home of the shaman that would be carrying out the ceremony later on that night, he was rather taken with one member of the group, Kyla, who at over 6 foot was immediately given the name, Tall Flower.
Mongolians are very spiritual people and shamanism originated some 5000 years ago and derives from respect and worship of nature. The Mongolian shamanism reveres from the three totems; father of heavens, mother of the earth and spirits of the ancestors. During the ceremony the Shaman communicates with the spirits of the dead giving him the power of healing. Taking part in the ceremony, that we were invited to join, were two young children, one no older than 3 months, who had come all the way from Ulaanbaatar with the hope of a cure. It was fascinating to watch, as the ritual began the Shaman was dressed by his helpers, before he began chanting and beating his drum encouraging the evil spirits to leave the tee-pee and the good spirits to stay and communicate with him. Judging by the emotion that was shown from the families that were taking part, something really special was happening, and I know that speaking to the group afterwards some of them were adamant that they could feel the spirits leave the tee-pee. The ceremony went on into the night as we quietly left one by one back to our own tee-pee.
The time we spent with the Reindeer people is one I don’t think anyone of us will forget in a very long time. We all helped to feed the baby reindeer, helped with the milking (some more successfully than others) and there was even the opportunity for a morning ride on the reindeer. However the one thing that I think we’ll all remember is all bundling in together and trying to sleep in a tee-pee that had been pitched on the lumpiest patch of ground in the whole valley.