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Steppe by Steppe
A slow journey through Mongolia

By Gill Suttle


Extract 1 - Reindeer Herders

As we rode soggily up the northern branch of the valley, not a bird or beast stirred on its forested slopes. It was as if evolution had passed it by. Towards the top was a sudden explosion of orange; a swathe of Siberian globeflowers, ravishing in the desolation. Above stretched a bank of melting snow. Suddenly the thought of reindeer seemed highly appropriate.

A large obo, surrounded by gentians, crowned the pass. We dismounted to make a clockwise circuit, and tied tufts of hair from our horses' tails to the central pole. Great mountain peaks now stood all around us.

Ahead, three valleys branched off. To the right, towering peaks at the end delineated the Russian border. To the left, a river of white water thundered down to join the distant Yenisei, gathering tributaries as it went. And in the centre valley, from which the torrent issued as a moderate stream, we could just make out in the distance a cluster of white dots: the tepees of the Tsaatan.

A few miles up the valley, we met a sudden commotion. Four hundred reindeer came crashing round the shoulder of the mountain, splashed through the stream and raced ahead of us towards the camp. Behind them galloped three mounted youths, whooping like cowboys. With an answering yell Tokhtbat was off, dragging my tottering pony in a headlong dash through peat hags and over rocks, lurching through the streams and hollows with scant regard for the life and limb of any of us. For the second time in two days we finished our march at the gallop. But as we approached I could think of only one thing: there was smoke issuing from the tops of the tepees. The promise of warmth and dry clothes beckoned.

Five minutes later we were under cover, drinking hot, salt tea and steaming gently by a glowing stove.

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