At the Tsaatans

Monday 21/08 (2/2)

We discover our “assigned” teepee. It is basically a teepee of one family, who, for a few nights, squeezes into another teepee with another family.

The good news is that the teepee is “heated”: like in the yurt, there is a central stove. Isabelle and the kids stay inside for at least half an hour to warm themselves.

The bad news is that there are only 3 wooden beds in our teepee and there’s no much space to sleep on the floor (which is the ground itself, rather bumpy). We ask Natsca to find another teepee, which she does after talking to one of the men of the village. Our new teepee is located at the beginning of the village, with a nice view. It has 4 beds, which is already better but still one is missing. They remove one and add a matrimonial one. Beds are basically wooden planks next to each other, resting on tree trunks cut in half.

We were surprised when we entered their teepees; living standards are very basic: one solar panel for light, a stove in the middle, and only half of the floor grounds is covered with a mat, the rest is wild grass. There are no tables or chairs, no furniture to talk of really. It is inspiring to see these simple living standards.

We have rice with potatoes and meat for lunch. We start to get bored of this food…

Natsca is informing us that the Tsaatans are organizing a reindeers race, with children as riders. It was requested by other tourists. That’s the real bad news of the day. It took us 5½ days to arrive here, including 3 days of uncomfortable van and 2½ days on horses to discover that this small village (of about 180 people) is hosting other tourists (4 Turkish and 8 Japanese)!!! I couldn’t believe it…

But the great news is that the sun is shining this afternoon! Perfect timing. It feels so good.

The race is nice with 8 participating kids, on a distance of 300m. There is even a prize ceremony. We unfortunately didn’t bring any present for the kids; we give one of Florence’s t-shirts.

We go back to our teepee.

The main problem is that I’m nowhere comfortable, ever. It’s annoying.

We all take a “shower” in our teepee: we put a basin on the stove and filled it in with water. After 5 days without any kind of washing, it feels good.

We are quite well in our teepee, after 2 days in the tents that are small (you can basically only lie down in these tents).

We play board games, which hasn’t happened much since our departure. We brought plenty of such board games with us. We selected them at Chouchou, in Brussels, where we spent nearly 2 hours playing with Bernard’s son. Their advice are always great.

Diner at 7:30pm in the teepee where Natsca and our cook stay. Good dumplings. We were happy to eat something a bit different.

We discuss the remaining of our programme with our squad. We decide to stay 3 nights here. It will be good for me to have 2 full days without going on a horse, in order to rest and hopefully heal my ribs. It was also the goal of the trip so it makes sense to stay here 2½ days rather than 1½.

When we return in our teepee, the kids, who came back a bit earlier, are surrounded by 8 local children who are playing on their iPhones… Funny scene!

Our host, Ghanna, whose teepee is nearby ours, comes and brings more logs and a neon working on a battery (probably powered up earlier on by a solar charger).

We wrote a bit our diaries in our beds (where else?…).


Tuesday 22/08

Wake-up at around 8am. It’s drizzling.

It’s not too cold in the teepee since our neighbour (our host) came at 7:30am to light up the fire.

During the night (4:30am), Isabelle and I already lit up the fire and filled it in with at least 6 logs. We were indeed freezing (and I was awake since I kept on sliding on my bed, which is not really flat…).

From one of the many “openings” of the teepee (which are holes in fact), we can observe the daily life of the Tsaatans; one family is freeing their reindeers after the night so they can go to the taiga to find food. Small ones are sucking their mothers.

We go to the ‘kitchen’ teepee to get breakfast around 9:30am. Ludivine didn’t want to go; she is fed up with the “concrete bread with jam”… But today Tsitse prepared pancakes (oily and thick ones), which we enjoy.

We then go back to our teepee. It’s snowing!!! The summits of the nearby mountains are white! In August!!!

We stay in our teepee, observing the snow falling from the opening of our teepee.

We do some homeschooling for the kids. I also selected the pictures; not that easy to select pictures from this trip (although I did very few pictures after my fall, as we were most of the time on our horses).

We cook ourselves for lunch, in our teepee. We prepare the (German…) spaghetti that I bought in Moron. Not that easy without sieve, a stove all but flat and only 2 plates. But we manage. It is not that bad.

We keep on resting in our teepee (including reading a chapter of Michel Strogoff).

Natsca comes to inform us that we can go in the (neighbouring) teepee of the newlyweds. The father of the groom is our host. He apparently was the main character of a French documentary on the Tsaatans. We can ask him questions. I find it strange that the Tsaatans are only herders and not hunters nor farmers.

The girl is preparing a soup with pieces of reindeer meat, actually “good”. The guy is serving us shots of vodka, the first one with a note that we can keep. Before leaving, we also put, as per the tradition, a note on a wire that is suspended in their teepee. Their teepee is brand new and much nicer than the others.

We then go for a walk around the village, to enjoy the nice sunshine. We keep being amazed in being here, in this environment. It’s really a ‘out-of-time’ place.

We witness the (very fast) construction of a teepee.

Diner at 7:30pm. It’s amazing how time flies… although we haven’t done much today (to say the least…). She prepared pasta with potatoes (of course), carrots, onions and beetroot. Not bad but we start getting really bored of this same smell of each meal…

Isabelle reads Michel Strogoff. We all fall asleep while she’s reading.



Wednesday 23/08

Again a difficult night. These beds are so hard; my ribs hurt at each movement. Ludivine didn’t sleep well either. The kids are fine. Isabelle took care of each of us, one by one, in the middle of the night. We appreciate her actions even more than ever before, in these difficult conditions.

We light up the fire.

Since no one can remember the last chapter of Michel Strogoff of yesterday, I re-read it + few other ones. We’re approaching the end of the book.

Weather is “ok”; grey and cold.

We consume a lot of wood. Basically from 7:30am to 9pm, we put 2-3 new logs every 30′.

We go for a walk, through the forest this time. It’s not too cold (the wind is not too strong).

We are surprised to see so few people outside. They all seem to spend their time inside their teepee.

The Tsaatans need to take care of their reindeers twice a day only: in the morning the reindeers are milked and then set free to wander to their grazing area in the taiga (swampy coniferous forest) ; in the evening they collect the reindeers, which come trotting back to their home like clockwork, and tie them to stakes in the ground for the night. To be fair, woodworking takes also some of the Tsaatans’ time (with this kind of weather, they must use an impressive quantity of wood). Only the kids seem to enjoy playing outside (they like skipping rope).

A few words about the Tsaatan way of life: These reindeer herders are a nomadic tribe, moving from pasture to pasture every 3 months or so in search of lichen that’s essential to the wellbeing of their reindeer. The Tsaatan people seem to live their life like they always have; herding and living of their reindeers. Early morning you can see the women milking their reindeers. They don’t get much milk each time; only one cup from each reindeer. I guess they have to leave some milk for the calves as well. The men take care of most of the herding, chopping wood, and collecting berries from the woods, while the women take care of the milking and cooking. Unique among reindeer-herding communities, the Tsaatan raise their animals almost exclusively for milk, with reindeer milk, yoghurt and cheese being the staples of their diet. Only a few reindeer are slaughtered during the year for supplementary meat; the Tsaatans indeed need them for the milk and as pack animals.

Jules enjoys very much to use the (heavy) axe of our host to (try to) split logs into 2.

I go and speak to Natsca to see if there is a possibility to shorten the trip back to Moron (I’m much afraid of the 2½ days on horse and I believe we have suffered enough of the cold). Even if we have to wait a few days in Moron (vs. 1 night initially scheduled), I believe that we will be better in Moron: I hope the hotel might have some kind of shower and toilet and certainly better beds, if not also an internet connection. I also hope that there might be some kind of decent restaurant (although our only meal there did not bode well…

We do some homeschooling.

Lunch at 1pm. Tsitse comes and brings it to us in our teepee. Meat (good small pieces), “French fries” (not sufficiently fried unfortunately) and plain rice (to the great satisfaction of the kids).

We continue a bit the homeschooling.

Natsca says that we can reach Moron earlier. It’s a good news (we should normally have no more night in tents) although it also means that we will have a long day on horse (6-7 h) tomorrow… I fear the worst…

Then we have the opportunity to ride the reindeers. Isabelle and the kids have fun.

I find the village very dirty. There are no paths; there are swamps all over and reindeers (and humans) poops everywhere; they also put their trash everywhere. Hygienic conditions are deplorable.

Four Slovak tourists come and say hi to us in our teepee. They very nicely offer us Slovak cheese. They are here mainly for fly-fishing. They fish some kind of huge salmon (1.2m long) with mouse as bait, at night. We had also met earlier on 2 Israeli who were on a 16-day trip on horse. And sometimes we believe we are a bit “adventurers”…

Warm soup with pasta as diner.

Then we reorganize a bit the teepee since there is a lot of wind tonight entering the teepee and we don’t want the kids to sleep near the tarp of the teepee.


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