• Heather Mills Messner

Finding Zaya: A QUEST IN MONGOLIA


“Find Zaya. She’s a magic unicorn person,” was the directive from my friend-of-a-friend, Ralph, who I’d never met. I sat tapping my foot and wringing my hands in a dingy Ulaanbatar guesthouse until I worked up the nerve to coldcall Skype him. Two days before leaving for Mongolia, I randomly ran into a friend on the street street in my home town of Crested Butte, Colo., someone I hadn’t seen in nearly a year. He told me excitedly over tea that this guy Ralph “had pretty much done the same trip” I had planned in Mongolia. Which came as a surprise to me, because my travel plans consisted of: go to Mongolia, rent some horses, hire a guide, ride out across the fenceless, grassy expanse amongst the nomadic herdsman—a romantic idea, no? So, there I sat with a head full of ideas and no real plan on a solo adventure in a country where very little English was spoken, and I spoke not a single word of the language (Mongolian). The use of the Cyrillic alphabet (think Russian) meant I could neither read nor write. All the internet or guidebook research I’d attempted before leaving had gotten me nowhere. The few outfitters found online charge exorbitant rates for seven-to-10 day adventures on horseback, but I’m not one for packaged tours (or doing things the easy way!). So, I just showed up and hoped for the best with the six weeks I had carved out between summer and winter jobs. I was experimenting with a “trust fall” with Life. This led me to call this stranger/friend-of-a-friend, Ralph, on my second day in the country. I mentioned to him the few activities/ ideas I’d come up with, other than my original romantic horseback fantasy, which consisted of 1) go to the national Golden Eagle Festival in the far western city of Olgii; and 2) visit the Tsaatan people, the semi-primitive hunter-gatherer culture of reindeer herders in the far north. At this point, he told me to “Find Zaya.” He claimed this woman was a native Mongolian who had studied in Colorado on exchange and was affiliated with the Tsaatan somehow. He had no contact information for her, but he’d met her years before. Also, the Reindeer People move their camps at least six times per year in the taiga forest of the north, so even finding them in the wild landscape is tricky. In a country twice the size of Texas with three million people scattered across the landscape, I had little hope for finding this “magic unicorn person.” However, after my first chance meeting of a friend in Crested Butte led me to Ralph, I continued to trust that Life would keep leading if I kept following, so I went along with it. Unsure of my next move, I did what seemed logical for my original plan. I stayed in a traditional yurt at a horse outfitter near the capital city. I rode Mongolian horses with the guides and clients at least twice per day during that time. I made friends and fraternized with the volunteers at the camp. I learned the temperament of the half-wild, highly spirited, ponysized breed. I observed and queried how to round up and catch horses, their methods of tying, hobbling, saddling, and bridling. And I witnessed the training methods employed to break new horses: lasso the horse, trip it and wrestle it to the ground, jump on, and good luck! I also learned a few important aspects about Mongolian culture. On the good side, Mongolians in the countryside are very hospitable to strangers, offering tea, meals, and lodging to wandering travelers. Additionally, both Mongolian women and travelers are generally respected and not harassed by men. On the negative side, horse-thievery still poses a major problem in Mongolia, particularly to foreigners. And the most concerning to me were the firmly entrenched gender roles of men and women. Although women are respected, the woman’s role is to bear and raise children, milk the animals, and prepare food for everyone. Women do not ride horses. Women do not travel alone. What this meant for me is that I was not allowed to catch my own horse, saddle or bridle my horse, tie down my saddlebags, or in any way handle my horse besides riding it. Also, the herdsman thought something must be wrong with me that I did not have my husband or children with me (who was taking care of the babies and animals? Who cooked the food?). Despite the difference in gender roles, I continued to trust that Life would lead me to the next person or circumstance in this progressive trust fall. And a circumstance presented itself. I pushed back against Life and took the lead into a solo horse trip to Terelj National Park. A city slicker “guide” from Ulaanbatar conned me into accompanying, and I soon discovered he’d never ridden a horse. Our poorly outfitted horses rented from a local herder family had saddles cinched together with rotting hand-made twine and makeshift potato sack saddlebags. All the confusion and begrudging attitudes toward my independent nature and life position almost lost me the horse rental deal. And the three-day adventure was plagued by cinches and stirrups breaking repeatedly, my “guide” being unseated from his horse twice, and torrential rain. Defeated and feeling that Life had let me fall, I resigned myself to the idea that I may have to give in and go on a packaged tour. My outlook changed and faith in the trust fall renewed when my friend and love interest, Eric, decided to join me on my Mongolian adventure, two weeks after my arrival in the country. While I awaited his arrival at the airport, a Mongolian man named Enkhbat approached me and struck up a conversation. He gave me the contact info for a tour guide company across the span of the country in Olgii, where we were heading. I had my doubts due to my first guide experience, but took down the name and number anyway, just in case Life was testing my trust. Upon Eric’s arrival, we met up with Mac, a friend made at the horse outfitter where I had spent several days. We all three boarded a cross-country bus to witness the national Eagle Hunter Festival in Olgii. Due to the complete lack of infrastructure in the Mongolian countryside, the 1,700-km bus ride took a continuous 50 hours on nothing but poorly bulldozed dirt lanes. But we enjoyed each other’s company, and Eric and I agreed that we should travel as Mongolian husband and wife to avoid sidelong glances. Dusty and road weary from the travel, we found cheap accommodation in a guesthouse yurt. The next day, us three musketeers decided to contact the tour company recommended by Enkhbat, the random Mongolian at the airport. Life delivered on my trust once again, and we delighted for several days in the first rate service provided by our intelligent and soft-spoken local guide, Nurlan. He took us to stay as guests with an eagle hunter family. We rode horses with Kiran and his trained eagle (a famous golden eagle hunter who has been featured in National Geographic and won the national festival three times). During our home stay of horse riding with an eagle, milking goats, riding camels and drinking airag (fermented horse milk), we also met a German photographer named Frank. He had married a Mongolian woman and they opened an orphanage in the capital, Ulaanbatar. We came to find out he was well connected on the Mongolian scene. After all the chance meetings I’d had thus far, I half wondered if Life had something in store for us. Days later, the national Eagle Hunter Festival began in Olgii. Like a scene from the Wild West, the 93 eagle-hunter participants galloped around the open, dusty competition field in full hunter regalia with their large birds displayed on their arms. The various eagle hunting competitions, horse races, archery contests, horseback sheepskin tug-of-war, and long distance camel race spanned two days. We watched in amazement as the equal talent and lawless hooliganism ensued all around. But beyond our wide-eyed amusement, our wonder soared when we ran into Frank the German photographer again at the festival. We mentioned that we’d like to visit the Tsaatan Reindeer People in the north, and he replied that we must speak with Zaya. We were even more dumb-founded when he produced her phone number. Indeed, Life did have something in store! The next day we called the number, and sure enough, Zaya, the “magic unicorn person,” answered the phone. We had contacted her at just the right time. They were close to moving their green canvas tipis from the “last autumn place” to the “winter place” and would be out of contact for several days. She gave an email address for us to arrange a visit and stay with the Reindeer People for a week. We parted ways with Mac, after a riproaring good time and a life-long friendship formed, and embarked on another adventure in Mongolian overland travel. We spent six hard days by bus, shared mini-van taxi, midnight arrival at hostels, getting dropped off at dawn in a no-name town in the middle of nowhere, guest-house yurt stays with pit toilets in the back yard, no running water, getting stuck in half-frozen rivers, border permit delays, and a 10-hour four-wheel drive trip so brutal we tied scarves tightly around our guts to avoid vomiting. Life gave us a little “pep talk” along the way in the form of a shaman in a roadside shack reading sheep anklebones for us, and a favorable reading at that. We finally arrived in a village called Tsaaganoor— the jumping off point to find the Reindeer People. The arduous voyage seemed to be a test of clout from Life to see if we’d follow through. After a late night arrival in Tsaaganoor and a short sleep in a shared bunkroom lit by candlelight, we loaded into the Russian van for our last three-hour slushy landscape slalom to the meeting point with the Reindeer People (Tsaatan). Life delivered a scene beyond imagination when we arrived at the meeting place at the edge of a half-frozen marsh. The snowcapped peaks framed the picturesque deep blue lake, and the Tsaatan awaited us with the softest and gentlest animals imaginable, reindeer. By reindeer is how we rode to the “last autumn place.” We hucked ourselves onto the saddles, trying not to go over the opposite side. Reindeer are extremely round, and can’t be mounted like a horse with one foot in the stirrup, or the saddle will turn to the underside of the belly. A two-hour, smooth-gaited reindeer jaunt through red willow marshes, rolling taiga forest, mountainous surroundings, and a few inches of fresh snow brought us into some trees at the edge of a small creek surrounded by about 25 tipis. And Life delivered Zaya. She is a native Mongolian, originally from Ulaanbatar. She speaks perfect English with a Colorado accent (from living in Boulder as a child while her parents attended CU Boulder). After receiving a degree in international affairs in Shanghai, she decided to start a non-profit organization aiming to respect and preserve the heritage of the semi-primitive nomadic Tsaatan. After a time working with the people and for their sovereignty, she fell in love with the Tsaatan community, lifestyle, and a Tsaatan man named Oltsen. Life had guided her to these people and what resonated as her true home. The days slowed to the natural pace of things as we learned the ways of the Tsaatan. We stayed with Zaya and her husband, Oltsen, in their tipi. We helped move reindeer to good lichen patches to graze several times daily. I helped milk the females morning and evening. Eric chopped wood. I melted snow for drinking water. Eric helped repair the village’s one shared chainsaw. We both helped pack up the tipis from the last autumn place. Everyone in the village helped each other to move their entire lives via reindeer transport to the winter place. We set up the tipis again. Life delivered the honorable lesson of gender roles as everyone worked together as individuals in a community for the benefit of all. We also learned of the recent trials threatening the way of life of the Tsaatan. There are hardships due to the newly established national park in their traditional land restricting their seasonal movements. Also, new laws strictly forbid hunting on their traditional lands, further threatening their subsistence ways. Yet they persist and keep working toward a way of life in which they believe. Throughout the Mongolian journey, Life taught me to trust. I may not know where I am being led, or who I will meet to help out. Life sent me a “Mongolian husband” in Eric who helped immensely with both the enjoyment of the trip and learning to honor the masculine and feminine roles. Life taught me valuable lessons regarding the struggle and rewards of being a community both with each other and with the land inhabited by the people. In the end, I did find Zaya and she was exemplary, guided by Life and her passion and diligence. I witnessed and felt inspired by the community of the Reindeer People. Ultimately, I found when I am open to trust and being led by life, magic can find me.


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