An Ode to Reindeer
Updated: Sep 10, 2018
You can’t help falling in love with reindeer.
Among all the animals roaming Mongolian expanse, reindeer stands out as the most delicate, the most alluring and definitely the tastiest one.
While a yak stares at you with all the emotion of a pommel, a reindeer casts a diva-like glance from under diva-like eyelashes. A camel always wears the unsightly brown crust on its ass, but a reindeer is always nice from every angle, from the velvet-wrapped antlers to a petite, spotless behind. Camel milk tastes like the sour wind of the Gobi desert, but reindeer milk is clean, heavy and feels like hot silk in your mouth. If you stand in the middle of a sheep or goat herd, you will be stunned by the relentless group farting going on all day long, but when the reindeer run past you like a beautiful stream of snow white and herring gray, all you hear is the delicate sound of ankle bones rustling – tsa! tsa! tsa! – and that’s why “tsaa” is the taiga people’s name for the reindeer, and Tsaatan people call themselves just that.
Among Tsaatan, reindeer is very much part of the tribe. Every family chooses a special reindeer to be sanctified by a shaman to carry inside the living spirits of the locale. The designated reindeer wears a pretty scarf, usually of blue silk, it never gets butchered or even tied down, so it develops a habit of roaming around the village, sneaking inside empty yurts or following people around.
The spirit reindeer of my nomadic host family happened to be angel-white and totally shameless. The relentless beast treated me as a personal entertainment channel with the 24/7 access. My pet-owning friends often complain how awkward it is for them to act naturally in the bathroom in the presence of a family pet. Now imagine yourself on a mountain, in pristine taiga, ankle-deep in the early morning dew, preparing for the inevitable in the endless open space, with no doors or walls to create any comfort zone. And now picture – three steps in front of you – a very patient white reindeer, staring without blinking. You have to go urgently, and he’s got nowhere urgent to go. Guess which one of the two has more fun playing this game and doesn’t ever get tired of it.
Sometimes reindeer are used as cargo transport for moving the temporary camp from an old pasture to a new one. Loaded with pots, pans, solar batteries and other household stuff, a reindeer occasionally readjusts the cargo weight by shaking its skin, the pots and pans rumbling as if the animal is performing a shamanic ritual to secure good luck for its own upcoming journey.
But the very best moment in a reindeer village is when a herd pours back from the mountains at sunset, preceded by a delicate sound wave of ankle bones clicking, as if a flock of angels is descending upon you. And you feel it’s a perfect moment to make a wish, yet you can’t remember anything you ever wanted before, but it’s all right, it is actually quite all right with you.