I needed out of Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia’s capital city, the coldest national capital on Earth, is choked with coal dust in winter and construction debris in every other season. It was the summer of 2016, and I’d just spent a year there teaching English and chasing stories as a freelance writer. When my fellow teacher Anudari suggested a trip to the taiga, I jumped in her car, no questions asked.
The taiga refers to a vast Siberian forest that spills over the Russian border into Mongolia. The most famous part lies beyond Lake Hövsgöl at the country’s northernmost point. This is where the Tsaatan live. A remote minority group of nomadic reindeer herders, they are often problematically characterized as “mystical,” “untouched,” and even a “lost tribe.” Not to mention “highly photogenic.”
Anudari steered us expertly through Ulaanbaatar’s motionless traffic and onto a rare paved highway. The sky unfurled as we turned west, the landscape falling open in all directions. Anudari chatted excitedly. A Mongolian American, she frequently traveled into the countryside with her family, but she’d always wanted to visit the Tsaatan. This would be a magical experience. The trip of a lifetime.