Keeper of the Reindeer of the Great Taiga
This article is reprinted from
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He walked for three days to fulfill a promise he gave a year ago. From over there beyond the mountain, from the summer pasture. By way of an old footpath, which nobody except him remembers anymore.
Whitefoot came with him – Ak-Khol, his dog with white front legs. And two riding reindeer, Blackie and Zorka.
For three days, the reindeer herder Oleg Orai-ool became the most popular person in the taiga spa “Ush-Beldir”, in the East of Tuva, on the border of Russia and Mongolia.
The children would not leave the reindeer: they petted them, touching the antlers with their fingers, surprised that in the summer they are so soft.
The adults were full of questions: the ordinary facts of life of the taiga reindeer herders are already exotica for city dwellers. There are not many left in the Todzha district – the only place in Tuva where reindeer herders live.
Everybody was taking pictures with the reindeer, on the reindeer, circling the meadow by the dining room. They were happy, trying to give the antlered ones treats of bread and caramels. But the city treats were not to the reindeers’ taste. But mushrooms, picked quickly in the nearby forest, were eaten by the reindeer with pleasure – it is their favorite delicacy. They remained pleased.
Oleg Baraanovich was also pleased. Because he kept the promise that he gave last year to the director of the spa, Mira Opeen: like a good neighbor, he brought the reindeer to visit and cheer the spa guests.
And also because it gave him a chance to be around people; he spends eleven months a year in the taiga with only reindeer for company. He gets to his native settlement Adyr-Kezhig only for 2 weeks, perhaps a month in a year at the most.
The trip to the settlement from the pastures in the taiga is not short. In the summer, it takes a week, because he has to ford mountain streams. In the winter it is faster on the reindeer, only five days.
BORN IN A CHOOM
Adyr–Kezhig is a small settlement about 8 km from Toora Khem, the district center of Todzha. The road to the picturesque lake Azas goes right through its center.
He has a small house in Adyr-Kezhig. But as a matter of fact, even though his passport lists this settlement as his place of birth, he was actually born on August 12, 1954, in the Great Taiga.
Ulug-Taiga (The Great Taiga) is the traditional clan area of pastures of his reindeer herding ancestors. His great-grandfathers, grandfather, his father and his mother herded reindeer here.
His mother carried the beautiful Russian name Polina, because his grandfather and grandmother liked its musical sound so much that they gave the name to their daughter
in the 30’s of the last century. She gave birth to him, the second of her seven children, in a choom.
Choom (alyzhy og) is a traditional dwelling of Tuvan-Todzhans. It is a sort of conical hut of poles tied together at the top. The diameter of such a hut is up to 5 meters, the height is about 2.5 – 3.0 meters.
In the summer, it is covered with birch bark, in the winter, with reindeer skins. (Very much like a wigwam or teepee of Native Americans). They also slept on reindeer skins, but the birch bark cradle for the newborn they would tie to the poles on the right side.
THE PROBLEM OF BRIDES
“I grew up on a reindeer”, - smiles Oleg Baraanovich. Just like all the children of reindeer herders who travel from place to place with their parents. In the summer, the reindeer would be taken high into the mountains, in the winter they would go to pastures
in the valleys.
He went to a live-in school in Adyr-Kezhig. For the vacations, his father would come
and take him home, to the taiga. In the summer, on horseback, in winter, on a reindeer.
A child first starts riding a reindeer at one year of age. There are special baby saddles. The babies are tied in so they would not fall off. When the family is moving to another place, the “baby” reindeer are tied together in a row, one after another, to the parents’ reindeer.
And such a caravan goes through the taiga. But at four years of age, the children can already ride independently.
His children grew up like that: Omak, Vitaliy, Vika and October.
Their father is satisfied with them; three sons and one daughter learned all the tricks and wisdom of the reindeer herding life. So now he is in Ush-Beldir. He left the reindeer with the youngest one, October, who finished school last year.
Only one thing worries the reindeer herder: all three of his sons are single; to this day, none of them has brought a wife into the house. Or rather, into the tent, because if your spouse is a reindeer herder, you have to share his tent with him. The Todzhans have not lived in chooms in a long time, they are heavy and it is difficult to take them along during the seasonal moves. You share the tent summer-winter long, just like he did for thirty years with his wife Tamara.
But nowadays it is a problem to find spouses for hereditary reindeer herders. He sighs: ”Earlier it was easier to find a wife. Now girls do not want to go live in the taiga. In a village, there is TV, a disco, etc. Life is much more cheerful, easier. Or they even want to go live in the city.”
But he still hopes: maybe this winter the sons will bring brides?
A TAIGA WEDDING
His Tamara was not like that. They even had their wedding in the taiga. They were both twenty, he just got back from the army – from the river Amur, and started to work as an assistant of the reindeer-herder, his father. And Tamara came to the camp as a temporary helper.
Together with other komsomol girls, who were sent by the sovkhoz in the spring, which is the busiest and most responsible time of calving, they were sent to help with the newborn calves. Tamara did not have to get used to taiga life – she was from a family of taiga hunters.
They held the taiga wedding in a tent. Everything was as it should be, with presents; somebody brought a teapot, another drinking bowls. Everything that is necessary in a taiga family household. Oleg Baraanovich laughs: ”In the taiga one does not need a TV, or a closet, nothing large and clumsy.”
But when they finished work, in the winter, they sat on their reindeer and went to the settlement to register the marriage in the farm council. And for thirty years they traveled together.
Only now, his faithful Tamara is not next to him anymore, he has been alone for a year and a half. His wife got sick and died. He misses her…
The housekeeping work fell to his daughter. “She also travels along with us in winter, I have let her stay alone in the village only last year, to watch over the house.”
THE DISAPPEARING HERDS
Today, there are 130 reindeer in the Orai-ool herd. Of course, that cannot be compared to what there used to be in the time of Grandfather Sambu – 400 heads.
Well, and in the old times it was not possible to count the reindeer of Todzha; tens of thousands reindeer grazed in the taiga.
In the second half of the 40’s of the 20th century, mass collectivization was instituted, which was completed around 1950. The arats were forced to “voluntarily” enter farming artels and kolkhozes, state farms, and to turn their animals over to the state: sheep, cows, horses.
In 1949, came the time for reindeer to be turned over to the state. In Todzha, in the settlement Adyr-Kezhig, a reindeer herder-hunter artel “May First” was founded, which later became a sovkhoz.
His grandfather and father both continued to walk after the family herd, but now it was not their personal property, but belonged to the state. The reindeer herders became a part of the meat-production plan; every year, they had to supply quotas of hundreds of reindeer to the district center for meat; reindeer meat is very soft and delicious.
The species quickly started to decrease in numbers. But there still were thousands. So, according to the statistics from January 1, 1981, there were 13,700 sovkhoz reindeer in Todzha.
Today, by the data of Ministry of Agriculture of RT, on July 1, 2008, there were only 1,487.
The reindeer herders, the former members of “May First”, are now united in a municipal firm “Odugen”, which has 1,270 reindeer. The rest of them are numbered in the herds of settlements Khamsara -156, and Toora-Khem-52.
JUST DON’T CUT THEM!!
Oleg Baraanovich explains: his herd of 130 heads is the largest in the district. That means that in Tuva, the others in “Odugen”, nobody has more than 100.
How many others? He thinks, and starts counting: “Bir, iyi, ush…Eleven! Eleven tents.”
That is how he counts his colleagues reindeer herders – by tents, with which they move from place to place.
At 54 years of age, he is the oldest among them. And also the most experienced. He has been walking with reindeer for 34 years. That is the official number, by the workbook, not including his childhood and teenage years, when his father and grandfather were teaching him all the knowledge of the taiga.
And there is not a little knowledge. Without it, you cannot take care of the domestic reindeer. The government now re-oriented the taiga dwellers towards protection of the species.
There are no more meat-production quotas. And so that they would not butcher the animals, without rhyme or reason, like in the first few years after the soviet rule fell, the reindeer herders receive special subsidies.
From the budget of the republic- 1,200 rubles every year for every reindeer – for protection of rare animals.
From the federal budget, under the paragraph “Government support of northern reindeer herding” – 260 rubles a head per year. Plus for the preservation of the gene pool – 4,000 rubles a year for each adult pregnant female. They calculate the number of pregnant females like this: total number of females is multiplied by 0.3, the result is multiplied by four thousand.
If you add everything together, the yearly income of a reindeer herder with such a herd, like Orai-ool, is 249,800 rubles. That means 20,816 rubles a month.
In a way, it sounds pretty good, considering that the average pay of one worker in January-May 2008 in Tuva, by the data of Government statistics, is 12,400 rubles.
But do not be in a hurry to envy them. To make this money, the reindeer herder has to work oh, so hard! And not only one person, but with helpers. One person cannot do the job.
May-June is the time of the greatest responsibility. At the end of April, beginning of May, the females give birth to their young, who have to be protected.
Nobody sends helpers to the taiga like in the time of the sovkhozes. Orai-ool and his sons have to manage by themselves.
I am interested: and when do the young ones stand up on their legs? “In thirty minutes. And that’s it – you can’t catch them!” laughs the reindeer herder. So that the calves would not get lost, would get used to people, and grew under supervision, they are tied to special stakes, with something like a muzzle.
The mother reindeer spends the day grazing at the pasture, but she definitely comes back in the evening, to feed her baby. Then they tie her to a post and milk her. They are very competent with that.
They milk the female through the summer after calving. The yield from one female is small, about 200-300 grams a day, but it is very fatty, much fattier than cow’s milk. Sometimes they get up to 5 liters in a day. There is no set-up for churning milk for butter in the camp, so they simply drink it; they boil Tuvan tea with milk and salt.
After the stake, they tie the calf to his mother, until they are about 2 months. After that, they can be considered tame and domesticated.
THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS WITH JINGLE-BELLS
The difficulties are not over yet. You have to watch the reindeer night and day. In a way they are domestic, but if you let them out of your sight, and they get separated from the herd, they can easily revert to wildness.
You especially have to watch them in the fall, so they would not run away, so that the wild reindeer would not lure them away.
During the mating time, at the end of September – beginning of October, the wild males call to the females. There is very little opposition from the domestic males. They do not fight with the wild ones, they are afraid, explains Oleg Orai-ool.
Not because they are cowards, but because they have nothing to fight with. Their antlers are sawed off specifically to prevent them from injuring one another, and to prevent them from entangling their antlers.
So the reindeer herder himself has to protect the females: to frighten off the wild males by shooting in the air, otherwise you cannot keep them away. The dogs help too, they bark, because they can very well differentiate between their own reindeer and intruders.
There is another problem in the fall – mushrooms. Feasting on their favorite delicacy, the reindeer in September can walk away so far following and eating their mushrooms, that you will never find them again.
Also a young reindeer can follow an old one, and will follow specifically the male who is the sire of all of them. That is why the leaders always wear bells around their necks, that way they can be found by the sound.
The working reindeer who came to “Ush-Beldyr” also have bells on their necks.
LOVERS OF SALT
Reindeer are freedom-loving creatures. The herders do not build any paddocks or enclosures for them, because the reindeer do not like it, they do not feel good in a fenced-in area. Summer, winter, they graze on “underfoot” feed.
“They love to walk all the time, in the winter they can walk 30-40 km in a single day.
Not in the summer, they do not tolerate heat well, and they can gather into a bunch at seven in the morning, and just stand like that until nine at night, - explains Orai-ool. In the summer they come back to the camp by themselves, but as winter approaches, one has to put rock salt close to the tent, then they will definitely come to lick it.”
If there is no rock salt, one can buy ordinary iodized salt in the store.
The reindeer can feel their master: ”They know me right away, as soon as they see me and hear me. I call them like this (he smacks his tongue), I shake the bag of salt, and they come.
OTHERS ARE CASTRATED
For every 15 reindeer, there is one intact breeding male. There are four in Orai-ool’s herd.
Only every three years, the bulls have to be changed, to renew the blood, to keep the young healthy. (to prevent inbreeding). For that reason, neighbors exchange their breeding males.
But the other males have to be castrated. They become working reindeer; they are used for riding, carrying loads,
At three years, they are trained for riding, taught to tolerate the saddle. For this, again special skills are necessary.
First, they are taught to wear the saddle, then a person.
Orai-ool has twenty such riding reindeer. He knows every one of them personally,”by face”.
He specially selected twelve-year-old Zorka and six-year-old Blackie for the trip to “Ush-Beldyr”. He picked them for their small antlers, so they would not get stuck among the trees.
MYTHS ABOUT ANTLERS
I am surprised, looking at the wide-spread antlers:
-These are small??
-Of course! They can be like that, and then they cannot get through between the trees!- he shows, spreading his arms wide.
And he explodes the myth that one can find out the age of the reindeer by the number of branches on the antlers: “Chok! That is nonsense.”
To make riding in winter easier, they saw off the working reindeers’ antlers in early October. If they are not sawed off, they ossify, become hard, and fall off by themselves in March; then new ones begin to grow in.
The cut off antlers for souvenirs – the same ones, that in their time used to be fashionable and decorated the walls in the houses of highly-placed individuals, now stay in the taiga. It is too far to take them anywhere.
But the “panty”, the soft, young antlers, are prized as medications, and many enterprising businessmen from other countries are interested in buying them. They deluded the herders with money.
For three years, they would cut the “panty” off and sell them.
But then they stopped. The reindeer get terribly sick after such surgery. What good is the money, when the animals suffer so much?
There is someone else who loves the soft, delicate, medicinal young antlers – the bear.
If a hungry bear in the spring kills a reindeer, explains Oleg Baraanovich, he will start by eating the antlers, until there is nothing left, and only then will he start on the torso. He will bury whatever is left over and won’t let anybody near his storage pit, until everything is eaten.
Three years ago, when Tamara was still alive, the family had an unpleasant encounter with a bear. At that time, he was taking his daughter to a medicinal spring, arzhaan, where both cold and hot water well up from under the earth. It is near Buryatia: they always go there for cures. Well, here and there, they come back, and there is nobody at the camp!
It turned out that while they were traveling, a bear came and tore up two reindeer right in the camp. The reindeer cannot protect themselves from a bear, they are gentle and quiet creatures. His wife and son, only a schoolboy then, were alone in the camp. She became frightened – how to deal with a bear without a man, now the bear will never leave the herd alone. She made a decision to move to another location. It was the correct thing to do, there are no jokes with a bear.
I am interested- was there some terribly frightening taiga story in your life?
Sure, answers Orai-ool, there was, and it also involved a bear. It was in the eighties, when grandfather Sambu was still alive:
A bear came and killed a reindeer. Four of them set up an ambush. Around one o’clock at night the bear showed up, they started shooting, the bear toppled over. Well- we were thinking - we killed him. As it started getting light, we went closer to him, he’s lying there, not moving. Must have gotten a bullet in the neck. We sat down, had a smoke, were very pleased with ourselves.
I was sitting next to the head. Except suddenly that head seemed to be above me.
What the hell? Am I getting dizzy? That bear got up on his hind legs! We threw the guns away and ran!
Only my older brother did not lose his nerve, he sneaked up on the bear from the other side and shot him again. I was really frightened that time. I ran so fast!
HERBAL TEA FOR SICKNESS
Oleg Baraanovich giggles, and then he worriedly looks at his reindeer: he cannot stay much longer, it is hot here in the valley, and he should go back tomorrow, so that the reindeer do not get sick.
Reindeer disease is another problem. He has to be a veterinary to his reindeer, and uses ancestral cures: boiled teas from spruce bark or juniper.
-The most dangerous situation is when their lungs get sick from heat. You look at him, and understand right away; he is not the same, looks sick, he’s getting very weak.
And earlier, there used to be another disease: the hooves would crack into two parts, the feet would swell up, the reindeer could not walk and they would die. That would happen when you had two thousand reindeer standing in one place, they would trample everything and would be packed against one another.
But we do not see this disease anymore. Because only a few reindeer are left…….
CANNOT LIVE OTHERWISE
He sighs: he is sad that so few reindeer are left, but he and his sons do whatever they can.
He does not let the reindeer under the knife for meat. He protects the species, and considers that the government is right to get the reindeer herders interested in that. Not much, and Todzha would have been left without any reindeer at all. And what kind of Todzha would that be?
But the government stipends apportioned for protection of the species are simply not enough to live on. Hunting helps – the traditional occupation of the Todzhans, who in the old times would go far into the taiga in winter, on their reindeer, to hunt fur-bearing animals.
“We hunt squirrels, mink, otherwise we cannot live. We fish, salt the fish, - relates Orai-ool. In one year, we get the skins and meat of one or two reindeer. But only when we are really short of money or products.
The net weight of a reindeer is 80-90 kg (175-195 lbs). The healthiest castrated male can be up to 120 kg (260lbs). A kilogram of meat is about 150 rubles. Cured skin two thousand. But a live reindeer costs 15 thousand rubles.”
He explains: it is undesirable to keep the reindeer into a deep old age, it is more correct to use them for meat. Their life span is hardly over 20 years.
If the reindeer becomes too decrepit, this is what happens to them: he loses coordination of movements, starts walking in a circle around a tree or a rock. Without stopping. Then he drops dead.
The oldest reindeer in his herd is an eighteen-year-old female, Blackie’s mother.
THE LIGHTBULB OF THE CHAMPION
This is an excellent year; from fifty reindeer mothers, they got forty calves. In today’s times, it is many, very many.
And he became the best of the reindeer herders, the champion of the Naadym-2008 in August, the traditional holiday of the herders in the republic. But when we met, he did not know about it yet; who would have brought the happy news to him into the taiga?
Last year he even was awarded a prize, but did not receive it until this year in the winter, when he came out of the taiga to the settlement. It was a good prize, he is very pleased: a sun-powered battery. Not a big one, it can be carried on a reindeer.
True, it is only 9 volts, and it is enough for only one light bulb. Now they turn it on in the tent before going to sleep. It is so much more cheerful that a kerosene lamp, which they used earlier. Only they could not throw away the old lamp anyway, because now they have to make a choice: either listen to the radio, or sit with the light bulb. The battery cannot power both of them.
But with electricity, it is so much more cheerful in the tent. True, the tent is old. Before, the sovkhoz would supply a new one every three years, but now it is his own problem.
But why think of what was before. The reindeer herders even used to receive pension, after 15 years of service. Now, by common schedules, only at 55 years of age.
But a good, new tent would come in very handy anyway. And what about a car? He smiles delicately in answer to a stupid question: ”Why? Who would drive it, and where?”
In his tent, there is a stove, skins, blankets. In winter, it is, of course, cold, especially in the mornings. In the winter camp, there is a cabin, and that is, of course, warmer, more cozy. But it is not possible to live there for more that one month, only in the coldest freeze.
Because if the reindeer eat everything, there is nothing left for next year. “Yagel (reindeer moss) is their favorite food, but if they rip it out with the roots, it won’t grow again for fifteen years,- explains Orai-ool.
So they have to move again.
A CLAN MARK
And how, if the reindeer herders cross paths, do not the reindeer get mixed up?
Very simple: everybody has a clan mark, a brand. Orai-ool’s reindeer have a cut in the
left ear, and something like an earring of red thread in the right one. And the young ones get a letter V on the side. This is the way his father and grandfather marked their reindeer.
Others have different signs – a different type of cut in the ear, earrings of different colors. They also have different letters.
Everybody knows the marks of the others very well. If a strange reindeer gets mixed up in someone’s herd, they immediately notify the owner, or take the reindeer to him.
They do not steal each other’s reindeer? Oleg Baraanovich is really surprised by this question.
“How could we steal? We cannot do hat. We all know each other, we have been friends since childhood! We always help one another. If someone needs a riding reindeer, he can ask, let me take him for some time, we are moving, you will let him have the reindeer for a while. But there is no stealing!
Apparently, the bane of Tuvan herders, cattle rustling, never touched the reindeer herders. The police stations teem with so many various complaints – horses, cows, sheep, goats getting stolen. But not a single complaint about stolen reindeer.
The taiga of Todzha is certainly blessed.
These are the places where his father walked after the reindeer until seventy-three years, his grandfather until eighty. And, this is his greatest wish and hope, this is where his sons and future grandsons will walk after the herds.
There is plenty of room for everybody in this huge house – The Great Taiga.
Nadezhda Antufyeva (Center
of Asia), translated by Heda Jindrak