Field Report: The time we we tried to start a Reindeer Race
Legend has it that one year, as Christmas was approaching, founder of The Adventurists Mr. Tom gathered the gentlemen of the Institute of Adventure Research for a festive expedition to investigate reindeer racing. A crack team of test pilots travelled into the Russian-Mongolian border area to meet with one of only 2 tribes left in the world who ride on reindeer. The Tsaatan or tiger tribes live in tipis and herd reindeer, using the reindeer as transport, for milk, skins and meat.
Is it possible to stage a reindeer race? Here’s Mr. Tom’s field report and conclusions.
“After watching Buddy land on his face and get dragged around by his foot, I clung on and used the handy stick to stop me following in his face-steps. This was just a warm up run as the day had slipped away from us in a haze of hangovers and rifle shooting.”
I realised my sheepskin coat was too small to use as a blanket when the fire died down and the fingers of minus 30 degree air started stabbing me in both my feet and face at the same time. The trouble is, moving to find something bigger means getting colder and I’m fucked if I’m going to do that in a hurry. So I just curl up in a ball and think about what a massive pussy I am. I thought I was pretty good with cold weather. But last night I was tucked in by an old lady in her late eighties who strolls about casually in this ridiculous temperature, and who is now sleeping on the dirt floor because she insisted on giving us her log bed.
I’m inside a tipi in a restricted border zone just on the Mongolian side of the Russia / Mongolia border. Smuggling and illegal gold mining are some of the local industries, but much as I love the idea of both we’re here to see about something else.
The reason I was lying under the sheepskin, cuddling myself to keep warm and wondering if my scalp freezing solid would cause baldness is that we were researching a possible new adventure. I’d heard there were just 2 tribes of people in the world who actually rode around on the back of reindeer and the idea of a reindeer race through the frozen wintery wastelands of the arctic was too tempting not to give it a crack.
I gathered a team of haphazard pillocks. The sort of people who make for a good story rather than “experts” who generally twat on about safety. Sidekick number one is Buddy. The antithesis of a square jawed adventurer. Skinny, bespectacled, sporting a plethora of food allergies and completely lacking in common sense. His special skills include unicycling, playing the bagpipes and being a dick. Also joining us is Ed, our chum from the land of TV, who, like me, has the sporting prowess of a girls school netball B team. Ed is making a film about this stupidity and, with the exception of when we nearly all fell through the ice and died in a half frozen lake, is holding up extremely well.
Then we have Jon [on the left in the picture below], a curious Englishman by descent who is one of those weird Europeans who sounds like they come from everywhere and speaks too many languages. His super power is sartorial elegance so he spends the entire trip and indeed his entire life in cords, tweed and a tie. He also lives in Mongolia and has an understandable but unnatural love of antique guns and swords and vitally for this trip has a dilapidated car he imported a year back; our wheels.
Then we have Jenya, long time chum, Mongolian national and professional fuckwit. My favourite story of his is the one where he had to put the very pissed off state circus bear on the back seat of his car and drive it across town. The car was never quite the same. He has the surprisingly useful property of having lived with these reindeer herders when he was a teenager. However he hasn’t spoken to them in over a decade and his last memory of them is drinking 100% home made pure alcohol that was supposed to be watered down, going blind and then it goes blank.
After 8 days of fairly eventful travel trying to get to the reindeer herders, we arrived last night unannounced. Jenya spent the first hour pretending to be English so they wouldn’t recognise him, while we wondered about in the snow marvelling at the reindeer. Two things are quickly obvious. Firstly what fantastical animals they are, incredibly friendly and exactly the sort beast you imagine hangs out with the fat, red, bearded one. And secondly that if you take a piss they all come running over to eat the yellow snow. Something about salt apparently.
Racing Rudolf with nomadic Tiger tribes
We were with one of the two nomadic Tiger tribes of reindeer herders (there aren’t any actual tigers). They used to be numerous and roamed around vast areas of the south eastern Siberian plateaux. Then the Russians built a border in early 20th century and said “pick which side you want to live”. Most stayed on the Russian side and gradually stopped riding reindeer or herding at all but a tiny number stayed on the Mongolian side. Hundreds of miles from the capital city in a tiny isolated region, they continued to herd their animals in they way they had for hundreds and possibly thousands of years.
Despite us looking like shit cooled down after our journey to reach their winter camp, them not knowing us from Adamski and Jenya thinking it was incredibly funny to pretend to be English, they welcomed us in. A small fire was burning in the middle of the room, smoke rose from a cooking pot of boiled reindeer, the sun had set, the cold closed in and the first sound we heard was the Nokia theme tune. The herders had moved their summer camp to the only place in the valley they could get signal.
As soon as Jenya slipped back into Mongolian they recognised him and the smiles grew, backs were slapped, bear hugs all round. We moved around the village from tipi to tipi as Jenya was reintroduced to everyone. The old ladies, the new mothers, the shaman, the young lads back from hunting. And then the most important ceremony in all Mongolia, the drinking shit loads of vodka and singing. This was followed by staggering out into the night, a last drunken piss in the snow to chuckle at the reindeers’ weird eating habits and settling down under my slightly too small sheepskin coat to freeze at both ends in a tipi. It doesn’t have much more in the way of insulation than a hanky draped over some sticks but it keeps the wind and snow off.
The next morning we woke to a breakfast of reindeer milk tea. The milk they produce is so thick is becomes a paste. 1 teaspoon makes about 10 litres of milky broth. Just add salt and you have yourself an almost lovely cuppa. We’d figured on a full day of reindeer racing between myself and Buddy, but the Tiger tribe had other plans. All the reindeer had been herded off to pasture and everyone had shit to do.
So we mucked in, melting ice, building a porch for the hut in the centre of the camp, chopping up frozen reindeer meat with a saw for the evening’s tucker. We dropped in on the shaman to say hello. Borrowed ourselves an old school gun to play with. It had been modified to take AK47 bullets which are cheaper than chips and about as accurate. Had a crack on some homemade reindeer skin skis.
In the middle of all our shooty, choppy entertainment, suddenly a couple of reindeer appeared all saddled up, looking like they wanted a race. We were handed a 6 foot long stick to stop ourselves falling off and told to get on from a tree stump. Turns out reindeer skin is only attached to the reindeer in the same way a sack is attached to an oily melon. Which means as soon as you jump on, the saddle rolls round and chucks you off the other side.
After watching Buddy land on his face and get dragged around by his foot, I clung on and used the handy stick to stop me following in his face-steps. This was just a warm up run as the day had slipped away from us in a haze of hangovers and rifle shooting. We had a couple of runs about on the beasts but it wasn’t quite the Marathon de Reindeer we’d imagined. So we de-saddled and set about feasting on meat and vodka again. Day two arrived and after our brief lesson from Ganbat the deputy tribe chief the afternoon before, Buddy and me knew we had what it took to face the world’s first long distance reindeer race. We saddled up again and set off to find a suitable place to start.
But we never quite did. It turns out that riding reindeer is a pretty slow way to get about the world. There just aren’t enough of them in the area to make a race work. When we run our horse race we based it on Genghis Khan’s ancient postal system, the rider swaps horses every 40km. That way the horses are fine but the human takes the beating of their lives. It’s also a fucking quick way to cover 1000km.
We use over 1000 horses for a single race and we hold it in an area with millions of the beasts. But the Tiger tribe need their reindeer to live off and with only 2 groups left in the world who ride the deer it all seemed like a bad idea to rearrange their entire universe for us to have an adventure.
It’s a strange and excellent thing to be riding along with a massive set of antlers in your face, but it’s no way to hold a reindeer race. So we asked a bucket of questions to find out all we could about the animals. How hard they are, how fast they can travel, what sort weights they can carry. All handy stuff because I’ve heard there are herds of reindeer thousands strong in the north of Siberia. Instead of sitting on the deer they ride behind them on sledges. It sounds faster and there is an almost infinite wilderness of trouble and adventure to be found in the Russian arctic. I’ve also heard that up there the reindeer eat poisonous mushrooms which makes their urine hallucinogenic. So I can drink their piss next time. Touché. Plans are afoot.
—- Field Report Ends —-
Interested in joining one of our adventures of the motoring variety? Choose ultimate motoring stupidity with the Mongol Rally, enjoy a giant ride on a children’s motorcycle on the Monkey Run or take on the world in a glorified lawnmower on the Rickshaw Run.