Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders
We were getting excited…we are getting closer and closer to the remoteness of the Mongolian taiga* to meet the last nomadic reindeer herders in the world. This was a special adventure for us; for a long time we have dreamt of visiting the Tsaatan community, a community that lives in complete harmony with their semi-domesticated reindeers.
We have previously written a blog on Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia) and Erdenet (the second largest city). Now our journey continues from Erdenet to Murun and from there to Tsaaganuur, the last village before heading on a horse to the remote taiga to meet the reindeer herders!
*taiga: a subarctic biome of the northern hemisphere consisting mostly of coniferous forests, reaching temperatures as low as -50 degrees Celsius during winter.
The small town Murun
We arrived in Murun and booked a hotel for the night. Murun is nothing special so to say, but at the black market you can find everything you need before heading to the taiga. Our hotel seemed to be a Soviet leftover, like most hotels outside the capital. It was Friday and the hall outside our room reeked with vodka. We took our last hot shower (for god knows how long), ate the last restaurant meal and went to sleep on the concrete bed (soft mattresses are a rare luxury).
The morning after we arranged our tour and border permits. To visit the reindeer herders you need a special permit since they live on the border zone of Russia.
There weren’t many tourists in town but to lower our tour costs we teamed up with an awesome Australian guy called Jake.
The bone-crushing ride from Murun to Tsaaganuur
The three of us hopped in a minivan and waited for a couple of hours while it filled up with people. They stuffed eight of us into the 6-seater van, leaving Jake and Andri with one ass cheek each by the window seats.
The road to Tsaaganuur is known to be one of the worst roads in the country. This proofed to be true; our 12 hour non-stop ride through the whole night was definitely one of our worst rides so far. In the beginning we took it lightly and decided on vodka shots for every hour that passed. During the consistently bumpy ride, it was actually very difficult to get the shots down without splashing the bottle in your face. After 5 shots and 5 hours we gave up on the vodka; it definitely wasn’t helping our nausea (bring motion-sickness pills if you’re sensitive).[blockquote]In the beginning we took it lightly and decided on vodka shots for every hour that passed[/blockquote]
We never got an ounce of sleep, since that always resulted in head-butting the window or other passengers. During the last hours our minds entered a kind of a trance state while our bodies were thrown around in the dark. It was such a relief to finally arrive. We went to the TCVC (Tsaatan Community Visitor Center) in Tsaaganuur and got a few hours of sleep before our adventure would begin.
Arriving in Tsaaga-Nuur
The village is relatively small and has the same architecture and structure as most villages in Mongolia; no paved roads, a few mini markets and men in deels (a traditional long sleeved wool jacket) with a bright colored cowboy hat riding big Russian motorbikes.
We had read before that you should organize most of your gear and food before getting out of UB or Murun, but the mini-markets in the village were surprisingly sufficient for what we needed.
We quickly grew fond of the village and its slow tempo.
The lake (named after the town) was beautiful and completely still, creating a perfect mirror image of the surrounding mountains. The weather at this time of year (late August) was perfect for us; sunny and 23 °C but not too humid. The water was still very cold, as are the nights. We noticed how calm everything was by the lake. We saw a group of 5-6 year olds playing by the lake. The kids were so happy, having a blast splashing water on each other.
After a quick swim in the lake we went back to TCVC office to check if our horses were ready. The Tsaatan people live in two different areas, the east and the west taiga, and it takes about 1-3 days of horseback riding to get to either one of them depending on skills and season (during summer the reindeer herders move to higher ground).
Riding through steppe and taiga
We finally headed for the east taiga at six o’ clock, the three of us with our horse guide, Sukura, and translator, Gana. The Mongolian horse is small, just like the Icelandic one, but they are steered with one hand on the leash unlike back at home. The horses here are semi-wild so sometimes it was difficult to steer them according to your liking. Jake had never been on a horse before. He was told to jump on and didn’t receive any instructions on how to ride, and helmets seem non-existent in Mongolia. It was a bit difficult in the beginning but we finally managed and quickly got comfortable on the horse.
Our first day of riding was kind of short, but riding through the vastness of the steppe was rewarding. We had been promised to sleep in a ger with some families on the way. If not we would be provided a tent. Neither was true. We realized that we were sleeping under the sky. However, it turned out to be an amazing experience.
We lit a fire and cooked some noodles and exchanged some stories. Our guide needed a cigarette but none of us smoked, so he just rolled up some dry horseshit and lit it up and passed the joint around. We thought he was kidding at first, but no, he was just really craving something to smoke. We crawled into our sleeping bags and looked at the stars on the sky. We have never seen so many before and what I first thought was a cloud was actually the Milky Way. The night was really cold but I guess we were lucky that it didn’t rain.[blockquote]so he just rolled up some dry horseshit and lit it up and passed the joint around[/blockquote]
Meeting the reindeer herders
The next day we rode whole day through empty grasslands and muddy larch forests. Before dawn the forest opened up, and at a distance we saw a community of around 20 tents and hundred or so reindeers at the bottom of the valley. It was an amazing feeling to be finally here in such complete remoteness.
Upon arrival we were invited to one of the families for some reindeer milk tea, sourdough bread with homemade blueberry jam, highly appreciated after 6 hours of riding. We were surprised when we entered their tent; living standards were not the most luxurious; one solar panel for light, a stove in the middle, and only half of the floor grounds was covered with a mat, the rest was wild grass.
There were no tables or chairs, no furniture to talk of really. It was inspiring to see these simple living standards. We had expected the camp to be a bit touristy but our experience was the opposite; during the 3 nights we stayed, we only encountered 3 or 4 other tourists in the whole camp, most of them staying for one night.
The Tsaatan way of life
The Tsaatan people seem to live their life like they always have; herding and living of their reindeers. Already at 6 am you can see the women milking their reindeers. They don’t get much milk each time; only one cup from each reindeer. I guess they have to leave some milk for the calves as well. When preparing milk tea they usually thin it with a lot of water, so one cup seems to go a long way. The men take care of most of the herding, chopping wood, and collecting berries from the woods, while the women take care of the milking and cooking.
Not only do the reindeers provide the community with food, they also ride them for transport from one camp to the other, and to carry loads or drag wood logs from the forest. The kids start riding them as early as 1-2 years old. At one point we saw one of the families preparing to ride to Tsaaganuur on their reindeers to vaccinate their baby daughter. Her sister, 3 years old, was sitting alone on her reindeer, but strapped safely so she couldn’t fall. The sight will be difficult to forget.
In the Tsaatan community everything seems to evolve around the reindeers. We asked our translator, Gana, if they eat reindeer meat. He replied “yes, everyday”, without asking our hosts. We quickly found out that our translator was kind of useless. Often when asked to translate he seemed reluctant to ask, and often made an answer that he thought was true.
Later that day we found out from a French guy that had been living within the community for about a month that they mostly eat reindeer products like cheese, yogurt and milk, along with sheep meat. They rarely eat the reindeers themselves; only when sick or too old can they be sacrificed for meat. The reindeer population in the taiga has been shrinking the last decade due to harsh weather conditions but luckily they’re numbers have started to rise again due to private and governmental initiatives. Eating them everyday would certainly wipe them out quickly.
We realized that many of Tsaatans seem a lot older then they actually are. Our host, Gamba, and his wife, appeared to be in their 70’s but we were surprised to hear that they were actually closer to 50. The cold dry winters and a lot of hard work under the bare sun is tough on the skin and makes many of them appear physically older then their chronological age would depict. Despite the hard work and tough weather, their spirit seemed full of joy and happiness.
Our hosts, Gamba and his wife with one of their 40 reindeers The many dogs in camp kept the wolfs away. They were all in good shape and very friendly, even though the Tsaatans never pet them.
When life is simple you start enjoying the small things in life. Gambas daughter had studied in Ulaanbaatar a few years ago, but the city life didn’t appeal to her so she moved back to the taiga where she feels at home.
Origin of the Tsaatan People
Tsaatan is a Mongolian word for “people living with reindeer”, but they refer to themselves as Dukhans or Turkic Tuvans, an indeginous ethnic group originally derived from Tuva (now the Tuvan Republic of Russia). Tuva used to be an independent state (1921-1944), but later was intergraded into the Soviet Union.
At that time many Tuvan reindeer herders fled over the nearby Mongolian border to escape the collectivisation of the Soviet Union and food shortages during WWII. Since then many of them have lived in the northern Mongolian taiga, finding new settlements 5-10 times every year so their reindeers have enough moss and berries to eat. The reindeers thrive better in colder climates so the Tsaatan move their camp to higher grounds during summertime (2300 m). Unlike most Mongolians they don’t live in gers but rather in tepees, which resemble the Native American tents. The tepees are not nearly as well isolated as a proper ger, but they are much easier to build and the wooden logs are often left in place; next year they only have to wrap the canvas/skin around it.
The religion – Shamanism
The Tsaatans have been shamanistic for millennia, a kind of magic thinking belief where all humans, animals and all things in nature have a soul or a spirit. Gamba, whose tent was next to ours, was the shaman of the camp. A shaman is a kind of a “priest” or a “magical doctor” whose main function is to restore and maintain balance in his community.
Gamba, the village shaman
Shamans conduct blessings, rituals of protection, hunting magic, rain making and divination. They also cure sicknesses that have spiritual causes. In Gamba’s tent we saw his costume and his drum he uses during ceremonies. He enters a trance state with the help of energy water (vodka), singing and drumming, and connects with the spirit world seeking cures or advice.
Our very own teepe
We were provided with our very own tepee, first only for the three of us, but later on a sweet American girl, Kelly, that we met in Tsaaganuur, joined our tent for the rest of our stay. Kelly had just finished 10 days of riding from Khovsgol lake to Tsaaganuur, pretty intense right! Together, the four of us would quickly become close friends.
Kelly with one of the many friendly dogs in camp Gamba came into our tent a few times to have a chat and helped us bringing fire to the stove. He was cheerful and always smiling. We tried to communicate as much as we could through gestures and simple sign language (our translator never seemed to be with us when needed). He gave us Mongolian names; Andri got Tengri (the sky), Ása got Saraa (the moon), Jake got Gamba (meaning strong) and Kelly got Nara (meaning the sun).
We gave him a bottle of vodka, which he didn’t hesitate to open right away. When a vodka bottle is opened in Mongolia it has to be finished right away. We asked Gamba how to say “cheers” in Mongolian but he didn’t answer at first. He filled up his glass with vodka, dipped his ring finger in and flicked his wet finger to honour his ancestors, the sky, the fire and the earth, after which he finished the shot. No words needed he seemed to mention. The bottle goes clockwise, beginning from the eldest in the circle. The vodka ran down smoothly and our communication through our simple gestures drastically improved.
Time to say goodbye….
After staying a couple of days living with the Tsaatan community it was time to head back to Tsaaganuur. At first we thought the French guy was kind of crazy staying here for a whole month, but with every day that passed we understood him better; living a simple life in harmony with reindeers surrounded by the beauty of the taiga was something special, something we will never forget.
We said goodbye to Gamba and his family, and all the wonderful children that we had gotten close to during our stay. We petted the reindeers goodbye and headed back into the forest where we would again sleep under the stars.
Getting back to Tsaaganuur
Getting back to Tsaaganuur took us another two days by horse, but this time we were more used to the strain and felt more confidant. We camped in the woods, played Kelly’s ukulele and exchanged some stories (our translator finally coming of use translating for the horse guides). Again we slept under the stars by the fire.
Both of us woke up all of a sudden with breathing difficulties. The wind had changed and we had been breathing smoke from the fire for the last hour or so. We moved or sleeping bag and gained our breath again. Close one!
Next up: Our adventures in the west taiga
On our way back the four of us all agreed that we weren’t ready to leave. So after a day relaxing in Tsaaganuur we decided to arrange a tour to the west taiga as well…
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