The Tsaatan, literally “Reindeer People”, are an indigenous community who live in the heart of the Darkhan Depression, a mountainous region in the north of Mongolia. It is a vast area covered in larch woodland and scattered with small lakes, much like Siberia. It is not far from Lake Khovsgul.
Though they are not many, perhaps 500 at most, they have become something of a tourist attraction due to their unique way of life, being the only reindeer herders left in the world. They live in two “taigas”, east and west. We visited the more remote Tsaatan of the West Taiga.
And it is incredible.
The air itself sparkles with what look like fairy dust, but is actually just tiny droplets of frozen water suspended in mid-air. The larch trees, with golden needles, glow in the cold winter sunlight. Once more, we were surrounded by mountains, many thousands of metres above sea level. The views were stunning. The sky, the shadows, the trees, the grass; everything is a shade of blue or orange.
It is a 4 hour trek on horseback to reach the West Taiga winter camp, longer in summer as they move further into the mountains. It is not possible to reach them by car, even now, though we did see a single set of motorbike tracks. We both agreed that whoever had attempted such a route needed some serious skills.
The journey itself was beautiful. We rode the infamous, small, Mongolian, half-wild horses. They turned out to be very docile and lovely to ride. Our guide, Baineman, led the way. There is no way you would be able to find your way without one, so many small tracks leading in countless directions. It is not a fast ride, instead the horses pick their way through the rough and icy terrain in a steady walk or trot.
We were both given the traditional dell to wear, a kind of coat that doubles up as a massive blanket. We were also given a pair of traditional felt boots each to wear to keep our feet warm. We were grateful. In temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius our fancy western gear would not have been enough.
Every day my eyelashes and Jordi’s beard were frozen within the first half an hour of being outside.
Most of the year, the Tsaatan live out of ‘Orts’, literally teepees built from tree branches and covered in canvas. Originally they were covered in birch bark, built entirely from the woodland. Even now, they only take an hour to construct. They are very simple.
We were shown into one young man’s whose name I did not catch. I was shocked that he could survive in these harsh and cold conditions in such a place. It did have a small, light-weight stove in the centre. The chimney protruding from the hole in the top. But there was no floor. Snow still lay on the ground around the edges, where the heat from the fire had not burnt it away. He had a few pots and pans for cooking with, and no doubt making chai, and a pile of blankets which I assume was where he slept.
I am sure orts vary just as homes do and the home of a 19-year-old boy would look very different to that of a family home. We saw another ort which had flooring laid. Nevertheless, the Tsaatan are definitely resilient people. I believe few westerners could survive the conditions they do with the little they have. I was expecting to sleep in an ort and was, at first, disappointed not to be. But I came to appreciate a little more shelter at night.
For three months over winter, many of the Tsaatan families move into small log cabins built in the style of a traditional ger, instead of orts. Women and children in particular reside here, whilst the men tend to the reindeer. They move higher up the mountain, another 2 day trek deeper into the wilderness, live for weeks at a time in orts before returning to their families.
We stayed with a lady called Jargolma, a grandma whose daughter, Mamah, son-in-law, Marchee and granddaughter, Underah, live in the log cabin next door. Underah was a brilliant child, full of energy and always laughing. She loved it when Jordi and I played games with her.
When we arrived Marchee and the reindeer were high up the mountain. It was a special moment to behold when he returned. The excitement was catching. The family was whole again. Underah obviously adored her father and would not leave his side that first evening he was home.
The Tsaatan families are truly nomadic following their reindeer through the wilderness. In summer many families gather around the lake but often move every few weeks. It is not surprising then that they live in such temporary structures.
They rarely kill their reindeer. In the past they used the pelts for clothes and ate the meat, but now the Tsaatan wear dells and shop bought fabric. Instead the reindeer are mostly kept for their milk, horns and as transport.
The milk has a particularly pungent flavour, like cow’s milk that has gone off. Chai made with it tastes a little like drinking cheese soup, and not in a good way!
The reindeer horns are used to make tools, jewellery and other keepsakes. They also sell these to tourists now for a small sum. I bought a handcarved necklace and a fork for £3.50.
The reindeer themselves are incredibly beautiful creatures. Elegant and poised. Unlike horses, reindeers can walk on snow without sinking and so make the perfect mode of transport in a snowy, mountainous region. It was amazing to see them being ridden, although it is totally normal for them, and even more amazing when they asked if I wanted to! Of course I did!
Tsaatan are also deeply shamanic, worshipping the sky, moon and mountains. Although I did not witness any outward signs of these deeply embedded beliefs, I occasionally saw coloured scarfs tied to trees or in houses, symbols of shamanism. Living in such a wild environment, where your entire existence is based on your surroundings, it is easy to see why you would worship them. It is an act of respect for the world we live in, acknowledging our existence is dependent on the continuation of our own world.
Though few other Mongolians practice shamanism, many have a deep respect for it and believe that the Tsaatan have special powers over nature.
The Tsaatan are a somewhat troubled community as they try to adjust to the pressures of the modern world whilst maintaining their traditions and culture. Russian rule forbade shamanism and reindeer numbers dwindled.
Today the community has recovered from this but is without doubt still changing and may not be around for too much longer. Technology is of course a powerful tool and none of the Tsaatan are without phones, even in such a remote place. Some even have televisions.
Many young people are beginning to aspire to other ways of life. This is made no easier with the restrictions now placed on the Tsaatan. In the past they could roam freely. They live close to the Russian border and in today’s world it is not possible to simply cross it as you like. So they are restricted in their movements. The area they live has also been placed into a Special Area for Nature and as such they are no longer able to hunt. In years gone by this was their main source of food, but now they are arrested if they hunt. Some, like Jargolma, keep horses now for eating. Others rely on making money to buy food.
And of course tourism brings in money, but is also contributing to the change. Unfortunately there are too many stories of the negative impacts tourism has had. Some families have moved lower down the mountain to an unhealthy altitude for their reindeer in order to attract more tourists. Some locals bring tourists to simply look at the Tsaatan and the Tsaatan are treated like zoo animals and do not benefit from such tourism. There are other stories where tourists have eaten them literally out of house and home.
It is not all bad though. It was very important to me that, if I were to visit the Tsaatan, that I did not contribute to these problems. I organised the trip (at rather great expense) through Saraa, a very kind, local guide in Moron. She works with the TCVC, a local organisation working to spread the wealth of tourism amongst the Tsaatan and to provide community support and infrastructure where it is needed. It is run by the Tsaatan themselves and is helping to maintain the delicate balance of their way of life.
It is no doubt a tough life in the mountains, and I can understand why some of the younger generation no longer wish to live it. We tried to help as much as we could, but in a short time it is difficult to be useful. It is also a beautiful life, and I am glad to have glimpsed it.