The Tsaatan, or Dukha as they self-identify, are a people of reindeer herders in Northern Mongolia who rely on reindeers to meet many of their basic needs. Tsaatan is a Mongolian monika that means “with reindeer”. Their land is beautiful, but can also be demanding and where horses fail, reindeer can succeed. Riding reindeer is so normal here, that we even saw young children riding reindeer to school.
This is our diary of the time that we visited the Tsaatan people in the taiga (forested area) near Tsagaanuur. If you want to visit yourself, you should check out our how to page here.
We woke up early to pack our things and tried to make as much of our luggage waterproofed as possible. We’d been assured that the horses were very tame and pliant, but it was raining and due to this the horses had been less willing to come to the TCVC (visitor’s centre) than normal. Perhaps that was a tad worrying for first-time and second-time riders. We were driven round the beautiful Dood Tsagaan lake and I was surprised at its size considering how much it is dwarfed on the map by its bigger brother Khovsgol Lake. At the other side of the lake we found ourselves at a small ger and were treated to milk tea and curd, as was custom in every ger we entered. As well as having two guides, we were accompanied by Magjan and Madina, a Mongolian couple who were ethnic Kazakhs. By chance, our translator knew Madina and they were already Facebook friends. We were all dressed for a washout and each wore ponchos, yet Marjan optimistically also wore sunnies and I joined him in his optimism as changing gear whilst riding is ill-advised.
Beginning Our Ride…
When the horses came, we saddled up. Sarah took a white horse and I was matched with a brown one. Riding came much more naturally than I thought it would, though I wished our guide had given us more instruction. It was actually Akjol, our translator, that told us how to handle the horse. She was no expert, but used to ride a horse to school in Western Mongolia. Left, right, forward and stop. The basics were easily learnt.
Adding to the ease, the horses tended to follow one another and on the vast steppe next to the lake, there were few obstacles to hit even if you tried. The grasslands extended for miles. We walked and trotted next to the lake and after a distance we took off and went away from the lake towards the mountains. We were all in good spirits and found horse riding fun. We struggled learning each other’s names. Will and Sarah became Wull and Sara for the guide.
After 3 hours, we had started to tire and were glad to have reached the forest edge that had slowly approached us over the previous hour. We filled up on bread and wafers, and entered a whole new world. Through the trees, we found a sea of autumnal colour. A forest fire had killed a lot of the old trees, and the new brush stood below solemn black pillars and we were again flanked by high forested mountains in the far distance. The ground also changed. The rainfall the night prior had created large puddles and at times swampy ground. Our horses would try to hug the edges of puddles or walk through the bushes. This created the extra obstacle of avoiding trees or low hanging branches when the horses wanted to go unconventional, but much less muddy, ways and you had to choose between slippy mud or scratchy brush.
A Souring Mood…
Sarah’s horse had pulled up to mine and we started trotting together on a drier section of the grass path. Suddenly, Sarah’s horse tried to violently bite mine and I (Will) had to pull up my reigns quickly to prevent anything more serious happening. Meanwhile, Sarah panicked and held on for dear life. When I caught up with her, I found her a little shaken, like myself. I kept distance with Sarah’s horse and watched on as Sarah found horse-control increasingly difficult, and she occasionally lacked the strength to pull the horse away from tasty bits of grass. Gradually, we slowed pace and found ourselves at the back of the stretched convoy. I asked Akjol, our translator, to get the guide to come back and lead Sarah’s horse.
The ride became increasingly tough, and the terrain ever rough. We went through hilly, forested areas and down into steep valleys. We forded streams and the trickling sound of water was ever present. Sarah was in pain because of the ride, and I requested Akjol stay with her instead of me. Our guide ploughed onwards and Sarah, our guide and Akjol seemed to always be beyond the next brow or on the next truncation. I was with the Kazakh-Mongolian couple and their guide. The ground was waterlogged and the horses were careful where they trod. They were increasingly tired, grumpy and hungry. Eventually, as the sun hovered over the mountains and threatened to disappear, we rode over a brow and saw a flat expanse with teepees in the distance (see third picture below). Salvation. We all ached all over, and the smoke and teepees felt like finding an oasis in the desert. We weren’t quite there yet, the teepees came at us slowly and it took another twenty or thirty minutes until we arrived at the village. My horse found a fascination with veering to the left, and I finally found a name for the horse, Hungry Vera. I yanked it past every tuft of grass and I knew as soon as the horse’s head started to droop, it was about to try and eat a passing bush or tuft.
As we came in to the village, we could see multiple herds of reindeer tied to pegs near the teepees. Guard dogs came to meet us or stood sentry. There are not many vistas where you can see so many animals working towards satisfying the needs of humans. The horses provided long distance transport, the dogs protected the village and the reindeer provided food, milk, transport, warmth and more. Getting off the horses, we found we could hardly walk to begin with and we staggered in to a nearby teepee to be greeted with deer milk tea and fresh bread around a burning stove. We were then shown our own teepee, excited for reindeer riding and more the next day.
It was a long ride, over 8 hours, and in that time we crossed lakes, streams, bogs, grasslands and went through forests. In the end, despite the pain, it was worth it. We finally were able to meet the famed Tsaatan, those who have developed a way of life revolving around a single animal, reindeer. It was going to be a unique experience, and it was going to be worth any aches, bruises or upsets getting there.