Diary – The Tsaatan and the Taiga – Reindeer Herders in Modern Mongolia

Taiga Tsaatan Dukha Tsagaan Nuur Reindeer People Mongolia

In the last diary entry, we described how we crossed the Taiga to find the Tsaatan (also known as Dukha) people in the forested hills neighbouring Siberia. If you missed it, you can read about our epic horse ride here. If you would like to visit yourself, please visit our how to article here.

The night in the teepee was colder than expected, and the parts of me that exited the covers literally hurt from the cold. Amazingly, I visited the Tsaatan in the height of summer, and the Tsaatan cope with minus 60 degrees Celsius in the winter. Our night was also interrupted by the wild howling of dogs in the early hours, set off by the scent of wolves. Originally wanting to get up for sunrise, I exited the teepee at the more civilised time of 7 AM. I exited the teepee early, hoping to find a hive of communal activity. Instead, I found a lull and the clouds and mist were still hanging thick in the valley. An old woman milked her deer along with her children, a few teepees had smoke pouring out from the tops, but there was little activity and I went back to the warmth of our wooden bed.

As we had our breakfast, children and a couple of adults came to show us their handicraft. There were carved reindeer antlers, purses, necklaces, incense bottles to give the elders and shamans enlightenment and more. All handicraft were of high quality and nearly all the materials came from reindeer and were reindeer themed. Unlike other countries such as Cambodia, there was no pressure to buy here. In fact, whilst Sarah and I (Will) were debating to buy something (we would have had to have carried it across continents and dealt with multiple customs officers), the children and adults up and left. The Kazakh-Mongolian couple bought nicely carved antlers with teepees, reindeers and celestial bodies depicted.

Sarah suggested that we talked to the elders, and our guide was all too happy to show us the way to their teepee. There, we met the village shaman and Gambaa, the village elder. We were surprised to find that the oldest man in the village was just 60, younger than our parents. The Q&A went back and forth and was just as much about them inquiring about us as the other way round. The article detailing this encounter can be found here.

After we found out that Akjol, our translator, didn’t drink alcohol due to her religion, we thought we’d give the gift of Korean soju to our new hosts. When they heard that we brought soju for them, they were excited and wanted it brought straight away. We entered the teepee again with the soju and two liberal Turk tourists who had been hovering outside. The Tsaatan had heard of soju from K-Drama. They asked if the soju was the same as they had seen “in the movies”. Amazingly, in this remote nomadic village that took over 30 hours to get to, they had a TV in one of the teepees that was hooked up to a solar panel. I taught them Korean drinking games involving soju, and they treated us to more deer milk tea and fresh bread.

Although the tribe doesn’t drink often, it’s not due to a lack of want. The night prior, the two Turks had brought litres of vodka into the tent and the shaman was later found lying on the floor outside. He was still tired and lapsed into sleep occasionally. It was a shame that we had not known about the party unfolding in a different part of the village, but at least our heads were a little clearer than those around us.

We left the tent to inquire about riding reindeer. If you above 80 kg then you won’t be allowed to ride, but the reindeer’s have been bred to generations to have hard sturdy backs that support riders under that weight. We chose to have a 40 minute reindeer ride to a nearby lake and back and found the reindeers a very comfortable and sturdy ride. Whereas the horses struggled in the bog, the reindeers tackled the terrain with ease and were unphased by any obstacle. In case you wonder how you ride a reindeer, we found that they are ridden in the exact same way as a horse!  

The lake itself was small but beautiful and we had travelled through the exact same autumnal brush as we had seen the day prior. The lake was surrounded by high hills and mountains and in one corner the clear water gave a perfect reflection of the trees on the opposite side. Our only criticism was the lack of skimming stones!

Our last activity that we had wished to do was to forage for berries and nuts in the forest above the village. Sarah and I left alone to try and climb halfway up a small peak to a clearing that would have given a great view. Unfortunately, the ground was just too boggy and we gave up after we realised the forested region was just as waterlogged as the brush in the valley floor.

That night, as Sarah became increasingly ill, we hosted the Kazakh-Mongolian couple and the Turks and cooked instant ramen and vegetables on an incredibly slow-cooking wood-burning stove. We were very happy to have met the Tsaatan (Dukha) people in Mongolia and recommend it to all who are happy to travel on the paths less travelled. We learnt a lot about how other people lived and I am happy that cultural distinctness can still survive in an ever globalised world. Again, if you want to hear more about how the Tsaatan live and the challenges they face, read this article here.

And if you would like to follow our next steps, please find our next diary entry here.


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