The Tsaatan (or Dukha) people have ridden and relied upon reindeer for generations. Originally, they came from Russia, not Mongolia. Fearing how the communist planned society would affect their culture and herds, they fled from nearby Tuva in Russia to the northern tip of Mongolia. Thankfully, their culture has endured, although both the communities in Russia and Mongolia have shown to have cultural influences from their respective countries. When we visited the Tsaatan (a Mongolian name which means with reindeer), we interviewed the elder of the village, Gambaa. The local Shaman occasionally commented, but due to a heavy vodka-infused the night before, the Shaman was sleeping or sleepy for most of the interview.
We’ll also note that this wasn’t a one way conversation. Gambaa was interested in the scenery in the US and the UK and asked if we slept okay, whether we were enjoying our trip, if we could live in the taiga (forest), if we had travelled to many countries and many more questions. But, as this article is about the Tsaatan, we’ve decided to focus on his insights into the Tsaatan and how they live. We’ll also note that this conversation was via a translator. Here is what we asked Gambaa, and what we found.
Will and Sarah: What’s your name?
Will and Sarah: How old are you?
Gambaa: I’m 60, and there’s someone who’s nearly the exact same age.
Will and Sarah: What nationalities visit your village the most often?
Gambaa: America, France. People come from all over the world.
Will and Sarah: Is there anything about tourists that you find annoying?
Gambaa: No, nothing.
Will and Sarah: We saw trash coming here, what do you do with trash?
Gambaa: We bring our trash to Tsaagan Nuur.
Will and Sarah: What are the biggest challenges to the Tsaatan?
Gambaa: The biggest challenge is always winter.
Will and Sarah: How do you cope with winter?
Gambaa: We just wear warm clothes. It gets to – 55 or -60 degrees Celsius, but that’s only for a few days a year.
Will and Sarah: How do most people spend their day?
Gambaa: Well, adults and children rotate looking after the reindeer. When the children are at school, the adults look after the reindeer, and when they come back, the children help look after the reindeer. That takes up a lot of the day.
Will and Sarah: And what does taking care of reindeer mainly involve?
Gambaa: It mainly involves bringing them into the mountains where they can forage and eat.
Will and Sarah: Have you ever thought about living in more developed places, like Ulaan Bataar?
Gambaa: It would be easy to live in Ulaan Bataar, but I prefer to stay and look after reindeer.
Will and Sarah: How do you make the bread?
Gambaa: We use our stoves and get the supplies from Tsagaan Nuur.
Will and Sarah: Are there any culture differences between the Tsaatan in Mongolia and your fellow Tuvans still in Russia?
Gambaa: The language is different between the two communities. Also, the Tuvans now live in tents whilst we still prefer living in teepees.
Will and Sarah: We saw a lady spilling milk before. Why was she doing this?
Akjol (our translator): Ah, I can answer this one. It’s to ensure good luck of travellers on the road, especially sons. Or, to show appreciation of what she has.
Will and Sarah: Do the Tsaatan vote?
Gambaa: Yes, we go to Tsagaan Nuur to vote.
Will and Sarah: Are wolves a problem?
Gambaa: Yes, we’ve had several incidents before. They want to eat the reindeer. That’s why we have guard dogs.
Will and Sarah: Do you drink Alcohol?
Gambaa: Sometimes, but we have to get supplies from Tsagaan Nuur, so we usually only drink when we go there.
Will and Sarah: We brought you a gift of soju, Korean alcohol, have you had it before?
Gambaa: No, I’ve not had it before. I’d like to try it.
Will and Sarah: Should we bring it now or later?
Gambaa: Now! Bring it now!
When we arrived back, we found two friendly Turkish people outside the teepee and we entered with them. We played a Korean game that involved trying to flick off a part of the bottle cap. The tribe members were pretty awful at it and kept just flicking the whole bottle cap.
The Turkish men also had some questions for Gambaa.
Other Tourist: I found it amazing that there are so many similarities in your language, Turkish and Kazakh. The numbers 1-20 are all the same!
Gambaa: Yes, there are a few similarities.
Other Tourist: Many Shamanist people take drugs or smoke something to be able to meditate or think clearly. Do you do any drugs?
Gambaa: No, we don’t do any drugs.
Other Tourist: And, are there any special dances? I’ve done Shamanist dances before in other parts of the world where we try and connect to the Earth and the universe.
Gambaa: No, we don’t have any special dances like that.
Will and Sarah:What special holidays do you celebrate? What are the important cultural events in the year?
Gambaa: We actually mainly celebrate the Mongolian holidays and celebrations.
Other Tourist: Are any mountains sacred? Is there a particular place to go and pray?
Gambaa: No, we just go to the Shaman.
Other Tourist: How do you pick the next Shaman? In my village, it was always the Shaman’s son.
Gambaa: It’s not like that here. It’s not a patriarchy, people just feel it.
Other Tourist: Are men and women equal here?
Gambaa: Yes, they are.
Other Tourist: If someone does something wrong, what happens? Is there some sort of court?
Gambaa: If someone does something wrong,that person just gets a warning, but people rarely do anything wrong.
The conversation was jovial and lighthearted and it was a joy gaining insights into each other’s cultures. If you have any additional questions for the Tsaatan or about the Tsaatan, please write them in the comments below.