In the northern reaches of the Mongolian taiga, there live a group of nomadic herders, known in Mongolia as the Tsaatan, or “Reindeer People.” For a project I did with other Peace Corps volunteers, I was able to travel and live at their camp for a good 10 days.
Reaching their spring and summer camps are no easy task. They are primarily separated into two groups: The East and The West (or, “left” and “right” in Mongolian). I visited the Eastern camps. First, you have to travel to the aimag center (province capital) of Khuvsgul aimag, Murun. From Ulaanbaatar, that will take you about 15 hours on an overnight bus. Next, you must travel the the nearest soum (village) to the taigas: Tsagaan Nuur. From Murun, you have to take a 10 hour ride across unpaved roads, through the mountains, and through some forests. The Reindeer People live on a national park, so you have to pass through a few checkpoints before you wind up in Tsagaan Nuur. Once in the soum of Tsagaan Nuur, you have to make it to the camps. We took horses, which took about 40 mins on car to reach the halfway point, and another 5 hours on horseback before reaching the spring camp. It is another 6 hours to the summer camp, I am told. Cars can reach the camp, but I would not want to experience that ride.
The Reindeer People live in teepees, which they make from large sticks of wood. Three are used as the frame, are tied together at the top, and the rest are rested on them. From there, you wrap the sticks in your material, ties it down and weigh it down with rocks where need be. They live their lives by herding reindeer. It’s a very simple– yet very difficult– life. They only make income from A.) Guiding visitors to their camps on horseback and B.) Handicrafts. They started the handicrafts one day when a European gentleman was visiting and asked one of the families if he could buy toys they had made for their children. From that one transaction, they started selling crafts.
They speak a dialect of Tuva only spoken in their herding community. From what I gather online, it is not very well documented. One woman said that dictionaries and other resources exist outside the taiga for their language, but they are filled with errors or left incomplete. It is known as Tsaatan or Dukha, and is listed as a vulnerable language in the Endangered Languages Project.
There is an unfortunate exploitation of their heritage by outsiders, however. The most frustrating is the fact that there are those out there who will buy a reindeer and wander around the country, charging money to pose with it, posing as a Reindeer Person. They might have done the cultural performance at the Khuvsgul Ice Festival; I didn’t ask because the idea of posing as a minority group for profit was so shocking to me at the time. One Reindeer Person said that true people from the taiga don’t leave the taiga, only occasionally going as far as Tsagaan Nuur for voting, buying supplies, and the likes.
It was a wonderful experience, all the same, living with and learning from these individuals.
If you would like more information about who they are, what they do, and how to visit them in Mongolia, please visit their website at visittaiga.org.