Every season, the herders switch camps. At each camp, there are tent poles for their teepees. The season dictates how big the teepee will be: Extraordinarily wide for summer (to keep their distance from the stove), mid-sized for spring and autumn, and tightly compact for winter. Each camp is next to different areas for reindeers to graze and different water sources for people to use. Rotation helps keep everything in balance so it has time to replenish for the following year.
The herders have to be weary of wolves, however. While we visited, on the first day, we saw a wolf pelt stretched across a motorcycle outside one of the teepees.
“He caught it last night,” Someone told us, “He ate the meat. He said it was delicious.”
Towards the end, one of the horses belonging to a family was killed by wolves.
“Now we will have to make two trips to get everything of ours to the summer camp,” the woman lamented.
Baby reindeer eat moss (pictured above) that the Reindeer People collect from the mountainsides around their camps. One morning, our group decided to trek up the nearby mountain to retrieve sacks of the spongey treats for one of the herder families. We were also told that a two hour hike up the mountain would result in a bit of phone service, so our group grew even larger. We climbed through the trees, over rocks, across craggy fissures and over boulders, collecting tufts along the way. Pulling them from the ground, putting your fingers at the base and giving a firm tug, yanked out the tops and roots, and gave a wonderful smell from the ground. It reminded me of lemons. With our bags full, we returned to camp a few hours later. Not an easy activity, suffice to say.
Milking is another big activity for the herders. Reindeer milk is very thick, so most claim that it is the highest quality milk in Mongolia (This is true; it has the highest fat content of all the animal milks in Mongolia, beating out the much-cherished yak milk). The reindeers, however, don’t produce much milk when milking. You milk them as you would any other animal: Get the babies to start suckling, remove them, grease your index finger, forefinger, and thumb with milk, and pull down with the thumb as you push up with the forefingers (all while moving your hand down). Small squirts come out, but the Reindeer People know how to make their milk last: They dilute it with tea to make milk tea. I was told 100ml of reindeer milk can be watered down to make 5 liters of milk tea. The milk is also used to make a soft cheese, which I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to try. Others have told me it’s delicious, and has the consistency of Mozzarella.
While visiting, I managed to milk a reindeer, collect reindeer food, and set up and break down a few teepees. It was a great privilege to be able to take part in a way of life that seems to be disappearing over time. While their numbers may be small, the Reindeer People are carrying on with their traditions proudly.