Among the diverse nomadic tribes in Mongolia, the Tsaatan reindeer herders continue a unique traditional culture. Indeed, the Tsaatan nomads are reindeer herders live high in the Ulaan Taiga mountain range of Mongolia. We were lucky to stay with them for a couple of days late summer, witnessing ancestral traditions, and learned about their way of life, their beliefs in Shamanism.
We visited different nomadic camps, reaching them on a challenging day-long horse-back ride through the taiga. What a memorable trip it was, and such an incredible experience! Find out more about the Tsaatan in our post.
Who are the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders?
Also known as the Dukhan, they live in the region bordering Russia to the west, the Darkhad Valley and Lake Khövsgöl (Khövsgöl Nuur or Khuvsgul Lake) to the east. Through millennia-old traditions, the Tsaatan livelihood has been tied to their reindeer herd. Today the roughly 500 Dukhan left are some of the last of the reindeer herders in the world.
How to Reach to the Tsaatan Camps?
Reaching the Tsaatan camp is a challenging endeavor as it takes from three to six days from Ulaan Baatar. It starts with a 12-hour bus ride from Ulaan Baatar to Mörön (also known as Murun). Then you embark on a 12-hour ride on rough dirt roads and river crossing from Mörön to Tsagaan Nuur in a Russian minivan. Finally, you horse-ride one to three days through steep rocky forest slopes and muddy taiga – swampy coniferous forest area – before arriving at their location. But once we arrived at the taiga camp, I quickly forgot any soreness and was no longer tired. We had made it. We had reached the nomadic people of the reindeer – the Tsaatan. Just mentioning their name felt extraordinary.
West Taiga Horseback Riding
Our group was composed of Bruno and myself, two other fellow travelers, and our two guides on horses Udaan-Bayr (aka Oda) and his young brother-in-law Enh-Amgalanlt (aka Inke). We rode through rough trails for six hours from Tsagaan Nuur (the White Lake in Mongolian) before we reached our first camp.
I used to my horse, so even if I am somewhat rusted, I usually feel confident on a horse. Let me say that these six hours were tough. The area we were in is called the West Taiga and is notorious for its steep and rugged mountainous terrain. We crossed rivers, stepped over rocky paths with barely enough space for our horses to put their feet, avoided holes between large boulders, struggled, and slipped in the muddy taiga. It was a miracle no one fell and got hurt – humans and horses alike. The fact that the Mongolian horses are only partially tamed also spiced up the ride! Our horses were well maintained and responded well to our directions, but we always felt that their wild character was eager to make an appearance. It is worth mentioning that Udaan’s horses had won several racing medals when he participated in Nadaam and other games. He won numerous medals during several archery and wrestling contests, two highly popular activities in Mongolia.
The scenery was mind-blowing. From the green valley floors, the grasslands, the Siberian larch forests, and the tall bushes that composed the taiga, our eyes were constantly wide open in amazement. The fall colors of this late August added orange, red, and yellow hues to the green and blue of the mountains. Maybe this is why it is called Ulaan taiga, red taiga in Mongolian. After several hours of going up hills, we finally reached the pass. We reviled in the extensive views of the 3,000-meter high peaks of Khoridol Saridag mountains separating the Khövsgöl Lake (Khuvsgul Lake) area from the Darkhad valley. Besides the fantastic views, we also rejoiced when Udaan informed us we were 10 minutes away from the camp. Bruno was sore all over and did not know which position to keep on the saddle as it hurt so much. The long hours, tough trails, and heavy backpacks were a toll on us for sure.
As we reached the camp, we delighted in the sights of the traditional yurts, the children playing outside, and several reindeer laying down nearby the camp.
Our stay was to be split between two families, but as we would discover, the two families are linked and provided a deeper glimpse into the Tsaatan millennia-old history.
Staying at the Tsaatan Camps
Meeting The Zorigt
Zorigt, 48, and his wife Otgonbayr welcomed us in their yurt, the shape reminiscent of the Native American teepees. Otgonbayr gestured us to sit around the stove, which occupied the center of the 6-meter wide yurt. Two of their five children were present – their young son Khuderbat, 14, and one of their daughters Zulaa, 23, with her 1-year-old girl Ehrsaran. One of the daughters lives in Murun, the other two in Tsagaan Nuur. We managed to discuss with Zorigt thanks to his understanding of English, which he acquired while working as a horse guide.
Otgonbayr served us the traditional Mongolian milk tea, homemade bread, and dried cheese curd. These felt good after the long ride, and I was eager to taste the dairy products made of reindeer milk. The milk tea did not taste much different than with regular cow milk. The dried cheese curd, however, had a definite “gamy” taste, though I was not sure whether it was from the reindeer milk or the method of sun-drying the curd.
The family of 6 was sharing the sparsely furnished yurt made of about 20-25 wooden poles and heavy tarp wrapped around and laying on the ground. Besides the stove occupying the center of the yurt, a few mats were rolled by the wall sides. A couple of cooking utensils and a wok, several pieces of meat drying over a stretched rope, and a string of cheese named “byrlack” occupied the walls. A pack of clothes, blankets, and equipment laid in another area. That was it. I had more clothes and gear in my backpack for sure and felt overly equipped with unnecessary items as I looked around the yurt. The only touch of the modern world was a solar panel and a TV set. And the compulsory cell phone.
Zorigt showed us our yurt – a similar setting but stripped down to just a stove and some floor tarps. Just like we had expected. When visiting the Tsaatan nomads, one needs to bring everything – sleeping gear, food, and clothes. We knew the families would not be able to provide us with anything and had made sure to bring everything we would need for our trip. I was very surprised when Otgonbayr appeared shortly after bringing more tarps for insulating the ground and a thick blanket for the night. We initially refused as we did not want to be deprived of much-needed warmth. But true to Mongolian hospitality, she insisted we kept them. I have to confess we appreciated it during the night, long after the fire in the stove had died and that the temperatures had dropped into freezing degrees. Even if the floor felt hard and the night cold, I was thrilled to be staying in the yurt and was reliving our first evening in the camp.
After settling down, we headed out to see the reindeer. We slowly approached the pack, wondering how the animals would react to our presence. To my surprise, they let us come close and touch them without any significant scare. Granted, their eyes were wide open and tracked every single of our movements, but not once did they bolt or react abruptly. Their skin was amazingly soft, especially their nose. A few scratched their horns one the ground or with their back feet, but did not let us touch them.
During our stay, we witnessed two males’ horns being cut to reduce the fighting among the young and the bulls. They did like to lick our hands, like horses do, in search of salt. Packed together by Zorigt’s yurt, each one was attached to a ground hook to prevent them from escaping. The neck and back legs are tied up together during the day. Many were paired up, all to prevent from the reindeer to wander too far away from camp. This did not prevent one pair from lingering up in the mountains one evening, which led the young Khuderbat and our guide Inke to search for them while the night fell. As they came back empty-handed, Zorigt himself went on a search and returned later during the night with the missing pair in tow.
The Oron and Inchbaatar Families
After three days at Zorigt’s camp spent between observing daily life, picking wild blueberries, and hiking a nearby ridge, it was time to visit the other family. We rode our horses for three hours, going over the next pass and onto to the next valley.
We saw the second camp from far and could distinguish three yurts in the distance. Our new family host, Ulze, welcomed us in the camp as her husband Inchbaatar was away taking care of the reindeer.
After the traditional milk tea welcome, we sat outside with the kids and our guides, passing the time eating pine nuts out of freshly grabbed pine cones. I enjoyed the sharing aspect of the moment as one pine cone circulated among us all.
Our conversation was, however, limited as no one in the camp spoke English, except for one person whom we barely saw. The rest of the communication was tough, mostly grunting and imitating situations with hand gestures and a lot of guesses. This was frustrating at a time as I had millions of questions and could not get any detailed answers. Bruno luckily had an app called Mongolian Dic, which translated individual words from English to Cyrillic.
In this camp of three yurts, we met Oron, who was Zorigt’s younger brother. His son Inchbaatar was married to our host Ulze, and they had a 5-year-old boy Ankhar and an 8-month-old girl Anhar. Ulze’s sister, Baylch, was the occupant of the third yurt with her husband and little girl.
A third camp closer to Tsagaan Nuur belongs to the GrandMa, actually Zorigt and Oron’s mother. We passed it by on our last day as we returned to town. Riding through the valley was truly about riding through the family history…
The Mongolian Hospitality
True to the hospitality of the Mongolian people, we felt welcome by the Tsaatan families from the minutes we arrived until we departed. Zorigt shared with us his family history while his wife showed us the traditional ways of milking. Ulze and her family shared with us a portion of the rare reindeer meat and engaged with us in their evening family time of wrestling and cooking. All and always accompanied by traditional milk tea. Even the lack of common language could not prevent or diminish such a warm welcome.
As we left on our last day, Ulze pressed reindeer “huurt” in our hands. Knowing how scarce their resources are, I initially declined, but she kept on insisting. Even as I repeated my thanks, I started to think I was making a faux-pas by refusing their hospitality and finally accepted. The huurt kept us going until the end of our Mongolia trip. I treasured every single bit of them, together with the memories of the reindeer walking by us when crossing the camp, the Tsaatan kids running after them. The next generations of the last reindeer people on the planet…
The Nomadic Life of the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders
The Tsaatan follow their reindeer herd throughout the year and keep changing the location of their camp every season. As we neared the end of August, the Zorigt had recently moved from their summer camp in the higher altitude of their mountains three days ride to their fall & spring camp in the taiga six hours from Tsagaan Nuur. Reindeers cannot regulate their temperatures easily and need to be at higher altitudes in summer to avoid the heat. When Mongolia winter comes, they move their camp further down about a three-hour ride north of Tsagaan Nuur. Moving a camp requires dismantling the yurt, leaving the wooden poles behind to be reused the following year. We saw °an empty camp with such poles left neatly side by side when we went higher into the mountains to cross a pass into the next valley. The belongings are transported on the back of the reindeer. While we did not see the whole transit, we met another family during our first-day ride, trying to load heavy cooking pot on one reindeer. The soft animal did not seem to appreciate and bucked away. I can’t even picture how they would put a stove, but I was told this is how the families all transport the vital piece of equipment.
Zorigt and his family go to Tsagaan Nuur for a few days once a month in summer, and spend the cold Mongolian winter at the skirt of the forest close to town, like most families nowadays. However, a couple of Tsaatan families do stay with their herds in winter, high up in the mountains. They use the reindeer to come to town a few times, the reindeer being the only option to travel in the deep snow as they don’t sink as horses would. During the seasonal migrations, the Tsaatan nomads use the reindeer to carry their belongings – stove, yurt (but not the wooden poles which are left for the next year), cooking utensils and pots… Sleds are rarely used due to the steep slopes, rocks, and forest settings. Surprisingly there is no snowmobile of any kind. During the cold months, the temperatures can reach -40° C (same in ° Fahrenheit). A story goes these even went down to -60° C (-76° F) one far away winter, so cold that even reindeer started dying.
As we commented on how much water and mud we came across on our late August ride, we realized that the spring conditions must be difficult too, with the melting snow and water run-off making the taïga even wetter and hard to cross.
In their daily activities, men manage the herd, cut wood, and pick up berries. Women on their end handle milking and cooking, which occupies the day given this is all done from one single stove. When they are not running around, children spent equal times with both adults, help take care of the reindeer, go freely for hours long, including joining with strangers like us like Ankhar when he joined us on a half-day hike. In the evenings, men might try their force at wrestling as we saw one night, or go for a local card game.
We noticed how the women wore the traditional Mongolian deel garment for milking the reindeer. Many men wore them too, like our two horse guides did. We got to try one for the evening thanks to Udaa and his wife Enhka, and I was comforted how warm and practical the traditional cloth was. Thanks to the tight belt, the upper section has space to store anything – we saw Udaan and Enh store food, clothes, and even some gear. The wide-open lower part allows covering the legs while riding, good cold and rain protection. It also allowed the women to discreetly respond to nature’s call while in the open steppes where there is no tree or rock to hide behind miles away.
The Tsaatan nomads did appear older than their actual age, most certainly due to the harsh conditions and constant outdoor exposure. We kept (to our shame) adding about 10 to 15 years to their ages…
Today many younger Tsaatan people are leaving the nomadic life and settling in towns such a Tsagaan Nuur or Murun. The lifestyle, together with the languages and customs appear to be dwelling over the years.
A diet of reindeer dairy products
The harsh conditions of the taïga limit any agricultural option. Besides wild onions, berries like blueberries and some red berries and the popular pine nuts, the Tsaatan mostly use the reindeer for the milk and have a diet comprised of reindeer dairy products: milk, yogurt, cheese-like “huurt,” butter. Add fresh homemade bread and fried bread as a regular staple. Potatoes, carrots, sheep meat, all come from Tsagaan Nuur or Murun a day drive away. They don’t eat much reindeer meat as they only kill an animal when it reaches an older age of 15 to 20 years, and as such, only kill such an animal once or twice a year. The meat will be dried for a longer consumption period. The skin used to make winter clothes or yurt insulation, sinew for rope, and bones and horns for useful tools or decorative pieces such as necklaces. The area was teeming with mushrooms of all kinds – large brown ones, small dark ones, and myriad others, but Zorigt told us these were not for human consumption though reindeer seemed to enjoy them.
During the day, women milk, prepare homemade bread and cheese, dry curd, wash clothes, play with kids, or chat while sharing a fresh pine cone. The stove is in constant use, always ready to serve hot milk tea, or boiling the milk to create the homemade butter (“urum”). Leaving the cooked milk overnight produced the “soss” the next morning, similar to fresh liquid cream – a delight on fresh bread. Since there is no fridge, each meal is cooked fresh. We were surprised by the lack of flies and mosquitoes, which are both usually plaguing any livestock. Neither hanging drying reindeer meat nor the reindeer blood left in a pot attracted insects or smelled funny. I am guessing the high altitude is to be thanked for that.
In addition to dairy products, a good source of fat and protein comes from the pine nuts. Pine trees are easily found in these areas, and it would be common for our guides as well as the kids to grab fresh pines cones from the trees. Their scales are not as hard as the ones in Northern America and were easily peeled, allowing us to reach the treasured pine nuts quickly. Eating the pine nuts is a popular pastime in Mongolia, and very social activity as one can circulate a pine cone while chatting about the latest events. And nothing beats the smell of fresh sap on your fingers when you just grabbed the cone from the tree while riding or hiking through the forest.
Living by the Reindeers
The Zoright family owns about 70 reindeer, including 15 youngsters born this year. The reindeer spend their day grazing on their favorite lichen, plenty in the taiga. In winter, they move up higher in the mountains and the taiga, whereas most Tsaatan families go to Tsagaan Nuur, about 3 hours of horse ride to town. The reindeer do come back in spring to the spring/fall camp to meet the Zorigt family again.
The reindeer are branded with a big A, the Zorigt brand. We had met another family on the ride up; these bore the B letter. The young son Khuderbat explained to me that families do sometimes exchange reindeer.
The animals behave like regular livestock. They are tied up during the day, either back foot to the neck or in pair with another animal, to prevent them from going too far since this is open terrain. In the evening around 7 pm, the herd returns to the camp, a sight of wonder as a dozen reindeer came as a group, some trotting, some leisurely snacking on the way. They then eagerly await to have their neck & leg untied though then tied to their post for the night. It’s milking time for the females when Otgonbayr and Zulaa take care of about 6 or 7 females using a small milk tin container one usually sees for cows. I asked if I could try and Zulaa directed me to one of the females. She grabbed a bit of milk from her tan to wet my hand and fingers and showed me how to proceed. A first-timer when it comes to milking, I did not get the hand of it (excuse the pun…), and the poor reindeer was extremely patient with my lack of practice and obvious mismanaging of the whole process.
Oron’s and Ulce’s camp had 60 reindeer, but these were roaming freely cause valley closed up on both ends of the valley. Leaving at night and during the day, we saw several groups of young males sticking together. The females were attached together and at a pike for morning and evening milking. While they roamed the camp, the constant thumping noise the reindeer made reminded us of big frogs. Those would do sleep laid down like dogs, nose on the ground, and totally at peace. Though not as quiet as in both camps, the horns of a few bulls were cut to prevent further fighting.
Young reindeer drink under their mothers from their births in spring to roughly the end of November. The females produce little milk over the winter. Milk usage from the Tsaatan usually starts again in May with the newborns, who can get about 150 grams of milk per female in the spring, compared to about 300 grams in summer. The Zorigt have 16 females, and young born in the spring will drink milk until November, before winter gets too cold.
We did not see anyone in the Zorigt family riding the reindeer, but his son mentioned they do when they move camp. In Ulze’s camp, however, the reindeer were ridden daily, to help maintain the herd around, or for full transportation to other camps hours away.
Reindeers only eat lichen and can smell it under 1 meter of snow. There are no bears around, but wolves do roam the area. We did hear them while we were stargazing one clear night. We first thought it was a dog, but we quickly realized it was a wolf. Neither dogs or livestock, no the humans budged, so it was not an immediate danger to anyone. But it was nevertheless bone-chilling! However, not every such night ends on a quiet note. One of Zorigt’s calves was killed by a wolf in a past summer, though this seemed to be a rare occurrence.
The Tsaatan of Mongolia – Traditions millennia old
Zorigt kept mentioning “Tuha” and explained his father came at the age of 21 from Kizil. After researching what I wrote phonetically, I found out the Kizil was the capital of what once was the People’s Republic of Tannu Tuva, an independent nation from 1921 to 1944 only recognized by the Soviet Union and Mongolia. Today, this is the Tuva Republic of Russia after its integration into the Soviet Union. Many reindeer herders flew the Soviet Union during the early 1940s as the Communist regime searched to put their hand of the livestock for feeding the troops during the war. Their region of origin was moreover plagued with a deadly disease for the reindeer. Two strong reasons for Zorigt’s father to leave the area in 1941, at a time when there was no Russia-Mongolia border. Indeed, until the border creation in 1960, people and livestock moved freely in the Ulaan taiga mountains.
Zorigt kept mentioning Mongolia Tuha, which turns out to be a modern adaption of the Mongolian Duhaa, referring to the Dukha tribe (Tsaatan). Our guide Udaan clarified that Tsaatan means Reindeers (Tsaa) People (Tan) in Mongolian. Today the Dukha people are a small Tuvan (Tozhu Tuvans) Turkic community living west of Tsagaan Nuur.
When he crossed into Mongolia, his father brought with him 17 Russian reindeer, which I think he said were Russian Yakuts from Siberia. He further extended his herd with Mongolian reindeer when he went to Ulaan Uul. Moving to Tsagaan Nuur around the 1980s, several families owned around 700 reindeer. Today, the local reindeer’s population is 1,800 strong and divided among 65 different families across East and West Taiga. Zoright owns 70 reindeer.
He mentioned that his uncle and father spoke Mongolian Tuha. The Tuha language – or Dukha or Dukhan language – is an endangered Turkic language barely spoken by five hundred people, mostly elderly Tsaatan living around Tsagaan Nuur and in the Dukhan Valley. The language is related to the Soyot language, who were proto-Samoyedic hunter-gatherers migrating from Western Siberia at the beginning of the second millennium BC. The Soyot traditional lifestyle of breeding reindeer can still be found today throughout the taiga and the Tsaatan families.
Mongolian Traditions: Shamanism
Zorigt is also a shaman (chaman). He became a shaman at 28, after being taught by his uncle, his father’s older brother, who came from Russia at the same time. Indeed, shamanism was prosecuted under the Soviet Era and is another reason why Zorigt’s family left their homeland. In turn, Zorigt is teaching his own daughter Zulaa to become a chaman Tsaatan. His younger son will be inheriting the reindeer herd in his turn, though he is currently attending school in Tsagaan Nuur.
His nephew Inch-baatar, son of his younger brother Oron, is also being taught to be a shaman. Zorigt considered himself a “minor” shaman, and usually performs ceremonies once a month, though only from May to September as the remaining months are too cold in the taiga. Ceremonies don’t necessarily involve special food or drink but mostly drum and chanting.
His legacy can be followed today in Zorigt’s family, but also in his other son Oron, the head of the second family we visited after a three-hour horse ride crossing a high pass into the next valley.
I am not sure whether the following customs were related to Shamanism, but I don’t recall anything similar to these in Buddhism and Islam, and we could not see anything identical across the remaining two months of traveling through Mongolia.
- One should not sleep with reindeer skin under the head, as this would cause a headache and heart problems. We could only sit or use them as shoes or leggings for warmth.
- One should not write on the earth directly with a stick or finger. Aligned stones or pebbles are fine, though when writing things down on the ground. It is fine to dig the ground for planting.
- One should not touch someone else’s foot without touching the hand – feet are considered “bad,” so hand-touching would counter-effect this.
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