No words can describe our magical journey in North Mongolia where we experienced the real nomadic life and cuddled reindeer! Can you imagine anything better than this?
Reindeer people (called Tsaatan or Dukha) live isolated in the Mongolian Taiga at the border with Siberia. Being nomads they move between 2 and 4 times per year and without establishing permanent settlements. In winter, when temperatures reach -20, they stay closer to Tsaagannur village. But closer can be 4 hours of horse riding in the snow! In summer they go further in the mountains, at 7-9 hours of horse riding, looking for more grassland.
We visited the nomads of the eastern side where 24 families live in a “village” while other families live on their own in other parts.
Will Reindeer people still exist in ten years?
Nowadays there are around 400 Tsaatan people divided in east and west Taiga. In winter the population decreases as children (sometime with their mum) and youngsters move to Tsaagannur settlement to go to school and basically only men and old people remain in the cold and harsh Taiga with their reindeer. According to Uwugdorj (see photo above) things are changing quickly as young people who get educated in the village don’t want live the difficult life conditions of reindeer herders and look for better opportunities elsewhere.
How do they live?
The name “Tsaatan” means “those who have reindeer” in Mongolian language. The life of Tsaatan is in fact strictly dependent on reindeer. And vice-versa. Reindeer are very docile domesticated animals and are raised primary for milk (from which they also make very good cheese) but they are also used for transportation. Only a few of them are slaughtered every year to provide meat. Tourism in summer has also become an important source of income.
They live in tepees that look like the ones of native Americans with a stove in the middle of to cook and to warm the space.
What about their language and religion?
Tsaatan people speak Mongolian but their traditional language is Dukhan, an endangered Turkic language spoken only in this area. As the population is shrinking and youngsters get their education in Mongolian, this language might unfortunately disappear.
Reindeer people practice Shamanism and worship nature. In the village where we stayed there are two shamans and we had the chance to meet one of them: Saintsetseg (meaning “flower”). She told us that people from all over the world and from Mongolia come all the way to the Taiga to talk to her. She showed us the objects and clothes she uses during mystical rituals and told us we will have a happy future 🙂
Do you want to live the same experience?
First of all, hurry up! You never know how things will evolve in the near future. Second, don’t underestimate it, it isn’t an easy journey. You need time, patience, and motivation as well as good physical conditions 😉
Staying with Tsaatan people was really amazing but what makes the experience unforgettable is the whole journey to reach them!
In case you decide to to take this amazing challenge, here is an overview of our itinerary. On our opinion it is impossible to go on your own and you need at least horse guides in the Taiga (if you reach the last village by public transport). Our suggestion is to take an organized tour with a driver and a guide/interpreter/cook. It can be expensive but it is worth.
We did the tour in one week but you can choose to squeeze it in less days if you are so lucky that the weather is excellent (and therefore you can drive very fast on the hills) or if you are an expert horse rider. We have witnessed tourists devastated by 14 hours of bus and 9 hours of horse riding in a row… so be careful with what you choose and take it easy! Also, remember that without a guide/interpreter you will not be able to talk to the nomads, which would be a real pity.
Day 1: Full day of driving 4×4 in non-existing roads in the middle of steppe, hills and woods with absolutely no internet connection. Afternoon and night with a nomad family living in a ger on the way.
Day 2: Half day of driving (always in non-existing roads) and three hours horse riding in the Taiga. Overnight in a wooden house, or better a wooden roof, in the middle of nowhere.
Day 3: Six hours of horse riding in the Taiga until we finally reached the Tsaatan village, wow!
Day 4: We spent the day visiting families, drinking milk tea (typical Mongolian drink) and cuddling reindeer. Thanks to our guide Otgoo we could talk to people and ask many questions!
Day 5: Five hours of horse riding to go back to the wooden house. It took us less time thanks to the good weather conditions.
Day 6: Two hours and half of horse riding, two hours of observing cars getting stuck in the river Bridge, four hours of car and overnight in a guesthouse on the way.
Day 7: Back to the asphalt-kind-of roads and well-deserved relax in a nice ger camp (with toilets OMG) by Khuvsgul Lake.
Our dream team
If we had this fantastic experience is also thanks to our team!
* disclaimer: Tsaatan people and our guide told us what you read on this blog so it might not be precise