Mongolia’s Tsaatan Reindeer Herders

Our Guide To Visiting Mongolia's Tsaatan Reindeer Herders Responsibly

Reindeer belonging to the Tsaatan reindeer herders of Mongolia

Image: EL guest Kairi Aun

Mongolia’s Tsaatan reindeer herders are located in the far north of Mongolia. Here, the Darkhad Depression is one of three parallel rift valleys created by the Baikal Rift System. It is a broad expanse of open steppe and low forested hills and, once the site of a large lake, it remains a significant wetland area. This vast region is home to several thousand square kilometres of natural habitat classified as taiga (also known as the boreal forest) located within the Shishged River watershed of the Altai-Sayan mountains (the largest mountain range in southern Siberia) and provides the home range for the world’s southern-most indigenous reindeer population and their herders – the Tsaatan.

Mongolia’s Tsaatan reindeer herders are Mongolia’s smallest ethnic minority – a community of nomadic reindeer herders with strong shamanist beliefs. Originally from Tuva in Siberia, they have historically inhabited the border region of Russia and Mongolia. Ethnically, the community identifies as Dukha, but their lifestyle as reindeer herders earned them the Mongolian name Tsaatan, which means roughly ‘with reindeer.’

Tsaatan Reindeer Herder Darkhad Depression Mongolia

Image: EL guest Enya Dunn-Trethowan

How To Visit Mongolia's Tsaatan Reindeer Herders Responsibly

  • The Tsaatan live in one of the most remote and inaccessible areas of Mongolia. If you are planning a visit, give the trip the time it deserves, and be prepared to face similar challenges to those faced by the Tsaatan. There is no easy or quick way to get there. You must be flexible and adaptable, it is a journey on which you must be prepared to step outside your comfort zone.
Do not arrange a visit to the Tsaatan in the spring. April and early May are when the reindeer give birth and the Tsaatan believe that if strangers visit during this period, their visit will disrupt the spiritual relationship between nature and the reindeer causing the young reindeer to die. The death of a young reindeer is of course harmful to the lifestyle and traditions of the Tsaatan.
  • Visit knowing that although their way of life is ancient, they are modern people and not an undiscovered tribe. They face many of the same issues that we do such as access to health care, and ease their way of life by owning cars, phones or shortwave radios and solar panels that often help to power a television.
  • Do not try to change the Tsaatan or their way of life for your own benefit or comfort. Make sure your visit to the Tsaatan community is of benefit to all including financially and culturally. Be open to all experiences and appreciate life, whatever the conditions.
  • Hosting international travellers allows the Tsaatan to maintain their fragile way of life. Pay for the services you receive and consider purchasing carvings if on offer.
Carving reindeer antler Mongolia

Image: EL guest Kairi Aun

  • The taiga is a fragile environment. Consider the group size you are travelling in. As an example, EL trips are a maximum of four to six travellers.
  • Not all Tsaatan or family members will want their photographs taken. Please respect their wishes. See our Responsible Photography guide.

Our Tsaatan Experiences

We arranged for photographer Kertu Saarits to live alongside and document the lives of Mongolia’s Tsaatan reindeer herders.  This is her film of the journey.

An Overview To The Culture Of Mongolia's Tsaatan Reindeer Herders

Mongolian taiga landscape

Image: EL guest Kairi Aun

Mongolia’s reindeer herders are the most southerly of the world’s reindeer herding communities. They live in two communities in the forested region north of Tsagaannuur sum in Khovsgol Province in far northern Mongolia. This forested region is the boreal forest  – also known as the taiga.

The two communities are East and West Taiga. Mongolia’s Tsaatan originate from Tuva, located in southern Siberia. In 1921, Tuva became an independent satellite of the Soviet Union and the Tsaatan moved their animals between Tuva and Mongolia. In 1944, Tuva became part of the Soviet Union, and the border with Mongolia was closed – forcing a majority to sever ties with Tuva and make their lives solely in Mongolia. When the borders closed, those entering Mongolia from the northeast located to the east taiga and those who came from the southeast settled in the west taiga. Though the regions are geographically distinct, the two groups share many kinship ties and are part of the same wider community.

Map Of Protected Areas Of Khovsgol Province highlighting the location of the East and West Taiga. Image: Changing Taiga

A reindeer belonging to Mongolia's Tsaatan reindeer herders. Part of one of our Mongolia winter tours

Image: EL guest Kairi Aun

The Tsaatan have a strong kinship with their animals – they are often considered part of the family. The Tsaatan depend on their domesticated reindeer herds for their basic needs – milk for food, skins for clothing and boots as well as other products to sell, and the antlers are carved and sold as handicrafts.

The Tsaatan reindeer herders also use their reindeer for transportation – using male reindeer as pack and riding animals for their seasonal migration, for hunting and for collecting firewood.

A reindeer herder in Mongolia collecting wood

Image: EL guest Kairi Aun

A reindeer is only killed for meat when it is too old for breeding or for use for transportation. The Tsaatan predominantly utilise the fruits of the forest, hunting wild game and harvesting pine nuts, berries and mushrooms.

Inside Mongolia's reindeer herders ortz - teepee

Image: EL guest Enya Dunn-Trethowan

As well as being used for practical purposes, the reindeer play a central role in the cultural and spiritual traditions of the Tsaatan.

Collecting pine cones Mongolia

Image: EL guest Kairi Aun

The reindeer eat lichen which, along with sedges and grasses, provides nutrition for the reindeer. 

The herding cycle is divided into four main seasons and members of the Tsaatan community move seasonally with their reindeer within the taiga. The migration pattern of the families is based on their reindeer herds having adequate access to the lichen, sedges, grasses and moss on which they graze as well as depending on the weather and climate. A typical migration pattern is that summer is spent in the high valleys and the winter in the more sheltered taiga forest.

Although the Tsaatan move seasonally they practise a modern form of nomadism. An example of this is whereby some members may move into the Tsagaannuur district centre during term time – enabling their children to attend school while families without children stay in the taiga to tend all the reindeer.

Do not arrange a visit to the Tsaatan in the spring. April and May are when the reindeer give birth. The Tsaatan believe that if strangers visit during this period, their visit will disrupt the spiritual relationship between nature and the reindeer causing the young reindeer to die. The death of a young reindeer is of course harmful to the lifestyle and traditions of the Tsaatan.

A home of Mongolia's reindeer herders

The Tsaatan live in canvas tents known as ortz – a form of a teepee although some families stay in permanent wooden houses in their winter pasture area. Image: EL guest Kairi Aun

During the summer months, families in the community will often set up their own guest ortz in which international travellers can stay. This accommodation will be basic as the life of the Tsaatan is basic. Please do not try to change the Tsaatan or their way of life for your own benefit or comfort. The taiga is not a tourist camp but rather the home of an active, thriving community that wishes to sustain their way of life within a sensitive ecosystem. If your expectation is to be entertained or to have luxurious accommodations, the taiga is not the place for you.
Shamanistic ovoos Mongolia

These are ‘ovoos’ – sacred Mongolian shrines. There are thirteen (one large and twelve small) that mark the southern entrance to the Darkad Depression north of the Beltes River. The twelve smaller ovoos are said to each represent one of the animals of the Mongolian calendar: mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. According to tradition, people entering the Darkhad Depression circumambulate the big ovoo and then pray to the ovoo representing the year they were born. Image: EL guest Enya Dunn-Trethowan

The Tsaatan consider their home landscape spiritual and sacred and the Tsaatan follow a unique shamanistic tradition combined with tengerism and animism. The earth, sky and the spirits of the reindeer, the landscape and their own human ancestors are honoured and respected. As a result, some areas are off-limits to visitors such as areas considered to be inhabited by dangerous spirits. Other areas may have certain rules associated with them.

Members of the Tsaatan community are shamans and the Tsaatan rely on shamans for advice and healing, and for communicating with spirits, ancestors, or nature. The shamans perform ceremonies for healing or spiritual reasons on specific days in the calendar.

At EL any visits to a shaman are conducted only on days marked in the Mongolian Lunar Calendar when shamans would be conducting a ceremony. To do so outside of these days, would be a contrived experience. We do not arrange shaman performances outside of these ceremony dates for photography, money, or gifts.

Learn more about the culture, heritage and way of life of the Tsaatan as well as the challenges they face from these links:

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