Mongolia’s Tsaatan reindeer herders are located in the far north of Mongolia in the Darhad Depression – one of three parallel rift valleys created by the Baikal Rift System. It is a broad expanse of open steppe and low forested hills – once the site of a large lake, it remains a significant wetland area with the main river being the Shishged that drains north-west to join the Yenisey River in Russia.
The Darkhad Depression is home to several thousand square kilometres of natural habitat classified as taiga (also known as the boreal forest). This vast region is Tsagaan Nuur, and as well as forming the northernmost tip of Mongolia, it provides the home range for the world’s southern-most indigenous reindeer population.
The Tsaatan are 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.’
The Tsaatan are Mongolia’s smallest ethnic minority. They 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 antlers for tools and medicine. The Tsaatan also utilise the fruits of the forest, hunting wild game and harvesting pine nuts, berries and mushrooms. The reindeer are also used for riding and as pack animals for tasks such as collecting wood.
The Tsaatan make their home in the east and west taiga that surrounds Tsagaan Nuur. Though the regions are geographically distinct, the two groups share many kinship ties and are part of the same wider community. 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. A typical migration pattern is that summer is spent in the high valleys and the winter in the more sheltered taiga forest.
The herders live in canvas tents called an ort (similar to teepees), though some families stay in permanent wooden houses in their winter pasture area. Also, during the winter, families with children move into gers in the Tsagaan nuur district centre to take care of their school children, while families without children stay in the taiga to tend all the reindeer.
These following images were taken by our guest Kairi Aun.
How To Visit
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. The East and West Taigas can be accessed by riding by horse towards the edge of the taiga, and then to the actual Tsaatan camps. The area of the taiga to be visited depends on a variety of factors including trail conditions and weather, schedule and location of herders, and other events happening in and around the taiga.
The Tsaatan community were supported through the TCVC – Tsaatan Community Visitors Centre based in Tsagaan Nuur – although this organisation has closed due to lack of support. However, we make sure we follow the guidelines set out originally by the Tsaatan Community and Visitors Centre – making sure our visits to the Tsaatan community are of benefit to all. During your time with the Tsaatan, nothing is contrived or planned. We leave the plan each day entirely flexible and in the hands of your host family. This leads to a more respectful and genuine experience as well as a more personal and real insight for you as our guest. To do this though you must be open to all experiences and also able to appreciate life, whatever the conditions. If you’re able to travel in this way, rather than just a standard organised tour you’ll get an original insider experience of the day to day life and the challenges faced by the Tsaatan themselves.
Also, 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.
We only offer small private trips (maximum group size of six) to the region as this helps to limit any negative impact on the fragile environment of the taiga. It also means that your experience is more genuine and personal. Consider extending your experience and combining a visit to the Darkhad Depression with Khovsgol Nuur National Park (one of the parallel rift valleys ). For more details of our 2020 departure, look at the June departures on our Mongolia small group tours page or get in touch.
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes