Visit Mongolia’s Mystical Tsaatan Reindeer Herders and Mongolian Taiga Where Reindeers Roam
The Tsaatan reindeer herders live deep in the Mongolian Taiga, and they are one of the world's most distinctive groups. The Tsaatan have lived in Northern Mongolia's jungles for centuries, isolated from society and surrounded by their loyal herd of reindeer.
Visiting the Tsaatan is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A long-standing relationship between humans and animals, as well as a culture that values the planet and all of its contributions.
However, the voyage here is difficult. It takes days of bumpy dirt roads, river crossings, and mountain crossings, and when the road ends, a horse awaits, where you'll spend your final hours in the saddle wading knee-deep muck and burning your way through the forest.
Along the trip, you'll witness some of the world's most pristine landscapes, take in jaw-dropping views, see gorgeous wild horses, yaks, and golden eagles, meet fantastic local people who will warmly welcome you into their homes, and learn about the joys and trials of nomadic life in Mongolia.
Who Are The Tsaatan Reindeer People?
The Tsaatan people, originally from the Russian region of Tuva, now dwell on the Mongolian-Russian border in a region known as the taiga. In layman's words, the taiga is a snow forest (in winter) or a swamp forest (in summer) that separates the arctic tundra from the grasslands.
Taiga can be found in any of the world's northernmost countries, including Russia, Mongolia, Europe's Nordic countries, Canada, and the United States (Alaska). The taiga is the second biggest biome on the planet.
While the taiga may appear to you to be a harsh and unforgiving environment, it is the ideal habitat for the reindeer that the Tsaatan have come to love and care for as if they were family. And they thrive where their reindeer thrive.
The Tsaatan and their reindeer have a remarkable symbiotic relationship, with each being completely reliant on the other for existence. The Tsaatan would not be able to survive in the taiga without the reindeer, and the reindeer would perish at the hands of wolves if the Tsaatan did not exist.
However, it's worth noting that the Tsaatan reindeer have been completely domesticated and are now completely reliant on humans for survival. Mongolia does not have any wild reindeer.
The Tsaatan use their reindeer for transportation and milk (including yoghurt and cheese), while the reindeer utilise the Tsaatan for safety and protection from predators. Because of this symbiotic relationship, the Tsaatan must live as nomads, travelling with their reindeer while grazing on a unique type of polar moss.
The taiga stretches from Mongolia to Russia, and the Tsaatan used to be able to freely migrate between the two countries. Food shortages and the threat of having their reindeer requisitioned by the government forced the Tsaatan tribe to relocate permanently to Mongolia after Russia's entry in World War Two.
Despite the fact that the Tsaatan have lived exclusively in Mongolia for nearly 70 years, they still speak Tuvan, which makes communication difficult for most visitors, including Mongolians. I was pleased to have a guide who could comprehend their original language because very few Tsaatan I met at camp could speak Mongolian.
Daily Life of the Tsaatan people
The Tsaatan people are nearly entirely reliant on the land. Teepees are constructed from long, narrow tree trunks that are wrapped in a waterproof canvas covering. The beds are made of logs, the heat comes from a wood-burning furnace, and the reindeer provide dairy. Because reindeer are considered family members, they are rarely hunted for meat.
Every few weeks, a family will send one of their members into town for supplies and food that can't be found at camp, a 20-kilometer reindeer trip away. Flour, rice, veggies, and clothing are common purchases.
With the introduction of tourism to the Tsaatan community, guides may now bring supplies in with the tourists.
Tourists can also leave leftover food with the Tsaatan family with whom they stayed, making life easier for both tourists and locals. We don't have to bring our leftover food back, and they don't have to make a separate trip into town, so it's a win-win situation.
The Tsaatan's normal day consists of getting up, starting a fire in the stove, and then going out to milk the reindeer. Families gather in their teepees after milking to make milk tea and breakfast on the stove. Following breakfast, the families release their reindeer, and a small group of people work together to herd them away from camp to their grazing area, where they are free to graze and wander all day.
During the day, families meet to sip tea and take care of various home tasks such as preparing yoghurt, cheese, and bread, hunting for meat, and harvesting berries from the woods (in the summer).
The families go out in the evening to gather the reindeer from their grazing area and herd them back to camp, where they are tethered for the night. After that, dinner is served, followed by a last reindeer check before retiring to bed.
On a daily basis, a Tsaatan's existence is uncomplicated, yet trouble can strike at any time.
Worsening conditions such as a lack of food for the reindeer or an increased presence of wolves in the region can compel a move sooner than intended. Wolf attacks are a nightly threat to the reindeer, sickness can bring a family down, and worsening conditions such as a lack of food for the reindeer or an increased presence of wolves in the region can compel a move sooner than intended.
The Tsaatan relocate camp 7-8 times every year, which is a major undertaking given that all of their things (teepees, stoves, pans, utensils, clothes, and so on) must be moved all at once on the back of a reindeer. I can only image how difficult it is to load your family and belongings onto the back of a reindeer and then transport many families with a total of 100-200 reindeer across the taiga at once. What a spectacular show that must be.
Why Should You Visit The Tsaatan Reindeer Herders?
Meet the Reindeers
This one should go without saying, but how often do you have the chance to meet a real-life Rudolph?! Not only will you get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up up and personal with a herd of reindeer, but you may also get the option to ride or milk a reindeer.
For true, there are just two places in the world where you may see farmed reindeer, according to my knowledge: Mongolia and the Nordics.
Discover what it's like to live as a nomad herder.
The Tsaatan people have a very distinct way of life and culture. Experience what it's like to spend your days caring for animals and preparing all of your meals from scratch, including milking reindeer and creating butter, cheese, and yoghurt with the milk.
Unplug for a while and enjoy life. What do you do when you don't have power, internet, or phone service? How can you keep yourself occupied all day if you don't have access to a television or even books? These are obstacles for us, but they are just part of life for the Tsaatan people. They have no idea what's going on.