Visit a local Tsaatan or reindeer family
Some families bring their reindeer to the shores of Lake Khovsgol each summer, to partake in the tourist industry. However, this region is too warm for their animals and many become sick, or even die as a result. Unfortunately, the Tsaatan and the Tsaa’s interconnected populations are dwindling due to climate change, the introduction of livestock which carries diseases, and the disappearance of the Tsaatan way of life.
There are only about 60 Tsaatan families, spread over 100.000 sq.km of northern Mongolia. The Number of Tsaatan is totaling somewhere between 200 and 400 people. They ride, breed, milk, and live off of reindeer, though the reindeer population has dropped to approximately 600 since the 1970s when it was an estimated 2000.
A long time ago, a small group of Tsaatan people from the province of neighboring Tuva migrated to modern-day Mongolia. Known as the Soyd Uriankhai, Mongolia’s called them the Tsaatan, the reindeer people. The North Taiga band was organized under the Qing Dynasty from 1755-1912 as part of Tuva or Uriankhai banner. With Mongolian independence, the banner became part of Tuva, which was soon annexed by the Russians, leaving only the North Taiga band on the Mongolian side of the frontier. The South Taiga group of the Tsaatan and other Uriankhais fled over the frontier from Tuva to avoid conscription in the 1930s. Situated in the soums of Ulaan-Uul, Khankh, Bayanzurkh, and Renchinlkhunbe in Khovsgol aimag, the Tsaatan live a nomadic lifestyle in the coniferous forest, the Taiga, following the reindeer they herd to the pastures the animals choose.
A distinct culture within Mongolian society, the Tsaatan practice a shamanistic religion and speak old Uighur dialects with one another. They use their reindeer not only to carry their belongings, but also for meat, milk, and clothing from animal hides. Some Tsaatan continues to live in yurts made of animal skin. In the past, the Tsaatan lived in yurts made primarily of birch bark that resembled the tepees of native-Americans in their appearance.
A large yurt could be made of bark from up to 32 trees; a medium-sized yurt from the bark of 23-25 trees. An opening of 2-3 meters in height allows access into the yurt, where a bag that houses the guardian spirits of a shaman rests in the rear. On the right side of the yurt, the Tsaatan family will keep its hunting equipment, saddles, tools, and utensils. A traditional Tsaatan yurt will not have a bed, but rather a skin covering on the ground, upon which the family sleeps. A stove sits in the middle of the yurt.
Tsaatan dress is characterized by hats in the style of the Halkh people, and wide deels (traditional Mongolian overcoats). They wear strong and warm boots fabricated from the hides and sinew of their reindeer. These boots are known for their quality and are very expensive. To make it through the rugged winters, a family will slaughter two or three reindeer in order to store up food for the cold months. The food is hearty and delicious by most accounts. The Tsaa, the Mongolian reindeer themselves, have dictated the Tsataan’s way of life.
Mongolian reindeer are a unique species located only in the northern latitudes of the world. The length of a Mongolian reindeer ranges from 170 cm to 200cm, and the height (between the armpit and the hip) is between 120-140cm. Their weight is between 100-200 kg. Hair color becomes brown in the summer and a version of white or gray in the winter. Tsaa are most famous for their elaborate, towering horns. White moss is the preferred food, which grows abundantly in their habitat high in the Taiga Forest. Mating season is between September and October, and after a seven-month gestation period, one or two calves are born.