A precarious life in Mongolia’s north

Despite facing hardships and prejudice, a tiny, marginalised community of nomadic reindeer herders is attracting people from around the world with their unique style of living.

We had been riding nonstop for five hours, our mounts alternately cantering through meadows and picking their way through evergreen forest. The land became increasingly bare and mountainous, a forbidding landscape under a leaden sky. On the final descent into the valley we dismounted; easier than inching downhill along the treacherous, muddy slope. I was exhausted.

In the valley we saw a couple of dozen tepees in two clusters, the rising smoke announcing human presence. We were greeted by scores of barking dogs; unlike typical Mongolian strays, these were well-fed Husky-like hunting animals.

My guide, Mishig, and I were ushered into a tepee by an ancient-looking woman wearing a traditional Mongolian deel (kaftan), her weathered face and few remaining teeth telling of a lifetime of hard living. A cauldron of water was boiling and the woman’s daughter made milky tea. I opted to camp next to her tepee. A curious and begrimed little girl attached herself to me, looking up expectantly as I prepared my rehydrated mash and peas. She opened her mouth like a little bird; I spoon-fed her, feeling maternal.

We were visiting the Tsaatan, a tiny, marginalised community of around 500 people who live in the mountains and taiga (swampy coniferous forest) along the Russian border, just north of Mongolia’s Lake Khuvsgul. These reindeer herders are a nomadic tribe, moving from pasture to pasture every five weeks or so in search of lichen that’s essential to the wellbeing of their reindeer. Originally from Russia’s Tuva region and speaking both Mongolian and Tuvan, the process of forced collectivisation during decades of Communism cost the Tsaatan most of their reindeer, and these days their existence is a very precarious one. There are only around 15 to 20 animals left per family, and they supplement their livelihood by fishing, hunting elk and gathering wild berries and potatoes.

I was introduced to Zaya, an English-speaking member of the community, who expertly kneaded dough while chatting to me.

“January to March is the hungriest time for us. To make dumplings for the Tsaagan Sar (White Moon) festival in February we gather the last of our flour and as for the filling, we hope that one of the men has managed to hunt down an elk,” Zaya said.

“Do you eat your reindeer?” I asked.

“Very, very rarely, as we have so few; we need them for the milk and as pack animals.”

These days, the Tsaatan no longer dress in reindeer hides and their tepees are covered with waterproof canvas, but their animals still take care of most their needs.

I followed as Zaya headed across the clearing with a tin pail in her hand. She tied her reindeer’s front legs to stop it from running off and squatted down, milking the animal with quick, practised squeezes. “Reindeer produce only around 300ml per session. We milk them twice a day.” This small amount of milk is then converted into a dry, crumbly, slightly salty cheese. “This is a dying practise, even among the reindeer people. We’ve had some Sámi visitors [from Finland] taking photos to show their grandparents, as they don’t milk reindeer anymore.”

The affection that the Tsaatan feel for their animals is evident, and the community suffers when any of them are killed. “Last week we lost two young reindeer to wolves,” Zaya told me. As we talked, a reindeer poked its head into the opening of the tepee. “That’s Britney Spears; she’s here for her salt lick.” Zaya explained that deer seek out salty mineral deposits to satisfy a craving for nutrients that aren’t found in the grass and lichen they eat. She poured some salt in my hand so that I could feed the members of Led Zeppelin, her other five reindeer. They were very tame and followed me around, pushing their warm muzzles into my hand and peering curiously into my tent. 

I asked Zaya about the large cloth bundle that was hanging in the back of her tepee – whether they stored herbs or food in it. She explained that it was a sacred bundle and an intrinsic part of Shamanist rituals that play an important part in Tsaatan lives.

“We bring it out on good days, burn juniper under it as offering in the mornings, and never point our feet at it,” she said. The community has its own shaman, who fulfils a spiritual role as well as that of a healer. “Spirits choose those who become shamans; if you deny your calling, you can become seriously ill.”

Visitors to the community are a sore point. For years Mongolian- and foreigner-run tour companies, mostly based in Ulaanbaatar, have been bringing expeditions here without any consideration of, or benefit to, the Tsaatan. In 2006 the Tsaatan Community and Visitors’ Centre (TCVC) was established in the nearest town of Tsagaannuur with the aim of putting the Tsaatan in charge of visits to their community. For a short time it appeared to have worked, but Zaya said that it’s now back to the status quo, with most companies conducting their tours with utter disregard for the Tsaatan.  

“We are happy to have guests as long as they are truly interested in interacting with us and learning about our way of life. We get many tourists who come here without an interpreter, drop trash, wash their dishes in our drinking water and just take photos of us, making us feel as if we’re in a zoo,” she said.

“How would the Tsaatan want the visits to be conducted?” I asked

“Visitors should give us advance warning, like any regular guests. It’s best to bring an interpreter so that they can actually talk to us. Contribute to the community by staying in guest tepees, or purchase handicrafts we make. Also, it’s very important that visitors come on horses that we provide through the TCVC; we’ve had some horses who’d never seen reindeer; one of them freaked out and crippled our reindeer so then she had to be put down.”

In spite of the hardships and the prejudice, the Tsaatan way of life attracts outsiders. A Frenchwoman comes here every summer to visit the sons she had with a Tsaatan man, and Zaya herself is a Mongolian who grew up in Colorado and has been living with the Tsaatan for the past six years. 

“Why do you stay?” I asked.

“For love,” she said simply, taking in the tepee she shares with her husband, and the reindeer peering in.

I understood what she meant.