Mongolia's 'Reindeer People'

by Badral

An Adventure with Mongolia's 'Reindeer People'


The adventure began on February 22nd when two fellow travelers, a driver, a guide, and I departed Ulaanbaatar. The purpose of the trip: journey deep into the Taiga Forest in search of the Tsaatan.
After two days of driving with an overnight stay in Erdenet, we made it to Moron, the aimag center of Khovsgol. To reach the next location tucked away near the remote Russian border, we drove on Lake Khovsgol’s three meter thick layer of ice. Six hours later, we arrived at the perilous mountain pass that would be our next highway. Here we had to maneuver along a frozen river that fed into the lake, up into the mountains, and into an inhabitable river valley only drivable in the winter due to the ice.

On top of the pass, a blanket of pure whiteness went on forever, with wind whipping the sheets of powder toward nothingness. Our final destination was a little soum called Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake). It sits on the shore of a small lake that was hidden deep beneath the snow, bordered by jagged mountains rising out of nothing and continuing into nowhere. The soum has no electricity, and the homes are mainly log cabins as opposed to gers because wood is plentiful in the nearby forests.

The following day, we made the long-awaited trek to a most unique ethnic group of Mongolia: the Tsataan, or reindeer herders. The Tsaatan are originally from Tuva, a small province in the far reaches of Siberia. When borders changed, they were trapped on the Mongolian side.

They still speak their indigenous dialect (and now, also Mongolian), and practice their ancient customs of herding reindeer, and living in urts—teepees—in the Taiga Forest (the beginning of the great Siberian forest filled with wolf, bear, snow leopard, wild gazelle, wild boar, and other wild beasts). The almost impenetrable location, and their mysterious lifestyle requiring them to move homes more often then other nomadic herders, meant they were spared from outside influence, including Russian forces.

To find them, we first drove to the base of the forest, constantly having to dig the car out of knee-deep drifts, to push, to build a road on roadless terrain. After two hours, we realized we could drive no further. We took our bags, removed the car battery, wrapped the vehicle in canvas, and walked to a log cabin belonging to a Tsaatan family that chose to spend the winter in something other than an urts. Here we spent the first night.

Unfortunately, the family had no horses because they let them wander freely in the winter (it is unhealthy for them to be confined in such cold), and collect them again late in spring. Our other option was to use reindeer as our vehicles. I felt bad sitting on a reindeer that stands at a height equivalent to my waist, panting and struggling to climb higher, deeper.

Instead, I chose to hike into the forested mountains. My lungs burned with cold high-elevation air as we made our way to a group of three families living in urts nestled in a valley to protect themselves from the Arctic winds. Upon arrival, we were greeted with reindeer milk tea.

Life in the Taiga is tough: it is cold in the winter and the urts provide little insulation. To go to the bathroom, you squat anywhere, forcing yourself to get the deed done as quickly as possible to avoid cold exposure to your bare bottom. The Tsaatan’s wolf-like dogs follow you into the woods, eating whatever comes out of your body (three birds with one stone—the humans eat, the dogs eat, and the human waste gets cleaned up).

At night we sat in darkness, with the shimmering golden light of the fire reflecting off wind-burned faces and wooden poles. For meals, we’d pass around bones of reindeer and other wild game freshly hunted, cutting slabs off the bone with a communal knife, eating the meat, ripping it with our hands, and passing it to others until the bones were white and smooth. Sleeping was bitter as the fire burned out. In the morning when we woke, the bottles of water next to us were frozen solid.

After two days with the Tsaatan, we made our trek down the mountain, toward the car, and back to Tsagaan Nuur. In town, we were invited to a belated Tsagaan Tsar celebration at the home of our host dad’s mother. We packed our car tight with the five of us and seven other Mongolians who are the extended family of our host dad. Again, we had to dig and push constantly until we arrived at a cabin about 20 miles from the Russian border, far from any other human, nestled in a snowy bowl with large mountains on three sides and the Tengis River on the other (a river that flows straight up and drains in the Arctic Ocean).

On our crowded trip back to town the next day, we stopped at the home of a Shaman so our driver could seek advice.

Although my companions and I had nine hours of driving that day to begin our return home, watching a Shamanistic ceremony was worth the delay. For those who know little about Shamanism, it is a broad religion that occurs all over the world, amongst groups living closely with nature. Khovsgol Aimag is known for its Shamanistic ethnic groups, which include the Tsaatan and the Darkhad.

Though traditions vary depending on location, there are some basic similarities: they believe every feature in the natural world around them has its own spirit, they give offerings to these spirits, they believe their ancestors are always near them and have both positive and negative powers over them, and most importantly, there is a central figure—a Shaman—that goes into trances either through intoxicants or certain types of music in order to communicate with the ancestors and the spirits.

The Shaman we were visiting began to play a jaw harp roughly, hyperventilating, gyrating his body back and forth with his eyes closed as he appeared to disappear into another dimension. All the while, his wife burned a branch of juniper in his face and sprinkled offerings of milk all over his body, up toward the sun, and in the four cardinal directions.

Finally, the instrument dropped out of his mouth as he began to squeak and mumble. When shamans go into a trance, they often take the personality of an animal and he had become a mouse. He started chanting and waving around a wand made of horsehair.

Occasionally he would stop his chants and squeak, which urged his wife to pour shots of vodka and light cigarettes. All together, he went through about seven shots of vodka and three cigarettes hanging loosely off his lips, ashing onto his lap, falling on the ground before they went out. People went up to the wand to touch their head to it for good luck—sometimes he would allow them to get close; sometimes he would beat them.

After 30 minutes of screaming mantras, rocking back and forth, waving the horsehair, and chirping, his wife once again burned juniper in his face and then he began to play his instrument. Slowly he reentered the human world, seemingly disoriented and drained (I would be too after 7 shots of vodka). In his lethargic state, he ritualistically dropped his instrument on the floor to determine the fate of his observers.

When the two of them had finished, we began our 3-day sojourn back to Ulaanbaatar. Although our adventure had added perils due to the wintry conditions, a northern journey to the Tsaatan in any season is destined to shake and rattle, inspire and embrace.

By Brad Miller
Thursday, March 19, 2009.

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