Tsaatan people in Mongola
Visiting remote Tsaatan people in Mongola, reindeer herders, proves to be a once in a lifetime trip
I was once given a book outlining the “top” travel journeys that should be taken in a lifetime. The book failed to list the journey to the Tsaatan (reindeer people), which must be one of the world’s greatest journeys. And I’m glad. Hopefully it will remain as untouched as possible. Located in one of the harshest and most inaccessible regions of the world, the Tsaatan are reindeer herders who seemingly live on the edge of civilization. Our purpose was not to intrude, and not to stay for long, but to travel and appreciate the Tsaatan and Mongolia in general. What I, and the seven friends I traveled with, wanted was a truly Mongolian experience; a journey through the magnificent landscapes bestowed upon this country on the way to a unique cultural highlight. In essence, we were searching for a jinhene (authentically Mongolian) journey.
And within five minutes of leaving the centre of UB I knew that we were going to achieve that.
A small car – presumably the ever-common Hyundai Excel – had clipped the front of our Delica and it was then, as the magazines and snacks went flying throughout the swerving van, that I realized my truly Mongolian adventure to the Khovsgol Aimag had begun. The journey’s first leg was 671km from Ulaanbaatar to Moron, a journey that took two days of solid driving. With only four percent of Mongolia’s roads paved, of course a large amount of that was off road. Living in UB, it’s easy to forget that not far from the city the landscape changes – the pollution clears and the vast desert plains and rolling hills begin. Needless to say that we were immensely thankful to arrive at the (perhaps undeservedly titled) Dul Hotel in Moron and enjoy a hearty meal and a cold beer. Moron is located 100km south of Lake Khovsgol and, while not a tourist town, provided another insight into Mongolia, where dusty streets and relics of socialism stand side-by-side.
After a trip to the public shower block and a long and well-needed sleep, we continued our journey to Darkhad Valley, albeit with a small stop when our increasingly unreliable van got a flat tire. Another overnight stop and a breakdown with the van later, we finally had the opportunity to sit on our horses and begin our long ascent up the mountain range. Obviously at this time of year the temperature remains mild in the north part of Mongolia – mild meaning that it sat at around 0C. But as we rode, with our thick jackets, it didn’t matter. While tourists usually make the trip during autumn and summer, I was grateful to experience a few more days of the infamous Mongolian cold weather. We rode over frozen rivers and through untouched valleys. A deep silence would often come over the group as we made our way through the ranges.
With snow capped mountains on every side, it truly seems possible for man to have not stepped foot in some areas of the Taiga region. The horses also showed the freedom afforded to travelers in Mongolia. I’ve never been to a country which has been so relaxed – there were no restrictions or exaggerated concerns about insurance. We rode horses without helmets, often galloping in bitterly cold temperatures. After a night staying on an forested island in the middle of a frozen lake, we were back on the horses. Somehow, I happened to choose perhaps the slowest and laziest horse in existence.
Now while I admit I’m no horseman – I’ve probably
ridden a total of twice – I do know that to make a Mongolian horse move faster, you have to say “choo”. Unfortunately for me, my horse only moved from a standstill if I said “choo”. I dangled from the back of the group, saying “choo” every two meters, slowly falling further and further behind until I could barely see anyone. Luckily our ever-reliable and sensational guide, Biggie, would come back for me and force my horse into action. Of course, the destination was the Tsaatan. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with the hospitality Mongolians famously bestow upon travelers. This is a group of approximately 400 people, or 50 families, who have largely maintained their remote lifestyle and unique culture despite the pressures of the 21st Century. We hired a teepee and set up camp. Having traveled hundreds of kilometers, we realized how difficult receiving supplies must be for the Tsaatan and did not expect or demand they provide for us.
The Tsaatan is a population with a rich and proud history. They have refused and avoided attempts to abandon their heritage. The Shamanistic culture and deep spiritual nature of the region is undeniable. As the first tourists of the year, our presence was certainly noticed. While we were told before we left that the Tsaatan people may feel resentment towards us – that we were possibly intruding – I am sure this wasn’t the case. I can imagine that some visitors, inexperienced in the subtleties of the Mongolian culture, could be demanding. The group I traveled with, however, was extraordinarily careful to avoid leaving a trace and formed a strong bond with the families surrounding us.The birch-bark, teepee style dwelling we stayed in was on the edge of a river, which provided the perfect avenue for intense wrestling matches with our horse guide. The silver-birch trees that encircled us stood like giants during the evening fires. In a place like this, you can’t help but reconnect with friends and form new bonds. The isolation is consuming and beautiful – no wonder the Tsaatan refuse to leave their home.
The reindeers, which for visitors simply add to the mystic of the region, play an integral role in the day-to-day life of the Tsaatan. They use their milk as a staple in their diet and creatively use fallen antlers for a myriad of different things. After an encounter with the army (what Mongolian adventure doesn’t involve an authority of some kind or another?), we began our descent through the tall Siberian birch forests. We rode through the plains, where occasional gers stood proudly as a test of Mongolian spirit and down deep valleys where snow still lingered in patches. Spring’s always been the Earth’s time of renewal, and the trip down the Taiga epitomized that. Our return trip to UB involved another car breakdown – our engine literally fell lose after we hit a rock. Of course the Mongolian hospitality was alive and well, even at 11pm at night.
An unexpected journey in a colorful ger and a bottle or two of vodka later, we were back in UB.
The trip to the Taiga was to see the Tsaatan. But more than that, it was about the journey – which was the real destination. An authentically Mongolian – or jenhene – journey. If you want to travel to the Taiga, ensure your tour guide or company travels through the Tsaatan Community Visitors Center – an NGO established to ensure responsible tourism in this culturally precious region. This NGO is well respected by the Tsaatan and has provided radios to this remote group to ensure effective communication with families.
THE UB POST