Tsaatan Reindeer People of Northern Khövsgöl Aimag of Mongolia.

In 2010, sixteen weeks after sustaining a spinal compression fracture, I embarked on a horse-trek with two other travelers and the executive director of F.I.R.E. (Flagstaff International Relief Effort)1 to visit the Tsaatan Reindeer people. Also known as Dukha, the Tsaatan are a small Tuvan community of reindeer herders living in northern Khövsgöl Aimag of Mongolia. The name Tsaatan, means ‘those who have reindeer’ in the Mongolian language. This trip pre-dates my interest in photography and my images were shot with a point and shoot camera as well as some images from Meredith Potts and Tom Gailbraith to help illustrate the story.

“The Dukha’s sense of community is structured around the reindeer. The reindeer and the Dukha are dependent on one another. Some Dukha say that if the reindeer disappear, so too will their culture. The reindeer are domesticated and belong to the household. Chores and activities are centered around the care and feeding of their reindeer. A community is usually made up of a group of teepees of two to seven households that seasonally move camp to find optimum grazing for the reindeer. Herding tasks are shared among the camp with children at a young age learning to care for the reindeer and keeping them safe. The girls and younger women do the milking and make yogurt, cheese, and milk tea. Young men and women and elders help with herding. A few of the men stay with their reindeer in the winter months to protect them from wolves and other predators. The men also make and repair their hunting tools and reindeer saddles and carts. Since they rarely kill a reindeer, they supplement their diet of reindeer milk products by hunting wild animals from the forest”. (wikipedia).

We were headed to Wind Horse Camp, a private eco-friendly boutique ger3 camp, that was created by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami2, an American film-maker and scholar. Hamid went to Mongolia to make a visual record of the nomad’s customs and manners before they became separated from their natural environment and spiritual traditions and vanish into the 21st century.

To get to this point of departure took 50 hours of travel. After landing in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, I had an hour to shower, change and repack my gear in dry bags and join the rest of the group. Off to lunch and my 4th flight of this trip. We landed in Moron, a small town in the central north of Mongolia in Khövsgöl Province. In the parking lot of the airport, we were introduced to the Furgon, a Russian made VW bus type of vehicle, with a high mounted engine, which enables it to ford streams, and no shocks.

The infamous Furgon – the Russian made bus type vehicle with no shocks!

The roads are bad– more like rutted tracks– if they exist at all. They are so bumpy that the average speed is less than 20/mph which makes for a very slow, long, teeth rattling, spine jarring ride. You have to hold on, or you find yourself being flung around hitting your head on the roof. The scenery, however, is stunning–it reminded me of Colorado or Montana – on steroids. No end of beautiful, expansive vistas. Mongolia is around the size of Alaska with 40% of it’s 3 million people living in the cities, leaving the countryside pristine and mostly uninhabited. There are 9 million horses–more horses than people!

Darkness settled in around 11pm – it’s light from 4am – 10:30pm – and we continued bouncing around until around 2am when we arrived at Yora’s home in Ulan Uul. Yora is a bone-setter and shaman. Bone setting is a branch of Mongolian medicine carried out by Bariachis who work without medicines or instruments. She served us tea and eventually her grandson spread out our sleeping bags, side by side, in a small room and we all crashed around 3am. In the morning she served us a breakfast of soupy rice with mutton and after she worked on my back we were on our way away

Yora working on my compression fracture, photo credit Tom Galbraith

It took another 2 hours to arrive at Wind Horse Camp. Once there we settled into our traditional ger3, enjoyed our first meal, and took long naps. Wind Horse Camp has many beautiful touches: a separate bathing ger, complete with candles and beautiful hangings, it has two bathtubs heated with boiling water from a wood stove outside, vanities and sinks with mirrors for hand washing scattered around camp (the water went into a bucket below the sinks), and jewel colored bolsters and table linens in the dining ger.

Ninja Mining is having an adverse effect on agriculture as nomadic herders are having to move more frequently to find land for their livestock to graze on due to the increase in holes and the reduced amount of grass. Wind Horse Camp relocated to it’s current location due to the tense conditions in the Hoog River Valley. As a consequence of this move, the services lavishly described in the brochure that we were so looking forward to such as “the traditional Mongolian ‘bariachi’ diagnosis based on the reading of the pulse, the morning mare’s milk concoctions milked directly at our doorstep and the signature ‘bariachi’ massage, designed to improve circulation throughout the body” were unavailable.

But by far the biggest consequence of the move meant we were now situated much further from the Tsaatan Reindeer People in the west Tiaga (boggy forest), making that expedition unfeasible. Hamid heard of several families in summer camp in the East Tiaga and we made plans to visit–a two hour ride in the Furgon and six on horseback. We were to be packed and ready to leave by 10am! The day before the two cooks and the five Mongolian horsemen were sent ahead with the 17 horses including seven pack horses.

So of course, we didn’t leave until noon, and it took four hours to get to the ferry not two. As we were close to the Russian border, we had to register our passports with the border guards in Tsaagan Nuur. But the official wasn’t in, so we had to leave them! While waiting, an intoxicated Mongolian man from Ulaanbaatar picked a fight with the border guards and tried to enter our van. It was high drama until his wife arrived and led him away. We arrived at the ferry, a pontoon raft affair, with wooden boards for ramps on each end and a cable to pull it across the river. On the other side were our horses. After we crossed the river another Furgon showed up going the other way. When it tried to get on the ferry, it slid off the ramp and almost fell in the river. It took all the horsemen, plus the ferry people, to get it back on the ferry and on it’s way.

As we waited, another Furgon arrived with a young Mongolian woman who spoke perfect English, having lived in Denver for 10 years. Seems she lives with her boyfriend, a “mongolian marriage”, at the Tsaatan Camp and wondered why the horses were at the ferry at not at the drop off point, a four hour ride away!! Hamid didn’t know anything about a drop off point. Then we met a retired Mongolian doctor (traditional Mongolian healer) who has reindeer in the east Tiaga and he offered to be our guide. I’m guessing things like these chance encounters happen frequently in Mongolia and thank goodness – we might have be riding through the Tiaga for days!

We finally were on our way around 7pm. The rain had stopped, and it was a pretty evening. The doctor showed us a shortcut, and we saved 90 minutes. Dawa, our horseman, saw a beautiful site by the river, and we camped for the night, about two and a half hours short of the drop off point. The horses were unsaddled and unloaded and the horsemen went about setting up camp. We had walk-in tents and cots! And we had brought along a cook and helper and a case of wine. Within a few hours we had dinner and wine and tucked in for a cold night.

We didn’t get the early start we planned the next day, but after two and a half hours of relatively easy riding with intermittent rain, we reached the drop off point. We were welcomed into a home, a log cabin sort of building, where we ate our lunch and were also offered homemade bread and yogurt. Hanging by the door, you could see a bag of the milk dripping with the yogurt left in the bag.

The woman of the home had won a medal from the Russian government for being a “good mother” having given birth to 11 children. (The Russians occupied Mongolia for 70 years until 1996. ) Hamid told us that the rest of the way was “reindeer” country, with little solid ground for horses. The Taigi is a forested bog, and with each step the horses sank into the mud making walking the only safe gait.

The “good mother” and her family, photo credit Meredith Potts

And thus began a 7 ½ hour slog through the Tiaga. My horse kept heading for the bushes off the trail. I finally figured out that the footing was better there and let him lead. I had asked for a “calm” horse as I was still being careful about my back. My horse was calm but also had a very slow walk. If I urged him on, he trotted which I didn’t think was safe. So, I fell further and further behind. Hour after hour we rode. It rained on and off. Horse flies and mosquitoes bothered the horses and the people in the intermittent sunshine. And then it started getting cold and windy. My backpack with my jacket and food were with the leaders and I couldn’t get to it. We were ascending a 13,500 pass. Some of the horsemen were riding and leading the pack horses. Suddenly the pack horse in front of me slipped and went down in the mud. He wasn’t able to get up. I was anxious that he was injured, but they managed to get him on his feet and going again. And then I realized that no one was behind me. If I fell, or if my horse fell, no one might know, and they couldn’t hear me with the wind. The group was strung out in a line so long I could no longer see the lead riders. Hamid, our leader was not paying attention to the details – this time not instituting proper trail discipline of having a sweeper bring up the rear.

I was pretty miserable. My back was burning and hurting so much it was hard to escape it. I was cold, wet, and had no idea how far we’d come or how much longer we had to go. I wasn’t paying attention to the beauty around me. After many conversations with myself I wondered perhaps this was the healing I was seeking? I needed to let go. My worry about my back was depleting me. There was no medical care other than by helicoptering out, and then who knew from there. I was in this for the duration, no one could do it for me, and I surrendered. I just looked at the mountain in front of me and said out loud “I surrender” (several times in fact, to make sure I heard myself). And slowly, I felt a sense of calm and peace settle inside me. A quest is not without challenge. As in the folklore, you often return to the place you started at, but it is no longer the same. My back continued to burn and I still was suffering, but I was present to that as well as my surroundings. I no longer wishing to be somewhere else. Chances are I’ll never be back here again, and I just took it in. And after all, I was not alone, even if it felt that way. Eventually we crested the pass and saw the last pass we had to cross. After that pass it was all downhill–a very muddy and slippery downhill–until it opened on a gorgeous valley floor. And off to the right, by the river, we saw the teepees!

I saw the first reindeer in the bushes by the river. It was 9:30pm and the light was golden. Dogs were barking, kids were playing, reindeer were grazing all around and people came to greet us. We were invited into a teepee with a fire going and given salt milk tea. Ah! It was warm and it was great! We sat and talked for at least an hour while the horsemen set up our camp and then staggered into the tent for dinner. We had been riding for 10 hours! Our original plans called for going back tomorrow. No one was interested in that – we wanted to hang around and enjoy this amazing place.

It rained early in the morning but cleared up and we had a lovely, slow day hanging around the camp. We watched the reindeer being milked. We bought some of the carvings the people did on reindeer horns which they sell in order to buy flour for the winter. We talked with the people and rode a reindeer. We also met Sas Carey, the founder of the non-profit Nomadicare4 , who was on her annual trip to provide vitamins, health care, and hygiene teachings to the herders. Nomadicare brings volunteer western doctors and dentists along with traditional Mongolian medicine practitioners, to provide health care and supplies for hospitals and individuals.

The Tsaatan people of northern Mongolia “are a nomadic people who depend on reindeer for nearly all aspects of survival, as well as cultural, spiritual, linguistic, and economic identity. They are credited as one of the world’s earliest domesticators of any animal and 3,000 year old stone carvings of reindeer in the area are evidence of their ancient relationship with their reindeer. Their tradition of shamanism largely precludes the slaughter of reindeer by placing sacred value on the animals and therefore their most significant use of the reindeer is for transport and for milk. They are both ridden and used as pack animals during nomadic moves. This is a culture in transition and under pressure, the extent of change and development undermining the very fundamentals of the community, leaving the culture’s eventual extinction a distinct possibility”5 .

Later we visited with Zia in her teepee and learned more about these particular families. Zia spent ten years in Denver and her fluent English made it possible for us to understand more about the Tsaatans. This is their summer camp. In September they will move to an autumn camp and then to their permanent winter camp. It takes three days to make the move. This year her family will be handicapped as her brother-in-law took off with two of their horses. The diet is mostly meat and dairy. Starting in the autumn, they collect the reindeer milk and freeze it in the streams to have a supply for the winter. The men hunt different animals in each season such as elk, moose, bear, sable, and boar. The last hunt had failed, and the people haven’t had meat for a week. And she told us that the howling of the dogs we heard the first night was that a wolf followed the hunters back to camp and killed 5 baby reindeer. This is a huge loss for them. Horses sell for about 400,000 tugriks (about $300) and reindeer for 1,000,000 or more. We were so moved by her stories that we each contributed $100 and gave it to her for her family to buy a horse.

We planned to leave early the next morning as the horsemen were concerned it would be hot and there would be many horse flies and mosquitoes. The morning greeted us with a heavy rain, so we stayed in camp for most of the morning. I was overcome with emotion as I stood by the river getting ready to leave. I was aware that life as these people knew it might not exist much further in the future. It was a hard life, with much birth and death, very close to nature. I was aware how much of that connection the world I live in has lost even as I felt gratitude for all I have. And I just cried for awhile.

The ride back was warm and buggy, but only 7 hours, and at the drop off point we were met by the Furgon. This time the ferry crossing was quick and easy and after collecting our passports, the trip back to Wind Horse camp was thankfully uneventful.


1 – Check out F.I.R.E’s projects http://www.fireprojects.org

2 – Hamid Sardar-Afkhami is a professional photographer as well as a scholar of Tibetan and Mongol languages who received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. After moving to Nepal in the late 1980’s and exploring Tibet and the Himalayas for more than a decade, he traveled to Outer Mongolia. Seeing the opportunity to create a single important collection concentrating on the last country where the majority of the population are still nomads, Sardar-Afkhami set up Wind Horse, a mobile studio ger camp in Mongolia. With his arsenal of cameras and different formats, he mounts yearly expeditions into the Mongolian outback to document her nomadic traditions. Hamid Sardar’s photography series can be seen at Hamid Sardar-Afkhami

Excerpted from Outside Magazine – August 2010

“Hamid Sardar-Afhami, [is] a rakish 44 year-old Iranian-American scholar and documentary filmmaker who divides his time between Mongolia and Paris… Sardar grew up in privileged circumstances in the Shah’s Iran and, after his family fled the 1979 Iranian revolution, in France and the United States… He has Ph.D from Harvard in Sanskrit and Tibetan studies and has been a practicing Buddhist for nearly 25 years, pursuing a rigourous tantric disciple called Dzogchen. Sardar’s explorations have taken him to the far corners of Tibet and Mongolia … These demanding odysseys have been carried out in the spirit of religious pilgramges, or what Sardar calls “Buddhist adventures”, the idea being to embrace danger and fear as a path to self-awareness… His first three films have earned top honors at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.” p. 68

3 – A ger is the traditional home of the nomandic Mongolians. The frame consists of one or more lattice wall-sections, a door-frame, roof poles and a crown. Some styles of gers have one or more columns to support the crown. The (self-supporting) wood frame is covered with pieces of felt. Depending on availability, the felt is additionally covered with canvas and/or sun-covers. The frame is held together with one or more ropes or ribbons. The structure is kept under compression by the weight of the covers. Each ger has it’s traditional stove in the center vented to the round opening at top. A ger is designed to be dismantled and the parts carried on camels, yaks, or horses, to be rebuilt on another site.

4 – Nomadicare is “dedicated to caring for those who sustain the earth with simplicity and beauty”, Sas Carey, RN, is the founder and director of Nomadicare. Mongolia’s nomads live a sustainable life, protecting the environment and animals of their country. Yet, their lifestyle is at risk due to its extreme remoteness. This is compounded by the lack of infrastructure like roads, electricity, water, and telephones. If nomads get sick and need to go to a hospital with adequate diagnostic and treatment capacity, it can be nine hours or more away. To support their cultural survival, nomads need effective heath care close to their homes. Nomadicare’s pledge is to work toward this goal for every nomad in Mongolia by 2020.

Since 1994, Nomadicare (under various other names) has been working to improve nomads’ health care options. From an intensive health database gathered over 7 years, we understand the needs of nomadic herders. Today our goal is to provide traditional Mongolian Medicine training and laboratory equipment with training to county hospitals and vitamins, hygiene kits and public health education to individual herders. In 2010, we begin our pilot project to provide diagnostic and treatment capabilities to all 14 sum (county) hospitals of South Gobi Aimag (Province). http://www.nomadicare.org/

To learn more about the Tsaatsan Reindeer herders


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