Posted by Selena Travel / 01 30, 2023
You’ve probably heard of sheep herders and cattle herders. But how about...reindeer herders? Now presenting, an introduction to the Tsaatan reindeer herders of Mongolia!
If you’re visiting Mongolia and looking for an under the radar cultural experience, the Tsaatan reindeer herders are going to be your “thing.” As in, the “thing” that you take back home through amazing pictures and incredible stories, the marker of your fantastic experience traveling in Mongolia.
There’s a lot to know before you set out on your journey, so let this introduction to the Tsaatan reindeer herders be your guide. From herding history to cultural ties, we’ll take you through the A-Z of reindeer herding in Mongolia.
History of the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders
The Tsaatan people are also known as the Dukha, an ethnic group residing in northern Mongolia. During World War II, their home country of Tuva was overtaken by the Soviet Union. Under Soviet rule, the Dukha community’s way of life was put at risk. Reindeer herding is a central element to their culture, and the possibility of their new government seizing their animals was a very real threat. A nomadic people, many Dukha families left Tuva and escaped to Mongolia. However, the initial move wasn’t entirely peaceful, and they faced the possibility of deportation up until 1956. Once the Mongolian government extended citizenship rights to the Dukha community, they became an integral piece of Mongolia’s history and culture. Today, reindeer herding is revered by many as a unique and ancient craft.
Culture and Traditions of the Dukha Community
Reindeer herding has been part of the Tsaatan way of life for thousands of years, and continues to be a principal custom within their community. Interestingly enough, Tsaatan is actually a Mongolian term translating to “those who have reindeer,” so you can see how intertwined the practice of reindeer herding and the Tsaatan people are. Reindeer are considered part of the family, and it’s very uncommon for one to be killed for food or its hide (thought it does occasionally happen). Presently, the Tsaatan people are some of the last reindeer herders in the world. While reindeer herding is premiere in the Tsaatan culture, there’s a lot more to know about the way of life of this group of people. For instance, the hides of the few reindeer per year that they kill might contribute to their bedding or clothing. The Tsaatan people don’t have traditional beds, and they sleep on top of animal pelts inside of their ortz, which is the term for their birch bark constructed homes. And as they live in a very northern region where the winter months can be long and cold, animal hides are also useful for making warm outerwear. The Tsaatan community is nomadic, and their frequent moving makes it understandable as to why they prefer flexible housing and practical possessions. So now that we’ve had a nice introduction to the Tsaatan reindeer herders of Mongolia, their history and culture, let’s talk more about the practice of reindeer herding itself!
Reindeer Herding - A ‘How To’
You’re most likely wondering, how do the Tsaatan people use their unique livestock in their everyday life? Like we said, killing them for meat and pelts doesn’t happen often, so that’s definitely not their main purpose. The reindeer are a source of milk and other dairy products, such as yogurt and cheese, for the Tsaatan community. Additionally, the reindeer are also used for transportation purposes, with the Tsaatan people riding them to hunt, trade, and perform other day to day tasks. As cherished tokens in a typical Tsaatan family, not to mention integral to the function of their community and way of life, the reindeer are herded and heavily guarded by their owners in order to ward off potential predators. From food to transport, they serve an important purpose to their Tsaatan families, and it’s scary to think how the way of life of the Dukha people would be altered without their reindeer.
Where and When?
The Tsaatan reindeer herders reside near the town of Tsagaan Nuur in the province of Khovsgol. In Mongolia, you can’t go any further north than this region without hitting Russia, so the reindeer herders are in an extremely remote location of the country. Their terrain is commonly referred to as the taiga, and it’s an ideal climate for the reindeer to live in. As we said earlier, the Tsaatan people are a nomadic group, and their movements depends largely on the season and where the reindeer will be able to graze, but they do tend to stick to the Khovsgol province.
Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders
Unlike Mongolia’s eagle hunters, the Tsaatan reindeer herders don’t host festivals that travellers can plan to attend, which makes them a bit more difficult to visit. Nevertheless, there’s always a way! To see the Tsaatan reindeer herders in action, you’ll have to reserve several days of travel in your itinerary to reach their remote location in Mongolia. It will be a long journey over rugged terrain, but with proper planning, you’ll be able to make it. The nearest airport is in the city of Murun. To get to Tsagaan Nuur, you’ll have a 12 hour journey with few places to stop along the way, so stock up on food and, if you’re doing the driving yourself, extra fuel. And before you set out, be sure to get the required permit to visit Tsagaan Nuur. Once you reach your destination, be less of a tourist and more of a traveller. Without the buffer of a festival between you and the Tsaatan people, you’re going to be interacting directly within their community for the duration of your stay, and there’s no five-star hotel in Tsagaan Nuur (though there is a teepee like structure called an ortz for visitors to stay in). Keeping all of that in mind, at the end of the day, as long as you’re well mannered and mindful of the local traditions and culture, you’ll have an incredible time visiting the Tsaatan reindeer herders.
Now that you’ve had a proper introduction to the Tsaatan reindeer herders of Mongolia, it’s time to hop to it! The reindeer are waiting for you, so start planning and get out there. Happy travels!
If you want to visit the Tsaatan reindeer herders with the added benefit of logistics taken care of and a local guide, check out the amazing once-in-a-lifetime tours with Selena Travel.