The Tsaatan: Mongolia’s Reindeer People

The temperature drops at least 15°C as we head up into the taiga, the home of the Tsaatan, Mongolia’s reindeer people, the focus of our long horseback journey, the point at which we turn and head for home.

The climate changes. Scant grass gives way to thick larch forest. And then a dense scrub in hues of purple and grey which, with the cloud cover descending fast, reminds me, weirdly, of Scotland.

We break for lunch, don down jackets, and dine on sour yak cheese, fresh bread and the wild green onions we picked at an earlier stop.

I cannot believe the contrast between this gloomy, foggy micro-climate, shadowed by dark mountains that, even in late June, are still streaked with snow, and the scorching plains only a very few hundred metres below.

And then… We’re there! A small boy rides past, bareback on a scrawny reindeer. A forest of tepee poles – while most nomadic Mongolians live in gers, the Tsaatan favour orts, virtually identical to the structures built by Plains Indians.

And – more reindeer! Spindly, bow-legged, emitting their weird grunting bark that echoes through the forest. Reindeer towing wood for tepees; reindeer headed to the river to fetch water; reindeer staked between the tepees; mother and baby reindeer grazing between the larches, a web of intertwined antlers silhouetted against the grey.

A cold, grey rain begins to bucket from the skies. We yell the ritual call to “hold the dogs!” which are trotting by our horses, dismount and head into our hosts’ ort for warm salt tea with rich, dense reindeer milk.

The sky impregnated the earth and begat the reindeer, to be man’s helper and stay with him for the rest of time. The Tsaatan cannot survive without the reindeer. They live together, intertwined.

In the TV series Little Britain, there is a character named Daffyd, who, against comedically mounting evidence, persists in his belief that he’s “the only gay in the village”.

We are not the only tourists in the Tsaatan’s village – not by a long shot. And, although I had never believed we would be, I am surprised by the scale of tourism here.

Even before the start of high season, the Tsaatan are – well, not quite outnumbered by tourists, who have ridden in from Tsagaannuur, and in one bold, doomed instance, attempted the boggy terrain in a jeep, but certainly surrounded by them.

There are around a hundred reindeer herders in this encampment, grouped across 20-odd tents. It’s the easiest of the Tsaatan’s multiple encampments to reach from Tsagaannuur, and so we are one of three groups overnighting in this tiny community.

There is also, befuddlingly, a Peace Corps mission in place. I haven’t seen so many foreigners in one place since Ulaanbaatar, a city of over a million.

Yet more befuddlingly, our hosts’ daughter speaks excellent English. “I studied ecology in UB,” she says.

“Why did you come back?” I ask.

“I like it here,” she explains.

Of course she does. It’s home…

And, too, despite her degree, she still holds her old beliefs. The sky impregnated the earth and begat the reindeer, to be man’s helper and stay with him for the rest of time. The Tsaatan cannot survive without the reindeer. They live together, intertwined.

The reindeer look, compared to the sturdy, sleek reindeer we have seen in Finland, quite painfully scrawny. Bow-legged. Knobbly-kneed. Their spines and hip bones jut through their fur.

Zac pets the reindeer, which are still shedding their winter fur, their horns ridiculously soft and velvety, and, close to sunset, we head up into the forest to watch our host milking her reindeer.

It’s a brutal process, reindeer milking – the infant reindeer headbutts the mother’s udders again and again to release the milk.

For the human milker, there’s much more kneading and tugging than I’ve ever seen applied to a cow or a goat. And all this painful-looking activity extracts barely half a cupful of the thick, creamy milk.

The reindeer look, compared to the sturdy, chunky reindeer we have seen in Finland, quite painfully scrawny. Bow-legged. Knobbly-kneed. Their spines and hip bones jut through their fur.

An adult man can ride an adult bull reindeer, we are told. But none of these look strong enough at all.

And, back in the ort, with possessions safely stored within its treetrunk roof, the rain pelting down on the canvas frame, and Lady Gaga on play on a mobile phone powered by a small solar panel, we learn exactly why this is.

They cannot get across the border to marry within their Russian ethnic group. They are, fundamentally, doomed by geopolitics. And have been for the last 60-odd years.

Tsaatan is the Mongolian name for Mongolia’s reindeer people – it means, conveniently, “reindeer people”. They call themselves Tuva, and the tribal language they speak is Tuvan.

After the fall of China’s Qing dynasty, in 1911, the Tuva had their own republic, a nation recognised only by Russia and Mongolia. In 1944, Stalin overran it, and added it to the Soviet Union; today, the Tuva Republic is part of Russia, while the Tsaatan remain in Mongolia.

“There are 500 of us in the taiga,” our host explains. “In Russia there are, maybe, 20,000.” (She means Tuva who still herd reindeer, not people from the Tuva ethnic group.)

I do the maths. “So, when you marry, will you marry a Tuva man?” I ask.

She laughs. No. She knows them all already.

Most Tuva marry from other local Mongolian tribal groups – typically Darkhad people (the majority grouping on this side of Khövsgöl Nuur, and the tribe that Baatar belongs to).

The reindeer people cannot marry within their ethnic identity in Mongolia, because they are too few. And, despite their shared tribal language, they cannot get across the border to marry within their Russian ethnic group.

They are, fundamentally, doomed by geopolitics. And have been for the last 60-odd years.

“It’s for the tourists. This is their spring camp. In their summer camp, there are 37 species that the reindeer can eat. Here, there are barely 15 species. They should have moved a month ago. But they haven’t…”

Later, in the ort, after the gifting vodka has gone round, drops ceremoniously flicked to honour the ancestors, the sky, the earth and the reindeer, I talk to a man who requests I do not identify him further.

“The Tsaatan won’t exist in thirty years,” he says bluntly. “Too many changes.”

We talk some more. “The reindeer…” I say. “The reindeer – they don’t look well! They’re too thin! Is it because summer has come late here?”

“No,” he says. “It’s for the tourists. This is their spring camp. In their summer camp, there are 37 species that the reindeer can eat. Here, there are barely 15 species. They should have moved a month ago. But they haven’t…”

“Because of the tourists,” I conclude, feeling slightly sick.

Because the cash contribution that we make for our accommodation, the food that we bring into the ort, the money that some tourists will pay for tribal art or to witness an “authentic” shaman ceremony, is cash wealth and food diversity beyond imagining, and so the reindeer wait. Man’s partner throughout life they may be, but there is no shamanic law which says they have to be fat.

“The summer camp…” I begin. “The summer camp is higher up, right?”

“Yes,” he says. “It’s higher up, it’s further for the tourists to come. And this is a poor community. They need the money.”

“I’m from UB,” she laughs. “I studied in the US, and then I came home, and volunteered here. I met my husband here. And… here I am.”

I wander around the camp a little, under a sky that has cleared to a light dusting of stars, then join Baatar to watch Korean TV on satellite in the village head’s ort, an activity that, in its dislocating ordinariness, reminds me very much of the time we watched Mr & Mrs Smith in a Borneo longhouse.

Later, we sleep on mats on the floor of our ort; Bill sleeps on a bed of branches, in a corner of the tepee.

By 6am, our ecology graduate is out fetching water from the stream. By 7am, she has milked the reindeer. Later, there will be bread to be made.

We’re riding out today, but, before we saddle up, we meet a girl with the classically rounded features I associate with central Mongolia, who greets us in flawless US English.

“I’m from UB,” she laughs. “I studied in the US, and then I came home, and volunteered here. I met my husband here. And… here I am.”

Her work in the community is two-fold. She tries to function as a liaison with the outside world, and control access to her adopted people. She works with the women, in particular, to generate crafts that can be resold, to create a sustainable income for her community from tourism. And she is one of few families to stay at the pastureland over winter to protect their site.

It is, however, an uphill struggle.

And, as we head out on the long loop back to Khatgal – six days’ hard riding, six days of seven hours or more – I feel the most ambivalent I’ve felt about any tourist activity since – ooh, probably Tiger Kingdom, or, more relevantly, the Penan.

Because, as tourists, we are killing this community, starving their partner reindeer. And, as tourists, we are offering nothing that’s sustainable in return. And yet…. this small community, this encampment, this traditional clan with its many intelligent and several highly educated members, has chosen tourism: and it would be outrageously infantilising for me, an outsider, to suggest they should reject it, or even that my fellow tourists should not go.

If you’re considering visiting the reindeer people, start at, run by the Tsaatan themselves.

Picture credit: White Reindeer Near Lake Khovsgol by Linh Vien Thai.

Read the first post in this series on horseback trekking in Khovsgol, Mongolia — or use the next-previous buttons to navigate through.

30 Responses

  1. In my college days studying physics, I first became aware of Tuva, when I read about the biography of Richard Feynman who shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics. He was introduced to the place and its people through the art of throat-singing; unfortunately, he died without ever reaching Tuva. But I like how i’ve come back to reading about Tuva, right here.

    • Theodora says:

      Throat-singing is awe-inspiring, once you hear it. I had no idea that Feynman was interested in the Tuva — how fascinating. This whole Mongolia experience has given me the desire to visit Siberia — in particular Lake Baykal, but also the Tuva communities.

      • Yvette says:

        I love how I’m not the only physicist here who knows Tuva through Richard Feynman. Funny to think how we’re probably the most-educated profession on Tuva thanks to that book (which I believe you spotted on my bookshelf!). :)

  2. That makes me feel sick too, Theodora… So very sad…

  3. Argh. Borders are so dumb. It’s just an accident of history that one group of people ended up on one side or another, and their lives are totally changed because of it. Sigh…

  4. Rosa says:

    Thank you Theodora.

  5. Shara says:

    Beautiful article. Haunting and honest.

  6. Reading through this makes me want to change my mind about our itinerary although we do believe we made a mistake of putting all our wanted destinations in two years. Eck. But what a relief that there is still definitely a lot to explore!

    • Theodora says:

      I don’t think you should eliminate the Tuva from your must-visit list. I think it’s a question of researching and going the extra miles so that you meet a group who are in their summer camp, and going with the Tsaatan themselves where practicable: I also do think it’s appropriate to make a small cash payment whether you camp on their land or stay in their orts. The picture, btw, is of a reindeer at far too low an elevation for his good (my camera card broke). If you’re coming from Tsagaannuur, you’ll probably need to ride two full days to get to the true summer camps, assuming that you’re coming in summer, which is probably the best time to visit Mongolia, given the temperatures outside summer.

      • Tai says:

        I think in Mongolia they established a couple of highly advertized destinations like Hovsgol or Gobi, so everybody ends up going there, but the country is vast and with some preparations you can go virtually anywhere. You can buy a horse for around 300-350 dollars and go wherever you want in all 8 directions. And it’s gonna be amazing experience.

        • Theodora says:

          I think that’s probably the way to do Mongolia. Get a class in the language for a couple of weeks, buy a horse and head on out. Obviously, you can’t do the Gobi on a horse, but I suspect heading east would be lovely…

          • Tai says:

            Oh, East is pure pristine rolling grasslands, almost no forest and few people, but lots and lots of wild animals and birds.

            You can probably cross Gobi by horse so long as you know where you’re going, like if you stick close to the rail road. Gobi is more like a bunch of desert pockets among semidesert terrain, but yeah, better travel by camel there.

            Some people also cross into Mongolia from Russia at Altai mountains. You can meet Kazakh eagle hunters there, snow leopards (impossible to spot though), high mountains with snowy peaks, very beautiful pristine nature, and also doable by horse.

          • Theodora says:

            I’d liked to have gone to the Altai, but even before Zac’s arm we were out of eagle-hunting season. You’re very lucky to have had so much time there…

  7. Tai says:

    You blew my mind with this post. I am half Russian, half Mongolian and I always thought I knew Russian and Mongolian histories pretty well, and I had NO FREAKING IDEA that Tuva was an independent state up until 1944… I am still shocked.

    And yes, Baikal lake is magic. If you haven’t done that yet, you must do it. You don’t necessarily need to follow the tourist trail and go to Olkhon island etc., if you couch surf, make Russian friends, you can see a lot of beautiful places where no tourists ever go.

  8. Theodora says:

    A lot of places got brief independence in that period between Russian and Chinese empires collapsing and Communism building them back up again, I think.

    I’ve never been to Russia. It’s on my list, but it’s such a huge place to embark on. I’ve put it with India as things to do on a long trip later…

    • Tai says:

      Yeah, Siberia is big. Russia is small :) India is huge, but the tourist trail is thin so you keep meeting the same travelers all over India.

  9. Natalie says:

    I visited Tuva Republic in Russia many years back, it is very very interesting to read and hear the story “from another end”. Thank you for sharing!

  10. A great article. Mongolio is really a place I want to go but I have doubts whether it is doable as a women traveler alone. Any thoughts?

    • Theodora says:

      I think Mongolia’s absolutely fine for solo females, TBH. It’s a sexually conservative, modest, unthreatening culture, with a heritage of strong, independent women. If you feel concerns as a female traveler about doing a journey solo with a male guide, there are plenty of women working as guides. UB late at night could be a little intimidating for some, because there are a lot of older male drunks around, and some street aggression, but I didn’t experience one inappropriate comment in UB. Train carriages aren’t single-sex on sleeper trains (I’ve only ever come across that idea in Europe), but nobody changes into nightwear, so that’s not a problem. I’d really recommend you do it. I’m sure you’ll have a great time…

  11. Well-written post on Mongolia’s reindeer people. We look forward to reading more of your adventures and stories! (Though not sure we’d want to sleep on a mat on the floor :-).

    • Theodora says:

      Ha! We’ve slept on a bamboo platform used for smoking deer, and on a rocky riverbed, so we’re fairly robust on the old sleeping front…

  12. Adam P. says:

    I came across Tuva a few years ago thanks to this great documentary called Genghis Blues. It´s about a blues musician who learns throat singing on his own and then travels to Tuva to sing in a throat singing festival there. Really powerful and so beautifully authentic. Highly recommend. It was kind of wonderfully strange to come across Tuva people again thanks to your post. I guess not many people are aware of them, so it feels rather special to have this bit of knowledge about them and their culture.

    • Theodora says:

      Throat-singing is wonderful, really. I thought it would just be one of those tacky touristic folkloric experiences I’d run a mile from, but it’s an extraordinary phenomenon.

  13. Larry says:

    This has convinced me to take Mongolia seriously … thanks to you, I’ll be making a trip here when I’m in Asia a year or two from now!

  14. Ahhh I want to go to Mongolia so bad!! But flights are too expensive to there from Korea… I hope to go soon 😀

    • Theodora says:

      Flights to UB are expensive — and, of course, entering from China requires getting a Chinese visa. It’s quite a pleasant overland trip, if you have time to burn…

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