Where reindeer roam: Life among Mongolia’s nomadic herders

Searching for a “magical experience” among the Tsaatan people leads to a cultural reality check.

I needed out of Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia’s capital city, the coldest national capital on Earth, is choked with coal dust in winter and construction debris in every other season. It was the summer of 2016, and I’d just spent a year there teaching English and chasing stories as a freelance writer. When my fellow teacher Anudari suggested a trip to the taiga, I jumped in her car, no questions asked.

The taiga refers to a vast Siberian forest that spills over the Russian border into Mongolia. The most famous part lies beyond Lake Hövsgöl at the country’s northernmost point. This is where the Tsaatan live. A remote minority group of nomadic reindeer herders, they are often problematically characterized as “mystical,” “untouched,” and even a “lost tribe.” Not to mention “highly photogenic.”

Anudari steered us expertly through Ulaanbaatar’s motionless traffic and onto a rare paved highway. The sky unfurled as we turned west, the landscape falling open in all directions. Anudari chatted excitedly. A Mongolian American, she frequently traveled into the countryside with her family, but she’d always wanted to visit the Tsaatan. This would be a magical experience. The trip of a lifetime.

I was the cynic in the car. The Tsaatan are among Mongolia’s staple travel stories (along with the Altai eagle hunters) because, frankly, herding reindeer through a starry wilderness sounds irresistibly romantic. Plus, the landscape they roam is so inaccessible that any visitor is automatically upgraded to an adventurer. I was uncomfortable with the whole narrative package—the aggrandizement, the paternalism, the implied exploitation. Worst of all, I was secretly thrilled to be going.

Into the taiga

The Tsaatan have herded reindeer through the taiga for centuries, first in their native Tuva—a Russian republic—and then, when borders were redrawn under Soviet influence in 1944, in Mongolia. Only a few hundred still follow the traditional lifestyle, and with search engines opening up the hidden corners of our world, they have become an attraction. Tour companies offer adventure packages to the taiga, where visitors can experience Tsaatan daily life: milking reindeer, making cheese, harvesting pine nuts, and sleeping in traditional teepee-shaped tents, called ortz.

That’s not to say it’s an easy trip. The taiga is remote, even by Mongolian standards. The country is largely roadless and overland travel is time-consuming. The forest itself can be navigated only on horseback. This is one trip where the journey really does outweigh the destination—we would spend eight days, traveling for two days, with the Tsaatan.

A few days of driving brought us to the dust-and-plywood town of Mörön, where we secured a driver, a guide, and provisions and arranged for horses to meet us at the forest’s edge, all for $150 per person. We were not asked if we knew how to ride. Most questions concerned weight—our own and our overpacked bags. Mongolian horses are small and can carry only around 200 pounds. They’re half wild from fending for themselves on the steppe. They respond to one command: tchoo. It means “go faster.”

I had another two days to ponder my minimal riding experience as we drove north from Mörön. It was pouring rain, and our battered van sloshed over waves of mud while I huddled in the back, pretending not to be seasick.

The sky cleared to blue as we lurched up to the taiga. The forest began abruptly, a wall of pine and larch. Our Tsaatan host, Delgermagnai Enkhbaatar, was waiting with the horses.

Although there was snow on the nearby mountains, our route was mostly swamp. The horses staggered through the bog like drunks. After hours negotiating mud slicks and churning rivers, we arrived at camp in darkness.

A lake mirrored the rising moon. Reindeer stood spindly-legged around the family’s ortz. The sky was streaked with shooting stars.

Rats, I thought. This just might be a little bit magical.

(Related: Discover what it’s like to live as a reindeer herder in Russia.)

At home with the Tsaatan

“The Tsaatan are not an ‘undiscovered tribe,’” admonished the herding community’s website. Yes, they know of websites (though theirs is currently off-line). And Tsaatan means “people with reindeer” in Mongolian—not their native language. The herders call themselves Dukha.

“You will not be the first or last person they have hosted,” the website continued. “They are a modern people who have welcomed visitors from all over the world.”

We had passed a few of these visitors on our ride to Enkhbaatar’s camp, their nylon jackets vivid against the darkening forest. Our guides greeted each other warmly. The foreigners exchanged tight little nods, each regarding the other as interlopers. Then we rode on, pretending the encounter hadn’t happened.

(Related: Can travel transform cultural attitudes?)

Once at camp, it became apparent that the only lost tribe in the taiga was us tourists. We had armed ourselves against physical remoteness with maps and GPS, but there was no app for cultural dislocation.

This wasn’t just embarrassing but potentially dangerous. The taiga is not a forgiving landscape. Hypothermia was a real possibility, even in August. Enkhbaatar had bear and wolf teeth among his carved trinkets, and the Russian border police stopped by looking for escaped convicts. The sheer scale of the wilderness felt threatening; the only way in or out was on horseback through trackless marsh. I became uncomfortably aware that, for all my travel knowledge, I brought nothing useful to the experience besides a can-do attitude.

Meanwhile Enkhbaatar’s family was clearly at home with both their ways and ours. The kids knew how to swipe through smartphone apps and shake a Polaroid until the image emerged. They were delighted with the toy cars we brought and made vroom vroom noises while pushing them up the poles of the family ortz. Most of their play, however, mimicked the adults’ work—making fires, fetching water, tending the animals.

On the second day, Enkhbaatar offered to take us riding into the eastern Sayan Mountains. He prepped the reindeer while his toddler attempted to saddle up the family dog with an old blanket.

I hoisted myself clumsily onto my mount, and Enkhbaatar demonstrated how to steer with the single guide rope. We were interrupted by a strange sound: a “Für Elise” ring tone. Without a word, Enkhbaatar handed the rope to his child and disappeared into the ortz.

“Baina uu?” I heard him answer the phone. My own cell hadn’t picked up a signal for days.

Abruptly I realized I had no clue how to ride this reindeer. If it bolted, I’d be halfway to Siberia before Enkhbaatar returned. I looked down at the 18-month-old holding my reins.

“You’ve got this, right?”

(Related: Looking for room to roam? Try a “pack trip.”)

Myth and memories

Storytelling is reflective. The words we choose to describe the Tsaatan—mystical, lost, exploited, endangered—imply our own roles in the story as well. Are we bold adventurers, self-righteous skeptics, or maybe just the comic relief? I returned from the taiga with this conundrum on my mind. Several years on, I still think about it every time I write a story.

Lately, though, I’ve been remembering that trip for other reasons—reasons related to claustrophobia. The coronavirus pandemic has compressed life to fit inside walls and screens, and I’m longing for the boundless space of the Mongolian countryside. Right now that’s an impossible dream: In an effort to keep out the virus, Mongolia has been closed to international travel since March. I’m glad. Roughly a third of Mongolians are nomadic herders like Enkhbaatar. They’re a long ride from medical care.

I admit my memories of the trip are romantic, maybe even magical. I remember the taste of reindeer-milk tea, and the pale, chilled mornings when camel-wool long johns weren’t enough to keep me from shivering. The slidey-wobbly feel of riding a saddled reindeer. The night sky shimmering yellow as a full moon rose. I remember Enkhbaatar’s wife laughing at my knife skills as we cooked and the kids dogpiling me for piggyback rides. Enkhbaatar’s smile as we parted, telling us to come back again sometime.

That toddler at the end of my rope must be nearly old enough to start school now. She won’t remember me or any of the travelers who visited her family that summer. Yet I wonder how she would have described us, the mysterious here-and-gone strangers so out of touch that we didn’t know how the bathroom worked. Possibly she would choose some of the same words we used, ahead of our trip, for her family. I’m reasonably sure one of them would be “lost.”

Erin Craig is a freelance writer based in Asia.

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