Tomorrow my friend and I are flying north to Murun, then catching a ride to Tsaagannuur where we will stay with a girl I met only a week ago, who will then take us to visit her extended family, who just happen to be living in one of the most remote parts of Mongolia: the taiga.
We are planning to visit the Tsaatan (Reindeer People) who live in Mongolia’s Khovsgol province, which borders Russia. We will be getting into the 4th set of 9 days by the time we reach the taiga, which means it’s going to be very, very cold. I’m still not sure if the feeling in the pit of my stomach is one of utter excitement or shear terror. Probably both.
I’m hoping to capture some of the Tsaatan music and gain some understanding of how people can live so close to the elements in some of the harshest winter weather in the world.
I first heard of the Reindeer People several years ago while working as an intern for Cultural Survival, an organization that works to promote the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide. Among their many activities was the Totem People’s Preservation Project, an effort to help the reindeer herders maintain their lifestyle.
In preparation for my trip, I headed down to the nearby American Center for Mongolian Studies library which has several academic and research materials on Mongolia available for perusal. I found some helpful information from a series of studies conducted between 2002 and 2004 called The Deer Stone Project.
Here’s what know about the Tsaatan:
Population: About 400, 200 are nomadic
Language: Khovsgul Uighur – a Tuvan Dialect (as of 2005, 235 people spoke Khovsgul Uighur, and 235,000 spoke Tuvan
Dwelling: A teepee-like structure called a URTS
Reindeer Uses: Transportation, milk products for sustenance, rarely eat reindeer meat
Diet: Wild game and fish, products from reindeer milk, flour and rice, some horse and goat meat
Nomadism: In the summer bring the reindeer to a higher elevation where they feed on the mosses and lichen that grow in the tundra, in winter they come to the feeding grounds at a lower elevation
Herd Division: The full herd is about 700 reindeer – in the summer the herders make one large camp, but in the autumn they divide by family in groups with about 100 reindeer each – in the winter they divide further so only one or two families are together
Reindeer per Family: It varies widely – some families have only one or two, others have as many as 70
Threats: Poor veterinary care, poor support after the end of socialism, geopolitical divisions, pressures for non-nomadic lifestyles, and possible effects of climate change
And, here’s one of the only videos I could find on YouTube depicting the life of the Tsaatan: