Mongolia, the land of the big blue sky.
It has been a fascination for me ever since I knew the capital in primary school, so my conscience knew I was going way before I did. This beautiful land of nomadic peoples with Buddhist and shamanic faiths live in harmony with their land, carrying everything they own with them wherever their animals need to go. Most nomadic Mongolians live in 'gers' (yurts in Kazakh but they are the same) but the people that I am focusing on here are different to this norm in that they live in tipis or 'Ortz'; the Tsaatan Reindeer herders of the Ulaan Taiga area of northern Mongolia that borders Siberia.
It took me five days of overland travel in a Forgan 4x4 to reach the TCVC (Tsaatan Community Visitor Centre) and another two days on horse and reindeer to reach their community, high in the mountains, it was August 2008 and the temperature dropped to 25 below overnight with heavy snowfall, the Tsaatan are preparing to move to their lower winter pastures.
These people are one of the few remaining communities whose culture, livelihood, community and charm revolves around reindeer and the land in which they live. This land is harsh to you or I, dropping to a staggering 50 below in winter but a searing 30 above in summer. The Tsaatan, in part, have adapted the way they live and where they live with the seasons and this enormous annual temperature range, and also the terrain in which they live. Rugged, steep mountain pastures for summer grazing at over 2000m with high passes connecting valleys that sweep down to the plains and Tsagaan Lake.
To visit and live amongst the Tsaatan you need permission from the local administration to enter the Ulaan Taiga (you are also going close to and may inadvertently cross the Russian border) and a permit from the community at the Tsaatan centre.
I took a number of young adults from the UK who specifically wanted to live, play and work with the community and what a fascinating time they had. Living in their Ortz, journeying with their reindeer, learning about their shamanic healing and their way of life, sharing stories and learning with their young adults, hopes and fears, wishes and aspirations.
Some of us stayed in the Ortz of the newly married couple, Quizilol and Solongo from the beautiful documentary film by Hamid Sardar, Tracking the White Reindeer. Well worth watching if you want to get a glimpse of the culture and livelihood of this remote nomadic community. The Ortz are kept warm by layers of canvas and felt, with a constantly fed stove of dried reindeer dung, used for cooking on as well as heating these cosy homes.
Our time with the people of the reindeer was too short and we soon had to journey back down to the valley and civilisation, but not before I spent time with some of the elders, talking about their hopes and fears. One of the elders was worried that their way of life would soon be lost as young Tsaatan aspirations revolve around education, getting a degree and moving to the capital, Ulaan Bataar. They are less than 500 people living with thousands of reindeer, that provide everything they need in this nomadic wilderness. Some return later in life, realising how idyllic their way of life is compared to the hustle, bustle and tussles of the outside world but many do not. His question was simple, who will look after the reindeer?
See the links for further information about the Tsaatan community and references in the text.
Some images courtesy of Chris Cartwright.
When booking your visit to the Tsaatan, go directly through the TCVC via Erdene’s Guesthouse so that all your money goes towards the community.
Other blogs include:
Asa’s blog of the Tsataan Reindeer Herders of Mongolia
Go Wilderness Mongolia page on the Tsataan Community