gtag('config', 'AW-943747271');

The Tsaatan

“If our reindeer die, we die. They are not just our living but our life,” (Sanjim, Tsaatan Tribesman)
“If our reindeer die, we die. They are not just our living but our life,” (Sanjim, Tsaatan Tribesman)

The barbs of progress, gentrification, and modern technology, are that not much on this earth remains a mystery. Almost nothing is lost to us, and as society continues to lose its innocence, it becomes increasingly hard to generate a sense of wonder. Throughout history, the vibrancies, vim, and dynamism of most nomadic cultures, clans’, tribes, and indigenous peoples of the world; have been violently or quietly consumed by the avarice of colonisation, or the generics of globalism. Yet to this very day, there are still a clutch of souls living as their ancestors did, remaining unchanged from the time of the Great Khan to the present day. So, what is life like for a people that have for the most part, resisted the influence of the modern world, even into the 21st century?

Customs, Habits, Way of Life

Tsaatan, literally translates as, ‘those who have reindeer’
Tsaatan, literally translates as, ‘those who have reindeer’

Living as they have done for thousands of years, in the northern extremes of Khövsgöl Aimag Mongolia, are an ancient Tuvan-Turkic tribe, known as the Tsaatan, or the Dukha. This isolated and nomadic groups folkways, art, and traditions survive, but year on year their numbers dwindle. Tsaatan, literally translates as, ‘those who have reindeer’, and the relationship between the Tsaatan, nature, and their domesticated reindeer is as spiritual as it is symbiotic. Moving from pasture to plain, every eight to ten weeks, this small body of wandering herders is one of the few remaining tribes of its kind.

Each morning, Tsaatan women set about milking the herd. A novice milker would need another set of hands to steady a reindeer, but so in tune with their animals are Tsaatan women, a few expert tugs and the job is done. Once the herd is milked, the women begin the process of turning the milk into butter, dried curds, yogurt, and cheese. This, alongside pine nuts and wild berries complete the Tsaatan’s dietary staples.

Surviving asperous -40ºC winters, while living at altitudes over 2,000 meters above sea level is no mean feat, so it may come as a surprise that the Tsaatan seldom eat reindeer meat. Under the night sky, Tsaatan tell their children bedtime tales of how they are the descendants of reindeer, making their slaughter an exception rather than a rule. Only the oldest animals are butchered for meat, with nothing going to waste. Antlers are fashioned into handicrafts and many a useful tool. Hair is turned to twine and used to darn clothing. Reindeer dung keeps Tsaatan stoves and fires burning, the bones are crushed and powdered for medicinal use, and pelts are used to make the thickest of winter blankets booties, and coats. It doesn’t end there, reindeer for this tribe are a mode of transport. It has to be said, the sight of the Tsaatan riding their reindeer just as we would ride a horse, is rather charming.

Throughout the Tsaatan’s transitory homesteads, everywhere you look or turn, you’ll find reindeer. They peer at you through pine trees, while nonchalantly munching lichen, they casually and comically pop their noses into each and every Ortz (teepee-like tents), as though not wanting to miss out on the days gossip. For Tsaatan, reindeer are part of the family, and so collusive is their bond, without one, there could be no other.

Thought to be the closest to the religions original doctrine and ideology, the Tsaatan’s daily rituals and practises are quite different to other shamanistic tribes across Mongolia. They believe in spirits known as ‘Ezen’ (Master Spirits), entities that protect the herd, land, and tribe. There are specific ceremonial rituals for each communal or individual need, from fertility, to bear hunting, the right ritual can even control the weather. Magic charms are utilised, archaic scriptures are recited, and drums are played in time with songs of conjuration. Tsaatan believe the spirits of their ancestors live on in the sacred forests, through wild animals, in plants, rivers, and mountains. The Tsaatan are a hospitable, gentle, and spiritual people, forever anticipating and responding to the impulses of mother nature.

Tsaatan’s Under Threat

History has shown time and time again, that ancient tribes and civilisation don’t mix. In our hyper-connected world, the pace of economic, social, and environmental development, is an ever-increasing threat to the Tsaatan.

Aggressive national hunting laws, that make no concessions for subsistent use of natural resources by minority groups, alongside the rise of gold mining, and mineral exploration near their homesteads; has led to the forced relocation of many Tsaatan, leaving them unable to access much of their ancestral lands. Elders recall candles as their only source of light, todays Tsaatan youth have access to solar panels and electric lamps. All Ortz were once covered and lined with animal skins, today canvas fabric has replaced said skins. Where once there were 200 Tsaatan families, today there are an estimated 40. Poverty, and lure of convenience, accessibility, and comfort, are the urban vacuum responsible for the mass exodus of Tsaatan youth; but as the youth leave for the bright lights of the city, the balance of their community and unique way of life becomes ever more precarious. The loss of this ancient and venerable tribe, and their centuries of knowledge and ancestral wisdom is imminent, but that is where eco-friendly sustainable tourism comes in. Yes, we eco-travellers are on journeys of a lifetime, but our tourist pounds and dollars aid the Tsaatan, and other marginalised minority tribes with entry into the cash economy, which in turn enables self-sufficiency. It is however of the utmost importance, that those who visit the Tsaatan or any of Mongolia’s nomadic tribes, remember they are not there to be eyeballed like oddities at a sideshow, but respected as the living authors of an ancient, dynamic, and compelling way of life.

For more information or to book a tour, please contact Trouvailles on 020 3877 0670.