The Great Mystical Taiga · Part 1: The nomadic way of living
Deep inside Taiga forests in Northern Mongolia behind a wall of mountains, an isolated location, wanderers can find the unique community called Tsaatan Reindeer Herders (also known as Dukha or Taiga people).
Who are the Taiga people?
The Taiga people (Mongolian: Цаатан, Tsaatan) is an ethnic minority living in northern Khövsgöl Province of Mongolia. They are one of the last groups of nomadic reindeer herders in the world. About 50 families are living in East and West Taiga, with over 2,000 reindeers.
Taiga people migrate by seasons; they generally have three camps: summer camp (April-July), autumn camp (August-September) and winter camp (October-March). They mainly live in cone-shaped tents, called Teepee (s). A teepee was traditionally built by dozen of wooden poles and covered by animal skins. However, a modern teepee usually has a canvas covering, with a wood-burning stove at the centre for cooking and keeping warm.
The way of life
Taiga people are sincere and gentle folks. The ideas of lying, cheating or harming each other don’t exist in their community. That does not mean they are isolated from the outside world. Many of them own smartphones and high tech devices like Bluetooth speakers. They are very fond of Samsung phones. Some of them even have Facebook accounts. Yet the only time they can get on the internet is when they go to the villages nearby for supplies. They use solar panels for charging small electronic devices and lighting at night. Some families also have parabolic antennas to watch TV, and they like Korean dramas!
All Taiga people can read and write. Children are sent to a boarding school at six years old in Tsagaannur village.
Shamanism is their traditional spiritual practice. The people rely on their shamans for advice, healing and communicating with the spiritual world. Every family has a “spirit”. A spirit is made by tying many cloth strips at one end and attached with animal parts.
Reindeers play an essential part in this way of living. Reindeers are used for transportation when hunting and migrating. People milk reindeers to make tea and cheese. Taiga community in Mongolia rarely eat their reindeers, only if the reindeers are too old or attacked by wolves.
Every month, men go out hunting in a group of 4 to 5 people. Each man usually goes with 4 or 5 reindeers and 1 or 2 hounds. They hunt any animals they can find: squirrels, deers, wild boars, even bears. Boys at seven years old start following their fathers and uncles to learn hunting. Every trip will take around 10 to 14 days until they get enough meat for all families.
Our leisure days at Tsaatan winter camp.
We arrived at their winter camp in a twilight afternoon after two days of off-road driving. The winter camp is located at the edge of the Taiga. Zaya brought us around the camp to visit the teepees of some families. Some gifts were given to families in every Teepee we visited. The gifts are usually practical, like soaps, batteries, lotion and notebooks. The host of Teepee offered us some milk tea and homemade slices of bread.
We helped Zaya and her husband Ultsen with some daily chores and learned the way of living here. In the morning, after heating the stove, the first thing Zaya and Ultsen do is making some milk tea. The breakfast is usually straightforward with some homemade loaves of bread, tea and sometimes food leftover from yesterday dinner.
Some days, we went to collect water from a stream nearby, the stream was almost frozen even in early winter. We first looked for spots where water is still flowing, and if it was all frozen, we had to use a hammer to break the ice and get water from the hole. When the ice got too thick, we had to boil the snow for water. However, it’s better to get water from the stream, since you need to collect a lot of snow to get enough water.
In the late afternoon, my friend Hùng went out to chop some logs while I collected several dry branches on the ground. It takes a fair amount of wood and dry branches to keep the fire going almost overnight.
Those physical activities got a lot harder in the harsh winter, especially when we come from warm places.
Time flies in the Taiga. We said goodbye to the reindeer herders and continue our journey to Khovsgol Lake and Gobi. Surren, the oldest person, gave us a cheek kiss and said: “Wish you all the best, feel free to come back anytime, our doors always open for you”. That’s so sweet.
We will miss this place for many more years…