Written by Jane Blunden
Nature is on the side of the Tsaatan and not the tourist, as they inhabit one of the harshest and most inaccessible regions of the world.
The Tsaatan (reindeer people) comprise families of a small but growing population. They are now making efforts to marry Mongolians in a bid to increase their community. They live in the high mountains of northern Khövsgöl Aimag. Originally they are Tannu Uriankhai or Tuvan, related to the Turkic people of the neighbouring Republic of Tuva. In the early 1980s, the government grouped them around Lake Tsagaan in an attempt to settle them, though they would not be ‘settled’ easily.
Like Mongolia, Tuva was part of the Qing Empire but became separated from Mongolia at the beginning of the 20th century as a result of Russian interference. Tuvans wrote in the old Mongolian classical script until they received the Latin, then the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1930s. Subsequently, when Mongols were forced into collectives by socialist reformers, these shy Tsaatan herders disappeared into the woods and mountains with their reindeer.
Nature is on the side of the Tsaatan and not the tourist, as they inhabit one of the harshest and most inaccessible regions of the world. The northern fringes of Mongolia are on the edge of civilisation. Their encampments are usually found after riding long distances through larch and silver birch forests, and tend to be more easily accessible in spring and summer. (If you are going to undertake such a journey, bring a fishing rod as there are many excellent opportunities to fish in the streams and rivers.) Tsaatan, who possess few ways of communication, travel with the seasons, journeying in summer by canoe on rivers and in winter, when the cold weather comes and the river water freezes, crossing these rivers while riding on their reindeer.
One wonders if the sudden increase in tourist attention is a good thing: having admirably survived the 20th-century political changes, are they now to end up dependent upon handouts from one ‘chopper’ visit to the next?
They barter goods in exchange for wool hide and furs. In spring, unsettled weather breaks the ice while strong winds and sudden storms buffet the land. In the hot, short summers, marigolds, forget-me-nots, primroses and anemones bloom, as if by magic, and in the skies the winds carry thousands of migratory birds. Forests are predominately made up of larch but there are also pine, birch, poplar and some spruce trees. Pine thrives on the south-facing slopes, while trees like poplar, aspen and birch grow on the less sunny, northern slopes.
Tsaatan construct birch-bark, teepee-style dwellings and hunt using horns made of larch wood to imitate animal calls. They catch fish by spearing them with long poles; reindeer milk is part of their staple food from which they make cheese, butter and yoghurt. Occasionally, they eat reindeer meat but overall they prefer not to kill their deer. They have become a focus of attention for tourists who now flock to see them. One wonders if this is a good thing: having admirably survived the 20th-century political changes, are they now to end up dependent upon handouts from one ‘chopper’ visit to the next? If so, and should they choose, don’t be surprised if they employ their disappearing tactics again.
In the past decade there has been so much interest in the Tsaatan that they now choose to send their children to schools in Khatgal and hold a number of special events such as the Reindeer Festival which takes place annually in July, by Lake Khovsgol, when Tsaatan benefit directly from tourism – for more information, visit http://mongoliantourism.gov.mn/үндсэн-цэс/events/july/. The Itgel Foundation was set up in 2002 on their behalf by Morgan Keay and Lilliana Goldman and many tours book through this organisation (for more information, see www.itgel.org).