Once a thriving community of reindeer herders, the Tsaatan people (also known as Tsaachin or Duhka) of northern Mongolia are now on the brink of losing their cultural traditions and nomadic traditions as the population continues to decline.
Only accessible on horseback, the extreme remoteness of this community has allowed them to remain relatively untouched by western culture. A fascinating culture – so incredibly diverse to other nomadic clans in Mongolia.
The Tsaatan people originated from the area currently known as the Tuva Republic of Russia, before moving into the area known as Taiga in Mongolia’s Hovsgol province. Following the end of World War II in 1942, the Tuva region inhabited by the Tsaatan people was annexed by the Soviet Union, fearing persecution and food shortages the community migrated south of the border and settled in Mongolia. It has been estimated that there was once around 200 families of reindeer farmers living in this region, now there are only 40 families left with approximately 1,000 reindeer’s.
The Tsaatan people utilise a nomadic lifestyle to sustain the health of their herds, moving camps up to ten times per year. In summer months, tribes take their herds to high altitude pastures as reindeer’s cannot handle the summer heat well. Winter in Mongolia is harsh with snow falling for days at a time and bitterly strong winds that chill to the bone. In winter, the nomadic Tsaatan tribes move into deep forests at lower altitudes to escape the frosty winds, staying at one campsite for no longer than one month at a time before packing up and migrating to their next campsite.
Threats to survival
The survival of the Tsaatan community and their nomadic way of life has been under threat for several decades, with several external factors influencing the diminishing population. The most significant of these factors is the communities desire to be closer to schools and hospitals for their children. The extreme remoteness of the Tsaatan people means that regular access to education or medicinal supplies is almost impossible, parents in the community must make the tough decision between being closer to their children in town’s and cities or maintaining the nomadic traditions of their ancestors. Another damaging factor to the Tsaatan people is the younger generations tendencies to defect from this lifestyle in favour of modern amenities offered in the city.
It is not only the Tsaatan community that is facing extinction, the tribes reindeer herds have also seen a dramatic decrease in numbers over the last two decades. The decrease in reindeer herds can be attributed to three leading factors; government restriction of traditional Tsaatan hunting grounds, inbreeding of livestock and the impact of non-human predators. The Tsaatan people have traditionally relied on hunting to provide food for the community and it is very rare for the tribe to eat one of their reindeer. The Mongolian government has restricted the Tsaatan hunting grounds by declaring the region as part of a national park, without the ability to hunt for their food the community has had to look elsewhere to sustain their lifestyle.
The second factor influencing the decline of herd populations is the poor health of the reindeer’s, stemming from decades of inbreeding. With the border between Russia & Mongolia closed, reindeer herds have been separated into small groups, forcing the Tsaatan people to inbreed their livestock. Decades of inbreeding has caused the reindeer’s average life expectancy to be reduced and their immune systems to be weak.
The third diminishing factor is that of non-human predators, mainly wolves and bears. With government restrictions on hunting, predators population numbers have significantly increased, causing alarm amongst Tsaatan communities who see this as a major threat to the survival of their herds.
The religious beliefs of the Tsaatan community are centred around Shamanism, a belief system that is based on nature worship. The community believes that their ancestors spirit lives on through animals in the sacred forest, sometimes thought of as being a guide for the living. The Tsaatan variation of Shamanism use rituals as part of their daily lives, from blessing trackers prior to a hunt, to rituals that ask for rain. This variation of Shamanism is said to be one of the oldest forms of Shamanism practised in Mongolia and is currently facing resurgence across Central Asia as communities take up beliefs that they were forced to disband during the Soviet occupation.
As traditional hunting grounds grow smaller, due to government restrictions, and the population of reindeer herds shrink, the Tsaatan community have had to look elsewhere for financial support. Tourism has become significant for these communities, travellers will often pay for a photo with a reindeer and are able to buy some small goods from the community. The Tsaatan people are well known for their hospitality and friendliness, and Crooked Compass is proud to support the local economy of the Tsaatan through responsible practices on our small group tour.
Fascinated by diminishing cultures and want to experience the nomadic lifestyle of the Tsaatan community? Join our Reindeer Tribes of Mongolia small group tour.
This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.