Mongolia is a country well known for its nomadic culture. However, at the rate that the country is developing, the number of people living in urban areas is on the rise, while the number of those who still lead the traditional Mongolian lifestyle is dwindling. There is one place though that remains virtually unchanged, the Taiga of Northern Huvsgul Province in Mongolia, home to the reindeer herding Tsaatan community.
Reaching the Tsaatan people in their amazing lands was no easy task. From the capital city of Huvsgul Province, it was a 16-hour purgon(Russian all-terrain van) ride on unpaved roads, through forests and muddy terrain to reach Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake), the village nearest their settlement. From there, we traveled another 8 to 12 hours on horseback to reach the place where the Tsaatan people are settled in late spring. Because the Tsaatan reindeer herders are truly nomadic, it can sometimes be difficult for an outsider to know exactly where they are at any particular time of the year. Despite the distance, challenging horse trails and rugged paths it doesn’t stop many tourists and Mongolians alike from making the trip year-round to stay with these people and experience their way of life.
Tsaatan people are very self sufficient, living in teepees hours from the nearest town and leading their lives with limited electricity and no phone reception. They rely on their reindeer for meat, milk and a variety of other milk-based products. In summer they are able to forage for wild berries, but aside from that, vegetables, fruits and candies are hard to come by. They have, however, found ways to adapt with the times and harness the interest surrounding their culture in a way that makes it work for them. With so many tourists coming to catch a glimpse and spend time with these mysterious people each year, the opportunity to make money presents itself. Small bags made of reindeer hide, wolf tooth necklaces and beautiful things carved into and fashioned out of reindeer horns are all for sale. The fact that their communities move from place to place also allows them to capitalize financially. Often, people will hire a Tsaatan guide when they reach Tsagaan Nuur to take them from there to where the current settlement is.
In the summer of 2012 another Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) and I went to Tsagaan Nuur for two weeks. Conscious of the need to be more than just tourists, we offered to teach English a few hours a day to the Tsaatan children and adults. After the long ride to get there, we realized quickly that their nomadic lifestyle put them at a significant disadvantage in terms of access to educational resources. Fortunately we discussed this before we left, and decided to bring the educational materials with us. This highlighted the difference between us and other tourists and the Tsaatan people let us know that, asking us to stay longer and return the following year. It was such an amazing experience that there was no doubt in my mind I would come again in 2013.
With the help of the 20 new volunteers from all around Mongolia and with support from Edurelief and other NGOs, we were able to bring books, teepee material for us to make our own mobile English library teepee, and numerous health related items like toothbrushes, toothpaste and handouts on general hygiene. We taught small English classes, interacted with the children in English and Mongolian, and also gave small health seminars during our stay.
The Tsaatan are one of Mongolia’s only remaining nomadic subcultures. The opportunity to spend time with these people and their families, while providing educational resources and giving general hygiene and nutrition advice was unforgettable. Knowing that even our purchases of carved reindeer horns, key chains and necklaces helped these people to buy notebooks and pencils for their children to go to school next year, felt great. The chance to learn from the Tsaatan people and experience their way of life while also working on education and health made the project hardly seem like work at all. Many of us look forward to returning in summer 2014 to continue the development and strengthen our relationships with the people. With their self-sufficiency and a newly acquired way to interact with tourists, they will be able to preserve their culture while also communicating and learning from others that make the trek.
*Photos by Gracie Storm*
Part of the long trip to Tsagaanuur