Tsaatan, which in the Mongolian language literally means ‘those who have reindeers’ , are a community of reindeer herders living in northern Khövsgöl Aimag of Mongolia. One of the last few nomadic tribes, they live off the animals as their primary source of food, clothing and transportation.
A former Associate Director in a HR executive firm, Lavanya Ullas took an indefinite sabbatical sometime last year to travel and pursue photography. While planning her trip of the Trans-Siberian route through Mongolia, , she made sure she to spend a few days with this rare tribe. Here’s her story.
How did you find about the Tsaatan tribe and what made you visit them?Due to it’s size and lack of accessibility around the country, charting a route in Mongolia for 4 weeks requires considerable amount of research. It was during this that I came across some stunning images of reindeers among snow covered steppes and forests, young Mongolian kids running around them and I knew I had to go there. Prior to this, in my mind’s eye, I thought reindeers are only found in Alaska, Scandinavia or Canada. As I continued to plan the rest of the trip, I chalked the rest of my itinerary around visiting this tribe. I got lucky with this, as September is one of the last times you can make the trip into the Taiga forests as the snow cuts off access for the rest of winter. Getting to them was also not an easy feat. You drive for a few days nearly entirely off road, to get to Khuvsgul province and then swap the van for horses. It takes another two days of riding horses to reach them. We rode the horses through streams, forests, jaw-droppingly steep hill sides to finally spot smoke coming out from teepees in the valley from a distance to know we’d arrived - which is as Indian Jones-like as it gets!
How did you spend your time there?
Throughout the travels in Mongolia outside of the capital, you stay with nomad families. Here was no different too. This particular camp had 2 extended families living across 3 tents and they had 2 extra guest tents that were occupied by us (a group of 4). They had close to about 50 reindeers at this camp. Life moves slow here. You can spend your time hiking around the forests, watching the women at work making cheese with reindeer milk, playing with the kids, reading or trying to befriend the reindeers who remain unperturbed by your presence. (Tip: take a bag of salt with you, and they won’t leave your side). We spent 4 leisurely days there before it was time to get back on the horses again.The reindeers wander off in the morning into the forest to graze (without anyone accompanying them may I add) and return early evening. Few of the younger calves stay behind.
One of the things I most looked forward to happened around 3pm everyday. As the sun started to sink behind the tall coniferous trees you start to hear bells ringing softly in the distance that then slowly starts to get louder and louder. Before you know it, you are then surrounded by tens of brown and snow white reindeers running from among the trees to the camp from all around you. It’s a pretty magical sight!
What did you observe about the people in their relationship with the reindeers?
The Tsaatan people are as dependent on the reindeers as the animals are on them. With this comes a certain degree of trust as well. For example, they are left free to graze in the forests all day with no one watching them and the families trust they would return in the evening. One of the days I was there, not all the reindeers returned and about 20 of them were missing. When I asked Inkhe (the head of the family) if this was a problem and how they planned to find them. He seemed completely relaxed, shrugged with a smile and said, they’re just being naughty. It’ll soon be too cold for them at night and they’ll come running back at first light. Which of course did happen.
I’m sure being part of a dwindling tribe, having your land encroached upon and having the next generation migrate to the cities in increasing numbers comes with its own distinct set of challenges. However there was a certain degree of contentment I observed they had in their way of life. All of the issues I had heard about only came through the research and articles I had read. They never once sat us down to complain about any of this. There were no plans (that they shared) to take on larger groups of tourists, build more tents, or even take more milk than they needed from the animals. In recent years there have been a few families that have moved out of the forests further south with the reindeers near the urban areas to allow tourists to access the animals easily, though Inkhe talked about how the climate isn’t suited to the reindeers and while just one photo-op with them pays them a considerable amount of money in the city he just wouldn’t put his reindeers through that.
What were you trying to capture with your photographs?
After the initial wow factor of seeing a reindeer in the flesh wears off by day 2 it was life as usual.
A lot of my favourite photos from this visit are from the latter part of my stay. These reflect the sheer normalcy of daily life for the families, and are taken from a closer proximity to both the families and animals who quickly get used to your presence.
Given you lead a pretty urban lifestyle, how did you feel about the fact that the tribe still manages to keep a constant touch with their surrounding nature in these modern times? What do you think we can learn from them?
That’s an interesting question. For me the biggest impact or takeaway from the time I spent with the different tribes in Mongolia and observing their close relationship with nature and their cattle was about food. During my travels there I read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”by Michael Pollan. Where he talks among several other topics, about locavorism - eating food that is only grown or farmed (so this includes meat) close to the point of sale or consumption. While Pollan isn’t opposed to the consumption of meat itself, he takes us through the industrialization of meat and how the food we consume today is so far out from its natural cycle. While a lot of it is known to us, I, like a lot of meat eaters had turned a blind eye to the information out there preferring not to cloud my appetite for meat with the hard hitting information about how it gets to our plate. Reading this book in view of the nomads around me whose cattle roam relatively freely, graze on actual grass and shrubs available around them and are only milked and even slaughtered on a need basis gave it a real life evidentiary context that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.
You can find more photos from Lavanya on her Instagram.
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