‘My life is like an ortz; I move a lot every year,’ is how Saintsetseg Jambaldorj, a Tsaatan member, describes her nomadic life. Ortz are teepee-like tents that are made from wooden staves and canvas and can be easily packed up and carried to new locations. The Tsaatan’s lives revolve around their reindeer, which are milked around sunrise before going to forage for food in woods around the Tsaatan’s campsite.
The hilly forest lands of the Taiga cause horse guide, Lkhagvasuren Battur, to use his horses to carry tourists and their baggage to the remote Tsaatan campsite, with occasional use of oxen for heavier loads. When the pictured ox and a horse disappeared from the campsite, he immediately began a search on another horse. How did he find them in just a few hours? 'I look for their hoof prints. They always try to go home because they feel comfortable being with sheep and other animals that they see every day'.
At sunrise, domesticated reindeer wait to be taken to a nearby forest to forage for food. In summer, the Tsaatan community move to higher altitudes because the reindeer are heat sensitive.
Shortly after sunrise, reindeer forage for moss and other vegetation in a snow-covered forest near the Tsaatan campsite. Their legs have been tied to limit their ability to run far away. 'In the old days, winter was colder,' Ganbat Tsendee, the owner of the reindeer, recalls. 'The reindeer gathered up and didn’t move, so they got fat.' He worries for his currently thinner reindeer: 'If they can’t get enough fat, I can’t use them as transport.'
‘Sometimes I feel like giving up,’ says Ganbat Tsendee, a father of five, of the hardships he faces in the frigid winters. ‘But I love my reindeer, which my ancestors have raised for generations. The only thing keeping me here is my reindeer.’ As the Tsaatan community shrinks – around 40 families remain – some are encouraging their children to move to cities.
Ganbat practises a Shaman-style ceremony for his departed mother. As Shamanists, the Tsaatan believe each mountain has a different god. Here, Ganbat splashes reindeer milk, and throws cigarettes and biscuits into the air to pay his respects to both the mountain and his late mother.
A young Mongolian guide rests while looking after oxen. Guides mostly rely on horses to carry tourists but they sometimes use oxen for heavier baggage.
Lkhagvasuren Battur chops down a tree for firewood to be used in a stove inside an ortz. The firewood burns so well that it quickly heats up the ortz, but it also burns fast and needs a constant supply of firewood.
Ganbat Sandag, a respected elder of the Tsaatan community in East Taiga, prepares firewood for the night.
Lkhagvasuren Battur, a horse guide, right, and Buyan-Ulzii Jargalsaikhan, a driver, left, relax in an ortz. There are many tour guides and private drivers specialising in visits to the Tsaatan community around the Taiga. In the past, reindeer skin was used to make clothing and ortz. Now, clothing is bought and canvas is used for ortz.
Bayandalai Ganbat races on his father’s reindeer with his friend. Tsaatan children become experts at riding their reindeer.
Ganbat Tsendee leaves the Tsaatan campsite in East Taiga, with his two sons and Batbayar Davaadorj from another family. They will head to a car pickup point for transport to their school in the nearest town, Tsagaan Nuur. The boys stay in the school’s dormitory during the week and return to their camp for weekends. Batbayar’s family keep their reindeer in a remote area further north, so he stays with Ganbat’s family to be closer to the school. The Tsaatan people share strong community bonds and help each other whenever they can.
How to get there
The journey requires a 2.5-hour flight from Beijing to Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar (not included in most tour packages; around 2,500RMB with Air China on ctrip.com), a 1.5-hour flight or 13-hour bus ride to Murun, and then an all-day, off-road drive to Tsagaan Nuur. The next day involves a three-to-six-hour horse ride to the Tsaatan camp.
Where to stay
Accommodation is in traditional tents (ortz) and visitors provide their own sleeping bags and food. Tour Mongolia (tourmongolia.com) offers a 12-day tour for two people for between 3,100-4,580USD (depending on whether you take the bus or a domestic flight). Alternatively, you can organise your own travel arrangements and find a private local guide. See the Tsaatan Community & Visitors Center’s website (visittaiga.org) for more.