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2021: Mongolia’s Forgotten Reindeer Herders

Key Information

Date: Thursday, September 23, 2021
Duration: 11 days
Cost: 2021 (provisional): £3320, $4150, €3700 Ulaanbatar/Ulaanbaatar. Single Room Supplement: £80, $100, €90. If you are travelling alone, the single supplement will not apply if you are willing to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available. The single supplement relates to the nights in Ulaanbaatar. This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.
Places: 7

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Photographic Highlights

For thousands of years, the Tsaatan people, also known as the Dukha, have lived in the remote, deep forests and tundras of northern Mongolia. Numbering only around 300 people they are considered to be one of the smallest ethnic minorities in the world.

Moving from pasture to pasture every seven to ten weeks, this tiny community of nomadic reindeer herders is one of the few remaining tribes of its kind.

Natives of Russian Siberia and Mongolia’s northernmost province of Khovsgol, Dukha herders depend on their reindeer for nearly all aspects of survival, as well as cultural and spiritual identity.

But as modern development makes its way into their remote habitat, their ancient traditions are now at risk of dying out.  The introduction of a conservation area (which has restricted the Dukha from traditional hunting) in 2012, illegal mining and climate change has all added pressure on these special  people, forcing many of them to move to towns and abandon their traditional nomadic lifestyle with their reindeer herds.

This tour will take you to the heart of the Taiga forest in northern Mongolia where we will camp alongside a family of traditional Dukha people for several days, learning about how they keep their reindeer and survive the harsh winters in this spectacular region of northern Mongolia.

After leaving the remote town of Murun, we will drive  to the trail head of Darkhad Valley in 4WD vehicles.  Along the way we will see some of the most pristine landscapes in the world, gaze upon spectacular views, see stunning wild horses, yaks, and golden eagles, meet incredible local people who will welcome you into their home with open arms and talk to us about the joys and hardships of nomadic life in Mongolia.

From there we will trek out to a family of herders living in a wild region of forest called Tengis Shishegt, near the border between Mongolia and Russia. Reindeer outdo horses in this wild terrain and they have allowed the Dukha to evade many of the upheavals that have historically afflicted people in the lowlands, from Genghis Khan to Communism.

The last remaining Dukha are spread out across 59 households in this area and to visit them is to witness something magical. A relationship between humans and animals that has stood the test of time, and a culture that has a deep respect for the earth and all of its gifts.

Originally from the Russian region of Tuva, the Tsaatan people live on the border of Mongolia and Russia in an area called the taiga. The taiga, in lamens terms, is a snow forest (in winter) or swamp forest (in summer) that forms a border between the arctic tundra and the grasslands.

You can find taiga in any of the world’s northern-most countries including Russia, Mongolia, the Nordic countries in Europe, Canada and the US (Alaska). The taiga is actually the world’s second largest biome (apart from the ocean), which is crazy considering I had never even heard of it before my trip to Mongolia.

While the taiga may seem like a cold and unforgiving environment to you, it’s the perfect place for the reindeer that the Dukha have grown to love and care for like family. And where their reindeer thrive, they thrive.

The Dukha and their reindeer have an incredible symbiotic relationship, each dependent on the other for survival. Without the reindeer, the Dukha could never survive in the taiga, and without the Dukha, the reindeer would die off at the paws of wolves.

The Dukha use their reindeer for dairy products (including milk, yoghurt and cheese) and transportation while the reindeer use the Dukha for safety and protection from predators. This symbiotic relationship necessitates that the Dukha live as nomads, moving with their reindeer as they graze on a very specific kind of arctic moss.

The taiga extends from Mongolia into Russia, and, in the past, the Dukha used to migrate freely between the two countries. However, Russia’s involvement in World War II ended that lifestyle. Consequently food shortages and the fear of having their reindeer claimed by the government forced the Dukha people to move permanently into Mongolia.

While the Dukha have lived exclusively in Mongolia for almost 70 years now, they still speak their native language of Tuvan, making communication difficult for visitors without skilled translators.  Very few of them even speak Mongolian.

Life For the Dukha

The Dukha people live almost completely off the land, sleeping in teepees that are made from long skinny tree trunks around which a waterproof canvas covering is stretched. Beds are made from logs, warmth comes from a wood-fired stove and their sustenance comes entirely from their reindeer. The Dukha consider their reindeer as part of the family, so they rarely eat reindeer for meat.

Every few weeks a family will send one of their members into town to buy supplies and food that can’t be sourced at camp. Typical purchases would be flour, rice, vegetables, or clothes.

A typical day for Dukha people includes waking up, lighting the stove and then heading out to milk their reindeer. After milking the families gather in their teepees and make milk tea and breakfast on the stove. Following breakfast, the families let their reindeer loose and a few people work together to herd them away from camp to their grazing area where they are free to graze all day.

During the day families hang out together drinking tea and tending to different household tasks such as making yoghurt, cheese, and bread, hunting for meat, or gathering berries from the woods (in the summer).

In the evening Dukha families go out to get the reindeer from their grazing area and herd them back to camp where they are tethered for the night. After dinner they will do a final night check of the reindeer before going to bed.

The Dukha typically move camp up to seven to eight times a year on migration.  This massive task involves packing all of their belongings (teepees, stoves, pots, utensils, clothes, etc.) on the backs of their reindeer so they can move to more favourable grazing grounds for their reindeer.

The culture of Shamanism in the Dukha Reindeer Herders

Shamanism, one of the oldest religious beliefs in the world, is still widely practiced by the Dukha reindeer herders in Mongolia.  Essentially it is the vehicle behind the close relationship Mongolian people share between nature and Tengrism (sky worship). Tengrists believe the sky, earth, nature and the spirits of their ancestors guard and bless all people. The Shamanistic practices among the Dukha are thought to be the oldest in the country. Not only do they worship their Shaman, but they have many mystical holy books as well, and use many different treatises in their daily lives, including those for hunting and for calling or banishing the rain.

We hope to meet a Dukha shaman on our tour to meet the reindeer herders of Mongolia.

Uushig Deer Stones

Located on the south-eastern side of rocky Mount Uushig 17km west from Murun, the Uushig Deer Stone area is home to several square burials and 14 deer stones in a single area depicting different figures that date back to the Bronze Age. The deer stones of Uushig are said to be  the most clearly depicted deer stones in Mongolia. The deer stones are aligned from north to south in a single column. Each stone is between three and twenty metres distant from each other and is made of tetrahedral granite. A deer, an arch, a shield, a horse, a knife, the moon, the sun and a mirror figured belt are all depicted on the stones. A total of 109 deer figures as well as some human figures are carved on 14 different stones at Uushig and visiting them on our Mongolia reindeer herder photography tour will give us a snapshot in to the ancient ways of these special people.

Accommodation & Road Transport

Road transport is by 4WD Toyota Landcruisers.

Our fully supported camps includes two man tents, stretcher beds with mattresses and bedding. Shared shower and toilet tents will be provided and erected by camp crew.  Delicious meals will be supplied by camp cooks.

With the exception of the supported camps around the Dukha people, accommodation is in comfortable lodges, hotels and guest houses.

Walking

This is a strenuous walking trip which involves hiking in sometimes muddy and boggy conditions.  Pack horses will be provided to carry luggage and our camp to the nomad camps

Climate

The Hovsgol region lies very close to the border between Mongolia and Russia and we can expect days to warm to temperatures between 12C and 20C.  During the nights the temperatures may drop to below zero.

Photographic Equipment

For most photography of the people in Mongolia, a travel lens of around 24-105mm on a full frame DSLR or mirrorless body will be essential. A wide angle lens of around 16mm or smaller will be perfect for working with the people inside gers or yurts.

If you prefer to photograph people from a distance, then please consider bringing a larger zoom or telephoto lens. It is our experience that sometimes people can feel a bit intimidated by large cameras and lenses so you may wish to bring a smaller sized zoom lens like a 100-400mm which doesn’t appear as intimidating as a large fixed focal length telephoto lens. Such a lens can also be useful for any wildlife we encounter.

If you bring a good quality bridge camera instead of a DSLR or mirrorless it will be best if it has an optical zoom of 18-20x or more, combined with a reasonable wide-angle at the other end of the zoom range.

If you have a phone or tablet that can be used for photography, you may find these quite useful around people.

Similarly if you have a Polaroid camera like the Leica Sofort or an Instax Mini, these are wonderful to have on hand when you spend time with tribal people. If you decide to bring one of these, please bring lots of film with you as the photographs you produce will be quite popular!

Be sure to bring plenty of spare battery power. On a number of nights there will be no access to power.

Drones are also a wonderful addition to your photography kit on our Mongolia photo tours, however, if you plan to bring your drone with you please contact our office to chat with our leader about drone photography in Mongolia.

If you would like to talk over suitable equipment, please contact our office. We will be happy to advise.

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