Visiting the Tsaatan

This nomadic nation is primarily known for horse herders working the steppes, but deep in the taiga that lines the Russian border, one can find the reindeer herders of the forest. That's not some lost script page from Game of Thrones; the Tsaatan, or Dukha, people are some of the world's last reindeer nomads, and visiting them is a highlight of many Mongolian adventures.

The trick is visiting them responsibly. Though the Tsaatan are relatively used to outsiders by now, part of the draw of visiting them is seeing a unique society that does not exist for the sake of tourism. Of course, as more tourists seek out out this 'authentic' experience, the more the experience itself can be watered down, or worse, threatened by exposure and exploitation. This isn't to say the Tsaatan don't want visitors – many believe tourism is an important economic engine that allows them to maintain their traditional ways. But they do ask visitors come with care and respect.

The Tsaatan are happy to receive visitors who are genuinely interested in learning about their way of life. They'd rather not have visitors who are not interested in talking with them and are only keen to take photos (which makes them feel like zoo exhibits), or those who wash their clothes and dishes in the Tsaatan's drinking water and drop trash. Tour companies are often at fault as well, discouraging clients from bringing spending money, encouraging them to bring tents when there are guest tepees available, and bringing horses that are not used to reindeer.

You can visit the Tsaatan year-round. Their winter camps are reachable by 4WD, whereas at other times, you must come on horse (or reindeer!). How long the horse trek takes depends on the condition of local roads around Tsagaannuur. The Tsaatan live in two groups, known as the east (zuun) and west (baruun) taiga; this is a little confusing as the west taiga is actually southwest of the east taiga. The communities communicate via two-way radio.

Most visitors head for the east taiga. From Tsagaannuur, it can take four to 12 hours to reach either the west or east taiga by horse; the camps move and come closer to town as the summer ends (many Tsaatan children attend school in Tsagaannuur in winter, living in dorms during these months).

The TCVC can provide guides (but not interpreters), hire horses and offer information about the location of the Tsaatan camps. The centre is fully owned and operated by the Tsaatan and works to both help travellers and give the Tsaatan a chance to control tourism in their community. Arrangements can also be made with the assistance of Zaya (zaya_004@yahoo.com), the English-speaking member of the community. She checks her email weekly, though the community has no phone reception between mid-June and mid-August. The folks at Erdene's Guesthouse, plus Saraa and Baigal in Mörön, also enjoy good working relationships with the Tsaatan.

When you visit, behave like a responsible guest. Give the community advance warning of your arrival (book at least a week – ideally 10 days – in advance). Bring your hosts a useful gift (toothpaste, good batteries, soap, colouring books for children, make-up for women, small torches, mementos from your home country, etc). Do not bring sweets as there's no dentist here. Also make sure you rent horses that are have visited the Tsaatan before: there have been incidents when horses (from Khatgal and elsewhere) that were not used to reindeer have freaked out and crippled some of the Tsaatan reindeer, the livelihood of the herder.

Once you’ve left Tsagaannuur, figure on spending:

  • T20,000 per day for a TCVC guide. This is not applicable if you bring your own guide, who you work your own rate out with. We recommend bringing your own guide/interpreter in any case; the TCVC can arrange one, but English skills will likely be lacking.
  • T20,000 per day for each horse or reindeer – usually one for you, one for your guide and one for your bags.
  • T10,000 per person per night for accommodation.

Be self-sufficient and carry more than enough food for yourself; the Tsaatan have horror stories to tell about visitors who turn up without food and deplete the Tsaatan's already meagre supplies. Bring a tent (just in case), camping supplies and 100 per cent DEET to keep the bugs at bay. Bring small denomination tögrög (not dollars!) in case you wish to purchase some handicrafts. Show a willingness to engage in everyday activities; they'll be happy to put you to work! People typically stay for a couple of days, but you can stay longer if you're really interested in the Tsaatan way of life.

Getting to the Tsaatan involves a wonderfully picturesque horse (or reindeer) trek through pristine forest and mountains. You'll have to determine a meeting point, from where the Tsaatan will send a guide to meet and escort you to their camp. If you are intent on making the trip, check up about permits with the General Office of Border Protection in UB, as you'll need one to travel to this border area.

One final note: there really is a good chance that you can ride a reindeer with the Tsaatan. It's actually a pretty comfortable experience (it beats the hell out of wooden saddles on Mongolian horses, as we can attest), but if you weigh more than 82kg, you may be too heavy for the little beasts.