How to visit the Mongolian Reindeer Herders/ Tsaatan or Dukha tribe

Travellers with Dukha Mongolian reindeer herders

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Visiting the Mongolian Reindeer Herders, also known as the Tsaatan or Dukha tribe, offers a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the secluded wilderness of Northern Mongolia and experience their nomadic way of life. Here’s a guide on how to visit these remarkable people:

Who are the Mongolian Reindeer Herders?

The Tsaatan, or Dukha, tribe are the only reindeer herders in Mongolia. The term “Tsaatan” refers to someone who owns reindeer, while “Dukha” translates to “Reindeer Herder” in English.

The history of the reindeer herders dates back centuries, and they are genetically connected to the Uigur people, one of the Turkic-origin tribes in Mongolia. The Tsaatan language is also of Ancient Turkic origin, although it is now endangered, with only around 500 people speaking it in the northern regions of Mongolia.

During the border division in the 1950s, a significant number of Tuvan people were left on the Russian side, while others settled in Mongolia’s far-northern province.

For generations, the Tsaatan people have herded reindeer, passing down their nomadic traditions to their descendants. When you visit the Reindeer Herders in Mongolia, you have the incredible opportunity to be a part of this rich culture and witness their unique way of life.

Reindeer herder Sansar how to visit the mongolian reindeer herders
Reindeer herder Sansar is riding his big antler reindeer

What are East and West Taiga?

While there may have been historical reasons for the initial division between the East and West Taiga Tsaatan, it’s important to note that today, the distinction between the two groups is primarily based on their camping locations. Both the East and West Taiga Tsaatan share similar cultural practices, traditions, and a way of life centered around reindeer herding. Visitors to the area can choose to visit either East or West Taiga, depending on their preferences and tour arrangements.

The terms “East Taiga” and “West Taiga” refer to the two distinct regions where the Tsaatan, or Dukha, reindeer herders reside in Mongolia’s Taiga, a subarctic forest zone. Here’s a breakdown of each:

East Taiga:

The East Taiga region is located on the eastern bank of the Shishged River. This area is home to a group of Tsaatan reindeer herders who settled there when crossing the river during the warm season was challenging or impossible. Over time, they established their community on the eastern side, and they are known as the “East Taiga Tsaatan.” The East Taiga Tsaatan has its own specific camping locations within this region.

West Taiga:

The West Taiga region is situated on the western bank of the Shishged River. Similarly, when the Tsaatan settled in the Taiga, they divided into two groups, with some choosing to reside on the western side. These Tsaatan reindeer herders became known as the “West Taiga Tsaatan.” Like their counterparts in the East Taiga, the West Taiga Tsaatan have their own designated camping areas within the West Taiga region.

IMG 7568 how to visit the mongolian reindeer herders
Just before river crossing: on the shore of the Shishged river

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Where are the Reindeer herder tribes located?

The reindeer herder tribes, specifically the Tsaatan or Dukha people, are primarily located in Ulaan Uul and Tsagaan Nuur towns within Khuvsgul Province in northern Mongolia. These towns serve as the main settlements for the reindeer herders, and it is from these locations that they undertake their nomadic lifestyle.

During the summer season, a small number of Tsaatan families may temporarily move to the Khuvsgul Lake area, which is a popular destination for tourists. This allows them to access different pastures and resources for their reindeer. However, their primary base remains in Ulaan Uul and Tsagaan Nuur towns.

While many Tuvan people, from whom the Tsaatan are descended, now reside in Russia, there are still Tsaatan individuals and families on the Mongolian side of the border. The connections between the Tsaatan communities in Mongolia and their relatives across the border contribute to the unique cultural heritage they share.

How to visit the Mongolian Reindeer Herders?

To visit the Mongolian Reindeer Herders and experience their unique way of life, here are some recommendations:

It’s important to note that the Tsaatan people are a minority group, and their population is relatively small. They maintain a close-knit community and continue to preserve their traditional way of life centered around reindeer herding and the Taiga forests.

Plan Your Trip: Research and choose a reliable tour operator or travel agency that specializes in organizing trips to the Tsaatan tribe. They will help you navigate the logistics, permits, and transportation required for the visit.

Obtain Necessary Permits: Check with your tour operator or travel agency about the permits required to visit the restricted areas where the Tsaatan tribe resides. They will assist you in obtaining the necessary permissions.

Join a Guided Tour: Joining a guided tour is the most common way to visit the Tsaatan tribe. The tour will provide transportation, accommodations, meals, and an experienced guide who can facilitate communication and cultural understanding.

Reindeer Tour Mongolia

Plan Sufficient Time: Allocate around two weeks for your visit to the Northern region. This duration allows for comfortable travel and exploration without rushing through the experience.

Seek Experienced Tour Operators: Due to the sensitivity of the Taiga region and the need to respect the local community and nature, it is advisable to travel with experienced tour operators. Nomadic Trails, for instance, has been organizing tours to the Reindeer Herders since 2007 and can provide expertise and guidance throughout your journey.

By following these recommendations and traveling with a reliable tour operator like Nomadic Trails, you can have an enriching and respectful visit to the Mongolian Reindeer Herders, creating lasting memories of their nomadic way of life.

Nomadic Trails logo without frame

Overcome Common Challenges: Traveling to remote areas with poor road conditions and limited connections can be challenging. Experienced tour operators can help overcome these difficulties and ensure a smooth and well-coordinated trip. They have established relationships with local communities and can facilitate interactions and experiences that might be difficult to arrange independently.

Respect the Local Community and Environment: When visiting the Reindeer Herders, it is crucial to show respect for their culture, traditions, and way of life. Follow the guidance of your tour operator and local hosts, adhere to any guidelines or rules provided, and be mindful of the fragile ecosystem of the Taiga.

Horse riding to Taiga how to visit the mongolian reindeer herders
Horse ride to Summer camp of reindeer tribe

Enjoy Horseback Riding: Horseback riding is a significant part of the Reindeer Herders’ culture. Embrace this experience and immerse yourself in the unique landscape of the Taiga while riding alongside the Dukha people and their reindeer. You will have the opportunity to ride Mongolian small horses. Some people find it easy to ride these horses, which are well-suited for the terrain and the local riding style. The local horse guides will provide saddles for the riders.

There are two options available for saddles. The first option is a bigger style saddle with a round cushion, which offers more comfort and stability. The second option is a Mongolian Wooden saddle, although it is quite rare and not recommended for first-time riders. The wooden saddle requires some experience and familiarity with riding techniques.

During the horse-riding trip, there will be breaks and lunch provided to ensure your comfort and rest. The horses used for riding are calm and experienced in navigating the Taiga region.

It’s important to note that the team members of Nomadic Trails, who coordinate the horse-riding trip, are experienced and trained in handling and guiding riders in this environment. They will ensure your safety and help you make the most of your horse-riding experience with the Reindeer Herders.

View a close-up video of horseback riding with the Dukha people here.

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Best trip sample itinerary to visit Reindeer Herders

Days 1-2: Ulaanbaatar City to Murun Town

After arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, take a local flight to Murun town in Khuvsgul province. It’s recommended to spend a night in Ulaanbaatar to adjust to the time difference and overcome jetlag. Or local transport departs Ulaanbaatar city daily with 13 hours journey.

Days 3-4: Murun Town to Ulaan Uul Town to Tsagaan Nuur Town

Embark on a 4×4 Jeep drive through the beautiful Darkhad depression, passing two big passes and two smaller towns. Continue towards the Taiga region, reaching the Khogorog River valley.

IMG 3495 how to visit the mongolian reindeer herders
The rider girls are just crossing the river on their block!
Days 5-7 Taiga / Reindeer Tribe camp

The Reindeer Herders are nomadic, and their location varies with each season for better pasture and shelter. Prepare for horse riding, as it is essential to visit the Tsaachin. Depending on the camp’s location, expect horse rides to last between 3-9 hours. Spring camps are closer, while summer camps are more remote but rewarding.

Each season tribes with their nomadic nature change their location for more pasture for their reindeer as well as for cover from wind and cold during the colder seasons.

You will find spring camps are always the closest ones to ride a horse for 3-4 hours easy walking pace. While summer camps are always the longest ones to reach, 7-9 hours away but never the less rewarding and mysterious.

Taiga how to visit the mongolian reindeer herders
Near Reindeer Tribe’s autumn camp- Uzgen Nuur Lake

Note: If you are riding to East Taiga, you will need to pass a high pass with the other side steep. So to visit East Taiga you need to have a basic riding lesson at least.

Spring camp of the Mongolian Reindeer Herders how to visit the mongolian reindeer herders
Day 7-9 Khogorog river valley to Khuvsgul Lake

After exploring the Taiga region, embark on a 13-14 hour drive back to Khuvsgul Lake, known as the Blue Pearl of Mongolia. Take breaks along the way and enjoy the lakeshore for relaxation.

Day 9-13 Khuvsgul Lake to Murun town to Ulaanbaatar to Departure

Spend two days relaxing at Khuvsgul Lake before returning to Murun town. Then, take a local flight back to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, for your departure.

During the trip, it’s important to respect the local community and nature. Be prepared for horse riding, ensure your comfort and safety by using experienced tour operators, and be flexible with the itinerary as local conditions and circumstances may vary.

Please note that this itinerary is a suggestion, and it’s recommended to consult with local tour operators or experts to tailor the itinerary to your specific preferences and requirements.

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How to self-guide and visit the Tsaatan or Dukha Tribes

There are a few ways you can visit the tribes on your own.

If you choose to self-guide and visit the Tsaatan or Dukha Tribes in Mongolia, here are some suggestions:

Start from Murun Town: Murun Town is the gateway to the Northern region where the tribes are located. Begin your journey from Murun, which can be reached by domestic flights or other means of transportation.

Local Transports: During the summer season, you may find Russian minivans departing from an open market in Murun to Ulaan Uul or Tsagaan Nuur towns. These vans operate on an irregular schedule, so it’s important to meet the driver beforehand to determine the departure time.

Stay Informed: Stay updated on local transport options by checking Facebook groups or looking out for advertisements from drivers. They may share their contact information or leave mobile phone numbers at the bus stop near the open market. This can help you connect with drivers who operate during seasons other than summer.

Be Flexible: Keep in mind that local transport options may vary throughout the year, and there might not be constant services available. It’s essential to be flexible and adaptable to the local circumstances.

Research and Preparation: Before embarking on your self-guided visit, conduct a thorough research about the region, local customs, and the specific needs and challenges of visiting the Tsaatan or Dukha Tribes. Prepare adequately, including arranging necessary permits or permissions, ensuring you have appropriate gear and supplies, and understanding the cultural norms and expectations.

Respect the Culture and Environment: When visiting the Tsaatan tribe, it is crucial to respect their cultural practices, traditions, and way of life. Follow the guidance of your guide and be mindful of their customs and beliefs. Additionally, practice responsible tourism by leaving no trace and minimizing your impact on the environment.

Interact and Learn: During your visit, take the opportunity to interact with the Tsaatan people, learn about their reindeer herding practices, and participate in their daily activities. Engage in conversations, ask questions, and show genuine interest in their culture.

Visiting the Mongolian Reindeer Herders is a remarkable experience that allows you to connect with a unique way of life and gain a deeper understanding of nomadic traditions. By following these guidelines and embracing the Tsaatan culture with respect, you can create lifelong memories and contribute to the preservation of the heritage.

Self-guiding to visit the Tsaatan or Dukha Tribes requires careful planning, adaptability, and a sense of adventure. Make sure to prioritize your safety and respect the local community and environment throughout your journey.

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