In a land where the ground is virtually always frozen, one creature has nourished man both physically and spiritually.
The Mongolian reindeer is credited with doing just that for the last 4000 years.
Carving out a life in the rugged, sub arctic temperatures of the Northern Mongolian landscape was never easy, it takes a tenacious human to endure such an existence and it happens to be where the reindeer are happiest.
Arriving at the top of the mountain after a grueling four day trip to the sight of tee pees, smoke gently billowing out the pipe chimneys; the sight was magical and looked exactly likea scene straight out of ‘ Dances with wolves.’ Such a vast expance of wilderness in the valley they had chosen as their summer home. Summer and the temperature 5 degree's celcius during the day and at night below 0.
There are only 207 of these Tsaatan people left in Mongolia, they are of shamanist religion and live with about 700 reindeer.
We arrived by horseback and were warmly greeted by the patriarc of the tribe, a dignified gentleman called Sanjim and were promptly taken into his families teepee like oortz and given hot reindeer milk to drink.
After a few minutes the reindeers came home from a day of being herded around the mountains, they were hypnotizing in their rare beauty, so peaceful, calm, full of personality, seemingly wize, and so tame they come straight up to lick your hands as they love the salty taste.
In this remote corner of northern Mongolia in central Asia, the a nomadic tribe of Tsaatan people have been revolving their lives around their domestic reindeer herds for around 4000 years.
This fact has been confirmed by geologists due to the discovery of ancient hieroglyphs on rocks dated 4000 years; these pillar style rock carvings that document the Tsaatan people coexisting with reindeer provide evidence of the Tsaatan’s ancient relationship with their reindeer.
In a nation defined by nomadic cultures, the Tsaatan comprise Mongolia's smallest. Only 44 families, or 207 Tsaatan, maintain a nomadic life that is culturally and economically tied to the health of their estimated 700 reindeer.
“Our culture is deeply connected with reindeer herding," said Sanjim, 61, a Tsaatan elder and herder. Sanjim said the herd's decline has prompted some young Tsaatan to consider other options. "One of my fears is that the young people may decide to leave the taiga, and that old people like me will end up alone," he said.
For now, Sanjim’s grandkids just enjoy their days filled with chasing the reindeer and trying to catch them. They love to ride the reindeer and gallop as fast as they can on the families horses. They are helpful around the Oortz: cleaning, chopping firewood and milking the reindeer. “A happy family is all that I need,” says Khulan who is eight years old and one of Sanjims three remaining grandaughters living with him on the Taiga. The childrens parents left them with Sanjim and his wife, as they felt it necessary to look for work in the capital city of Ulaan Baator.
“Three hundred of us have left the taiga because it is such a hard life,” said Ouynbadan, Sanjims wife a woman in her 60s who teaches the traditional tuva language, the mother tongue of the reindeer people which she says risks being lost forever. “But we want to stay here, to maintain our lifestyle, tradition and culture. We will never leave the taiga.”
After WWII when Tuva was separated from Mongolia and joined to the former USSR, there were attempts to move Tsaatans back to Tuva by force. But Tsaatans braved high mountains, fast rivers and border posts to return back to their ancestors' place in northern Mongolia.
"No reindeers, no Tsaatans," say’s Munkhijin who is one of the other few remaining adult male’s and Sanjims nephew. “We still wait for reindeers to be imported from Tuva as the government promised us over a decade ago.” He says bitterly.
Some of the reindeer suffer from a disease that attacks the reproductive system, causing stillbirths, and there is little veterinary care. Years of inbreeding by reindeer also contributes to their decline.
The nomads are meanwhile under pressure from mining, gold and mineral exploration, the demands of eco-tourism and timber exploitation. Last year representatives of the reindeer people went to Ulaan Bator and met ministers for the first time to discuss their predicament.
A key request was a limit on tourism in the area which they say is harming the taiga and encroaching on their way of life. The novelty of reindeer people and their way of life on the taiga are a big attraction for foreign visitors. Many want to see them up close.
At their meeting with the government, the reindeer people also asked for financial assistance and other help like better access to doctors.
At present it can take as long as four days to access medical help from remote camps in the high mountain pastures. They also want better access to relatives, many of whom are in Russia on the other side of what is now a strictly-controlled border spanning the Sayan Mountains which divide the two countries.
A Mongolian National Human Rights Commission research team has visited them. But so far they have received no help and no recognition of their indigenous rights or status as a minority people.
All this gloom and doom doesn’t seem to effect Sanjim and his tribes general day to day life they are cheerful and live their lives in a way which respects their reindeer and nature.
Sanjim is somewhat of an alchemist, he has studied each and every different weed, flower, bush and tree and discovered many different medicines the knowledge has also been passed down through his ancestors.
The Tsaatan move around four times per year in order to provide the reindeer with their favourite food which mostly consists of mosses.