My story: Visiting the reindeer herders of Mongolia
Tsaatan is a Mongolian word for “people living with reindeer”, but they refer to themselves as Dukhans or Turkic Tuvans.
I spent 1 month in Mongolia, where it took me 7 days one way to reach the tribe. First I had to hitchhike through half of the country and then ride a horse for two days where we spent the nights under the stars.
The reindeer herders seem to live their life like they always have; herding and living of their reindeers. Already at 6 am you can see the women milking their reindeers. The men take care of most of the herding, chopping wood, and collecting berries from the woods, while the women take care of the milking and cooking.
In the Tsaatan community everything seems to evolve around the reindeers. I asked my translator, Gana, if they eat reindeer meat. He replied “yes, everyday”, without asking our hosts. I quickly found out that my translator was kind of useless. Often when asked to translate he seemed reluctant to ask, and often made an answer that he thought was true.
I realized that many of Tsaatans seem a lot older then they actually are. My host, Gamba, and his wife, appeared to be in their 70’s but I was surprised to hear that they were actually closer to 50. The cold dry winters and a lot of hard work under the bare sun is tough on the skin and makes many of them appear physically older then their chronological age would depict. Despite the hard work and tough weather, their spirit seemed full of joy and happiness.
The Tsaatans have been shamanistic for millennia, a kind of magic thinking belief where all humans, animals and all things in nature have a soul or a spirit. Gamba, whose tent was next to mine, was the shaman of the camp. A shaman is a kind of a “priest” or a “magical doctor” whose main function is to restore and maintain balance in his community.
Shamans conduct blessings, rituals of protection, hunting magic, rain making and divination. They also cure sicknesses that have spiritual causes. In Gamba’s tent I saw his costume and his drum he uses during ceremonies. He enters a trance state with the help of energy water (vodka), singing and drumming, and connects with the spirit world seeking cures or advice.