Taiga, located in the northernmost regions of Mongolia, has always held a sense of remote and untouched wilderness for me. It’s often referred to as the boreal forest or snow forest, representing the world’s largest land biome dominated by coniferous trees like pines, spruces, and larches. I vividly recall the day when a group of like-minded individuals gathered with a shared goal: to embark on an unforgettable journey to Taiga.
Our excursion to the Tsaatan reindeer herders commenced on a memorable day, the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution (November 7th). As we set off for the northernmost reaches of Mongolia to capture the pristine beauty of Taiga and interact with the Tsaatan reindeer herders, our path was severely obstructed by a heavy snowstorm and treacherous icy roads. Yet, with the expertise of our seasoned driver and a reliable vehicle, we reached our destination by nightfall. Eager to start our adventure the following day, we retired for an early night’s rest.
The next morning, we prepared to begin our expedition under the guidance of a local expert. With our vehicle laden with travel essentials, including warm blankets, jackets, gifts for the locals, rice, flour, and, of course, our essential photography equipment, we headed towards our primary destination, where the Tsaatan community resides. A group of five, along with our trusty driver, journeyed through Alag-erdene Soum in Khovsgol Aimag, traversing through Uliin Davaa, Toomiin Davaa, and forded the Ujig River more than 20 times, in pursuit of the elusive Reindeer and the Tsaatan ethnic group.
As we journeyed, we encountered a group of nomads, accompanied by majestic, shaggy yaks and swift horses, traversing the frozen steppe, blanketed in pristine white snow. These hospitable Mongolians greeted us warmly, posed for photographs, offered well wishes for our expedition, and continued on their way. They also shared insights about the migrations from the northern soums to Alag-erdene and Khatgal soums, necessitated by heavy snowfall and cold weather. Their travel, typically spanning 20 days one way, extends to around a month during the return journey in spring when the baby animals are born. As one local mentioned, the proximity to the “Mother Ocean” didn’t provide much warmth.
On our route, we encountered thirteen sacred ovoos, revered by the Darkhad ethnic group, atop Uliin Halzan Davaa Pass, on our way to Ulaan-uul Soum in Khuvsgol Province. These ovoos took on the shape of Tsaatan yurts and standing stone statues, providing a window into the local customs, culture, and traditions of the Darkhad ethnic group. We lodged at a guest house in Tsagaan Nuur Soum that evening and headed for the Tsaatan winter huts the following morning. Tsagaan Nuur Soum, established in 1985 after its separation from Renchinlhumbe Soum, rests on the lower side of Tsagaan Nuur Lake and serves as a home for Darkhad and Tsaatan ethnic groups.
Approaching the Shishged River Bridge, situated just 10 kilometers from Tsagaan Nuur Soum, we encountered the Shishged River flowing from Khoridol Saridag Range, stretching for an impressive 334 kilometers. The bone-chilling winds made it a challenge to step out of our vehicle for photography, especially in the midst of the vast snow-covered landscape. During the summer and autumn months, it is possible to drive to a location called Teleg and Khatirt and proceed from there with the assistance of locals and horses or reindeer to reach the Tsaatan. However, in winter, frozen rivers and mud paths allow for direct travel to these winter locations.
The family of Ganbat, leader of the East Taiga, resided in a wooden house outfitted with winterized coverings and a plastic shield for the door-side ventilator to shield against the harsh winds. Modern amenities such as a telephone, satellite TV, and an antenna were also present. Like other Mongolian nomads, the Tsaatan are nomadic year-round, their movements dictated by the weather and the availability of grass for their reindeer. The elders of the tribe closely observe weather conditions and decide when and where to migrate. October marks the time for them to settle in their winter huts, which is where we found them.
Tsaatan individuals possess distinctive features—a slightly yellow complexion, short stature, flat noses, eyelids without folds, not-so-strong teeth, and a sense of shyness that was quite evident. In Taiga, there are no stores, and the scarcity of people means that they are welcoming and hospitable to those offering vodka. The elders converse in the Tuva language amongst themselves, while the younger generation communicates solely in Mongolian. Consequently, their language and culture are fading quickly.
In order to experience and photograph their daily life and circumstances, we decided to stay in a Tsaatan teepee, adopting their way of life. They kindle fires for cooking and brewing tea, while in winter, they melt clean snow for drinking water and prepare wood for fire. Each night, they keep their reindeer nearby, reserving a few for riding while the others are taken away and corralled in the mountains. In recent years, they have adopted new methods for herding their reindeer, using donated materials from foreign tourists. This has reduced the need for constant guarding.
Before embarking on this trip, I prepared for the extreme cold by taking along warm blankets, jackets, and other essentials. However, I soon realized that much of my gear proved unnecessary and only added to the weight of my luggage. The Tsaatan, in contrast, wore light Mongolian garments known as “deel” and leather boots, seemingly impervious to the cold. Prior to the journey, I had pictured the Tsaatan resembling the Inuit people, wearing heavy fur clothing and reindeer-skin boots. It turned out my imagination had been the exact opposite of reality. Perhaps the warmth of the Taiga forests allowed for their lighter clothing, and the heavy fur jackets and hats I brought were of no interest to them. I was particularly struck by the presence of a baby cradle hanging in their teepees, a unique aspect of their culture.
With thirty reindeer and three local guides, we embarked on the final leg of our journey. Riding a reindeer proved to be quite challenging, and I felt as though I might tumble off at any moment, especially since it was my first time. Yet, the breathtaking natural beauty and the rhythmic sound of the reindeer’s steps in the deep snow led me into a meditative state of silent contemplation.
Unlike riding whips, which are used on horses, reindeer require a long wooden stick to guide them through deep snow drifts and encourage them to move more swiftly. Falling off a reindeer is no easy matter, and once dismounted, remounting without assistance can be quite difficult. I experienced a fall when my reindeer picked up speed, but fortunately, the deep snow cushioned my landing, and I emerged unscathed. Looking back, I cherish these memories as an integral part of our