Mongolia’s Mystical Tsaatan Reindeer People

Last updated on: 48 Comments

Young Girl Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia

Hidden in an isolated corner of Northern Mongolia, straddling the border of Russian Siberia, a unique minority group lives in the sprawling tundra. Around 500 Dukha people live a remote nomadic life, migrating from place to place in search of valuable resources to continue their existence. Minority people can be found all throughout Asia, but the Dukha are notably different for the livestock that they keep. Not yaks, camels, goats or horses, but reindeer. Known as the Tsaatan people, these reindeer herders have been attracting international attention over the last few years for their unique and unchanged way of life.

We knew that if we ever came to Mongolia we would make sure that we travelled to the far north to visit these fabled people and their reindeer. As luck would have it we found ourselves in the region and immediately made it our priority to trek into the taiga.

From the town of Moron we travelled north by van and met up with a nomadic family. We rented their horses and took a two day trek to reach the distant taiga, camping along the way. Once we arrived we stayed with Magsar, Amgaa and their family of three. We spent three nights learning about their culture, helping with daily chores, herding the reindeer and simply experiencing how life goes on in the taiga. While not everything went smoothly, it was by far the most rewarding and memorable time of our travels.

This is our photo journey to the Tsaatan reindeer herders.

White Stampede Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia

Horse Trek Sunset Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
We began our journey with a 10 hour car ride to a tiny nomadic ger camp just outside the village of Ulaan Uul. We arrived just in time to watch the sunset, and then fell asleep on the floor of the ger surrounded by the family.
Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
The first day’s horse trek was exhausting and far from ideal. We followed a road through infinite steppe for over eight hours. Underneath a pounding sun, with an inadequate water supply, we were forced to stop for countless rest breaks. Later we found out that our horse guides had taken us the wrong direction, therefore exposing us to unnecessary hours of trekking.
Horse Trek Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
On the second day we finally reached the pine forests that we were told we would have been horse trekking through the entire time. Our friends had turned back due to a pre-exisiting injury, leaving just the two of us to continue on towards the taiga. Once we had left the steppe the scenery, and our moods, improved dramatically.
Horse Trek Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
We rode through an intense storm which left the ground saturated and perilously muddy. Near the end of seven hours wandering, we reached the final hill to climb before we would arrive at the fabled taiga.
Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
A sight that would stay with us forever – The first time we rode into the camp of Magsar, Amgaa and their family and were confronted with a herd of reindeer relaxing at dusk.
Teepee Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
We were given an option of pitching our tent for free or staying in a spare teepee, known as an ortz, for $10 a night. We were more than happy to help contribute some money directly to the family and chose the teepee. Completely surreal.
Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
The Tsaatan people treat their reindeer like members of their family, as they are their primary source of food, milk, tools (made from their antlers) and transport. They very rarely eat reindeer meat, as they are more valuable to them alive than dead. Surprisingly the reindeer are completely tame, and used to human interaction.
Young Girl Riding Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
We awoke on our first morning and saw that the neighbours were packing up their camp. We wandered over to say hi and met this gorgeous three-year-old girl riding her white reindeer. We chatted to her mother with sign language and hand signals, and found out she had been riding independently from the age of one.
Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
The girl was so photogenic. When we tried to photograph another reindeer she hopped off of hers and ran over to pose for the shot.
Pack Reindeer Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
Living as true nomadic people, the Tsaatans pack their camps up and move from place to place searching for the special kind of lichen that their reindeer feed on. Their main method for transport is reindeer, of course.
Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
A day in the life of the Tsaatan people is quite unique to anything you could experience elsewhere. In the morning the reindeer are milked and then set free to wander the taiga. They show up periodically during the day and the Dukha people tend to them as they need.
Boys Fishing Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
The diet of the Tsaatan people consists primarily of dairy products made from reindeer milk, reindeer meat, berries and bread. Another welcome staple is fish, which the men catch with their bare hands. Here you can see the two sons of the family trying their luck at catching dinner.
Magsar Fish Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
Magsar proudly showing off his daily catch. Dinner was delicious that night.
Making Cheese Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
While life isn’t stressful in the taiga, the people are always busy. The women are constantly cooking and caring for the children, or running around with the reindeer. Here Amgaa is making fresh reindeer cheese and butter over a wood fire stove. With only one stove for cooking and providing heat, this is in constant use.
Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
Dog and reindeer coexist in harmony up in the taiga.
Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
In the evenings the reindeer come trotting back to their home like clockwork. The family then collects the reindeer and ties them to stakes in the ground for the night. We were put to work by the kids, and were happy to help. The reindeer were not shy, and would nuzzle us with their furry antlers while licking us all over. Lesh lost it laughing as this one kept nibbling on her arm.
Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
Just before the sun set Magsar and the boys would come into our ortz and light a fire for us. The nights were incredibly cold up in the taiga, and Magsar ensured we had enough wood to keep us going through most of the night. Once the fire was lit we would always sit and joke around, despite us not being able to speak to the same language.
Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
The sky turns crimson as night falls over the taiga.
Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
A reindeer-inspired sunset shot on final evening.
Riding Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
On our last night all the reindeer were tied up and everyone was getting ready for bed. Magsar then walked up to his largest and strongest reindeer and untied it. I said to him, “Wow Magsar, that one is big”, and he simply smiled. He slapped it on the back, looked at me and motioned to get on. Grabbing the rope I swung my legs over and Magsar gave the reindeer a slap on the butt. As it galloped off with me bouncing on top I could hear Magsar laughing hysterically. A moment I will never forget.
Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
While riding a reindeer was a novelty for me, it is standard practice for the Tsaatan people.
Tsaatan Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
The reindeer do not resist when you tie them up at night. They know they are protected and have no reason to run.
Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
A young boy from another camp that we visited, happily posing for shots. His clothes and hat were his everyday wear.
Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
Every winter the antlers fall off of the reindeer, and grow back larger every summer. Full adult males look quite imposing with their branch-like horns, and it is not uncommon to meet many reindeer that have had their antlers broken from fighting.
Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia
On our last day Magsar and I were chatting. He said in broken English, “Next year, come back.” When I told him that we could not, he nodded. “Ok, two years come back. With baby.”

Visiting The Tsaatan Reindeer People

To visit the Tsaatan reindeer herders it is recommended to book through the TCVC, or through a TCVC-approved agency. Unfortunately we organised our tour through Saraa from Saraa’s Guesthouse in Moron. Under no circumstance would we ever recommend dealing with this lady. We will not go into details of what went wrong and how she had lied to us about important aspects of the tour, but take our word that you should avoid her tours at all costs.

Tsaatan People Dukha Reindeer Herders Mongolia

About the author

Alesha and Jarryd

Hey! We are Alesha and Jarryd, the award winning writers and photographers behind this blog, and we have been travelling the world together since 2008. Adventure travel is our passion, and through our stories and images we promote exciting off-the-beaten-path destinations and fascinating cultures as we go. Follow our journey in real time on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

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48 COMMENTS

  1. Visiting the Tsaatan people is a special experience. It takes days of difficult traveling to reach their area, but if you plan well it has its rewards. We rode in on horses and then spent our next days visiting quite a few other families by riding around the area on reindeer. It was truly an extraordinary adventure!

      Sounds like you had a great experience. It really is a magical place. Thank you for sharing.

    They are beautiful! They look happy, healthy and at peace with the world.

      The Tsaatan reindeer herders are very peaceful people. It was an amazing experience

    Awesome photo blog. What an offbeat experience!

    Superb photos! I have always wanted to go Mongolia! Love, love it! Thanks for making me smile with those photos. And I love horse ride too! Wish I could experience the same too someday!

      Thank you so much Lia. We are so glad you loved the photos. We hope you get to Mongolia one day and have a great experience like us. All the best.

    Hi, I am now worry about my trip as I just booked with that lady via fb without deposit. Do you recommend me to cancel and get the guide when I reach Khovsgol? Is it easy to pair up with others tourists?

    Thanks

      Definitely use your own judgement and listen to your gut. Our recommendation is to book things when you are there. Make sure the horses are familiar with the reindeers. Ours were not and that was the problem for the Tsaatan people. They were not happy and we were angry and embarrassed. If the horses are not familiar with the reindeers they get spooked, the reindeers get spooked and sometimes it doesn’t end well. We do not know if this lady uses her own horse people or TCVC now but when we used her she said the horses go to the reindeers all the time and when we arrived it was very clear they did not and freaked out. It is an amazing experience (our top 3 of all our travel) so definitely do it. When are you going? Have a great time.

    Simply awesome!
    I’ve lived in Mongolia for almost 4 years, but I never got the chance to visit the Tsaatan. I’m planning to go back there this autumn and I will make sure not to miss an adventure with the reindeer people this time.
    Would you know if TCVC has an office or a representative in UB?

      Hi Rey, It is an amazing experience and we highly recommending visiting the Tsaatan people. Not too sure about the office but if you book a tour, make sure you book it through a company that is TCVC approved. ( http://visittaiga.org/plan-tourop.html ). Unfortunately we were talked into a company that wasn’t (not realising it) and our horses were not use to the reindeers and were scared of them. We only got to visit one other family because we walked there. We didn’t want to take the horses anywhere and upset families due to the horses being scared. Have a great time.

    i am awestruck by the images that you guys have posted on this blog, simply amazing! wish i could have been there. I can imagine the serenity of the place in Mongolia. Keep posting. Thanks

      Thank you so much. We are blushing. It is an amazing part of Mongolia. 🙂

    Hello guys, nice adventure!!!

    I’m in Mongolian right now and thinking about the Reindeer tribe, but I didn’t have clear information about is possible to go this season, do you know?

    Tks

      It may be still really wet and snowy up at the reindeer herders. Our suggestion is go to Khovsgol and ask around. It is a beautiful place to chill by the lake also. Nice camping up there. All the best.

    Hi! I really love your post!

    I know it’s late but my mother and I are looking to visit the Tsaatan people as well. Unfortunately, the TCVC’s email does not seem to work anymore 🙁 Is it possible for us to first arrive in Mongolia before finding our way there? Or would we have to book a tour before we arrive? Thank you!

      Absolutely. You can arrive and book no worries at all. When you get to Khovsgol Lake you can organise it there. As we said in the post make sure it is with the company TCVC. There is a tourist centre in Khovsgol and the lady is super friendly.

      Don’t let anyone convince you to go with their guide with their horses. We got told many stories and they weren’t true. The horses that TCVC provide are use to the reindeers and are not afraid. You will be able to visit other families in the area and you be more welcomed by the families. All the best.

    This is amazing–thanks for sharing! I am planning on traveling to Mongolia later this year to visit the Tsaatan people just like you guys–either in September or October (which would you suggest?). I saw you recommended booking through the TCVC or through a TCVC-approved agency. Do you have any other recommendations?

      September is a great time to go. October starts getting a bit cold so be prepared for that if you are there then. Definitely don’t miss the Tsaatan People. Such an amazing experience. Like we said in the article go through a TCVC approved agency otherwise the horse will be scared of the reindeers and you won’t get to explore other camps. We recommend staying with 1 family instead of dividing your time up between 2. You become close and they’ll be more inviting in including you in herding, fishing, etc. We went bare hand fishing with our family, milked the reindeers, rode one, picked up the reindeer poop, learned about carving the antlers and cooking. We had some other tourists stay at our camp for a night. They got in late afternoon and left the next morning to visit another camp. They spent no time at all with the family. We spent 3 nights at our family’s camp and it was awesome. You can explore during the day and visit other areas. Have a great time. It is such a beautiful area of Mongolia. Happy travels

    Absolutely fantastic, as always 🙂 You guys rock!
    Mongolia is very high on our list and now I just added one more “to-see-thing” there.
    And reindeers are just way too adorable, had a chance to meet them in Finnish Lapland :))))

    Thanks for sharing!

      Thank you so much. You rock too. 🙂 What an experience for you. They sounds awesome too. Definitely put this on your list if you ever get to Mongolia. Just make sure the horses are through the TCVC as they will be familiar with the reindeers.

    What happened with this Saraa woman? I’ve gotten in touch with her on Helpx and I do t want to get into a weird situation

    I had to look this one up and wow!!! Incredible place on Earth and triple wow, the photos! I mean, I’m speechless just looking at them… Beautiful beautiful!

      Thank you so much Veronika. It is really an incredible place and beautiful people. We definitely recommend going here if you ever go to Mongolia.

    Incredible amazing photos and what an experience!! I seriously considered doing this trip for the Reindeer people, but found out that the Golden Eagle festival would be going on when we are there in October , so we opted for that. Maybe someday we’ll get the chance to do this too. What camera/lens do you use?

      Hi Hali, you should definitely put it on your list for the future. The Golden Eagle festival would have been awesome. We use an Sony A7ii camera. These photos were shot with the kit lens which is 28 – 70 mm / f3.5 – 5.6. We don’t use this lens much now. We have a 16 -35 mm / f4 and a 55 mm / f1.8 which we use all the time. Sorry about the late reply.

    awesome trip & photos! this will definitely be on my itinerary 🙂 im wondering if you guys could share the costs involved.

      Thank you so much. It was as a package (transport, 4 horses, 2 pack horses, 2 non english horse guides and return transport). There were 4 people so we split it. It worked out to be about $250 USD per person for the 7 day trip. You needed to bring your own food, sleeping gear, cooker (they did have a fire place but you’ll have to bring pots) and water. It was an incredible experience staying with the family. Hope you get there one day.

    Wow! Just Wow! I am envious of you both right now. What an incredible experience!!!!

    Blimey. That is my favourite post of all I think! Just adore the little girl and those beautiful people. I bet your bums were numb for some time after the ride, but what an experience all the same. I never did know Reindeer could be ridden like that! x

      It was one of the best experiences of our entire travels! So glad you enjoyed the post Jane. And yes, riding a reindeer is damn awesome 😉

    This sounds like such a cool adventure, I actually never heard about the Tsaatan people until now and they seem like very interesting people (nomads like us but on another level). Now I too have to put Mongolia and the Tsaatan on my list of places to go and things to do! You had me at Teepee and Reindeer. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    P.s. the pics are gorgeous!

    Stumbled onto your blog while procrastinating by reading the Yahoo Travel feature that quoted you guys. Amazing photography and stories. I have work I need to get back to, but I subscribed to your newsletter and I look forward to taking more time to peruse your other posts.

      Thanks so much Justin! Appreciate you stopping by our little corner of the web. Let us know if you ever have any questions. Happy travels buddy 🙂

    Just amazing!! Your stories, the photographs, the people – incredible. Looks like a really special part of the world. Keep up the good work! 🙂

    Just love these photos and the story. And am also giggling that the town is called Moron. Sorry to hear you had a nasty run-in with that Moron woman.

      Thanks Jane! And it’s all good about the run-in with the Moron woman. Just another part of travel 🙂

      Hi. Actually it is Murun. It means beautiful big river.

    wowwww…
    What images so amazing !!
    Mongolia is a unique destination and highly recommended

    Love this post and the photos. I’m reading “The Secret History of the Mongol Queens” right now – and it’s great to see the landscape where it all happened. Would love to do this someday.

    Sharing this right now!

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