The Dukha reindeer herders are one of Mongolia’s most fascinating and iconic communities, living in teepees and herding reindeer in the wild Taiga on the border with Tuva and Siberia. They are also known as the Tsaatan, which is the Mongolian word for reindeer herder, but they identify themselves as Dukha in their own language. As perhaps one of the most easily reached Siberian reindeer herding communities they now receive a steady stream of foreign visitors fascinated by their lifestyle and shamanism.
In this article I will provide some helpful background information about the Dukha, who they are, where they live, and how them came to be Mongolian in the first place. Finally I offer some advice on travel to and in Mongolia’s taiga to visit them.
‘Taiga’ is the general term given to the Boreal Forest or Snow Forest, between the steppes and the tundra of Siberia and North America. It’s actually a Mongolic or Turkic word in origin, and in Mongolia takes on a more specific meaning to describe a particular kind of mountain and forest landscape. The term is often used in descriptive place names such as the Ulaan Taiga meaning Red Taiga. The principal areas of Taiga in Mongolia are on the borders with Tuva and Siberia to the north and west of the Darhad Valley. This is rugged terrain comprising mountains reaching 3400m, numerous lakes, alpine tundra, glacial formed valleys, forest and swamp. Wildlife includes bear, moose, deer (red, roe, musk), lynx, wolves and wolverines.
The Taiga is home to the Dukha people, you could say they are the masters of the Taiga. For them it is also a spiritual landscape. Being landscapes of important conservation, cultural, and environmental significance, most of the Mongolian Taiga is now either part of the Tengis-Shishged National Park or Ulaan Taiga Special Protected Area.
The Dukha’s origins are as Taiga reindeer herders who traditionally used their reindeer to hunt and travel through the Taiga, probably never subsisting on reindeer milk and meat alone. They ride their reindeer and use them as pack animals, rather than using them to pull sleds. Unlike arctic reindeer herders who subsist almost entirely on their herds, the Dukha likely never had the very large herds that are found on the tundra to the north.
Historically the Dukha would have ranged freely through-out the Taiga on both sides of what is now the border lands of Tuva and Mongolia. To understand how the Dukha ended up on the Mongolian side and isolated from their relatives in Tuva we need to know some history. During the Qing dynasty rule over Mongolia, both of what is now the Tuva Republic and the Darhad Valley was a somewhat autonomous region known as Tannu Uriankhai. When Outer Mongolia gained independence from Qing rule in 1911, Tannu Uriankhai had a brief attempt at independence before becoming a Russian protectorate in 1914. The soviet Tuvan People’s Republic (essentially a puppet state of the USSR) then ceded the Darhad Valley to Mongolia in 1925.
After Tuva was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1944 some Dukha groups fled to the Mongolian side of the border. I have heard several explanations for this, one that traditionally being pacifist, they wanted to avoid conscription into the Soviet army. Another that they did not want their reindeer herds to be collectivized. Eventually, after many years literally in the wilderness, they received Mongolian citizenship. The sad part of this story is that when they fled Tuva some families left their children behind at the villages where they were being settled.
Incidentally, Uriankhai is the name given by the Mongols to describe all the forest dwelling tribes of Northern Mongolia and Southern Siberia including the Dukha reindeer herders who were historically known as the Soyot Uriankhai.
The Dukha live in two distinct communities in the Zuun Taiga (East Taiga) and Baruun Taiga (West Taiga), to the North and West of the Darhad Valley
The Baruun Taiga or ‘West Taiga’ lies to the west of the Darhad Valley. This is rugged mountainous terrain with peaks reaching 3400m. The main Dukha summer camp is located above the tree line at around 2000m (6500ft). There are also other small Dukha encampments spread throughout the range. Many of the trails through the West Taiga are notoriously challenging on either horseback or foot, with deep bogs. However, the trail to the main camp is mostly firmer ground and suitable for hiking or riding. Travel further into the taiga from there is better suited for reindeer as pack animals rather than horses (which is why the Dukha have reindeer in the first place).
The Zuun Taiga or ‘East Taiga’ is located to the north of the Darhad Valley, where the Dukha community’s seasonal camps are located along the Sailag and Uzeg valleys. The main route in from the trailhead at Hogrog becomes quite boggy and marshy in places and so is perhaps better suited to horse riding than hiking. Beyond their seasonal camps area is remote Taiga all the way to the Russian and Tuvan borders. The Tengis river, over the mountain from the Tsaatan camps, is a particularly beautiful wild and scenic landscape, with firmer riding trails. Taking an extended ride deeper into the Taiga to visit Joshim Nuur, a high alpine lake, is a worthwhile option for adventurous riders.
With limited reindeer to subsist on and hunting restrictions, most families now also own a few sheep, goats and cattle and spend the winter in gers at the edge of the Taiga. For the winter most of the reindeer are herded to a valley deep in the Taiga, where they will fend for themselves until spring. Deep snow apparently deters wolves, who are probably more interested in predating on livestock in the Darhad Valley. The Dukha families do keep a few reindeer nearby their winter gers throughout the winter to ride as needed.
The Dukha are by no means an ‘un-contacted tribe’ or unchanged by modern life. The 20th century saw huge impacts and changes to their traditional life, with enforcement of international borders dividing their range, Soviet era collectivization, hunting restrictions, settlement at Tsagaan Nuur, and then finally the collapse of the Communist system leading to a return to independent taiga life. Despite this they have managed to maintain and even re-establish a traditional lifestyle in the taiga.
Yet they still face many challenges, one being how to manage the impacts of tourism and harness a fair share of tourism services and income. Another being the challenge of how to subsist in the Taiga with small reindeer herds, on the margins of Mongolian society and economy. Traditionally Dukha used their reindeer to travel and hunt through the Taiga, rather than subsisting on reindeer milk and meat alone, and so never had large herds.
There has long been concern among the Dukha that visitors “take photos but leave nothing”. In 2006 at the request of the Dukha community the Itgel Foundation NGO assisted in establishing the Tsaatan Community Visitor Centre, through which the community aimed to gain a fair share of tourism services and income on their own terms. The goal was that all visits to the Dukha in the Taiga would run through their community cooperative providing income to families and financing a community fund.
Despite early successes the TCVC has itself met with challenges. Community members preferred to be paid directly rather than through a co-operative, and did not trust that the community fund would be spent to their benefit. Other practicalities in terms of capacity to provide services, and a preference of tour operators to work with known and reliable Darhad herders to provide horses have also been factors influencing the success of the TCVC.
Since the film and the book, The Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson was published in 2009 there has been a steady increase in visitors to the Dukha, both independent travelers and tour groups. Consequently tourism pressures have continued. As I understand the TCVC may remain operational in a limited capacity, and both Taiga communities now also have guest teepees for visitor use. Contacting the TCVC or community members directly to arrange a visit can still be a challenge. Through our new itineraries we hope to engage with the community to see how we can help the Dukha gain fair income from tourism and receive visitors on their terms.
The establishment of the Tengis-Shishged National Park in 2011 has added another factor influencing Dukha life in the Taiga. While community complaints about hunting restrictions have been voiced in the international press; there have actually been hunting restrictions since at least since 1956 when the Dukha accepted Mongolian citizenship.
When the Soviet economy collapsed in the early 1990’s both Dukha and Darhads hunted throughout the taiga to survive the ‘transition’. Additional pressure from wildlife-trade, the illegal hunting of wildlife for export of furs, horns and other parts (mostly to China) has further decimated the taiga wildlife. The establishment of the new national park and enforcement of hunting laws by rangers is in my opinion a necessity to help the Taiga wildlife to recover. The National Park authority also shares an interest in helping the Dukha develop alternative sources of income, including from tourism.
For the adventurous independent traveller it is possible to arrange your own travel to the Taiga, albeit not without some effort and hassles. There are also a number of tour operators offering trips or tours in a range of price brackets and service levels. My own trips may be more expensive than some, but hopefully you can appreciate what we are investing in both your experience and with the community. Some advice we would like to offer whether you join us or make other arrangements;
Do take a guide. We feel it is important to have a guide-translator who can help to facilitate meaningful interactions with the community and to avoid misunderstandings or annoyances to both sides.
Do stay a while, or even better travel in the Taiga with Dukha guides. Don’t just turn up, take photos, and leave. Stay and spend some time and money in the community and get to know your hosts.
Do ensure that the community gain some income from your visit. Arrange services via the TCVC (if functioning) or directly with community members. Pay for guest teepee accommodation (you can even book a teepee on AirBnB). Or work with a tour operator that is arranging these services on your behalf and contributing to the community.
Do please be polite and respectful. Especially with photography. Don’t just turn up and stick a camera in their face! Take some time to chat over a bowl of tea, and then ask permission to take photographs.
In fact the customary and polite thing to do when arriving at a Mongolian ger or Dukha urtz, is to first ask about their family, the livestock condition and the grazing before moving on to other topics. This is another one of many good reasons to have a guide facilitating your interactions.
Don’t take your first ever horse ride in the Taiga. We strongly recommend that the taiga is not the place to learn to horse ride! At the very least get some lessons and gain some confidence before you go, and take a guide who has experience leading and supervising horseback trips (see also our articles on horse riding in Mongolia).
Most visitors to the Taiga do go by horseback, whether independently or with tour operators. However, some of the terrain and trails are very challenging and certainly not for beginners in our opinion. For this reason we can also arrange a hiking option.
Do respect their Shamanism. The Dukha are Shamanist and there are Shaman in both communities. On our trips we won’t be asking them to set up a paid-for shaman ceremony as some kind of show or photo opportunity. Authentic shaman ceremonies are physically and mentally exhausting for the Shaman. We strongly feel it’s up to them if and when they invite visitors to a shaman ceremony. They hold ceremonies when they have good reason, when appropriate to the calendar or other traditions. If you are lucky you may get to experience one.
Do be thoughtful with alcohol. Sharing a bottle of vodka is part of Mongolian hospitality, however many Mongolians have problems with alcohol and this community is no exception. Please be aware of this wherever you travel in Mongolia.
For many years I avoided ‘doing Tsaatan tourism’, I felt it was best to leave them alone. However, tourism is happening and I now feel it is worth while trying to set up trips that help the community deliver experiences on their own terms and hopefully with more income opportunities than some other tour operators or independent visitors might purchase. As a first step I have designed two horse riding itineraries that include visiting the Dukha, and can also arrange winter expeditions in the Taiga working with Dukha guides using their reindeer as pack animals. As we develop these trips we will hopefully expand our itineraries and include more co-operation.
You can see the current itineraries below, and also feel free to ask a question or send me a comment.