• HOW TO VISIT THE TSAATAN REINDEER HERDERS

    MONGOLIA

VISIT THE TSAATAN REINDEER HERDERS

A journey into the Taiga is an incredible experience in itself, but staying with a Tsaatan family, deep in the heart of it, is truly special. Living in remote camps, reachable only on horseback for the majority of the year, a trip to stay with northern Mongolia’s reindeer herders takes planning and preparation. It’s also important to respect the wishes of this small community when it comes to tourism in the region, organising your trip in a way that will directly benefit the Tsaatan themselves, not an outside tour operator.

Here we’ve gathered all the information you need to plan and book your own adventure to the Taiga and a stay with the Tsaatan.

Read through the whole guide or jump to a particular section by clicking the links below.

WHO ARE THE TSAATAN?

The Tsaatan are a small community of reindeer herders originally hailing from the Tuva region of southern Russia. With living conditions in Soviet Russia worsening, many crossed the border to Mongolia in 1938 and settled in the remote Taiga. The community decided to split in order to maximise grazing pastures for their reindeer and to this day there are Tsaatan camps in both the West and the East Taiga.

The Tsaatan migrate with the seasons, moving between the same Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring camps ever year. Their reindeer provide milk and a source of transport and a special relationship seems to exist between them. Indeed, they are practically members of the family and as such are rarely used for meat. Unlike traditional Mongolian nomads, the Tsaatan live in orts, or teepees, not gers. These are much easier to transport, the wooden poles and beds being left behind at each camp and just the canvas and basic furnishings being packed onto their reindeer.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaAn orts, the nomadic homes of the Tsaatan

The Tsaatan continue to live a very traditional life, with hints of modernity creeping in. Much of their food is sourced from the land – wild rhubarb, berries, fish. Fresh bread is baked every morning in a pot on the central stove, reindeer milk tea boiled daily. Children go to school in (relatively) nearby Tsagaannuur from the age of 6, returning home for the long summer break. Tsaatan marry out-with their community, and the number of families has increased greatly over the last decade, from 16 families in 2006 to nearly 60 today throughout the East and West Taiga.

HOW TO VISIT THE TSAATAN

While many tour companies in Ulaanbaatar, Mörön and elsewhere offer tours to the Tsaatan, you’ll get far more out of your trip (and give much more back) by organising your trip direct with the community. This isn’t always an easy thing to do as communication in the Taiga is practically non-existent, but there are ways. Especially if you make contact well in advance or are willing to hang around for a few days while last minute plans come together. Here’s how to go about arranging your trip.

STEP 1

Your first point of contact should be Zaya. She’s a Mongolian, married to a Tsaatan reindeer herder, living in the East Taiga. She also speaks perfect English, having grown up in Colorado. She was part of the team that set up the TCVC (Tsaatan Community Visitor Center) back in 2006 and is keen to see tourism to the Taiga benefit the locals 100%. If you can make contact with Zaya, she’ll be able to organise just about every aspect of your trip.

The key to reaching her is timing. From November to April the Tsaatan are at their Winter camp and it’s much closer to Tsagaannuur. It’s reachable by road and Zaya has access to the internet and a phone signal. For the rest of the year though, she’s largely out of reach as the Spring, Summer and Autumn camps have no signal.

If you’re reading this outside of Winter, don’t despair! It’s still worth getting in touch with her as you might get lucky, like us, and catch her on a rare trip down to Tsagaannuur or Mörön.


The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaZaya milking one of her reindeer at the Tsaatan Summer camp

STEP 2

If you haven’t managed to make contact with Zaya, try getting a Mongolian speaker (someone from your guesthouse for example) to call the TCVC in Tsagaannuur directly. They can radio the Tsaatan camp and get a message to Zaya. She then has to walk up a hill for 3 hours to get a signal to call you.

The problem with this is that all of the numbers published in the Lonely Planet and on the Visit Taiga website may be out of service. After emailing Zaya and initially not getting a response we tried calling every number we could find with the help of our hostel manager. She couldn’t get through to anyone but we’re not clear whether the numbers were just out of signal range, or actually disconnected for good. In July 2018 there was talk of a refurbishment of the TCVC building and potential update of the contacts on the website.

*Side Note: Our hostel manager then called a contact at a guesthouse in Mörön (not sure which one) to find out more and the information relayed back to us was that the TCVC had closed down and Zaya had moved to another country. This is not true! If you are told something similar don’t believe it.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaFresh reindeer milk

STEP 3

If you haven’t managed to make contact with Zaya or anyone at the TCVC directly the next thing we can suggest is contacting Tumee at the nearby Erdene’s Guesthouse in Tsagaannuur. Not only does her family run a great guesthouse but she speaks decent English and can help organise a trip to the Tsaatan. She knows Zaya, local drivers, horse guides etc. Email her at [email protected] and she should be able to organise things from Mörön onwards.

For each of the above options you’ll need to organise your border permit separately. We did this easily through Bata’s Guesthouse in Mörön, on recommendation of Zaya. We provided photocopies of our passport page and the page with our Mongolian entry stamp and paid 10,000 Tugriks each. We got the photocopies in Mörön but if you can bring them with you from UB even better.

STEP 4

A few tour companies, including Panoramic Journeys and Mongolia Expeditions work closely with the Tsaatan people. If you have to book a tour, booking with one of these companies will ensure more of your money directly benefits the local community. They can be expensive though, usually packaged as a round trip from Ulaanbaatar, and may be well over your budget (they were ours).

STEP 5

As a last resort contact guesthouses in Mörön to enquire about tours. Beware that these are unlikely to provide much income directly to the Tsaatan, and the overall experience will be different compared to a trip organised via the TCVC. You will likely have a cook preparing your meals, instead of a Tsaatan host family, and you will share an orts and accommodation along the way with other people in your group tour. Your one on one time with the families of the Tsaatan won’t be as much and the knowledge and experience of your guide/interpreter can vary a lot. I’ve heard of some people getting completely false information, and guides not bothering to translate questions properly, while others have, of course, had a positive experience on their tour.

Even Zaya herself admits that many people want to do the right thing and visit the Tsaatan responsibly, but the communication difficulties can render it impossible at times. Follow this advice, try to make contact well in advance of your trip, and hopefully you can have as incredible an experience in the Taiga as we did, while ensuring you’re giving back to the community.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaKids playing kitchen during the Summer school holidays

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HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?

As with every beautifully remote place in Mongolia, getting to the Taiga is neither easy or cheap. You’ll need a driver and van, horses and a guide, accommodation, food and ideally an interpreter to help you communicate fully with the Tsaatan when you arrive at camp.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaResting on the way to the Tsaatan Summer camp

Depending on your group size you should expect to pay around $60 – $100 per person per day. We paid $85 per person based on two of us travelling together, spending 3 nights at the Tsaatan camp. This covered absolutely everything from leaving Mörön to returning six days later, apart from lunch on the first/last days (which cost a total of ₮18,000).

Inclusions

Van & driver Mörön to Tsagaannuur to drop off point and vice versa

2 x nights at Guesthouse Tsagaannuur incl. dinner & breakfast

3 x horses (two to ride, one for bags) & horse guide – drop off point to Tsaatan camp and  vice versa

3 x nights in guest orts at Tsaatan camp

All meals at Tsaatan camp


A group of five people we met at the guesthouse in Tsagaannuur were paying $65 per person/per day for a West Taiga tour they booked through a Mörön guesthouse.

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GETTING THERE: THE JOURNEY

It takes at least two days to travel from Mörön to the Tsaatan camp, via Tsagaannuur.

Day 1

The first day is spent driving from Mörön to Tsagaannuur on very rough off-road tracks and takes approx 10-12 hours, including a lunch break. The scenery is incredible. You’ll spend the night in Tsagaannuur at a guesthouse. We had dinner and breakfast at Erdene’s Guesthouse arranged as part of our trip and it was good.

Day 2

If, like us, you’re heading to the East Taiga, you’ll first drive an hour north of Tsagaannuur to a drop off point. Here you’ll meet your horse guide and saddle up. Depending on the time of year (and position of the Tsaatan camp) you’ll ride for 4-8 hours to reach the camp. We visited in mid-July and it took us around 7 hours including three breaks.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaThe drop off point around an hour north of Tsagaannuur

We munched on biscuits along the way (keep food handy and not packed in your bags as these will be strapped to your pack horse!). The landscape is beautiful and you’ll ride through open grasslands, forests, alongside and over rivers, through boggy patches, up a hill to 2500 meters and possibly even through a canyon. The flies and mosquitoes can be bad at points in summer. Be prepared for blazing sun, rain and anything in between.

It’s best to wear long trousers and try to borrow or buy a pair of chaps to protect your legs. We borrowed ours from Erdene’s Guesthouse but there’s no guarantee they’ll have spares for you. We were not provided with helmets. The saddles are similar to those found throughout Mongolia – a metal frame with padding. They’re comfy enough. You won’t be doing much more than walking and trotting. Waterproof gloves are a good idea to protect your hands and keep them warm as they’ll be exposed to the elements for the duration of the ride.

If you’re inexperienced it is still possible to ride, it just takes a bit of getting used to. We have ridden a few times over the years but I wouldn’t consider ourselves experts by any means. Del found the ride comfortable enough, while I had very painful knees. Adjusting the length of the stirrups made it better, as did taking my legs out and stretching them out straight regularly. I had some painkillers and ibuprofen handy to help with the pain. 

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaLoading up our pack horse

At Camp

You can choose to spend as long as you like staying at the camp if you organise it yourself. We suggest 3-4 nights. This gives you two/three full days at the camp and gives your body a chance to recover from the horse trek and bumpy drive.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, Mongolia

Repeat Days 1~2

You’ll return the same way you came all the way back to Mörön

If you’re visiting the West Taiga your journey from Tsagaannuur onwards may be different. The families of the West are more spread out, sometimes just a couple of orts in each place. The group we met in Tsagaannuur who were on a tour visited three different families, staying one night with each and riding horses between them each day.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaThe Tsaatan Summer Camp

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ACCOMMODATION & FACILITIES

While it’s possible to camp in your own tent, the best experience by far is staying in an orts. In the East Taiga there are six guest orts, set up next to and looked after by host families. They are basic, but comfortable. The furnishings vary, but most have low wooden beds, maybe a thin pad on top of the planks, and a central stove to light a fire. There’s no flooring, just the natural ground.

Our orts had five beds, plus a little wooden bench. Some others we spoke to stayed in a guest orts in the West Taiga that had no beds at all, which meant sleeping on the ground (in the rain!). Most orts have a section of clear plastic above the door flap, which lets in lots of natural light. There’s a gap at the top of the orts where the poles meet and the chimney sticks out. This means that when it rains it can get wet inside.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaInside our orts

There are no toilets or showers at the camp. Just a basic pit toilet.

Waste and garbage is an increasing problem for the Tsaatan. Unless told otherwise by your host family, be sure to take all your rubbish back with you. While things like glass jars and plastic bottles may be repurposed by the families, the majority of trash produced at the camp has to be burnt.

As the fresh water streams running through the camp are a life source for the Tsaatan, do not pollute the water with soap, laundry detergent etc.

In Tsagaannuur Erdene’s Guesthouse is a nice spot, run by a super friendly family. Tumee, the mum, speaks English and her eldest son speaks a bit too. They have four guest rooms, with three beds, a table and stove in each. There’s a seating area outside and a great shower room at the back, behind the house. Tumee can make you a decent dinner and breakfast too.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, Mongolia

FOOD

There are no shops after Tsagaannuur, so you have to think ahead and ensure you have everything you need with you. Opting for a meal package is by far the easiest way of organising your food. A box of supplies will be prepared by your driver and packed onto your horse to take to your host family or designated cook at the camp. Your cook will make you three meals a day and provide hot water for tea etc. This makes life simple for you, and provides an extra source of income for the Tsaatan.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaHomemade bread and rhubarb jam

Our breakfasts comprised of delicious homemade bread and rhubarb jam, plus tea, chocolate spread and biscuits out of the box. Lunch and dinner was a cooked meal, sometimes brought to our orts and sometimes eaten with the family in their orts. The main ingredients were always carrots, onions, peppers and meat (usually mutton). We had rice, noodle, soup and pasta dishes. We even had some freshly fried fish after our host father returned from a fishing trip with his catch. The food was all tasty.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaFreshly caught fish, mash and rice 

If you have specific dietary requirements then check before travelling to the Taiga that your host will be able to meet your needs. If not, there’s a far wider choice of food available at the supermarkets in Mörön than the basic shops in Tsagaannuur. There’s a brand new Nomin which has the best selection of fresh fruit and veggies, plus lots of camping gear. Stock up on everything you need for the duration of your stay.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaMeat drying in our host family’s orts

You can drink the crystal clear water out of the streams at the camp. We always err on the side of caution and filter and sterilise our water with our Steripen. We used our X-Kettle and X-Brew to boil water on top of our stove and enjoy a cup of proper coffee whenever we felt like it as a thermos of hot water was only provided at meal times.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaPlenty of fresh water from the streams running through camp 

In Tsagaannuur you can arrange for dinner and breakfast to be included at Erdene’s Guesthouse. Your driver will stop on the way to/from Mörön for lunch in or near Ulaan Ule. We had some excellent, made-before-our-eyes tsuivan on the trip north, and stopped at a basic khuushuur place on the way back.

If you end up having to book a tour, your guide/cook will prepare all your meals from start to finish and this will be included in the tour price. They’ll use the stove in the orts and at the guesthouse in Tsagaannuur to cook on.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaMaking the daily bread with our host, Mama 

WHAT TO TAKE

The weather in the Taiga can be very changeable and you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors so it’s important to have the right gear with you. You’ll also need to be prepared for the sleeping situation and bring gifts for the families. In summer there can be pretty bad flies and mosquitoes, and outside of summer the temperatures can really plummet. There can be snow at just about any time.

The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaThe family log pile. Keeping everyone warm and the stove burning.

You’ll need to pack everything into a soft backpack or duffel bag (not a suitcase style bag) to be strapped to your pack horse. It’s better to have two evenly weighted bags than one super heavy bag as the weight needs to be balanced on either side of the horse. You can leave things you don’t need at Erdene’s Guesthouse or at your guesthouse in Mörön.

Here’s a checklist of items you should take with you.

Clothing

Comfortable long trousers x 2 (1 for horse riding, 1 for camp)
His/Hers

Chaps for riding (ask about borrowing)

Quick drying/no stink T-shirts x 2
His/Hers

Proper shoes (hiking boots/riding boots) for horse trekking and around camp

Fleece/warm jumper
His/Hers

Down Jacket
His/Hers

Rain Jacket
His/Hers

Hat to protect you from the sun when riding

Warm Hat

Warm socks
His/Hers

Flip flops
His/Hers

Gloves

Scarf/Buff

Sunglasses

Sleepwear

Thermal top
His/Hers

Thermal leggings
His/Hers

Underwear

Sports bra for horse riding & bumpy roads


Equipment

Sleeping Mat

Sleeping Bag

Silk Liner

Travel Pillow

Water Bottle

Steripen/Purification Tablets

Headtorch

Wet Wipes

Toilet Paper

Rubbish bag

Hand Sanitiser

Toiletries

Suncream

Bug spray

Travel Towel

Scrubba & Suds if you’re going for longer and want to wash clothes

Solar Panel if you want to charge anything

GIFTS

Useful household/toiletries items for the families

Eg. Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, matches, salt, sugar

Avoid alcohol, cigarettes & sweets

*Reindeer love salt! Take a little bag with you if you want to be their best pal


The Essential Guide to Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, MongoliaI didn’t have any salt, but judging by how long this reindeer was licking my hands I’m guessing I have pretty salty skin…

VISIT THE TSAATAN

Visiting the Tsaatan is a true highlight of any trip to Mongolia, and well worth the challenging journey to get there. We hope you’ve found this guide helpful and can use it to organise your own stay in the Taiga soon.

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Tyne

Thanks so much for this blog post. It has been completely invaluable to planning our trip to the Taiga.

A detailed guide on how to visit the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders in northern Mongolia. When to go, who to contact, what to expect and everything you should take with you. A highlight of travel in Mongolia! #mongolia #EastAsia
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