Visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders, Mongolia
Rosemary Logan, a keen horsewoman, travelled with Panoramic Journeys on our Land of the Reindeer trip, visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders and riding with them in Siberian taiga forests in the north of Mongolia. Here she writes about her incredible journey.
Why did I choose to go to Mongolia? The mystery of the horsemen drew me in. I was intrigued by a country that places so much importance on the horse. Mongolia as a nation used the horse to build the largest empire the world has ever seen. There are roughly as many horses as people in the vastness that is Mongolia. I wanted to meet Mongolian horsemen, to see how they use their horses and most of all to ride with them.
Mongolian horses are small, tough, strong and have innate herding instincts. I loved seeing a line of 4 or 5 horses walking in single file, nodding their heads. The stallions are very much the dominant male with their long, flowing manes and sense of self importance. Riding horses are distinguished by their hogged manes. We were warned to be careful. Those that are broken are not entirely tamed. For my 7 day trek I was paired up with a sweet-natured, sure footed, little bay mare who was unphased by anything she faced.
The Mongolian style of riding is distinctively different, as is the tack. Both are much less formal than the English style. Bridles are a mix-match of ropes and straps. Attached to the bits are multi-purpose lunge lines acting as tethers, hobbles, lead reins or when gathered up as a whip. Saddles and accompanying straps can be a fascinating combination of wood, webbing, leather, cushions, sheep skin, cloth and stirrups.
The trip was magical. We set off in to woodland and rode to camp on a plateau above a flat valley with a lake. Next day we set off in brilliant blue skies only to be rained on en route. Mongolian weather is as changeable as British. After several river crossings we rode through very marshy terrain then emerged in to a wide valley where we were greeted by a chorus of dogs, children and horses. Welcoming sounds. Dismounting in the reindeer camp we were invited in to a stove warmed tepee and offered reindeer milk tea. A lovely, friendly welcome.
Reindeer are ridden and used to carry loads. Everywhere you turned there were reindeer. Grey reindeer, white reindeer. They were lying under trees, standing in the open, tethered waiting for their mothers to return, sticking noses in to tepees or wandering in from grazing. Reindeer are gracious and dignified and their antlers are beautiful, some magnificent in their enormity.
We were made to feel very welcome by the Tsaatan, a tiny community of people living in a collection of 15 tepees in their autumn camp. Their life is incredibly simple. As well as herders they are hunter gatherers. The reindeers are primarily milk providers. We mainly saw the milk being drunk as tea or preserved as cheese and other curd products. For meat the Tsaatan hunt roe and red deer rather than eat their own reindeer. The reindeer graze on lichen which is only found in northern latitudes.
After two nights staying in the Tsaatan camp we split as a group and I was privileged to be one of only two guests to ride off on a four day trip north in to the wilderness of the taiga. We were accompanied by two Tsaatan horse guides, an English speaking Mongolian guide plus the hardest working person on our trip, Dalai the chef. It felt very special. Three hours later we were sitting in glorious sunshine on a river bank, eating lunch while our horses rested and grazed. It was idyllic.
Later in the afternoon I was able to fully test my waterproofs when riding through a thunder storm. The terrain then became tougher for the horses as we rode across a marshy valley then up forested tracks that were running with water. The horses were brilliant, powering through occasional patches of hock deep mud, stepping over fallen trees, pushing their way through head high bushes, picking their way round trees and walking over rocks.
On day five we woke to a heavy frost. Overnight drops of ice had formed on the outside of my tent. Inside I was cosy, having perfected the number of layers required to keep my feet and therefore the rest of me warm! After consuming a three course breakfast by the camp fire we set off past rough haystacks built as winter fodder and up a rugged river valley towards Russia. Our destination was a sacred Tsaatan site less than half a day’s ride from the Russian border (still in Mongolia). Thankfully our horse guides know their landscape very well and they navigated us through forest and bush land where few have visited to a fast flowing river with a backdrop of high mountains and white trunked ghost trees. While we set up camp a cooked lunch was prepared by Dalai. Afterwards we climbed on horseback the steep, deeply forested hillside to reach the sacred site in a hanging valley.
The view was stunning. The rocks on the exposed riverbed were a geologist’s dream. The gentle sound of the stream gurgling below the rocks was almost melodic. The peacefulness was wonderful as was the sensation that we could be the only people in the world. This site is sacred to the Tsaatan because of the red, perfectly smoothed small stones that seem completely out of place among a mismatch of rocks. They believe these stones bring them luck and good fortune and that every time a stone is removed it is magically replaced by another. We were encouraged find stones to take home and were each given two stones by our guides.
Riding back later through some of the same scenery we had the chance to appreciate how quickly the seasons pass in Mongolia. It was still August but in the space of 3 days the foliage had changed from green to reds, yellows and oranges. Already autumn was descending in advance of the long, harsh winter.
With the group reunited and back in vehicles we drove to a ger camp on the shore of Lake Khosvgol, the second largest fresh water lake in Asia. Here we could walk, ride in a yak cart, kayak, swim, relax, take a sauna or hot shower and of course ride horses. I also enjoyed my favourite breakfast in Mongolia. It was a unique version of a cream tea. A sweet biscuit topped with home-made strawberry or blueberry jam and clotted yak cream. It was divine. I can almost taste it just thinking about it!
We had two days relaxing at LakeKhosvgol before flying back to the hubbub of people and traffic in Ulaanbaatar. This was quite a contrast and a bit of a shock – but it gave me a greater appreciation of the vastness, space and tranquillity of rural Mongolia. What a wonderful place!