Reindeer Project in the East Taiga

After several days of traveling by bus, purgon, and horse, we had arrived at the East Taiga reindeer herders’ summer camp.

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The East Taiga, which is north of Tsagaannuur and close to the Russian border, is home to about 20 reindeer herding families and roughly 150 reindeer. There are many more herders and reindeer in the West Taiga, which is more spread out, but in all, Mongolia has less than 300 people who identify as Dukha (Tsaatan) and only about 650 domesticated reindeer.

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The Dukha are nomadic herders who live and travel in small communities. Their reindeer are central to their lives and each day is structured around all the chores necessary to care for the reindeer. At the camp we stayed at, the herders tied up the adult reindeer near their teepees* during the night, while the babies were allowed to run free.

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And munch on lichen

And munch on lichen

Then at 6 in the morning, the women would wake up and go set the adult reindeer free and tie up the babies. During the day, the women made milk tea, yogurt, and cheese from the reindeer milk.

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These dairy products make up a large portion of their diet, which they supplement with meat from wild animals they hunt in the forest (they only kill the reindeer for meat if they are very old or sick). During the day, they also gather firewood and keep track of where the reindeer are grazing. In the evening, the herders would go out and herd the reindeer back into the camp, milk the mothers, and set the babies free again.

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The Dukha teach their children at a young age how to care for the reindeer: children learn to ride the reindeer very early and help with the herding, and girls help their mothers milk the reindeer.

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Many families with children move to Tsagaannuur during the school year (or at least for the winter) so that they can be closer to their children, who go to the school in Tsagaannuur.

For more detailed information about the Dukha, you can check out this publication, Changing Taiga: Challenges for Mongolia’s Reindeer Herders.
During our stay, we each slept at a different host families’ teepee, but had our own teepee for cooking our meals and planning/holding our lessons.

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Two of my fellow PCVs with a few of the girls inside our teepee

Two of my fellow PCVs with a few of the girls inside our teepee

Our teepee had a dirt floor, 2 wooden beds/benches, and a wood burning stove. We were told to hang all the bags of food because the camp dogs might come into our teepee and rummage through the bags. We got all our water from the river, which was conveniently only 30 feet from our teepee. There was no electricity. We went to the bathroom in the bushes, etc., etc., and all the other hardcore camping stuff.

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Our first full day at the camp, a group of kids popped over by our teepee, so we decided to go ahead and start our activities. We told them to go get all the other kids so we could do our morning stretches/exercises. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, we had kids dropping by.

Playing games with the kids

Playing games with the kids

We played games with them outside, but then it rained for several hours, so we had the kids come inside our teepee and draw and talk about themselves.

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Later in the day, a few of us went on a hike just outside the camp.

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In the evening, the kids came back and we played more games.

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The next day the weather was much nicer, so we had our meeting with everyone in the camp to discuss why we were there and to distribute our donations (clothes, soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste).

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That afternoon, some of the boys wanted us to go with them to their watering hole for a swim. We decided it was too cold to do much more than wade, but we watched the boys playing around for a bit.

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Then they took a couple of us on a hike up a very steep, rocky mountain. But it was worth it because we got an amazing view of the entire valley and their camp.

Yeah, those little white dots would be the teepees

Yeah, those little white dots would be the teepees

And zooming in a little with my camera, we could even see the reindeer herds moving

And zooming in a little with my camera, we could even see the reindeer herds moving

That evening, we did some teamwork exercises disguised as relay races (ok, so we were really just having them do relay races for fun, but I’ve got to make it sound like we did actual work, right?)

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The next day John (the other Health PCV) and I did a lesson with the kids on nutrition (while also incorporating some English), where we discussed the different food groups in a “food teepee”:

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Other activities we did included English lessons, toothbrushing, origami, making friendship bracelets, and just playing with the kids (running around outside is exercise, so that counts as a health session, right?). But it was often difficult to gather people for sessions: the adults were working most of the day and groups of kids would go off fishing or something. And when we did have kids, there was often a wide range of ages: the older kids knew some English (and were eager to learn more) while the younger ones didn’t know any, making it difficult to have one lesson at a time. It’s also difficult to lead a health session for a group of kids between the ages of 3 and 16.

On our last full day at the camp, we went with some of the herders and the older kids to move rocks from the path that leads from the camp up the mountain, as the rocks are bad for the horses to walk on (you may remember us having to get off the horses and walk down the mountain when we arrived at the camp).

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And because we all wanted the chance (and photos!) to ride a reindeer, we went to our host families to ask if we could ride one:

This reindeer decided to run through half the camp with me on his back before I could get him to stop

This reindeer decided to run through half the camp with me on his back before I could get him to stop

Then in the evening, we had a talent show, where the kids performed songs and dances they had prepared for us. The talent show eventually turned into a dance party, until it was too late (and too cold) to go on.

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The next morning is when we departed the camp, which I’ll talk about in my next post.

 

*I call them teepees, though the correct term is ortz (or chum in parts of Russia).

By the way, I took a few videos during the trip that have now been uploaded to my YouTube channel if you want to check them out.

And I shall end with this photo of a bunch of reindeer peeking into our teepee

And I shall end with this funny photo of a bunch of reindeer peeking into our teepee

The Joys Leading Up To Reindeer Camp

Every summer, a group of PCVs from around Mongolia and a few Mongolian CPs from Huvsgul aimag take a trip up to the taiga in the far north of Huvsgul to visit and hold camps with the reindeer herders who live there. I will talk more about the reindeer herders–known as the Dukha, or the Tsaatan in Mongolian–in my next post.

Anyway, earlier this year, the PCVs in Huvsgul in charge of the Reindeer Camp sent out information and an application to those interested in going to this year’s camp. Reindeer Camp is very competitive. There are 2 “sides” of the taiga where the herders live: East and West. For each side, only 2 TEFL, 2 CYD, and 2 Health Volunteers are selected to go (plus a couple group leaders and Mongolian CPs), in order to prevent the tiny camps the herders live in from being completely overrun with a huge group of foreigners. And the M24s were given precedence since this is obviously their last chance to go before they leave Mongolia. But I applied anyway because I really wanted to see reindeer while I’m in Mongolia (which I’ve discovered is quite complicated) and since the Health sector is the smallest here in Mongolia, I figured I had a better chance of actually being selected.

And selected I was! I’ll be going to the East Taiga very soon! I’m super excited, but the days leading up to my departure have been…stressful, to say the least.

For one thing, Huvsgul aimag is just to the northeast of Zavkhan aimag, where I live:

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So you’d think it would be fairly simple to get from Uliastai, the capital of one aimag, to Murun, the capital of a neighboring aimag. I mean, there’s even a road (unpaved, but still) connecting them!

As my brilliant Microsoft Paint skills highlight here

As my brilliant Microsoft Paint skills highlight here

But of course, nothing is that simple in Mongolia–certainly not when you live in the “black hole.” There isn’t really public transportation from Zavkhan to most of its neighboring aimags, unless you want to pay to charter a car or mikr (microbus) to take you somewhere, but that’s not feasible for one person. Almost everyone told me I would just have to take the bus from Uliastai to UB, and then another bus from UB to Murun. For the record, that’s a 24-30 hour bus ride, followed by another 14 hour bus ride:

Yes, that makes much more sense...

Yes, that makes much more sense…

I knew that bus trip across half the freakin’ country would not be fun, so I enlisted the help of some of my Mongolian friends to try to find a ride to Huvsgul around the time I would be leaving. The teachers from one of Ulaistai’s schools were taking a trip up to Huvsgul, but they were leaving a week before I needed to be up there, so I couldn’t justify being away from work for several days and having to crash at one of the Murun PCV’s homes for that long. Then there was a mikr that would be taking university students up to Huvsgul after their last exams (I assume they are actually from Huvsgul), but it turns out that they were already tying to fit 21 students in there, so there was definitely no room for me.

So I resigned myself to taking the super-long bus trip to UB, as I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money on a plane ticket (if there were flights straight from Uliastai to Murun, I probably would have done that, but pretty much all domestic flights in Mongolia are through UB)

So on Monday I bought my bus ticket to UB (my supervisor helped me get a window seat so I could rest my head against it to sleep, and she made sure they wouldn’t put a man in the seat next to me for safety reasons). Monday morning was also when I found out that my khashaa family wanted to take back the wooden floor that my ger is built on (the health department owns my ger but my khashaa family owns the wooden floor) because they want to sell it (I guess they really need money for something because it apparently couldn’t wait a couple weeks until I’m back from the Reindeer Camp).

So I was told I had to pack up all my things in my ger that day so that they could take it down while I’m gone. My supervisor and I went back to my ger to try to pack up all the stuff that actually belongs to me (as opposed to the furniture which is the health department’s) while at the same time trying to figure out what I need for the Reindeer Camp to make sure it didn’t get packed away. Then after lunch we went back with a coworker who has an SUV to take all the boxes to the health department. They put all the stuff I don’t need for the Reindeer Camp into the basement of the health department, and I stayed the night in one of the health department’s “hotel rooms.”

The health department doesn’t have a wooden floor to put my ger on yet, so they’re going to have me come back and stay in the hotel room between when I come back from the Reindeer Camp and when I leave for the second half of PST (which is thankfully only about 8 days), then they’ll hopefully have my ger set back up when I come back to Zavkhan for good at the end of August.

So yeah, that was my excitement the day before heading off to UB. Nothing like coming into work and being told you have to go back home and pack up all your possessions in just a few hours!

Also, when I went to get my bus ticket, I found out that the buses now leave at 2pm instead of 9am, so while that at least gave me time to pack for the trip on Tuesday since I obviously didn’t have time to do that on Monday, it will be cutting it close in terms of arriving in UB to catch the bus to Huvsgul, the last of which leaves at 6pm on Wednesday (and we’re supposed to all be in Murun by Thursday morning).

I will obviously have a nice, long post about the Reindeer Camp when I get back, though that won’t be for about 3 weeks! Wish me luck on my travels!