Dukha Reindeer Herders of Mongolia: A People Caught Between Two Worlds
The inset shows the general area within which we traveled during our visit.
I was born in a small country: Holland. As a child, I probably felt how small it really was as I pored endlessly over atlases and maps, imagining what all these other places might look like. I have always been drawn to wild open places, representing everything that Holland is not.
And now, I am traveling through Mongolia, a country the size of Western Europe, where the average Mongolian has 250 times more space available than the average Dutchman. It feels magnificent. In Holland it is impossible to travel more than half a mile without seeing any sign of civilization, but in Mongolia it feels like you are driving on a pancake floating under a huge blue dome in space. If you get too close to the edge, you may drop off into oblivion.
I am traveling with a fellow photographer from Belgium. As two European photographers, we share a photographic interest in documenting smaller cultures living in isolation. With the aid of a local cook/guide/translator and a local driver, we have come to gather visual impressions in this stunning Mongolian landscape.
Mongolia's road network is extensive, but barely 10% of it is paved. The unpaved tracks run like sketch-lines through the landscape, until maybe someone at the department of transportation decides which track becomes a definitive line in asphalt.
We reach the small village of Tsagaan Nuur. From a distance, the brightly colored roofs of the houses make it look as if someone took a handful of colored glass and threw it into the grasslands. Unlike Dutch towns, with clear planning and city limits at their hearts, a Mongolian village seems to emerge from the grasslands, and sometimes it is unclear which house is part of the village or part of the space beyond.
We change our 4x4 jeep for horses to reach the nomadic Dukha reindeer herders that live up in the mountains near the Siberian border. Their reindeer provide milk, which is used for drinking and for cheese making, skins for bedding, and antlers for carving. In a mix of snow and rain we make our way up to the mountain pass, part by horse, part on foot. As we cross its boulder-strewn saddle, we are treated to deep thunder and descend as quickly as the boggy ground allows, entering the vastness of the taiga.
In the distance, the first white specks of reindeer are visible on the hillside, and with our approach their numbers quickly increase. The Dukha encampment we visit is formed of several groups of tepees, arranged by family. With the ground frozen from a depth of a meter onward, its surface is waterlogged, and white clumps of reindeer winter fur, mixed with excrement, dot the grassy landscape.
Soon, the owners of the fluffy fur surround us. Reindeer are endlessly curious: whenever we go outside to brush our teeth they immediately follow us, and stick their wet noses in our backs, our camera bags and our groins. Wherever we urinate, they quickly show up to lick up the minerals with which we grace the landscape.
A little boy runs around the reindeer as if they were his personal playthings, teasing the larger ones and hugging the babies. He shows no fear of the animals at all. Dukha children learn to ride the animals from a young age. After the boy has had his play time, with a gentle "No-ah, no-ah" the reindeer take off swiftly across the hilly terrain in what looks like a scene from a Christmas movie, their moving joints clicking like tent poles touching each other.
A wood-fueled stove heats the tepee where we spend our nights. As long as it is burning wood and the canvas stays closed, it gets comfortably warm inside. At dawn, however, I can see my own breath against the rays of sunlight coming through the holes in the canvas. We try to light the fire, but in spite of receiving instructions the night before, we fail miserably. With no electricity, no toilet, no running water except for a stream of icy cold meltwater, and now no fire, we have definitely come back to basics.
"Chu! Chu!" Narahuu, the father of our host family, calls out as he flicks drops of Ulaanbaatar vodka in the air to honor the ancestors, the sky, and the earth. We have brought the vodka as a welcome gift and we all share the same cup as we engage in small talk, much in the same way we would at home. With the first real snow starting in August and winter temperatures dropping to -50 degrees Celsius I am not surprised that Narahuu laughs when I say that 10 cm of snow can bring my country to a standstill.
Narahuu and his wife Bolormaa ('crystal woman') are in their mid-thirties and have four children: three girls and one boy. In Dukha marriages, the woman will follow the man, which means that for this family, eventually, their home is going to be quite empty. Because the numbers of Dukha are very low, they are not allowed to marry within their ethnic identity in Mongolia, and as a result their ethnic identity is gradually disappearing.
Dukha hospitality, however, has not suffered one bit. In every family, we are warmly received with sweet milk tea, dried cheese and large chunks of sourdough bread. We return the hospitality by exchanging these for dried curd and egg salad, which we purchased from other nomads on our way here.
The family tepees are simple in their decoration and clearly divided into a women's and a men's seating area. Among the few possessions (mostly bedding, clothing, kitchenware and tools, interspersed with colorful books in English and the odd cuddly toy), we note a car battery-powered satellite television, a hand-operated sewing machine and a radio transmitter. Our phones can no longer find their network; we are definitely off the grid here.
"Life here in the taiga is busy," sighs one of the herders. "From dusk till dawn there is a host of chores to do. The women are in charge of the home and the children and they look after the milking and birthing of reindeer. We men herd the reindeer and take care of them." When we ask about the size of their herds, our translator falls silent. She suggests that it is best not to ask, and compares it to asking someone about their salary.
With not a tree in sight, the men have to descend below the tree line to cut wood and bring it up the mountain. "But chopping the trees to blocks of firewood is also done by women." Narahuu lights up a cigarette rolled from thin, bible-like paper and lets out a puff of smoke, while his son climbs on his back. He goes back to carving reindeer antlers into objects to sell to tourists. His son quickly climbs down, covers his hands in the fine antler saw dust and starts messing up the floor.
The growth of tourism is beginning to cause a rift in the Dukha community. Most Dukha survive by subsistence, but with the monetary income per person less than $100 per year (used to buy flour and rice in the valley), tourist dollars are very welcome. Some Dukha even go as far as to bring their reindeer down the mountain. There, it is easier for tourists to visit them, but at their reindeers' expense; reindeer are very sensitive creatures that need a specific habitat to thrive. "Some of us are sacrificing the goose with the golden eggs," says one herder.
The Dukha have a strong connection to the land that surrounds them. It provides a feeding ground for their reindeer and a hunting ground for other animals, but is also the basis for their nature-based religion, Shamanism. They firmly believe that spirits inhabit trees, animals, stones and other objects. The spirits also interact with our photography. Our neighbour arranges her tepee especially for our photo session, clearing up the clutter and decorating it with white lace. But not everything can be photographed. "This thing yes, this thing no", our hostess points out gently. "The spirits decide."
Throughout my travels, photography has been a way of connecting to the people I photograph. But I often find that having a camera in front of your face creates a barrier between you and the person you are photographing. It makes you into an image 'taker', something I see often enough when observing other travel photographers. Ever since I started printing my photos on the spot and sharing them with the people I photograph, the whole process becomes much more of a shared experience and helps to create a stronger human connection.
The sun slides gradually behind the snow-covered mountains, and the men on horseback work in teams to collect the reindeer together in one large herd. The women of each family then separate out their own reindeer for their daily milking. Each reindeer is tied to its individual pole; the calves are invited to get the milk going and are then quickly pushed aside. We are invited to try milking a reindeer, but it is no easy task: to extract the daily amount of about a cup of milk, you have to knead and tug much more than with a cow or a goat.
In the far west, an evening rain turns the sky the colours of a teenage make-up kit. Unburdened of their milk, and done with the day's grazing, the reindeer take it all in, as their herders play a game of volley with a half-empty football.
In this first quiet moment of the day, it is difficult not to be moved by the fate of the Dukha. Our time here has been one of getting back to basics and more in touch with what it means to be connected to nature. With the modern world undoubtedly moving in, it can only be hoped the Dukha will have a chance at maintaining their traditional, sustainable lifestyle as they have done for over a thousand years.
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Text and Images: © Robert van Sluis
Robert is a freelance travel, portrait, and editorial photographer. His work can be found at www.robertvansluis.com