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Dancing with Reindeer
By Ruth Lor Malloy, Dec 15, 2006

Hurry to Mongolia's Lake Hovsgol before Dasher, Dancer,
Donner, Vixen and the whole gang disappear

by Ruth Lor Malloy

Never having met either before, I tell my guide I want to meet a Mongolian shaman and a reindeer herder. "Easy," says Undra. "The reindeer herder at Lake Hovsgol is both." After a couple days' journey over land from Ulaan Baatar, we arrive in Murin. From there we are driven several more hours through pine forests, stream beds and rocky roads. We see no directional signs, but the driver instinctively knows the way. Around beautiful Lake Hovsgol (altitude 1,645 meters), we get our first glimpse of the roaming yaks and reindeer. We settle into the Dalai ger camp (gers are round felt tents with brightly colored furniture) for a two night stay.

While the summer nights are deliciously cool, fall and winter can be blistering cold; even in the summer it necessary for an attendant to make a wood fire every evening and first thing in the morning.

The Tsaatan, or reindeer people, are easy to find. They are camped about 20 kilometers away, also on the lake shore. We find Enkhtuya, the shaman, in her spacious tepee, known here as an "oortz." It is almost identical to those used by native North Americans. Her face is flat, her eyes tiny, twinkling brightly as she invites us in to join the half dozen people already inside. Enkhtuya is wearing a "deel," the robes worn by most Mongolian women.

Around her head is a cloth band. Her daughter stirs reindeer milk tea on the stove and passes bread to all the guests. Enkhtuya's take-charge manner gives the impression that she is the matriarch. Her family brings its 15 reindeer to the lake every summer to make cash from tourists to pay for flour and sugar. Other than their benefit as tourist attractions, the reindeer provide the families with milk and cheese to eat and transportation for hunting and taking the nomads deep into the forest, where the shamans believe their ancestors' ghosts live on as animals that give guidance to the living.

Descendants of Turks, there are now only 200 Tsaatan people left in Mongolia. The Mongolian government has nominated them for UNESCO cultural heritage status because their traditional lifestyle of following reindeer herds is considered one of the few primitive ones left in the world. Western scientists are concerned though, that the annual trip to the warmer climate and lower altitudes of Lake Hovsgol are adversely affecting the health of these animals and consequently the livelihood of the Tsaatan people.

 While measures such as introducing semen from other reindeer countries like Canada and Finland to strengthen the gene pool are being tested, some scientists like Hamid Sardar (a Harvard-trained anthropologist who spent nearly three years following Mongolia's reindeer herders) believe that the Tsaatan can only be saved by conserving the area's wildlife. Meaning that if commercial hunting and illegal poaching are not quelled, the Tsaatan will have an increasingly difficult time finding game and will be forced to turn to their reindeer herds to feed their families.

Currently, there are only about 600 reindeer left in Mongolia. Enkhtuya shows us her 30 kilogram shaman dress with its 109 metal rattles (manjig) and hundreds of strips of cloth, each one from a different person who had asked her for protection. The more people who contribute to the costume, the more special it is, she says. Enkhtuya does not charge for her work as a shaman – going into trances and healing the sick.

 It is her duty to help, she says. But when we ask her to tell our fortunes, she requests Â¥40 for a three-minute consultation. She does sell me two pairs of secular reindeer skin boots made by her mother, and even models them for a picture. Soles have to be changed every year and are made from the fur on the back of the neck of the reindeer because it is thicker there, Enkhtuya says.

As I raise my camera to photograph Enkhtuya's costume, she hesitates, saying that her spirits would not like such an intrusion. After some deliberation though, she decides it wouldn't be too upsetting. Our guide elaborates, saying that shamans consider their clothes sacred. We dare not touch her robes after that warning; the Tsaatan and their herds need all the luck possible to continue their traditional life.


Getting there This author's tour was booked through Monkey Business Infocentre; about ¥6,000 each for an all-inclusive tour from Ulaan Baatar. Where to stay At Lake Hovsgol, stay at the Dalai ger camp. The staff is friendly and the food is good. What to eat A trip to meet the Tsaatan isn’t complete without a taste of reindeer cheese. Where to play To make a bit of cash for the long winter, the Tsaatan charge about ¥25 for pictures and ¥15 for a short reindeer ride. _For more information on the plight of the Tsaatan, check Homelands



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