Darkhad Basin lies 50 km west of Lake Khuvsgul. There are over 200 lakes in the area, the largest of which is Lake Tsagaan. The lake is well-known for the famous white fish that live in it. The lake is surrounded by high mountains covered with forest and extensive marshland, which are an ideal environment for reindeer breeding.
Most of the Tsaatan minority, or the reindeer breeders, live in this region. This ethnic people’s lifestyle and traditions are of special interest not only to tourists, but also to researchers and scholars from all over the world as they are very isolated in their remote and difficult to reach homeland. Shamanism, the worship of nature, is the main religion of the reindeer breeders.
The Dukha, Dukhans or Duhalar (Mongolian: Цаатан, Tsaatan) are a small Tuvan (Tozhu Tuvans) Turkic community of reindeer herders living in northern Khövsgöl Aimag of Mongolia.
The name Tsaatan, which means ‘those who have reindeer’ in the Mongolian language, were originally Tuvinian reindeer herders.
The Dukhan language (SIL International dkh) is an endangered Turkic variety spoken by approximately five hundred people in the Tsagaan-Nuur county of the Khövsgöl region of northern Mongolia. Dukhan belongs to the Taiga subgroup of Sayan Turkic (Tuvan, Tofa).
Originally from across the border in what is now Tuva Republic of Russia, the Dukha are one of the last groups of nomadic reindeer herders in the world. As the reindeer populations shrink, only about 40 families continue the tradition in the year 1998.
Tuva became independent in 1921, when Mongolia gained its independence. At that time, the reindeer herders were able to cross the border freely between Tuva and Mongolia. However, when Tuva was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1944, the border was closed. In 1944, Russia was involved in World War II. So the Dukha people fled from Tuva to settle in Mongolia mainly for the following reasons:
At first, the Mongolian government repeatedly deported them back to Tuva. In 1956 the government finally gave them Mongolian citizenship and resettled them at Tsagaan Nuur Lake on the Shishigt River.
Dukhas live differently from most other people in the world. The Dukha’s sense of community is structured around the reindeer. The reindeer and the Dukha are dependent on one another. Some Dukha say that if the reindeer disappear, so too will their culture. The reindeer are domesticated and belong to the household. In many ways they are treated like family members and shown respect. The community’s chores and activities are centered around the care and feeding of their reindeer. Dukha communities on the taiga are usually a group of tents of two to seven households that move camp to find optimum grazing for the reindeer. Herding tasks are shared amongst the camp with children at a young age learning to care for the reindeer and keeping them safe. The girls and younger women do the milking and make yogurt, cheese, and milk tea. Young men and women and elders help with herding. A few of the men stay with the reindeer in the winter months, living in the open air with their herds to protect them from wolves and other predators. The men also make and repair their hunting tools and reindeer saddles and carts. Since they rarely kill a reindeer, they supplement their diet of reindeer milk products by hunting wild animals from the forest.
Dukha raise their reindeer primarily for milk. Reindeer milk, reindeer yoghurt and reindeer cheese are the staples of the Dukha diet. Only a few reindeer are slaughtered during the year for meat and pelts. The reindeer also provide transportation. Because the taiga area is typically hilly and covered with forest, reindeer are not used for pulling sledges, but for riding and as pack animals. They take the Dukha for daily grazing, hunting, the collection of firewood, seasonal migrations, visiting relatives and friends, and traveling to the sum for shopping and trade. A 1.5 m long thin stick in the right hand is used as a whip. A rider gets on a tree stump and jumps onto the reindeer from the left side with the stick in the left hand, then transfers the stick to the right hand once the rider is mounted. The Dukha begin training reindeer for riding when the reindeer (called dongor at this age) are two years old. Adults are too heavy for dongor, so it is usually the children’s job to train them. Adults ride on hoodai (three-year-old reindeer) or older ones. They regularly ride on zari (castrated males). Special training is not necessary to train the reindeer as pack animals. The male reindeer usually carry loads weighing about 40 kg (88 lbs.), while females carry up to 30 kg (66.1387 lbs.). Reindeer pelts are used for making winter coats. Bags, mats for traveling, and shoes are also made from the skin. Material for shoes is taken from the skin on the reindeer’s shin. Reindeer antlers are ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine and have been supplied to China since 1975. During the summer, the antlers are cut off. The reindeer’s two front legs are tied to one hind leg to make the animal fall. The Dukha cut the antlers with a small saw. Because reindeer cannot properly regulate their body temperature when they lose their antlers and easily become exhausted, pregnant female reindeer never have their antlers removed.
Dukha today continue their nomadic life, moving from one place to another without establishing any permanent settlements during the year. A residential group consisting of several families is called olal-lal (meaning ’them’ in the Tuva language). They usually refer to a specific group by the name of a representative member. Families of the same olal-lal set up tents close to one another (within a few kilometers) and collaborate in livestock herding.
Dukha move to their summer camp in the middle of June. Its altitude is around 2300 m, and there are fresh breezes.Because of the cold climate throughout the year, open grasslands spread across the high steppe. Reindeer cannot handle heat well, so they must be pastured in high plains in the summer.
The beginning of August is the time for Dukha families to move down to different camp sites to spend the fall season. When it begins to snow in mid-September, since there are no insects, the reindeer regain their vigor; and the young males are castrated. From the end of September to early October is mating season for reindeer. The gestation period for a reindeer is about seven months.
Dukha usually settle down in the deep forest at an altitude of about 1800 m where they can avoid the frigid winds. During winter camp, people remain in one area for a month at the longest, and then move on to another place, especially when there are wolves nearby. Snow is not an obstacle for reindeer to find and eat moss because they can dig in the snow with their hooves and find moss easily. Several residential groups band together and set out for “otor” (the herding of livestock by young men in distant areas). During otor, the reindeer are free to move about and can find moss and grass easily.
Groups cannot move as quickly to spring camps because they must accompany the pregnant female reindeer. This is the time when weather tends to be harsh, with strong winds, so they settle in a place that shelters them from severe winds. Reindeer give birth between late April and mid-May.
Dukha lives in yurts made primarily of birch bark that resembled the tepees of Native-Americans in appearance. A large yurt may take the bark from up to 32 trees to make; a medium-sized yurt is made from the bark of 23-25 trees. An opening of 2–3 meters in height allows access to the yurt. A bag that houses the guardian spirits of a shaman rests in the rear of the yurt. On the right side, the Dukha family will keep its hunting equipment, saddles, tools and utensils. A traditional Dukha yurt will not have a bed, but rather skins covering the ground, upon which the family sleeps. A stove sits in the middle of the yurt.
Dukha dress is characterized by hats like those of the Khalkh people, and wide deels (traditional Mongolian overcoats). They wear strong, warm boots fashioned from the hides and sinew of their reindeer. These boots are known for their quality of workmanship and are very expensive to purchase.