Traveling to Northern Mongolia to meet the reindeer tribe was on our bucket list for a while, now we are finally here and this adventure is real! Come with us on our 3 days journey in the depths of the Taiga in northern Mongolia to meet one of the last groups of nomadic reindeer herders in the world. These people’s life is completely dependent on the Reindeer they herd, moving their small encampment of tepees many times during the year in search of suitable weather and moss for the reindeer. To reach the tribe’s summer camp we had to do a 12-hour train ride, 2 days driving off-road, and a 6-hour horse ride, but it was all worth it and we would do it again!
We flew into the capital of Mongolia Ulaanbaatar just a few days before this big adventure. Between the jet lag and trying to understand more of where we were, I don’t think we grasped enough about how busy this city really is until we had to catch the train out. We walked down the stairs from our Airbnb, confident that there was over an hour of time to get to the train station. After all, it was only 6 km away! Wrong! Have you ever been to Ulaanbaatar?! This is the capital of Mongolia and of the 3.5 million inhabitants of the country, at least 1.5 live here. So every hour is rush hour! No taxis were available until luckily we found one willing to drive us at a higher price. The meeting time was 6 pm at the railway station with our guide Tulga from Nomadic Trails. We made it there by 6:15 pm. The sleeper train was leaving at 6:40, luckily we arrived just in time!
The sleeper train was a whole new experience for our family. It is like the trans-Siberian train but it goes to the north of Mongolia. We were going to get off in Erdenet a copper mining town. The ride was 12 hours throughout the night. There is no food served on the train, so we brought our own dinner and drinks, however, a lady did come by with a shopping cart with snacks on it, but not an actual full meal.
Later we prepared our beds, four for each cabin. Around 10:30 pm, once the excitement started wearing off and it finally got a bit darker outside, we tried to go to sleep. However, this train has another particularity. Every time it starts it makes a loud jolt that inevitably moves you from where you are sitting! So you can imagine how it feels when you are trying to sleep! Let’s say it was a long night…
At 7:40 am, still very tired from a very different night of sleep we got off and jumped right away in a car, to drive out in the direction of Taiga!
This was probably our smoothest day on the road because we did most of the kilometers on asphalt. However, a few hours into the drive Tulga turned off the main road and onto a dirt road. That was the end of the easy driving and the beginning of the bumpy roads!
This inexistent road would take us through many valleys right into the heart of the Taiga area.
The first night we slept in a lovely area surrounded by trees. For our kids, it was officially the first time camping in the wilderness. They learned how to set up the tents, which was a whole new adventure in itself. However, since we were on a private tour we didn’t have to worry about cooking or setting up anything else. But it was so fun to watch them work together in going through the whole process. You could feel everyones’ excitement in the air. I think we all couldn’t believe that we were sleeping in a tent in Mongolia! You know that incredible feeling you get when you are dreaming about doing something for a long time and then when you are actually living in the moment you just cannot believe it?! We were in Mongolia and we were heading to meet the Reindeer Tribe!
Tough Driving days
Until now everything had been pretty easy. So when Tulga told us that the road for the next few days was going to be pretty bumpy I honestly could not imagine how bad it could really be. This was the day we started truly understanding and learning about different ways of life.
First of all, as we started driving we found a house on a 4×4 truck being driven down a hill. It wasn’t our first time seeing a house being moved around but never in the middle of nowhere and most of all on a dirt road. It was a true “WOW moment” for all of us!
We drove for a few hours through beautiful green valleys, every now and then rushing through a small river. We stopped and took loads of photos of yaks relaxing. We beeped our horns to make hundreds of sheep and goats move out of our way. We admired beautiful wild horses galloping along the way. We stopped to watch the birds fly in the beautiful Mongolian blue sky.
It was an amazing site, all we could do was take every inch of this drive in, to make sure it would always stay in our memories of this adventure. We also filmed as much as we could to be able to share in some way the feeling that driving here gave us. Although there was a destination in mind, meeting the Reindeer Tribe, the trip to get there was just as magical.
I’m not going to deny that the bumpy roads were not always fun. We had moments when we did get a bit tired of not being able to sit normally or avoid crashing into each other. Or when we were trying to take a nap and our head would bump into the window. But then when we slowed down and watched animals playing, grazing, or simply sleeping, it felt like time was moving in slow motion and for a moment nothing was running after us. We could fully enjoy being part of this moment also with its bumps.
Ovoos in the shamanic land
We stopped for a lunch break in a lovely spot and just took in the beautiful landscape while enjoying a delicious meal!
Finally, we reached the pass where 13 Ovoos are located. These are shamanic offering places. Each Ovoo represents the year of birth in the Chinese calendar and then there is the main one. People stop here to worship the sky and they do so by going around their birth year Ovoo 3 times while making an offering. Then they walk around the more prominent one 3 more times. While we were there many people arrived, it was lovely to watch them do the ritual of walking around the ovoos, then sit there for a while before leaving.
Finally, we entered Darkhad Depression, here there are more than 200 lakes and many stunning views! Our camp for the night looked over a river and our neighbors were hundreds of sheep!
The following day, as our drive continues through the shaman territory. We made a stop along the way to see another Ovoo and admire the beautiful view over many lakes. It was a cloudy day but it was still stunning. After a lunch break in a shaman’s home, we drove towards our stop for the night…it actually was a forced stop since both our cars got stuck in the mud! However, we were impressed by how resourceful Mongolians are at solving this type of situation. After trying many different ways they successfully got them both out!
Shortly after the horses arrived, the final leg of our trip was going to start bright and early the next morning!
Riding up to the tribe
Bright and early we started our 6-hour horse trek. Our guide told us that it usually takes between 7 to 9 hours depending on riding abilities, so I guess we did pretty well! It wasn’t easy though. As soon as we got on our horses, Mass’s one threw him off. We are not sure what spooked him but he had a bit of a temper 😂. Later on, as we were going in a muddy area again Mass had to jump off because the horse got stuck in the mud! What made the trek really hard for us and the horses for most of the way was the millions of mosquitoes who loved biting us also over our clothes! However once we reached the pass and colder weather, they were finally gone for good.
At the pass, Luca saw a tiny patch of snow and he forced everyone to get off and play. It was such a fun moment! I think we all needed a fun break also if just for a few minutes!
About an hour later, after crossing the very windy and chilly pass we finally reached the summer camp of the Reindeer Tribe. We were welcomed by the shaman and his wife who offered us reindeer milk tea, reindeer curd, and homemade bread. We still couldn’t believe we were actually sitting in a tepee with them!!! Also a few hours later, as we were walking around the camp enjoying the sunset surrounded by reindeer we STILL could not believe we were here!!! Luckily there are plenty of photos and videos to remind us that it really happened 😂!
Our time with the tribe
What did we do here at the summer camp for 2 days? Well first of all we wanted to observe. We were curious of understanding better what their lifestyle was like. It can be hard to fully comprehend a way of living that is completely different from yours so being part of it also for a short time can truly be eye-opening. Let me tell you more about their day.
First of all, the women milk the reindeer 3 times a day. Early morning, afternoon, and evening. They collect the mamas and babies and tie them separately so they can freely do the milking, reuniting them after. It was funny to see how voracious the babies were in getting the milk once they got to their mamas! However, on cold days, they let the babies be fed right away. Cosimo had a chance to milk a reindeer and it wasn’t that easy! You have to tie their back legs so they don’t try to run off, then wet your fingers in some milk and start squeezing! The Reindeer people drink milk tea and make curd all with the reindeer milk.
While we were there one of the families was moving their tepee from one spot to the other because there was too much dust in that spot. In this case, they have to move everything. Usually, when they leave the camp for the season, they only leave the poles up and take everything else, but this case was different, they were actually moving their house!
We spent some time with the local shaman. He showed us his costume and explained more in-depth his ritual and what was the use of each part of his costume. People go to him for fortune telling healing, or simply a diagnosis.
We had a chance to try riding the reindeer, I still cannot believe it! It was an incredible and a bit unsettling experience. Much different than riding a horse and I honestly thought I was going to fall off!! Everything feels much more wobbly although I think they actually have a better grasp of the ground especially with the mud. The tribe usually rides the reindeer in order to move from one camp to the other. They are much stronger than you may think!
The kids are sent to school during the year, which is far from the camp so they live in the town (it takes about 6 hours of horseback riding to the closest village). But we were there during their vacation time so some were there. Our kids had a chance to play with the younger children from the tribe. In fact, the older ones have many more responsibilities so they were not around as much.
Was it all magical?
I know my description might make it seem like a dreamy experience, but I have to be honest and say that it wasn’t all perfect and easy as it may sound.
Our excitement gave us the strength to push through a few moments when we were ready to go back. The weather was unpredictable: cold, hot, rain, wind, and cold again, and we definitely needed layers to feel comfortable. The trip to get there was long and sometimes all we wanted to do was get out of the car and walk the rest of the way. It is for sure easier than doing it all by horse but also a drive can feel too long, especially on extremely bumpy roads. The horse ride made our butts and many other muscles in our bodies sore. Every time we got off it took a few minutes to start walking normally again 😂.
People that live in the tribe don’t have an easy life. The weather is never very warm in the areas where they stay with the reindeer. They live in teepees that have a stove inside to keep them warm and are not isolated so the cold will still enter. They don’t have fruits or vegetables growing where they live. Plus their nomadic lifestyle makes it impossible for them to keep a vegetable garden for the whole year. Hence their food variety is very limited to just a few things, bread, curd, and some meat. This lack of many nutrients in their diets clearly causes some health issues that combined with the cold weather can be more difficult. However, they are very strong and tough people and are truly inspiring to be around.
Our thoughts about this experience
Life here is not easy, there is no electricity, no heating (except for the wood stove), no AC, no Wifi, no soft mattresses, no hot showers, no kitchen, and no walls that keep the insolation. But there is a community that works together immersed in nature and overcomes all these obstacles together. This is the life they know and many choose to continue in it also as society develops more and more. They choose to take care of the reindeer and move around based on the well-being of these animals.
However, some did pick a different life. We met a school teacher who grew up in the tribe but decided to move to a village to pursue a teaching career. How does he give back to his community? He returns every summer with some local students, teaches them about the culture of the Reindeer people, and at the same time tries to educate better the young children of the tribe about taking care of their hygiene and teeth. So also if he chose a different life, a part of him is always here with his tribe.
We deeply admire these people. Observing their way of life makes you question many of the silly things you complain about in your “much easier lifestyle”. They reminded us how important it is to respect the life and the comforts you have, not because they have “less” but because they respect what they have which in our eyes may seem like less but it isn’t at all, it is simply different. We have different ways of life, neither is better than the other, simply different, so rather than complaint about it, we should make a change if it doesn’t work for us or respect it if it does.
We were gifted a complete rainbow for our farewell to the reindeer tribe.
Our family will treasure this magical time forever in our hearts. What has made it even more special? The fact that we shared it together. No experience would be as valuable if one of us wasn’t part of it.
For this trip, we booked our tour with Nomadic Trails
If you want more options for your trip to Mongolia check out this link and you will find plenty of options!