While it may not sound like your typical Sunday hobby, for some, riding reindeer comes naturally from the age of two. And by naturally, I of course mean that your older sibling tossed you over the reindeer’s back and looked on with fondness while you howl. This is how it goes in Mongolia’s far Northern region of Hovsgol, where the Tsaatan people live.
Tsaa in Mongolian means reindeer, a word I was soon to learn as my horse bucked painfully down a mountainside, and I held on for dear life, attempting to avoid tree trunks from shattering my knees and branches from slashing into my eyes. Now that is what I call a crash course in Mongolian language. The Tsaatan, or reindeer herders, are a nomadic people living for the most part off what nature and their reindeer has to offer. Unlike other Mongolians, the Tsaatan live in teepees, which they dismantle as the seasons change, moving from the high mountains in summer to the plains in winter, with a middle camp for autumn and spring. Reindeer are highly valuable throughout the duration of their life, providing milk, transportation, and horns for souvenir carving. Only in their old age are they killed for meat and hide.
Life in the Tsaatan camps is tough, living directly exposed to the elements was never an easy business. Cooking essentials, such as oil and flour are rare to come by, and require hours of trekking across marshes and forests before one reaches the nearest village. In summer, this is a full day’s worth of hard travel.
Luckily, reindeer are incredibly gentle creatures with a very soft footing. Unlike horses, who are terrified of virtually everything that was put on this planet, reindeer have a rather tranquil and placid nature. Being mountain creatures, their split hoof makes it possible for them to move up and down easily and carelessly. While holding on and remaining on the saddle is more of a rodeo act than a parade, there is a certain grace to the reindeer’s gait.
As with horseback riding in Mongolia, you will receive limited instructions as you mount. While I was told that it is very easy to fall off and that reindeer are faster than horses, I was left to my own devices on how to control the animal, which did not seem to respond to the same commands as horses. Indeed, the reindeer refused to even move forward. Eventually as I began to despair, our guide quickly shouted “be careful when they turn!” and slapped my ride into a trot.
Truly, they are faster than horses.