Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Naadam in the West Taiga, Mongolia

Getting ready for the children's reindeer race.

"Naadam" or "eriin gurvan naadam" or "the three games of men" is a major national holiday held every July in Mongolia. The three games are archery, wrestling and horse racing. A huge event attracting tourists from around the world, it is held in the national Sports Stadium in Ulaanbaatar. The horse racing occurs a bit outside the city. If you cannot attend this three-day event in the capital, smaller Naadams are held during the summer in the countryside.


This past June we were visited the Dukha reindeer herders at their summer camp in the west taiga of northern Mongolia. Upon arrival at our camp we learned that a group of tourists from the USA were staying nearby on their annual visit and that the next day there would be a small Naadam for guests and hosts to enjoy. By the afternoon of the next day, reindeer herders and their families had arrived for the festival. In addition, foreign tourists from Europe staying with herders elsewhere in the west taiga arrived in different groups with their guides. Besides the locals, our Mongolian horse guide and the other USA tourists participated in the wrestling event. 

There was no archery competition and instead of horses there were reindeer races. The first race was for children. Boys and girls from the age of three (a little boy tied in to his reindeer saddle) to ages 11 or 12 participated. A small six year-old girl I knew from previous years was a fierce competitor. She did not win, but she finished ahead of our 11 year-old horse guide. Her mother rode in the adult race. For the spectators, some enterprising locals were selling khuushuur (a meat pastry) and small packaged snacks. For tourists, there were carved reindeer antler pieces and reindeer antler accessories.

Though small, the gathering was colorful and the children's race especially was very exciting and intense. It was a nice way for families to have an afternoon visiting friends and family before heading off again to their separate camps in the west taiga.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Taiga Kindergarten


The kindergarten urts, west taiga, northern Mongolia.

Transition to kindergarten is an exciting time for any child, but even more so for the Dukha reindeer herding children of northern Mongolia. Throughout the year, families migrate four to six, even ten times to new pastures for their animals. They move back and forth seasonally from the forests to Tsaagannuur sum (the government center) where the schools, two banks, a hospital and a few local shops are located. In the taiga forests where the reindeer graze families stay in a birch and canvas urts (teepee) that is heated by a wood burning stove. When staying in town most families have a small wooden house. No one has indoor plumbing.

This past summer, to prepare them for entering school for the first time in the fall, five-year olds in the west taiga attended a 21-day pre-kindergarten class. There were two specially erected urts for the occasion, one a dedicated classroom and the other a temporary home for the instructors. Toys, games, floor coverings, and all of the necessary materials were transported to the countryside from Tsaagannuur by horse or reindeer. Thirty children registered for the class. Two teachers stayed from the end of June until mid-August teaching the children not just ‘academics,’ but reinforcing good hand-washing and teeth brushing habits as well. There was also lots of time for outdoor play and storytelling. Our small NGO Corawill donated some notebooks, workbooks, markers, pens and games for the children. 

In the taiga, weather delays and school closings do not exist. It snowed lightly the first day of school as the kids arrived by foot, horse and reindeer. On opening day parents came too and tied up their 'transportation' as they visited the school. What a beautiful setting for their new learning experiences.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Summer Migration in the Taiga


Urts poles left after the migration, after a storm.The Dukha east taiga summer camp in northern Mongolia.

Reindeer are the only semi-domesticated animal native to the north. Reindeer herding is believed to have originated around two to three thousand years ago in the Sayan Mountains, located between Russia and Mongolia. Today, 24 different indigenous groups in nine circumpolar countries herd reindeer, or rangifer tarandas. The smallest of these groups are the Dukha of northern Mongolia. Today, about 58 families herd roughly 2700 reindeer in the east and west taiga (boreal forest) located on Mongolia's border with Russia. Unlike other reindeer herders, the Dukha do not regularly slaughter their animals for food. Instead, they are milked and used as pack animals.


The Dukha say that the reindeer let them know when it is time to migrate, roughly four to six times a year. Every June, a few weeks after school has ended, families migrate from the spring camp to the summer camp high in the Sayan mountains. They stay until mid August when it is time to pack up and migrate back to the winter camp near the town. While some families and young people will remain at the winter camp, children, their mothers and the elderly will return to the nearby town for the beginning of the school year on September 1. Older students will stay in a newly built dorm while those younger than third grade will commute from their homes. Most Dukha have a small winter house or a ger (yurt) in town.

Taking down an urts (a birch pole and canvas tepee) and packing up for migration, then traveling from the spring to summer camp is accomplished in one day, regardless of the weather. In 2016 when I visited, the days were dry and beautiful, the sky a clear deep blue. This past year, there were freezing rain storms in the east and snow in the west during the days we traveled with the herders to their summer camps. We learned that intense weather is no match for a warm deel (Mongolian traditional robe), a durable rubber Russian raincoat and a sturdy taiga horse.