Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Life among the reindeer herders

In which Odin the Alaskan traverses the tundra, milks reindeer, makes pelmeni, and generally enjoys life with a group of Siberian reindeer herders!
Thanks to Khoomei.com for this map.
Missed something? Catch up on Part 1: Siberian Adventures and Part 2: On the road in the Tuva Republic!
Map of Tyva Republic showing our route. Kyzyl to Toora-Khem is shown in blue, while Toora-Khem to the herders' camp is in red. Regional boundaries are indicated by faint pink lines—Todzhu is the largest region and the one furthest to the northwest.

It's difficult to discuss reindeer herding without making it seem romantic and/or otherworldly. Its exotic image is probably part of why it's an interesting topic to many. Even as someone from Alaska, a land where reindeer herding was historically widespread for a time, the lifestyle of a herder seems far-removed from the realm of my day-to-day experiences.
Yet many aspects of life during my few weeks among the herders were rather ordinary. Our typical tasks and chores in camp were familiar. A number of days there seemed to drag on, making me stir-crazy, especially if I didn't leave camp to go walking or hiking. A big part of the herders' lives involves travel through the taiga. To a city-dweller this might seem exotic, but to someone who's worked in the woods or spent a lot of time there, it's often pleasant, yet also has a certain familiarity to it.
There is one thing that does make these herders' lives extraordinary, though. Almost all people in the modern world—even the vast majority of rural Siberian natives—spend some or all of their time living in town. Even most reindeer herders nowadays are based in settlements: herders in northern Siberia commonly work on a shift-based system (e.g. 2 weeks in the tundra, 2 weeks in the village), while Alaska's Inupiaq herders make day-trips to their reindeer and return to their villages each night.

But not the Todzhan herders.

Sergei Shagdyr-oolovich lives with his 25-year-old son, whom I'll call D. Both father and son return separately to the village of Toora-Khem (or nearby Adyr-Kezhig) several times annually, but live nearly the entire year in the taiga.
Sergei Shagdyr-oolovich
Wintertime they spend at lower elevations, where the weather is not as severe and the snowdrifts are not as deep. Here, the herders have a few small cabins, including this one, where we initially met Shagdyr-oolovich.
In late spring the herders follow their reindeer up to near treeline. During the course of  a summer, reindeer & herders move several times from pasture to pasture, the latter camping in a lightweight nylon walltent.
Reindeer may roam at any time day or night, but they seldom wander more than a mile or so from camp.

They are very curious animals, and often linger near camp, poking their paws & noses at anything of interest.

Both Shagdyr-oolovich and D. seemed very at home in the taiga, and the father, particularly, appeared to have far more forest knowledge than even the most seasoned woodsmen and hunters I've known back at home. Yet Shagdyr-oolovich sometimes talked of plans to sell his reindeer, give up herding, and settle down in the village. It would be difficult for D. to get married and start a family without first eschewing his nomadic lifestyle.

Once or twice D. even chided me for not being grounded enough: “Why do you spend your time & money traveling around the world instead of settling down and trying to build a career? When you get to be 60 or 70, don't you want to have something meaningful to look back on?” I recalled many similar lectures my mom & grandma have given me throughout the past ten years. Yet work or other opportunities have often driven me to travel or migrate from place to place... the herders migrate from pasture to pasture to support their deer. And even if he didn't plan to herd reindeer forever, I figured that D. surely found something appealing and meaningful about his life as a nomad.

A film crew had visited the herders the previous summer and had left them a solar panel, which they used to power their portable DVD player. Although they had hundreds of DVDs, most of had lots of scratches and wouldn't play through to the end. Apart from the dozens of helicopters that buzzed by above their camp, the herders' only day-to-day connection to the outside world was a small radio, with which Shagdyr-oolovich listened to the news & weather every morning.
Last summer, Shagdyr-oolovich and D. also lived with a 6-year-old relative named Tuktug-ool, a name which I heard translated as either “hairy boy” or “wooly boy.” Tuktug-ool would run after me whenever I went to fetch water, would sometimes rouse me out of bed before I wanted to get up (“Тур! Тур!”), and was always trying to persuade me into activities like swimming in the nearby creek. I usually had to guess just what he was trying to talk me into doing, since he spoke only Tuvan. But he was quickly picking up some key Russian phrases. He knew how to urge me “let's go” (“поидём!”), and from D. he had picked up obscenities to level against the herders' dogs (“Чор!, ёбь твою мать!!”)
Unlike most of their counterparts in Scandinavia, North Siberia and Alaska, Todzhan reindeer herders do not keep large herds. Sergei Shagdyr-oolovich owns perhaps 40 or 45 animals altogether, which seems like a fairly average number for a Tuvan herder. Large herds in the North may number 1,500 head of reindeer or more—about the same number as currently inhabit all of Todzhu (and Tuva).
Ayanka & Sergei Shagdyr-oolovich examine the herd
Because of their small herd size, Todzhan herders like Shagdyr-oolovich do not rely on their herds for meat production. Shagdyr-oolovich said he slaughters perhaps 3 or 4 animals per year, all for personal use. Todzhan herders depend on subsistence hunting as a major source of their food, and on wintertime trapping for most of their monetary income. Reindeer, of course, are essential for hunting & trapping.

Sergei Shagdyr-oolovich, but mostly D., made overnight hunting trips into the taiga every few days. They would ride their specially-trained castrated bulls, and would bring along only the most basic essentials: half a loaf of bread, a tarp to sleep under at night. Once or twice, after heavy downpours, D. returned totally wet and exhausted. Herders say that reindeer are able to travel much more quickly through the taiga than horses are, and that their hooves don't sink into the mud like horses' hooves do.

D. and a herder from a neighboring camp returning from a hunt.

Sometimes herders from neighboring camps would visit and hunt together with D. Unfortunately I was not able to accompany D. on any overnight hunting trips because I am too large to ride a reindeer. D and I tried, on foot, to hunt a goat near the herders' camp. We stealthily crept up toward where we had last seen it...and opened fire on a piece of old wood that looked like its back. A few seconds later we spotted the actual goat, but by then it was swiftly hopping away into the forest.

The herders also kept three hunting dogs, which were probably the wildest domestic dogs I've ever seen. They would began barking at the slightest provocation, such as whenever anyone returned to camp. The one pictured here nearly attacked me on several occasions, and stole a large amount of meat we had cached in the nearby creek.
Even when not off in the taiga hunting, Sergei Shagdyr-oolovich was constantly scanning the surrounding meadow and mountainsides for goats, deer, or other animals. After I saw moose-tracks and droppings on a nearby mountain-slope, Shagdyr-oolovich spent several hours glassing it from a vantage point above our camp.

Life around camp was generally uneventful, so I welcomed daily chores & tasks most of the time. Cooking was the most significant and time-consuming, and was something that neither Shagdyr-oolovich nor D. seemed to be particularly fond of. Ayanka & I were happy to take the initiative, and we had brought a couple huge gunnysacks of food: pasta, bread, rice, potatoes, oil, canned meat, jam, cookies, candies, tea. Our usual meals were some form of soup, macaroni, fried rice, or buckwheat.

When the weather was good we would cook outside over the firepit.
Ayanka, Tuktug-ool, and a visiting herder from another camp.
When it was rainy, we cooked on top of the woodstove inside the tent.
Once our bread ran out, we made either лепёшки (lepyoshki--fry-bread) or quick-bread almost daily, the latter of which was sandwiched between two cast-iron skillets and baked on top of the woodstove. The herders were expert at making both of these.
frying a lepyoshka

Many mornings we milked reindeer-cows. The night before a milking, D. would round up the fawns belonging to the cows we intended to milk, muzzling each fawn and tying it to a stake in the ground. This prevented them from sucking their mothers' milk dry.

When milking we tied the cows to a large wooden tripod. Milking can be unbelievably dirty and frustrating, especially for a beginner. Many of the cows didn't like it much, either, and would often shift and stamp around, sometimes spilling our jars of milk. Flies greatly exacerbated this problem.

Milking is common practice among Todzhan reindeer herders, but ordinarily not among Shagdyr-oolovich and D. It's generally seen as women's work, so in an all-male camp there is often little motivation for it. The milk was delicious, though, and was our main source of protein for a week or so.
I spent considerable time hiking around in the mountains and exploring.

Sometimes I would look for goats or other animals but the extent of my hunting success was a single ptarmigan...by then we'd been out of meat for a week, so it added some welcome flavor to our soup.
A few days later, D. returned from a hunting trip with the meat of a wild goat and portions of a Siberian red-deer (“марал” in Russian) strapped to one of his reindeer.

Sergei Shagdyr-oolovich unloading the meat
Camp instantly became abuzz with excitement—we had been eating nothing but starch for at least the past week or so. We spent most of the afternoon grinding meat, boiling it, caching it in the cool of the nearby creek, and gorging on it.

Some of the food we made over the next few days included пельмени (pelmeni--meat dumplings, pictured below), чебуреки (chebureki--meat pies), fried liver, and of course soup.
In addition to these tasty animals, the Sayan Mountains also contain a number of edible plants, such as wild onion, which grew copiously in the swampy tussocks, and which we used to flavor our ground meat and soups.
Here are a few more of the edible plants I encountered:
L: I had only known rhubarb as a garden plant back at home, and so was surprised to stumble across patches of it growing on a dry, treeless hillside near our camp. R: Shagdyr-oolovich showed us how to find and gather this plant, a close relative of the puchki (aka cow-parsnip) ubiquitous to southern Alaska.
L: Blueberries and lingonberries (aka lowbush cranberries, pictured here) here are of the same species as those in Alaska. I did not see any actual berries while we were there, though—it was probably a bit too early. R: Falltime in many parts of Russia locals harvest cedar-pine cones, which contain edible nuts. Our visit was mostly during July, so the nuts weren't ripe yet.
Ayanka's primary task, of course, was conducting her ethnographic research. This mainly involved asking the herders many questions about intricacies of Todzhan geography and culture, and writing detailed notes about it in her notebook. Ayanka was also busy shooting footage for a film she was hoping to make. D and I were supposed to stay silent and off-camera, but one or the other of us usually managed to get in the way somehow or other, much to Ayanka's annoyance. Below, she is filming Shagdyr-oolovich enacting a hunting posture.

After 3 ½ weeks of life with the herders, we loaded up our supplies onto pack-reindeer and returned to the road, where we had arranged for a vehicle to come and pick us up.
Here's a picture of all five of us.
Ayanka is from Tuva, has lived there a majority of her life, and is ethnically Tuvan. In a broad sense, then, she is from the same culture as the Todzhu-Tuvan reindeer herders. She has visited Todzhu several times, and conducted fieldwork there last summer. Yet she is continually learning new things about their culture, lifestyle, and land...which differ considerably from the part of Tuva to which she is native.
I was vaguely familiar with them from reading and from talking to Ayanka, but had no previous first-hand experience in that part of Siberia. Everything about the Todzhu-Tuvans, then, was quite new to me at the beginning of this trip. Even now, after spending nearly a month with the reindeer herders, I don't pretend to have anything but the most basic familiarity with Todzhu and the reindeer herders there. I very much enjoyed their company, though, appreciated their hospitality, and I found what I saw of their pastoral lifestyle to be appealing.

Огромное спасибо (a huge thanks!) to Odin for sharing his incredible story and photos!!!! Readers, if there's anything you'd like to ask Odin, leave a comment below and I'll have him drop by the blog to answer : )


  1. Great story and experience. Thanks for sharing it and loved the photos to.

  2. I had been saving this entry to read, and I'm so glad I gave it the time it deserved. This is one of the most fascinating accounts I've read on your blog--and you cover a lot of interesting ground!

    In particular, it was nice to get a behind-the-scenes peak at what daily life if like for the reindeer herders. Also, just as it is hard for me to imagine living like them, so too would it be hard for them to imagine why I live life the way I do (ie. valuing travel over settling down or dedicating my life to my craft.)

    Good for you for following in their footsteps for the better part of a month! It was really interesting to see how you related to these herders as an Alaskan native. Indeed, you seem almost surprised in how many similarities you can draw between lives from different corners of the planet, and it makes our world seem gloriously similar and unique at the same time.