The Tsaatan Mongolia

Journeys to Come: a library for the Dukha

Inside the fight to deliver books to Mongolia’s last reindeer herders.

Nearing the hopeful end of lockdown, we’re reminding ourselves that we’ve seen the world – and we’ll see it again. That’s why we’re serving up some much-needed travel escapism; stories that celebrate some of the world’s most remarkable reasons to pack your bags. And in this way, from the comfort of your armchair, you can enjoy these Journeys to Come. The first of these (in case you missed it) was a spotlight on the December 2020 solar eclipse in Argentine Patagonia.

As such, we hope that today’s story will offer a new lens through you can glimpse one of the world’s most immaculately beautiful and remote lands, inspiring you ultimately to think about travelling with us to this place of dramatic brown-black mountains, rolling grasslands, and ancient forest – echoing with the call of wolf, reindeer and bear. This week, we’re going to Mongolia.

With thanks to Mark Lamb for much of the article’s photography.

Dukha Mongolia

Welcome to the land of the reindeer people

Far away among the plains and forests of the Mongolian taiga, Ariuna Lkhagvasuren is dreaming of a library. But while the books she dreams of sound familiar (from biology and maths to chemistry and linguistics), the people she’s gathering them for are far from ordinary. The Dukha are one of the world’s smallest ethnic minorities. But they’re also one of the last groups of nomadic reindeer herders in the world.

What follows is the story of a community’s fight to preserve their historic way of life. It concerns reindeer, phone reception, permafrost and tradition. But it’s also the story of the Dukha’s desire for education and entertainment in one of the most remote and hardy corners of the world, where the winters — long, dark and cold — make accessing books and educational materials notoriously difficult. “That”, explains Ariuntamir — the project’s co-ordinator — “is how this idea first started, seeing how many of the herders love reading but don’t have books – and there’s no way to find them.”

A remote, forested region. A nomadic community. A desire for books and learning. For Ariuna Lkhagvasuren, the answer was simple: the Dukha must have a library. But first, they’ll need the help of supporters and travellers across the world. People like you, and us.

A historic way of life – and the fight to save it

The Dukha practice a way of life that has gone largely unchanged for centuries, though always with an eye to the wider world. A Chinese source of the Qing dynasty describes 22 individuals – with a herd of 192 reindeer – in a census of 1764. Other sources mention people living in this region as far back as the 13th century, described as “Oyin urged” – or “citizens of the forest.” Deeper still, the archaeological evidence has uncovered reindeer rock art dating back as far as the early Bronze Age. Clearly, herding is an integral part of the Mongolian story. And it’s a story that Black Tomato travellers have participated in for nearly 15 years, whether embarking on a skiing expedition with the nomads of the taiga or meeting the eagle hunters of the Altai mountains.

Today, the Dukha’s way of life continues to revolve around their reindeer; where they must move seasonally between the west (baruun) and east (zuun) taiga in response to the grazing needs of their herds. These landscapes are a deeply specific type of ecosystem; dominated by deep forests of larch and broad, rolling valleys tinged with the frost and penumbra of polar tundra. Rugged, ancient and diverse, this is a place of jagged peaks combed with slabs of ice, open valleys, and forest-studded hillsides. Vast, sun-touched lakes reflect the flanks and snow-capped peaks of the Ulaan Taiga mountains and gaze off with stately grandeur across the Russian border and into the lands of Tuva. Tendrils of campfire smoke rise softly into the air. Horsemen can be seen cantering across the vast distances. The world seems to go on forever.

It’s easy to see why this landscape is sacred as much as it is practical. But perhaps the greatest commodity for the Dukha are patches of historic ice and deeper snow which provide essential resources for the reindeer’s survival. And it is around these areas that the needs of the herd are shaped. To live and thrive in this place is to sink your hands into the earth and to know exactly how to read and anticipate it. It’s not easy. It takes time, and patience, and the work of years

At the same time, the Dukha have not been immune to the ebb and flow of history – some of it welcome, some of it not. The need for reliable phone signal might increasingly dictate the movements of the herders. The replacement of fur tents with more durable fabrics and cloth. There are phones. Crafts made and sold. There is ritual, practised by local shamans. And there are TV crews, keen to get a glimpse into a truly authentic way of life. But throughout — always — there has been the care and protection of the community and its herds. And this is no easy feat in a world of ever-accelerating globalization.

But this is precisely the reason we work with partners like Ariuna and Karina; creating the opportunity to meet and learn from the Dukha in a meaningful and immersive way. After all, theirs is one of the world’s most authentic and fascinating traditions – and it all unfolds in one of the globe’s most spectacular locations. This is what Black Tomato has always been about: connecting travellers in a deep and thoughtful way with people whose lives are very different from their own. This isn’t about waving and passing through. It’s about sharing, learning and discovering. And when the lockdown is over, these kinds of connection — meaningful, and real — will seem more important than ever before.

The Tsaatan Dhuka Mongolia

Indeed, changes to the Dukha’s way of life have been subtle but pronounced. Tsagaan Nuur village — the permanent hub of this scattered community — has become increasingly important; with more people (particularly women, young children and the elderly) spending time in the village during the long winter season. The population of 2,000 is itself a mix, with members of the Dukha living alongside the Khalkha and Darkhad ethnic groups. In total, some 800 belong to the Dukha community, though many have left their reindeer and herd Mongolian livestock (such as cows, sheep and goats) instead.

And it is here, in the village, that many families have begun to build more permanent structures and cabins (gers), while the remainder of the herders head deep into the forests and the mountains in search of suitable grazing grounds. Over the course of the year, they may move as many as 20 times.

But things have not always been easy. Back in 1996, there were only 300 reindeer in Mongolia – and these were feared to go extinct. Slowly, this number has climbed upwards thanks to successful breeding and health programmes. That’s why, for the first time in 2019, the total number of reindeer exceeded 2,000 animals. But this, explains Ariuna, “isn’t enough.” Various factors have made life in the Taiga precarious, not least the impact of climate change. In interviews with herders, researchers heard how — for the first time in living memory — ice patches and deep snow have begun to melt, leading to a decline in the quality of pastures, reindeer sickness and even death. The Dukha have also had to contend with territorial disputes, illegal mining activities and poaching. And so, while the population size has increased, there are many other risks and challenges waiting at the door.

And many of these are cultural.

“Reindeer herders are one of the major tourist attractions in Mongolia” explains Ariuna. “Many people travel to the north to meet them, so it’s really important that they keep their traditions alive when tourists come. Especially for the young generation who need to keep their traditions and customs as much as they can.” Indeed, many of the younger Dukha have lost their traditional language and speak exclusively in Mongolian. That’s why Ariuna is expecting that the library “would be a good place for the children to learn more about their traditions by attending different types of workshops, watching documentaries about them, and reading research that was made by filmmakers and scholars in the past.”

Education can’t halt the effects of climate change, but it can build resistance and autonomy in a community that is particularly exposed to its effects and its ravages.

A library for the whole community

A library is not simply a stockpile of books, explains Ariuna. It’s an “accelerator” for education in an incredibly remote and rural area. Mongolia is, after all, a sparsely populated country where more than half the population live in the capital city Ulaanbaatar. A lack of education and qualifications in rural areas can pose as much a risk to the community as poaching and climate change. A well-stocked modern library offers an essential building-block to help the Dukha thrive. As Ariuna explains, “a couple of years ago a new library was built in the Changeltei district of Ulaanbaatar.” This, according to its librarian, led to a demonstrably increased pass-rate among students. “We’re hoping to see such changes” notes Ariuntamir, “but this time in a rural area.”

Currently, the village of Tsagaan Nuur has a small room that houses some 1,000 textbooks and manuals. It’s a start, but there’s much more to be done. After all, this isn’t just about the children – but about the wider community and their access to books, entertainment and information. “We want [the library] to be accessible to everyone who lives in the town, as well as reindeer herders who live in the two regions of the taiga. Because everyone has the right to education, it shouldn’t be limited by age, gender, ethnicity or where they live.”

As such, the project is looking for books and materials that help the Dukha engage with the world but also to understand and preserve their own culture. From scientific textbooks to fiction, history, literature and anthropology. She’s also on the lookout for documentaries – the same films we ingest on lazy Sunday afternoons: BBC Earth, One Planet, One Strange Rock. As ever, she’s also on the search for toys, puzzles and board games for kindergarteners.

A small room that houses big dreams. But Ariuna’s ambitions extend beyond simply gathering materials. “We want this new library to be run on renewable energy – providing it with warmth and electricity.” As she observes, “global warming and climate change are really happening around us. Air temperatures in Mongolia have risen at three times the global rate since the 1940s. Throughout the country, nomads have struggled with droughts in the summer and extreme winters, putting communities across the country at risk. What’s more, Tsagaan Nuur currently uses wood to obtain heat. “Only 8.3% of Mongolian land is covered by forest,” explains Ariuna, “so it’s a pity to see people go to the forest” for their fuel. “We’d like to try and live in an eco-friendly way as much as we can.”

Bringing books to the wilderness

The first step is to build the library itself; with an “attractive exterior [and] fully equipped interior.” Inside there will be a reading room and media space. “We also want to build a bio-toilet and green energy facilities.” Meanwhile, the project will need to gather books to fill the library. Ideally, “we’d like to get Mongolian and English books by donation. It doesn’t matter if they’re old or new.” Some have already been pledged from the US and through a successful social media drive.

Once the library itself has been built and stocked, the next step is to run educational workshops and to expand its influence through a mobile version of the library – transported (of course) by reindeer. “This will be a mobile library that will provide books to reindeer herders who can’t really get access to the library. Some of the family could even rent their reindeer for carrying books.”

Over time, the project hopes that foreign and Mongolian volunteers alike will travel to the taiga to teach activities such as English, planting, music and knitting. Books are only just the beginning.

We want the library to be accessible to everyone who lives in the town, as well as the reindeer herders who live in the taiga. Education shouldn’t be limited by age, gender, ethnicity or where you live.

– Ariuna Lkhagvasuren

How can I support the Dukha?

For now, restrictions make accessing the Dukha mostly impossible for travellers outside of Mongolia. Donations of money are always welcome and can be contributed here.

Projects like this are an important part of our (always bespoke) Mongolian itineraries – introducing you to the ancient, rich, and thriving communities who live in this vast and spectacular country. And in the days to come, Black Tomato travellers will have the opportunity to meet the Dukha for themselves. As Ariuna notes, “we’ll have a nomadic library on future Black Tomato trips, taking (and collecting) books from families we visit along the way. Guests can, of course, donate books which remain with the family, or move on with the “Book Box” itself.” For those more intrepid travellers who want to journey to the library itself, there will always be scope to take this “longish” expedition North to where the herders live – some “three days by road”, or a more rapid journey by Cesna or helicopter”. Here, you’ll be able to visit the library in person.

Thanks to Mark Lamb of Earth Soul Images for the article’s photography.

CURIOUS ABOUT MONGOLIA?

The northern taiga is just one of the places you can visit during a bespoke Black Tomato trip to Mongolia. Head to our country page to find out more about this remote and mesmerizing country.

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