A Photographer Visited A Lost Mongolian Tribe And Took Some Seriously Amazing Photos

No matter how advanced technology gets, there are still many places and cultures left unexplored, at least for most of us.

Our civilization has improved a lot since the early days, and we have developed our world to an extent that would have been unimaginable for the early generations.

As globalization made it challenging for smaller cultures to preserve the unique way of life, beliefs, and traditions, learning about a small group of people who have managed to remain connected to nature and their ancestors until the present day is fascinating, put it mildly.

For over a decade, photographer and anthropologist Hamid Sardar-Afkhami has toured the world.

He is a scholar of both Tibetan and Mongolian languages with a Ph.D. from Harvard University in the field of Inner Asian languages and cultures.

According to his website:

“Inspired by the pioneers of exploration photography, Sardar-Afkhami devotes his cameras to telling the story of endangered cultures who maintain a spiritual dialogue with the natural world.

Spanning over a decade and across the world, Sardar-Afkhami has directed and produced several prize-winning feature documentaries and industrial films for corporate clients. His editorials have been featured in prestigious publications such as National Geographic, Geo, Le Figaro Magazine and Paris Match.”

When he was touring the East Asian country of Mongolia, he visited the lost tribe of Dukha, and spent several years with them.

The simple life in the tribe fascinated him, and his captivating photos reveal a whole world outside of civilization.

He also filmed a documentary on them, with the title “The Reindeer People”, that has won the Best Film on Mountain Culture prize by the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

The Dukha people or the Tsataans, (a term that means “reindeer herder”) belong to a Tuvan-Turkic ethnic group that has lived on the border of Mongolia and Russia for millennia.

They are descendants of natives Russia’s Siberia and Khvosgol, a northern province in Mongolia. They are nomads that live in remote forests and move from one pasture to the other about five to ten times annually.

Despite their modern clothes, these people live the same life as they did centuries ago. They believe in their ancestral spirits, which are thought to live in the sacred forests.

These people are reindeer herders, which they do since very young. When the reindeer are too young, they are groomed and trained by children.

The northern reindeer (sp. Rangifer tarandus) is the totem animal and the central connecting aspect of their culture.

The Dukhans raise reindeer for cheese, milk, and yogurt, use them for transportation, offer reindeer tours and sell them to traders from the cities.

The reindeer is completely domesticated, and they believe their culture will die if these animals become extinct.

Moreover, these spiritual people believe they have a supernatural connection to wildlife, and they also train eagles, bears, and wolves. Eagle hunting is an ages-old tradition, and it is considered a privilege. Eagle hunters are well-respected within the tribe.

Unfortunately, their population is dramatically lower than before, and as of 2010, they are about 282 people and fewer than 44 families.

Hamid explains:

“They’re certainly a dying culture. The number of families has fallen because a lot of them have been synthesized with the mainstream community. Many of them have moved to the towns and even to the capital cities.

The biggest threat in Sardar-Afkhami’s view is the defection from the younger Dukha generation, who don’t want to live in the harsh conditions in the taiga (or “snow forest”).

They want to go down and stay in warm cabins in the winter, maybe buy a car and drive. There’s a big appeal to the modern life. The hardships of the traditional life as a reindeer herder certainly play a factor.” 

Hamid also maintains that the rapid decline in the population has been a result of the government’s decision to close off the Dukhans’ hunting ground as a national, protected park.

Unfortunately, the reindeer are also dying at a rapid rate due to diseases and the unavailability of medication.

On the other hand, the Dukhans have not benefited a lot from tourism either. Tourism is mainly concentrated around the reindeer, and a few pictures with these animals cost 5,000 Mongolian tugriks ($2.50). Tourists can also try deer-rides, horse-rides, and tours of their camps.

Yet, many have criticized the tribe for using the reindeer as a way to attract visitors to their camps.

Timur Yadamsuren, a spokesperson for Intrepid Travel in Mongolia, explained:

 “Many travelers are of the opinion that this area isn’t the best environment for the reindeer as they’re native to much colder climates and are brought to Lake Khovsgol so the herders can benefit from tourism. For these reasons Intrepid Travel doesn’t recommend this activity.”

Enkhatuya, a leader of a group of Dukhans who live on the outskirts of the forests, claims that the animals are treated like family by the tribe:

 “As a culture, we’ve deep connections with our reindeer. They’re like our family. We would never abuse them as such. I can assure you they aren’t suffering.”

She believes that their community will thrive again:

“Our young people are returning to continue our ancestral tradition. They’re as close to the tribe and culture as they ever were. They’re continuing to speak our native language.”

We keep our fingers crossed!