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In Mongolia’s frozen forests, reindeer herders preserve their way of life

The 55-year-old is a member of the Dukha ethnic group, who roam the frozen Taiga forests on the Mongolian border with Russia herding reindeer.

The lives of this tiny community have barely changed since their ancestors began domesticating the animals thousands of years ago. Every day Chuluu releases his reindeers out into the forests to graze, calling them back once their bellies are full. He has been herding reindeer all his life, circling through a seasonal migration pattern dictated by their search for food.

The animals are everything to these people. They provide food, tools and transportation for the 280 Dukha, who are considered by some to be one of the smallest ethnic groups in the world.

“These animals, the reindeers, were herded by our ancestors, so it’s our will to maintain the tradition of herding these reindeer in the same way as our ancestors did.”

The Dukha’s spiritual lives are ruled by shamanism — a practice of worshipping spirits of nature and ancestors. Shamans carry out rituals that send practitioners into trances to find answers from these spirits that govern the forests.

Kyzyl-Ool (Kizil-Ool), 39, is one of them. He taps out a rhythm on a large drum made of reindeer skin to communicate with the spirits. Some spirits are said to be benign, others are aggressive.

“It’s a very terrible feeling. Even though I do it often I still get scared when I put my robes on, sometimes I feel like I really don’t dare wear them,” he said.

Kyzyl-Ool did not choose to be a shaman. After his father died he fell ill and began wandering the forest in a state of delirium. Eventually another shaman found him and told him the only way to cure his sickness was for him to become a shaman himself.

“When I begin the ritual I know what I’m doing, but when the spirit comes to me I’m not in control any more. When it comes I feel like I’m going into a dark hole, when people ask me their questions a spirit gives them the answers,” he said as he sat recovering from a ritual carried out to to mark the beginning of the lunar month.

The mysticism of the Dukhas’ way of life stands out in Mongolia, a predominantly Buddhist country.

The modern world is slowly making its way even to this isolated place, but Chuluu believes the traditions held dear by the reindeer herders will be carried on into the next generation.

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