Deep in the Larch Forests of Northern Mongolia lives a tiny tribe of people known as the Dukha. For more than 3,000 years they have survived as nomads, moving camp 10 times a year across the mountains. Their existence is pinned on one animal: the reindeer. But their unique way of life now hangs in the balance.
Getting to the taiga, where the Dukha live, is a long and arduous process. From the traffic-choked streets of Mongolia's capital, Ulaan Bataar, it's an hour's flight to the tiny city of Murun. From there it's two long days of intense off-roading through the vast, wild landscape of the Mongolian steppe.
Our guide was Dan Plumley, an American who first encountered the Dukha more than 10 years ago and who went on to create the Totem People's Project, an organization that works to empower and protect nomadic reindeer herders in Northern Mongolia and Eastern Siberia.
"They just basically grabbed me by the lapels and said, 'You can't leave us, you're the only who knows that we're challenged people and we're facing extinction and we need help,'" Plumley explained.
The final stage of the journey into the taiga is the most grueling: a 10-hour trek on horseback, crossing three mountains through thick mud and dense forest. And then, in the distance, we catch the first glimpse, almost surreal, of a Dukha man riding a reindeer.
There are 52 Dukha families in the taiga. They live in small groups in tepees spread out over an area of some 6 million acres. Unlike most reindeer-herding cultures, the Dukha raise their deer primarily for milk production. Reindeer milk, reindeer yoghurt and reindeer cheese are the staples of the Dukha diet. Only a small amount of reindeer are actually slaughtered for meat and pelts.
The most important function of the reindeer is as a means of transportation. The deer may look small, but they have extremely strong necks from the heavy weight of their antlers, which weigh up to 50 pounds.
From a very young age, Dukha children learn to ride the deer, often without saddles. The relationship between the Dukha and their deer is very loving -- these are the oldest domesticated reindeer in the world.
Sanjin is a revered Dukha elder. His son is also a reindeer herder.
"The reindeer are our life," he said, "Everything we do is connected to them."
"It's a great heritage from our ancestors," added his son.
Without Electricity, Running Water, Dukha Separated from Modern World
Life for the Dukha tribe is simple and hard. There is no electricity or running water, and the temperature can drop to 40-below-zero in the winter. While they are starting to incorporate elements of the modern world, such as solar-panel batteries and satellite dishes, into their daily life, they are doing it at their own pace.
"They're interested in bettering their life, but they want to do it on their terms," explained Plumley, "And living on their terms is a window for us from a harried world into what's really important in life: friends and family, spending time laughing and telling stories, seeing nature and all of its beauty."
It's easy to get swept up in the dramatic beauty of the landscape and the velvety fur of the reindeer. But the animals face very real threats to their existence. Increased mineral prospecting, gold mining and timber cutting are destroying the reindeer habitat.
"We need the Mongolian government to protect the traditional lands of the reindeer herders for their hunting-and-gathering lifestyle," Plumley said.
Dukha children go to school far from home and are educated in Mongolian, not their native Tuvan language. More and more, young people are opting to move to the cities rather than face the hardships of their traditional way of life.
Sanjin is philosophical about the situation. "The young generation must decide for themselves," he said. "I would miss my motherland and my deer too much. Here I feel freedom every day. But sometimes I think I should go to the city and look at the high buildings."
Then there are the economic problems. When the Soviet Union collapsed, state-provided funding for the Dukha stopped, leaving them struggling financially to support themselves and to keep their deer healthy.
Totem Project Seeks to Improve Health of Reindeer Herd
Plumley brings boxes filled with veterinary equipment. Over the last 10 years, the Totem Project has worked closely with the Dukha and local veterinarians to improve the health of the reindeer. So far the herd has grown from a pitiful 400 to just under 1,000.
Plumley also brings carving tools, to help the Dukha develop a rapidly growing source of income: antler carvings.
Tourism is another source of revenue for the Dukha. In 2008 more than 160 people made the long journey to visit the reindeer herders. But there have been problems with tour groups arriving unannounced, and the Dukha often do not see any of the money that the tour groups bring in.
For Plumley, the future of the reindeer herders is a cause that he believes all nations should embrace.
"If we in the Western societies espouse freedom, we ought to be darn sure that the smallest native peoples can continue their traditional life in the mountains, where they have done so sustainably for 3,000 years," he said.
Watching the Dukha with their children and their animals, it's hard not to be moved by their fate.
"When we spend time with the reindeer herders, we get back to the basics and we get back to what it really means to be human," Plumley said, "And you can't spend time with the herders without being touched, without being shaken."
Most people will never visit this remote corner of the world, will never meet the Dukha or play with their reindeer. But they have populated these mountains for thousands of years, and advocates hope that, with a little help, they will continue to do so for generations to come.
To learn more about the Dukha, please visit the Totem People's Project Web site.