After living in Nepal and exploring Tibet and the Himalayas for more than a decade, photographer Hamid Sardar-Afkhami decided he would travel to outer Mongolia to document the nomadic tribes and their unique way of life. A scholar of Tibetan and Mongol languages who received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Sanskrit and Tibetan Studies, Sardar was just the right person to capture the Dukha people, Mongolia’s last nomadic reindeer herders. The Dukha are an ancient group of people of Turk descent who are dependent on reindeer for their way of life. In addition to milk and cheese, the reindeer provide transportation for hunting. They’re ridden to hunt wild elk and boar.
The Dukha tribe is quickly disappearing. Only about 44 Dukha families remain, or between 200 to 400 people. In the 1970s, it’s estimated that there was a population of about 2,000 reindeer but that number has since dwindled to about 600.
Sardar has not only captured fascinating photos of this lost culture, he shot a film called The Reindeer People which followed a family on its seasonal migrations.
Here’s the synopsis: “In Northern Mongolia, there exists a sacred alliance between people, ancestor spirits and reindeer. This film is an intimate portrait of a family of Dukha reindeer nomads following their migration through the forests of Mongolia's Hovsgol province. They move with a herd of about a hundred reindeer through a sacred forest inhabited by the spirits of their ancestors, who communicate to the living through songs. The oldest Dukha, is a divine seer, a 96-year old shaman, called Tsuyan. She is the link between the healing songs of the forest ancestors, her people and their reindeer. She is the centerpiece of an extraordinary adventure that unites people and animals in one of the wildest regions of Mongolia – where people still live and hunt in a forest dominated by supernatural beings. To live in harmony with them, people had to learn to respect nature and animals and to pass down their beliefs, from generation to generation, by invoking the song-lines of their deceased ancestors.”
The film earned a jury prize for Best Film on Mountain Culture at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.