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Great Reindeer People of Siberia

(photos by E.M.Tchasnik)   

East Siberia’s most isolated territory where no any road extends into, one of the last patches of untouched taiga, the area of gorgeous rivers and waterfalls, mysterious caves and unearthly Kastarma pebble stones, the world’s best sables, the Land referred to by Valentin Rasputin as the “Country next to Heaven” , home to and last shelter of Siberia’s smallest ethnic group - Land of the Ancient & First Nomadic Reindeer Herders of Asia called “The Tofa” people…

Tofalaria lies between 95°37′ and 100°05′ E and 51°53′ and 54°59′ N and is relatively close to Central Asia. Encompassing an area of nearly 27 thousand square km this beautiful area is inhabited by the Tofa people –probably, one of the smallest ethnic minority on Earth.

Ancestors of the Tofa being very peaceful in character and mind avoided any violence inside their clans or clashes with any tribe invading their former territory of habitat. Thus they moved further to the deeps of Eastern Siberia finally finding their new and, evidently, last home amidst the picturesque northeast slopes of the Eastern Sayan Mountains. These mountains isolated the Tofa from the rest of the world and helped them to preserve their ancient society carrying on nomadic lives of hunters, reindeer herders and gatherers of the distant past.

The Tofa Challenge
Starting from 1927 during the Soviet era the Communist government made a number of decisions forming up its policy towards the nomads for the next 3 decades, and nearly destructed the ancient Tofa reindeer-herding traditions. The Soviet ideology required bringing all people together by collectivizing them which would make it easier for the state to control both -set up economic plans and the people themselves. Firstly, all individually owned reindeer were commandeered by the Soviet state and united into one collective herd. In this desire for the entire control much had been done to bring the Tofa as well as other reindeer herders of Siberia such as Soyots to a sedentary way of life. Thus severe damage was made to the reindeer-herding philosophy of the Tofa essential for their ethnic identity and integrity, traditional culture. Because the reindeer herding experiences besides just `skills alone comprise traditional pattern of behavior that determines the herdsmen's attitude toward their dear reindeer and lifestyle. Reindeer herding based on “ igun and anai” principles, requires love and understanding of the reindeer- as well as devotion to the nomadic life during seasonal herd migration or winter hunt which in its turn involves indifference to comfort, delight in hunting and custom in gathering that had kept their type of economy afloat for many centuries.

After ill-fated “perestroika” and collapse of the USSR all indigenous ethnic minorities of Siberia found themselves in a more difficult economic and spiritual situation than ever before. By the mid 80-s of the last century the Tofa happened in a way to have been “re-educated” by the Soviet regime, when a stable belief had been raised in the Tofa’s mind that the Soviet state would always take nice care of what the Tofa should do, when and how. With much less reindeer left or time for some other traditional traits at their disposal they would become used to depend on the state, even in getting food supplies and consumer goods by air transportation to their collective farms at the expense of the state (the latter, if not to count the right of each young Tofa for higher education and some monetary allowances, probably, was one of few “bonuses” the Tofas had been granted for their inborn non-violation or in this case- obedience to live in the collectives.)

In the 90-s of the last century the Tofa were left for God’s sake by Russia’s reformist governments. So, they found themselves again in isolation which this time became unfavorable to them. Soon, they were on the brink of cultural and economic extinction (over 70 % of adult population unemployed in 2003), though not physical yet but with birthrate and lifespan declining, and death toll increasing. It seemed that they eventually lost their place in the world.

The Tofa's ability to live in their mountainous taiga-homeland did not give them a chance to survive their collision with the indifference of the modern world. Most Tofa who have left Tofalaria, even those who received special training, return to recount with horror the time they spent away from the taiga and their traditional way of life…

However, in spite of the difficult survival situation there still remained some genetically tough Tofa persons with blood of their wise ancient chieftains circulating in their veins. Supported by public outside Tofalaria they put on efforts to revive the Tofa ancestral experiences, and even managed to render some help to their nomadic relatives – the Soyot people to do same.

But hardly this process began when recently the state approved very controversial and sophisticated regulation that in our view seems to be An Anti-Tofa Act. (# 175 of June,30,2009, issued by Russian Ministry of Nature Resources & Ecology; this governmental Act only “theoretically” aims at the nature preservation, but as a matter of fact in practice results in isolating the Tofa from seasonal migration routes, withdrawal of their natural environs from their traditional use… While providing conditions for few Russian oligarchs or “big fish” to hunt and fish in the Tofa’s primordial lands without consent of the local Tofa communities…).

Read more about the Tofa ans Tofalaria land: Language Endangerment Among the Tofa by K. David Harrison

The TOFA people still need assistance – both political and material, and moral support…

To help the Tofa people survive and preserve their primordial ways of life, traditilinal culture, and their natural environs “Absolute Siberia” Events & Expeditions Bureau jointly with the Irkutsk Regional Association of Indigenous People, Siberia Land Congress and the Tofa and Evenks Communities now work on the project of establishment of Nature Ethno-Parks in Tofalaria and some other areas inhabited by the Evenk people. The project plans considers creating jobs for the Tofa based on their traditional way of living through development of sustainable, well-balanced in time and space eco- and ethno-tourism, and re-introduction of Northern reindeer population in the areas where due to few reasons it already disappeared.

Below indicated Tofa Support Expedition trip is for those who besides learning new beautiful country, see reindeers and explore the great natural environs of Tofalaria is eager to help the Tofa community. And we can recommend how.

The Itinerary Description

Day 1between August, 20 - August, 25
Upon arrival in Irkutsk transfer to the downtown located 3-star hotel for check in. In the evening after dinner – meet Executive Director of Local Indigenous National Minorities – Mr. Victor Kuznetsov.

Day 2
Sightseeing tour in Irkutsk and on lake Baikal (Listvyanka) including visit to Baikal Ecology Museum and lunch of tasty Baikal cuisine served in the lakefront restaurant.

Day 3
Accompanied by your local guide/tour leader ride a train on full-day trip to Nizhneudinsk. Upon arrival – transfer to the local guest house for dinner followed by the orientation lecture on the forthcoming trip and overnight at the lodge.

Day 4
After breakfast transfer to the local airport to board MI-8 helicopter for flight to Alygdzher village in the Tofalaria mountains (1 hour flight). Upon arrival – accommodation at the families (toilet is in the outhouse without a flash, hot/cold water provided inside your accommodation facility).
After lunch the rest of the day will be spent exploring the central village of the Tofalaria – Alygdzher. First, we’ll see the Tofa Ethno-cultural center. Founded in 1991 the Tofa Ethnic Center has now a nice display of original ethnic items of the Tofa people: national clothing, fur, embroidery and birch bark items, paintings and drawings. Here we will also listen to a story by the Tofa Arts Director.
Later in the day we meet the Tofa community people for open discussions on their way of life.

Day 5
Spend half a day watching the local Tofa folklore – which will be a kind of mini- “Argamchi-eery” festival (or “the lasso games” festival).
The “Argamchi-eery” Tofa Festival dates back to the distant past when the Tofa tribes were a numerous nomadic group who migrated in a huge expanse from the Eastern Sayan down to the river of Yenisey. Though this holiday is celebrated usually once a year in the first decade of July, we will have during our stay an opportunity to see the major Tofa folkloric games that will be specially organized for us. Besides some Tofa sports competitions, we will watch the local “FAST Reindeer” children folkloric performance as well as see the local acting shaman who hitting the drum will do a special ritual to honor local deities (prepare your ribbons to tie on the “holy” tree or bush near the shamanistic ceremony to follow ancient tradition). In the evening we will have dinner featuring some simple but delicious entrees of the Tofa national cuisine. 

The Tofa Argamchi festival is usually held at the huge meadow in the end of Aligdzher village symbolically called as the “Stoyanka” (Tofa migration quarters), and where the sacred larch-tree grows (called shaman-tree) . The bellowing sounds of the “murgu” hunting decoy horns would invite the Tofa residents from 3 villages of Tofalaria to approach the sight of the festival. After all of the “sulgan” delegates arrive to the sacred larch-tree meadow, the local merited shaman would carry on special rite of offering to the master spirits of the local area, first, and then all who arrived tie colorful ribbons on the sacred larch-tree twigs
The local Tofa chieftain is then there to make fire and as soon as its first flames appear will perform the song of the Holy Fire sacrifice. After the song is over those who gathered will sing in set up order Tofa folklore songs called "ulgers," musical poems of wisdom, laconic and perfect in form- the songs named like “Down the Dodot river”, “The Summer Camp”, etc.
Dancing will also be then a part of the Tofa folkloric performance during the “Argamchi” festival with such dances starring as The Reindeer Dance, Sun Beams and Snow Flowers, The Black Eagle legend, The Hare Dance. Then in a kind of contest with no winners the delegated Tofa people would in each turn tell the Tofa fairy tales like “About Bear and Dog”, “Why the bear hibernates”, “ Why the chipmunk has stripes” etc. An then the singing part of the festival is most likely to end up with Tofalaric ditties ( our fluent bilingual Tofa-Russin guide will be there, at least, to convey the essence of those to us – hence, the play of Tofalaric words…). 

Day 6
After breakfast we start out for a 4 hour round hike to the waterfall on the Uda River with picnic-lunch in a very picturesque natural setting on the river bank. Upon return back to the village and before dinner – there’s still time to know your horses that you will ride during the upcoming 3-days horseback portion of the trip. If you’re a beginner, you’ll be welcome to take lessons on basic horse riding whereabouts and skills how to ride and handle a horse while on a one-of-a-kind exploration tour like this one.
Before dinner – enjoy Siberian “banya” - steam-bath prepared in original way of Russian Cossacks –early exploers of Eastern Siberia who penetrated this pat of the world in late 18-th century.

Days 7- 8 - On Horseback En Route the Kuktey Creek and Summer Reindeer Herding Camp
After early breakfast – last preparations before we start out for the horseback portion of the trip on the way to the seasonal camp of reindeer nomads. Your belongings/backpacks will be carried by pack horses to enable you get most pleasure from riding your horse through the pristine and fascinating wilderness of the Tofa Land. During the next 2 days we will spend the average of 5-6 hours per day on horseback moving to the summer camps of the Tofa reindeer herders.
Since reindeer feed primarily on thick ground moss called “yagel”, the herders must always be sure that the “yagel” moss is not overgrazed or the local animals over-hunted. That’s why the reindeer herding team migrates to a new pasture every 15 days, but migrations are usually no farther than 25 kilometers from the previous camp. Prior to a migration any wandering deer are tracked down and either corralled or bound to a tree. Then camp is torn down, packed onto saddles, and loaded on the backs of the strongest deer , children are placed in bucket-like "baby seats" made from two conjoined wooden rings that are bound to the back of the deer…

Our local guides who are well familiar with the Tofa reindeer herding routes know where the current camp of their relative nomads will be located this summer end. And we expect that our Tofa reindeer destination camp this time will be in the upper Kuktey Creek area which we plan to reach by the next evening.

Our horse riding trip these 2 days will, first, follow the river of Kara-Buren upper reaches, to the so-called “Pretty Cross” hunter’s log cabin near beautiful water fall. We will have lunches as picnic on the way and dinner will be prepared over the campfire in the premises of the local Tofa hunters. If we’re lucky we will meet them with their excellent “laika” hunting dogs, and hear the stories of “taiga- world wisely dwellers”.
In the evening of Day, 8, proceeding on horseback to the upper Khailama River we will reach the reindeer breeding camp near the Kuktey Creek.

Day 9
This morning don’t be frightened if you awake to deep guttural grunting and shuffling sounds: they will not belong to a brown bear, but produced by the reindeer grazing in the woods around our tents. In the summer months, the reindeer usually scatter through the surrounding hills and graze at night when the temperature is cool and the mosquitoes are fewer, and during the day the reindeer return to camp to escape the heat…
We spend the whole day and next night at the Tofa reindeer summer camp learning from firsthand their every-day life, their attitude to nature, taiga-woods survival skills, world outlook. We can also try some of their traditional Taiga-cuisine and the core staples of the Tofa diet. These are flat round bread cakes made from wheat flower with plain water added and dipped in vegetable oil or grease (called “Lepyoushki” in Russian), meat and reindeer milk.

The bread cakes and black tea with some sweets or sugar usually constitute breakfast while lunch and dinner consist of unseasoned, boiled reindeer meat (mostly of the wild one) which is gamey and delicious and has to be eaten with one's fingers and a hunting knife.
During our stay we may see how the Tofa women or kids milk the reindeer. Seven times richer than goat milk, reindeer milk is thick—somehow similar to yogurt—and serves as the most important source of vitamins in the Tofa diet. Children too young to hunt usually spend the day milking the reindeer, or else gathering wild berries and fishing. Berries mixed with fresh reindeer milk are an especial treat which we’ll most likely be able to try this day. Before each meal, a small portion of the food will be fed by Tofa to the fire spirit who is thought to protect the camp from evil spirits.
Finally, after lunch we will have enough time to take the reindeer riding lessons from Tofa. The upcoming 2 days we plan to be riding reindeer, which is not an easy task. Firstly, reindeer saddles are made from reindeer leather and bones/or wood and have no stirrups. Then, unlike horses, reindeer have weak backs and so the saddle must be placed high on the shoulders of the deer, that’s why the shifting scapulas can sometimes - especially when crossing rocky riverbeds- make balancing critical.
After dinner and before going to bed, don’t miss your chance to watch the near skies enchanted in stars above the upper reaches of the river of Khailama. Overnight in tents or “choom”-tepees.

Days 10-11
We begin our reindeer riding trip after Tofa guides will place the riding saddles on your personal reindeer and provide for each of us a long stick to spur a reindeer that can also be used in case of an emergency to recapture one’s balance. There will also be a single rein used to whip the deer or to stop it. And to steer the animal the rider must kick the side of the head opposite to the desired direction. So, -“off we go in a cloud of dust on a reindeer back!”
Those who after the test reindeer ride the previous day may think they are not well fit for a long “ staying on alert” reindeer ride, will at all times have chance to change the reindeer for their familiar horse. Our horses will continue following us – both pack and personal ones. During these 2 days we will be proceeding on reindeers or horseback to the upper Hunga River en route crossing some rivulets, often encountering wild animals such as noble deer, sables, fox, moose, even wolves and, probably, a brown bear.
During one of the days our Tofa guides will provide us a unique chance to watch so-called “dancing with wild musk deer” (the smallest deer on earth valuable for its musk gland widely used in medicine and perfume). The Tofa will lure/attract the musk deer by means of special whistle and give us a chnance to tke pictures of the musk deer just 1 or 2 meters away from us!
In the evening of Day 11 we approach the confluence of 2 rivers near the Hunga river for dinner and overnight in tents or hunter’s log cabin.

Day 12
After breakfast we bid our farewell to our Tofa guides and get on the Soviet Army “Urals” 4-WD truck for 6 hour transfer to Nizhneudinsk from where we started our trip to Tofalaria by helicopter. With lunch prepared over the campfire en route nd before dinner we arrive in Nizhneudinsk to overnight in the guest house.

Day 13
Board the train for a full day ride to the city of Irkutsk. Upon arrival in Irkutsk – transfer to your downtown located Hotel. Farewell Dinner. Overnight.

Day 14
Transfer to the airport for flight #_____ to _____.

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