The Guinness World Records recognizes the annual Mongol Derby as the longest and toughest horse race in the world. In the summer of 2012, I had the privilege of participating — riding on the backs of semi-wild horses in Mongolia. Retracing the ancient postal system of Genghis Khan, my steeds and I crossed 1,000 kilometers of far stretching grassy steppes, sand dunes and rolling mountains. I raced through rain, hail and lightning storms, swam through flooded rivers and was chased by wild dogs.
And yet, despite the challenges my horses and I faced throughout the nine day race, I had never felt such freedom. I had fallen in love with wild Mongolia, her people and her strong-willed horses.
When I returned from the race back to my normal life in Brooklyn, I stumbled upon a Bloomberg article about the Tsaatan — a nomadic tribe of northern Mongolia known as the "reindeer people."
The Tsaatan are a small, indigenous tribe who are trying to maintain their ancient cultural traditions in a quickly modernizing Mongolia. They're also the only people on the planet who actually ride reindeer.
The Tsaatan rely on these reindeer for survival in the harsh environment they live in. They utilize the reindeer for food, use their fur for warmth (winter can reach -50 degrees Celsius), and ride them as their primary form of transportation.
The tribe lives in the marshy valleys of West Taiga, close to the Russian border. Here reindeer — not horses — are the best suited for traversing this type of rugged, barren terrain and Siberian climate conditions.
The story I read stated that this way of life for the Tsaatan might not last much longer. So it was in that moment I decided to get back to the wilds of Mongolia and discover this tribe for myself. I was determined to live amongst them and experience their way of life while I still could.
I returned to Mongolia this past summer, and led an expedition to the remote valley where I'd find the Tsaatan.
Here I was, just a regular guy from New York City, completely stripped down to only absolute necessities and immersed in this ancient culture.
For a brief moment in time, I was a nomadic reindeer herder.
Here are five important lessons about life and survival I learned from the Tsaatan:
1. Living in the moment is a way of life.
The Tsaatan don't have phones or wear watches, and are not run by a strict schedule like those of us in the modern world. They live simply to enjoy the moment — for them, life isn't about climbing a social ladder, obtaining that new car or making lots of money. They live their lives solely to keep up their cultural traditions. The only thing that dictates time are the changes of seasons and their dependency on reindeer for survival.
At one point, we were all out riding and I had asked (through our translator), "How long will it take us to ride to that mountain pass?" Their answer, "We will get there when we get there. Let's just enjoy the ride along the way."
You never know what adventure may unfold in your life, but this experience made me realize that our society functions almost subconsciously on expectation in relation to time.
We forget there are special moments that exist in between getting from point A, to point B. It's like we spend far too much time and energy checking the clock — or better yet, racing against it!
2. Mental fortitude builds character.
The Tsaatan have survived the centuries living in one of the harshest climates on earth. In addition to battling extreme sub-zero temperatures, they face many hardships like defending their reindeer against bears and wolves.
But their sense of self-confidence is unshakable. They've acquired the skills and determination to overcome even the most dire of circumstances.
In the modern world, we are often quick to stress over the little things, and have the need to be in control and prepared for every hardship that we may potentially encounter, sometimes avoiding difficulty altogether.
Hardships and even failure are necessary for survival and are a catalyst for personal growth. It's by overcoming adversity that we are able to build up that unshakable resolve.
3. Less is more and balance is everything.
Balance is a primary focus for the Tsaatan. Because they live at higher elevation, plant life grows much slower. It's imperative that they carefully monitor the valleys where their reindeer graze. Once an area becomes over-grazed, they pack up and move up to 100 kilometers away to new grazing areas. They'll sometimes move up to 10 times per year to keep their reindeer and their habitat healthy and balanced.
When I went out one day to collect berries and spruce, my goal was to gather as much as possible. But theirs — I quickly learned — was to collect only what was needed for the time being (again, living in the moment). So we only picked as many berries as we could eat before they went bad, and only picked the very ends of the spruce because its regrowth is so slow.
In our own lives, we could incorporate these lessons in the ways we buy and use domestic products. Only buying what we need could help cut down on waste significantly. By using less as a means to conserve, we might be more appreciative of all that we we have access to.
4. We are all in this life together.
The Tsaatan's life revolves around selflessness. The entire tribe of 25 families works together to support each other with childcare, herding and moving. The camp I lived in had two families; a man and his wife and four kids, and his sister with her husband, and their four kids.
They lived in separate teepees, but all shared in the work, even the children. They would also travel via reindeer to other surrounding families throughout the valley, offering them aid in both food and manual labor — keeping the communal connections strong and healthy.
Community connectedness is as important to this small tribe as it is in a big city. We see great examples of interconnectedness during natural disasters or times of tragedy, but ought to come together on a more regular basis.
5. Hospitality is a top priority.
The people of Mongolia are famous for their hospitality, taking in strangers no matter what time of day or night they may suddenly arrive. The Tsaatan are no different — we arrived unannounced at their teepee doorstep, yet they greeted us with curious excitement.
We weren't their average stranger, we were westerners who trekked from a world away. But nonetheless they were quick to help us tend to our horses, unpack our things and prepare food for us. They were eager to find out where we were from and what our lives were like.
The Tsaatan have long practiced this nomadic custom of hospitality — relying on the kindness of strangers to take them in during periods migration or long hunting trips.
Back home in Brooklyn I live in a small apartment with neighbors on both sides of me and yet, I barely even know who they are.
We get so wrapped up in our lives that we sometimes to forget to acknowledge the other lives that are closely intertwined with our own. We become guarded in our metropolis, and in our homes. Why is that?
From my time with the Tsaatan, I regained that sense of freedom once more. They travel openly for hundreds of miles. They're not confined by social status or monetary limitations. They live simply in the moment and make their life's decisions based off their love for one another.
An ancient culture — yes — but quite possibly one of the best to learn from on how to live life to its fullest.
Photos courtesy of Campbell Costello, Ryan Paschke and the author