KHOVSGOL LAKE, Mongolia (Reuters) - North of nowhere and high above the pristine, alpine Khovsgol Lake in the forests of northern Mongolia, the Gansukh family sits in their teepee home while their reindeer graze outside.
These members of the Tsaatan, or reindeer herder, tribes are nomads. But as development creeps in even here, leaders say they know they may be the last generation of Mongolia’s nomadic reindeer herders.
“Of my four sons, two will learn to herd reindeer,” said Gansukh. “But my other two sons must go to school, be educated and can live in the big city. This is a developing world,” he said, his thin moustache stained with the residue of his tea.
A tiny ethnic minority, the Tsaatan live far from the rolling grassy steppes that characterise Mongolia.
Surrounded by 3,000-metre peaks, dense forests and pristine lakes, the scenery closely resembles Siberia, just over the border to the north.
The Tsaatan share little with other Mongolians. They herd reindeer instead of traditional livestock and adhere to shamanism instead of the more widely practised Buddhism.
High in the country’s northern reaches, many tribe members are also cut off from Mongolia’s rapid development.
But pressure for development is strong as Mongolia’s 17-year-old democracy tries to diversify away from livestock and mining and bolster an economy that nearly collapsed with the fall of its old overlord, the Soviet Union.
Some Tsaatan say they are being forced to turn to more developed areas of the country for sources of income in the absence of any assistance projects that allow them to maintain their cultural heritage.
South of Khovsgol Lake in Khatgal, a provincial centre of 5,000, some residents are welcoming technological advancements.
At the local hospital, a solar panel is a symbol of development in the remote area.
“Otherwise we wouldn’t have power,” one of the hospital’s doctors said. A few years ago the hospital had little equipment and no electricity.
Rather than resent the intrusion of modernity into their lives, some tribe members are clamouring for more technology.
“We don’t have any computers or anything to train the children for the necessary skills of the new century,” said Bolormaa, a teacher at Khatgal’s secondary school.
“We need better technology here,” said Bolormaa, who like many Mongolians, goes by one name.
Outside the school, two children push a rickety metal cart full of freshly baked bread down a dusty road.
“Our parents told us to learn how to make a business,” said the brother and sister, aged 8 and 12.
Yet not everyone in the region is ready to abandon centuries of livestock herding for business and technological advancement.
For many families, new efforts to bring development to their region are just a throwback to their experience under Soviet-led communism, when the government attempted to move the nomadic Tsaatan into settled areas in the 1950s and 60s.
Many who worked for the state at the time simply wandered back into their nomadic lifestyle in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Our herds and livelihood are completely dependent on weather,” said on Tsaatan elder. “So if the sky turns bad, then we will also have to find new lives.”
The story of the Tsaatan goes beyond generational divides.
A shy 15-year-old boy, one of seven sons of a Tsaatan shaman, said he wanted to keep herding reindeer.
“I don’t want to go to school and live in town, I don’t like it,” said the boy, blushing.
His father, a weathered 50-year-old, said he would support his son’s decision.
“One of my sons has to continue our family tradition of being a shaman,” he said. “Maybe it will be him.”