Ahigh-level conference held three years ago warned that the language and culture of the Tsaatan, part of the dying Darkhad tribe, could vanish from Mongolia within the next decade. But on a bright April morning, three tribal girls streaked through the Central Asian taiga atop reindeer as white as the snow melting underfoot. The young herders steered their charges toward higher ground, whooping and giggling as if they were chasing a wind spirit.

The threat of extinction had no place in this moment.

“We milk, eat and live with the reindeer. We feed them from our hands. I will follow the reindeer and live in the mountains until I die,” said Zorigt Chuluun through a translator. Zorigt belongs to one of 20 Tsaatan families remaining in western Mongolia.

The endangerment of Mongolia’s traditional livelihoods, especially reindeer husbandry, follows an oft-told narrative in developing nations. It’s a story that centers on modernization and urbanization, on opportunities for some but not for all. It exposes a tug-of-war between the suits in luxury SUVs and glassy high rises and the nomadic herders on horseback who move their shelters with the seasons.

“It is very serious if our language and culture becomes extinct,” said Zorigt, the 42-year-old father of four girls and a boy. “If the Mongolian government can’t take measures [to prevent this], maybe the world should pay attention.”

Dressed in a brown del, or long robe, cinched with a golden sash, Zorigt cuts a compelling figure, especially riding a reindeer across the steppe. He has represented his tribe at U.N. meetings and states his case with measured passion. But he also knows when to let loose and laugh, especially at a group of Americans attempting to understand a Mongolia in transition — without falling off their horses.

Follow the architecture

Our team of travelers arrived in Ulan Bator in shifts, starting with my appearance in the capital city at a dozy 4 a.m. The trip was organized by a filmmaker friend, Ed Nef, who is making a documentary about the emerging mining industry in Mongolia and its impact on the land and the people. With Ed’s daughter, her husband, their two sons (ages 10 and 13) and our interpreter, we made seven. Up north, we increased to 10 when we added a pair of drivers and a cook, and we became a perfect dozen after we picked up some children who needed a lift from their school in Tsagaan Nuur to the Tsataan winter camp (four hours on horseback, all day on foot).

The two-week trip started and ended in UB, with the middle portion dedicated to visiting the reindeer tribe. But we spent more time traveling to them than being with them.

Landlocked between China and Russia, Mongolia is slightly smaller than Alaska and claims the lowest population density in the world, with four people per square mile. Nearly 40 percent of its 2.7 million citizens, however, reside in the capital. That translates into elbow jostling on sidewalks and streets clogged with cars manned by aggressive drivers.

“You can’t be nice,” shouted an American expat as I attempted to cross the street with the temerity of a bunny. “They won’t hit you, but they will come within an inch.” Correction: a millimeter.

However, by following Peace Avenue, the main artery, I realized that I could comfortably tour the capital without switching sides. Walking on the northern flank, I hit the Soviet-era State Department Store, now a capitalist dream; Sukhbaatar Square, site of democratic protests in 1990 and of the parliament house; and a small collection of cultural centers, such as the National Museum of Mongolian History.

En route to the museum, I got a jump-start on the country’s history by simply studying the architecture. Though the Chinese period is not represented (the 1732-1921 era predates UB), the squat, drab apartment buildings and the grand performing-arts halls scream Soviet communists (1921 to 1989). The gers (nomadic shelters similar to yurts) on the dusty outskirts of town denote, in shape and lifestyle, the Ghenghis Khan era. The shiny skyscrapers are the past decade; the cranes and construction-site skeletons, tomorrow.

I also received a quick course in socioeconomics by poking my head into portals. The Central Tower on the square houses such high-end retailers as Louis Vuitton and Burberry, plus a 17th-floor restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows that serves an $82 tasting menu. One street away, I glimpsed the tops of heads through a manhole, the “front door” of a family’s subterranean shelter.

A deadly history

At the Memorial Museum of Victims of Political Persecution, the most shocking exhibit was a living one. “And that man was my grandfather,” revealed Bekhbat Sodnom during a serendipitous conversation outside the Ulan Bator museum, which honors his relative, Peljidiyn Genden.

In 1937, Russian communists executed the Mongolian prime minister. His crime: not supporting Stalin’s orders to purge the country of insubordinates, such as Buddhist monks, politicians, military officials and intellectuals. “They accused my grandfather of being an enemy of the state, of being a spy for Japan,” said Sodnom. “We were not allowed to talk about my grandfather.”

Genden’s daughter established the two-story museum in the martyred politician’s original home, a log structure chipped with age; Sodnom now runs it. The center illustrates the mass killings through maps that display the number killed in each province and grainy photos of the victims, accompanied by their personal effects. Even harder to witness: rows of skulls pierced by a single bullet. Photos of Genden are rare; in one family portrait around a kitchen table, his face is scratched out.

“We are trying to find the true history and the children of many of the people during this time in 1937 to 1939,” said Sodnom. “We see just a few of them coming to this museum, because they are very old.”

The Great Purge of the late 1930s claimed more than 36,000 lives in Mongolia and drastically thinned the ranks of Buddhist leaders, through exile and execution. (The number of lamas fell from a pre-Soviet high of 100,000 to about 5,000 today.) Though Buddhism is the dominant religion, the Grand Lama of Gandan Khiid Monastery said the religion is still struggling to recover.

“We lost several generations of lamas who would be inheriting this generation,” the Venerable Khamba said in his Buddha-bedecked office. “We don’t have enough people to deliver our message and teachings to the countryside. We are trying to build it back up.”

Dressed in a saffron robe and a beaded prayer bracelet, he spoke eloquently about the urgent need to protect nature and the environment, lessons outlined in the Mongolian Buddhist Eight-Year Conservation Plan. When I asked whether he approved of the scene outside his window, he replied, “It looks good, but I see big changes.”

He then performed a short pantomime of an American action movie, including car chase.

Primitive roads

It’s hard to overstate how bad the “roads” are in the countryside. If this helps any: The trip from Moron, a 90-minute flight northwest of UB, to the Tsaatan winter camp is less than 300 miles. On paved lanes, the drive would take about six hours; our journey during mud season proceeded for two solid days — each way.

Rather than pushing through the night, we decided to break the trip in half, spending one night in the town of Ulaan Nuur on the way up and returning via Hovsgol, a lake “resort” not far from the Siberian border. (A short drive if . . . .)

We divided our group among two cars, a Toyota Land Cruiser and a Soviet-made van that bounced around like a puppet on a string. I spent all but one short leg in the SUV, often riding shotgun beside our hulking driver, a former wrestling champ fond of saccharine Mongolian songs.

You’d think that with 17 hours of driving, you’d get tired of the sweeping steppes lightly salted with ger camps and herds of goats, yak, sheep and the occasional pack of two-humped camels. Nope. The rugged terrain resembled an extreme sports arena. The vehicles would bump along, catching air and sometimes overheating. In sticky spots, the drivers would stop to calculate the probability of, say, successfully crossing a deep slushy river or traversing a bridge many planks shy of the opposite bank.

During the smoother stretches, the boys, Andrew and Thomas, and their dad, Frank, played Carcass. The challenge: Win points for spotting animal skulls and skeletons. Gruesome, yes, but more relevant than the license plate game.

The tourist infrastructure in these parts is, well, nonexistent. If you don’t have actual roads, what’s the point of erecting a Wawa or a Subway? There is also a paucity — I use that word generously — of lodging. In Ulaan Nuur, we saw no hotels during an evening stroll among the tidy rows of gers and wooden homes enclosed by fences. For our overnight there, we unrolled sleeping bags on the floor of a two-room house guarded by a clingy yak.

The family allowed us to use their kitchen to cook meals and to wash up with their water, which they paid for at a well one to two miles away or collected from the river behind their home. We also monopolized the baby, a rambunctious toddler who waddled around in the shoes we’d removed.

Hatgal, by comparison, was a booming town, due to its bucolic setting on the deepest lake in Central Asia. A handful of markets sold such staples as bread, vodka and chocolate, and ger camps touted their services, available in the summer tourist season. We spent the night in another two-room home (no baby) furnished with narrow, ornately painted ger beds not conducive to tossing and turning. After dinner, our driver shared stories from his professional wrestling days. He showed us pictures of broad-chested men in the official uniform — bikini bottoms, boots and a fitted off-the-shoulder shrug — and explained that the prize for winning a match is a horse. (He won six in his career.) The next morning, he invited over two wrestling buddies for an impromptu demonstration.

Damdin Enkhbold, our driver/wrestler, faced off with Mijiddorj Jargalsaikhan, an instructor in town and a former champ. For the opening move, Enkhbold flapped his arms and circled the room like a soaring eagle. He and Jargalsaikhan then set up the starting position (thumbs in bikini bottoms or along the edge of the vest) before jumping into the heavy lifting. The lesson ended with our driver dangling Andrew upside-down and the instructor wrapping Frank around his shoulders like a scarf.

‘Source of life’

The Tsaatan move camps six times a year in search of the best grazing land and climes for their reindeer. In early April, they were between seasons, living on the slope of a taiga accessible only by horse.

We rendezvoused with Zorigt at the bottom of the mountain and loaded our gear onto the reindeer. The diminutive animals appeared frail under the weight of duffel bags, large bottles of water, cooking utensils and camera equipment. I whispered an apology before they set off.

We rode sturdier beasts, Mongolian horses that glided like ballerinas over the deeply rutted ground studded with roots and rocks. The family provided us with our own canvas teepee, kindly constructing wooden platforms so that we wouldn’t have to sleep on the cold wet ground. When the light started to fade, the herders gathered the reindeer, which glowed white in the dark.

In the morning, we saddled up for the first of two herding parties that day, following the 100-strong herd on their quest for breakfast moss. The animals were tethered as pairs, making for poky progress. Plus, they walked like lawn mowers, barely lifting their heads between bites.

“The reindeer is our source of life,” said Zorigt. “We want the reindeer to become more and more. The forest could hold 50,000.”

Due to mass migrations to urban centers, Mongolia’s population of Tsaatan herders has dwindled to about 400. The number of reindeer has also drastically fallen, from 10,000 in the early 1990s to roughly 1,000 today. A main culprit for the decline was a devastating case of hoof and mouth disease in 1993. The families rely on the reindeer for milk, cheese, yogurt, transportation as well as meat and clothing. But they also have a strong kinship with the animals. “The reindeer are part of our family,” said Zorigt.

Yet that connection might not be enough to hold the tribe together. Zorigt’s 19-year-old daughter wants to be a hairdresser, and his niece wishes to move to Los Angeles. The traditions are also in jeopardy: The school in Tsagaan Nuur recently lost the only teacher who taught the native Tsaatan language. She moved to the capital hoping to earn more money to help her daughter, a budding contortionist.

“We send our children to school in Ulan Bator,” said Zorigt before our group’s departure. “Hopefully they will save the Tsaatan.”

At the bottom of the mountain, we said our farewells to our host family. Then we piled into the car, taking back with us two nieces and one of Zorigt’s sons, who were running late for school.