In my previous post, I took you on a journey to the End of the Earth in Arctic Russia aboard the Trans-Polar train. As you may recall, after we had officially arrived in the only city right on the Arctic Circle and survived the first frost-shock, we were about to conduct further stress tests out in the snow desert of the Arctic Siberian tundra away from the civilization on a nomad winter camp on the Yamal Peninsula.
Who in their right mind would want to go camping in the wintery Arctic with absolutely no comfort, no running water, no toilet? Not many. However, we will take part in the life of a nomadic Nenets reindeer herder family for three days and two nights for a completely different homestay experience.
Yamal in the language of the indigenous Nenets means the edge of the world; it is a remote region located in the north of Western Siberia, ice-covered for most of the year, and has been home to the reindeer-herding Nenets people for over a thousand years. The Nenets herders preserve their traditional way of life by migrating hundreds of kilometers across the Yamal Peninsula zigzagging between the taiga forest in the south and Arctic tundra in the north. And we will visit one of those nomad winter camps some 85 km away from the city of Salekhard. So, buckle up for a roller-coaster ride on the back of the beast!
The Journey with the Beast: TREKOL
TREKOL (Russian: TRECOL) is a Russian off-road monster that can drive across just about any terrain, no matter if deep snow, mud, sand, swamp, breakable ice, or lake. The ATV with its ultra-low pressure tires can run over a person without injury and can easily float on water. And it’s even polar-bear resistant.
With the beast, we covered a distance of 85 km in 5 hours on the winter roads of frozen rivers and swamps to reach the nomad camp of our lead guide Viktor’s choice.
In some parts along our route, we would chop off the tree branches to pass through and mark our way with the branches so that we would be able to find the way back in the endless snow desert.
Of course, before we set off, we take care of the well-being of the spirits by offering them some alcohol and cigarettes, and in return, we expect their blessings on our journey.
On the way, we come across the neighbors of the Nenets family whom we are going to stay with. Apparently, the neighbors are headed to the city on their snowmobiles, yet still, they invite us to their camp for lunch. We bid farewell to meet them in a few hours.
Loaded with wood, we continue our ride on the snow desert, where I can’t help but feel deep gratitude for being out here on a remote corner of our planet. After some more hours spent in awe, we arrive at the neighbors’ camp.
The Nenets Home: Chum
Each family of Nenets reindeer herders lives in a teepee made of reindeer fur called a “chum” (pronounced choom). They usually keep their chums separate from other families’ chums by a couple of kilometers. Inside the chum, a lunch table with the typical Nenets food awaits us.
After having lunch, a very tasty one, we embark on the last section of our roller-coaster ride. Not too long later, we finally meet the beauty at the campsite of our host family.
|The beauty: Igor
Life with the Nenets Family – In Pictures
Here we go, this is our home where we will spend the next two nights and days. We swiftly carry into the chum our backpacks, mainly loaded with emergency food, and sleeping bags that are supposed to warrant a comfortable night’s sleep. Then it’s time to get to know the family members. From this moment on, we leave the itinerary aside and just go with the flow.
|The chum and the reindeer dog, Laika. Dogs are treated like family in Nenets culture and they are an essential part of herding their reindeer.
|Avkah, the young reindeer
|Tatyana, the proud owner of the chum who took care of us very well.
|Igor, back then the 3-year-old star of the family.
|5-month-old baby boy Stas (Stephan)
|Olga sewing traditional boots (called Kisy) for her baby boy Stas. She’s also Igor’s mom and Tatyana’s cousin.
|From left to right: Tatyana’s husband Ivan, our interpreter Olga in blue washing her hands with melted snow water, Tatyana always busy with feeding us, and Ivan’s eldest sister Katharina.
|The blue plate serves as a kitchen workplace. The big bucket next to the stove is filled with snow.
|Once I made the mistake to step over the blue plate, and Tatyana made me go back and step over again – supposedly a Nenets/Russian superstition.
|Tatyana’s husband, Ivan, was out with two other men herding the reindeer and they returned to the chum only on our last evening. And yes, they have a TV where Igor is staring at in this picture.
|Someone finds the chips SO very tasty 🙂
|Just hanging out
|Time to try the new reindeer boots
|Tom taking care of the baby
|In the morning some are still asleep in their “bedrooms”. The decoration on the walls provides privacy during the night. The white bowl in front of Katharina is the washbasin.
The Nenets Food
Reindeer meat is the most important part of the Nenets’ diet. It is eaten raw, frozen or boiled, usually together with rice, dumplings, or noodles. They virtually eat every part of the reindeer: meat, heart, tongue, fat. They also eat slices or cubes of frozen raw fish such as white salmon and muksun, a silvery-colored whitefish. The rest of their meals consist of mostly just tea, bread, butter, jam, and biscuits.
|Bread, jam, butter, and cookies were always on the table.
|Viktor cutting slices of frozen fish
|The guests get always the most beautiful teacups.
|I personally outperformed and ate everything. Tom skipped some meals but in the end, we didn’t need our own emergency food at all.
Arctic Fun Outside the Chum
Although we spent most of our time in the chum hanging out with the family, outside at the nomad camp we tried our hand at some activities like lasso throwing and hunter-skiing, or let’s say fashion show Nenets style 🙂 In any case, we had fun until one of us could no longer stand the biting cold and exclaimed: “Let’s go back to the chum!”
The Reindeer Flock
Reindeer provide the Nenets people with virtually everything they need: shelter, meat, clothing, bones, and horns for jewelry, medicines, and various tools. No doubt, our nomadic reindeer herder family has more than just the baby Avkah. But never dare to ask them how many. It’s not polite to ask such questions and counting the animals brings bad luck.
On our last day, we went out to the field by snowmobiles and sledges (nasty). It was a hell of a ride while sitting on the sledge tied up at the back of a snowmobile and trying not to flip overboard in the biting cold! Once in the field, we spent among the animals in the white desert quite some time. The Nenets men then would catch three reindeer with lassos and prepare the reindeer-sledge so that we could have a little more fun.
Tourist fun aside, sledges play an important role in the Nenets way of life. They are used for travel and migration, and for storage, like a refrigerator to store frozen meat and other staples. As we end our fun rides, all of a sudden I recall our visit to the Sami people in Finland where we would even get a reindeer-sleigh driving license. It was a tourist settlement, just like an open-air museum showcasing Sami people’s tradition once upon a time. Sadly, the future for Yamal’s nomadic Nenets people does not look bright either. With the region rich in gas being destroyed rapidly, the nomads already need a special permit to roam in the northern part of the peninsula. To compensate for their loss of land, the government provides the families, among other things, with a generator, satellite phone, and receiver.
Reindeer Herders Festival in Salekhard
After such an extraordinary experience with the Nenets family, we return to Salekhard to participate in the Reindeer Herders Festival.
A variety of races are on the festival agenda, along with food and souvenir stalls, and music. Whenever you feel cold, you can enter a chum set up on the frozen Ob River where you’d find tea and some snacks offered by Nenets for free. Watch the video on my Youtube channel to get a taste of this special day (https://youtu.be/qG7pwHDwIbU).
I am quite suspicious when it comes to the authenticity of such cultural trips, but this one turned out to be 100% genuine, thanks to the harsh conditions of the Arctic and Nenets’ simple lifestyle. As tourism is quite new in the Yamal region, the local people are not spoiled yet. Tatyana told me that their first guest was a French guy, who came without a guide five years ago. With laughter, she would remember the moment when he asked for a toilet with a theatrical gesture. Today she could still count all the guests on her fingers, nevertheless, they still make sure to designate a canvas-covered area outside the chum for guests to relieve themselves so that there would be no need for embarrassing theatrical performances 🙂
From the get-go, the family hosted us from the bottom of their heart with love and pride. At some point, when Tatyana showed me her photo albums, and the pieces of reindeer hide and her ideas about what to sew from them, I felt as if my mom would open up her dowry chest and display all her dreams in front of me. And just like the photographer who returns there every year, we’ve been dreaming of visiting them again ever since we left. Here is the compiled video of our visit: https://youtu.be/2Q6ZJAbb18o
With the memories to cherish, we leave this extremely remote region behind us, but we are not done with the Russian Ice Worlds yet. The next destination: all aboard the famous Trans-Siberian railway to the deep-frozen Lake Baikal!
|From the air, it’s easy to see why Nenets call their land “the end of the world”