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Published: January 17th 2011
Drinking blood in a darkened teepee with nomadic reindeer herders; sitting on the snow chewing frozen fish in -40 C and howling winds; seeing a white landscape turned brown by 10,000 reindeer and countless sledges crawling slowly over it; the kindness of people who live a life so harsh I could never cope with it. These are among my memories that, so extreme in their surreality, have become dream-like. It is only by going back over the notes and photos I took at the time that I can recall with clarity and put into sequence the events of those five days.
It began in Salekhard, a town of 30,000 on Western Siberia's Arctic Circle to which access is forbidden to all outsiders, Russian or otherwise, as far as you can get into Northern Siberia by rail and hundreds of miles from any road network. Having secured myself an entry permit long in advance I left almost as soon as I arrived, heading further into the closed areas in an all terrain vehicle that sped north for seven hours along the frozen surface of the River Ob, bringing me eventually to the Arctic village of Yar Sale. The other passengers were
Nenets, people indigenous to this part of the Siberian Arctic who speak a language completely unrelated to Russian and still follow their old animistic religion. About half of them live in settlements while the rest continue to follow their traditional nomadic lifestyle, constantly driving reindeer through the tundra in search of new grazing in temperatures that have been known to hit -60 C, not including wind chill.
"So, you're not afraid of extreme conditions? Or the cold?" asked Galina Achemboevna, a Nenets acquaintance of my friends in Salekhard and member of the local administration, having ushered me into her wooden bungalow and out of Yar Sale's -35 C cold at four in the morning.
"No, not at all," I boldly replied, "my clothing's all good down to -50 C."
"I hope so," she said, looking skeptically at my gear, generally agreed by winter sports enthusiasts to be the warmest clothing available. "Out in the tundra where you're going it's much colder than here. And on top of that the wind is terrible and never stops blowing. And your not afraid of eating weird stuff?"
"No, not at all," I answered, bolder still.
"Good. Two of
my brothers have invited you to live in their chum . They'll be out with the reindeer most of the time and they don't celebrate New Year but I've asked that if possible someone come and see it in with you."
"Please don't worry about that," I said hastily, "we don't really celebrate it in England like you do in Russia. And anyway, it'd be very interesting for me to go out to the reindeer with them as long as I wouldn't be any trouble."
"We'll see," she said, "but don't worry, you'll get your extreme to the full."
* * *
When I awoke the following afternoon, people outside Galina's house were already loading up sledges attached to to snowmobiles with provisions such as sacks of onions and bread. Evidently and to my good fortune, her 29-year old brother Kostya along with his children and parents had been in Yar Sale picking up supplies and that evening would take me back into the tundra with them. As we fried some reindeer meet, having finished packing the sledges, I quizzed Kostya about the most general details of his lifestyle.
"How often do you move camp?" I asked.
"About once every week or two."
"And how far from here are you now?"
"About 100km to the north."
We fried in silence for a while. He seemed gentle and was soft-spoken. His face was kindly and he had black hair that hung down to his eyebrows.
"And where do you migrate to in summer?" I continued.
"About 500km further north up Yamal, but the route obviously varies a little every year depending on grazing and so on."
"Do you use snowmobiles or reindeer sledges more?"
"Sledges. We only use snowmobiles from December to April and even then only for short distances, rounding up reindeer or coming to Yar Sale. When we're moving camp we always use sledges."
"Do you come to Yar Sale often?"
"No, rarely. Only at this time of year, when we're camped somewhere nearby."
When the meat was ready we sat down and Galina brought out a bottle of vodka.
"Happy New Year!" the three of us said, chinking glasses and downing our shots. We drank about a third of the bottle and ate quickly,
Kostya insisting that it was time to leave.
"Here, put these on before you go," Galina said, going into another room and reappearing with a pair of the same hip-high boots that Kostya was wearing made of reindeer skin and fur.
"It's ok, really, my boots are very warm," I said.
"You can wear your boots after you arrive," she told me. "As for now, you've got three hours to sit on a sledge and it's going to be very windy so you'd better wear these."
I consented and she helped me put on first the soft and squidgy inner layer then the harder, fur-covered outer boot. Using a string attached to the top she then tied them to my belt so that they would stay up.
"Wait, I really better give you a malitsa," she said as I put on my jacket, again disappearing and bringing out one of the enormous reindeer fur "eskimo coats" that the Nenets wear.
"Really, thank you but it's not necessary," I replied. In truth I did not believe that anything could be warmer than my own jacket lined with three inches of Vaetrex, a material which, according
to one university study, is the best insulator on the market.
"Trust me," she said, "wear yours after you arrive. Wear this malitsa for the journey."
"Ok, but I'll wear it over my jacket," I said.
She helped me on with the enormous malitsa, its super-tight hood clinging to my head and my hands inside the attached reindeer fur mittens. I was now horribly hot.
"You should probably have a gus too," she said.
Before I had had time to ask her what a gus was she had disappeared, come back and was helping me on with another, even bigger reindeer fur coat. Like the malitsa, the gus came down almost to my ankles and its hood clung to my head tightly, making it a real struggle to get on.
Next Galina took a multi-coloured belt and tied it twice around the gus at around the level of my thighs. By this point I felt that the main danger would not be the cold but rather getting roasted alive by my own clothing.
"Galina, I'm sorry, I'm going to have to say goodbye now and wait outside by the sledges," I told her.
"I'm too hot to stay inside."
Half an hour later we were off on a very bumpy ride through the night, myself feeling warm and toasty in my multiple layers, huge ski goggles keeping the wind off the top half of my face and a woolen scarf covering the bottom.
My goggles, however, almost instantly misted up so I took them off to have a look around. The sharp cold and harsh wind instantly brought tears to my eyes which I wiped away quickly, worried about them freezing.
The sky was extraordinarily clear and star-studded with many, many more times the usual number of bright, twinkling points of light. The constellations were all in different positions from what I was used to with The Plough now just an inch or so above the horizon. Ahead of us the Northern Lights spread out in long thick streaks of gassy green light that stretched right across my sphere of vision.
Within thirty seconds of taking off the goggles the cold on my face had become so intense that I was worried not just about my tears but about the eyeballs themselves. Grabbing my goggles, I realised that what
had previously been mist inside them had now frozen into a solid layer of ice. I scratched frantically to get it off as the pain in my forehead and eyes grew worse before giving up and putting the goggles back on with the job only half done. They had, however, become hard and brittle, no longer clinging to my face and allowing wind in at the sides in quantities that were, thankfully, just about bearable. My scarf had also frozen solid in the area around my mouth and nose but this did not seem to hinder its heat retaining properties.
Quite amazingly, none of the Nenets had anything to cover their faces and were sitting back to enjoy the three hour ride.
"What's the temperature do you think?" I shouted to Kostya's parents who were in the same sledge as me.
"Probably about minus forty!" returned his mother. I had to pull the tight-fitting hoods away from my ear to make out what she was saying.
"Of course it's not!" her husband disagreed. "It can't be minus forty because you can't feel the cold on your face! It's about minus thirty five!"
The ride was
not going to be a pleasant one. Crammed into the back of a sledge, I could not turn my body from left to right and with the two thick, tight hoods on my head's range of movement was similarly limited. This, coupled with the fact that I could hear very little through the hood and see nothing at all through my frozen-over goggles, made me feel like a bit of a vegetable.
After two hours my goggles and scarf had frozen almost into solid ice blocks and my feet were beginning to feel seriously cold. A chill was even beginning to pierce my upper body. Thankfully the snowmobile was stalling and breaking down fairly often: the next time it did so I shouted that I needed to get out.
"What's the matter?" Kostya yelled above the wind.
"My feet are cold!" I replied.
"Run around then!" he advised.
As best I could, seeing as in this clothing I was now three or four times my usual width, I loped around in the snow, shifting too slowly from one foot to the other and unable to pick up enough speed for a real run.
in the sledge they wrapped two spare fur coats around my feet and legs.
"Have some water," Kostya's father said, offering me a bottle of vodka. Perhaps he had confused the Russian word for water, "voda", with "vodka". I drank some gladly and felt the fiery liquid trickle down to my stomach, burning all the way and warming me up significantly.
"Aren't your feet cold too?" I asked Kostya's parents. They both replied that they were fine.
"It's because your boots are old," said his mum. "Ours are new. I make a new pair for everyone every summer."
We continued for half an hour before we stopped again near four chums.
"If you're still cold we can pop in to warm up," Kostya yelled, "but it's only half an hour more to our chum."
"It's fine," I shouted back, the fur coats or perhaps the vodka having brought life back to my frozen feet. "Let's go on. I'm not cold any more."
Thirty minutes later we stopped next to a clump of branches tied together and protruding from the snow, about a metre in diametres and four high. Ten metres away was a
chum, a white conical tent about four metres high surrounded by a small ditch, presumably dug to prevent snow drifts from building up and weighing down the walls. From a hole in the top of the chum protruded, like a spiky tuft of hair, the ends of the many poles that supported its structure on the inside along with a thin wooden chimney that reached about three feet above the top of the chum. The wind was blowing so fiercely that smoke flew out of it in a completely horizontal stream several metres long, as it did from the other two chums that were just visible nearby. In the area nearby numerous wooden sledges sat in the snow, some of them tied to the tents and leaning on them as support against the vicious wind.
"What's that for?" I asked as we walked towards the nearet chum, pointing at the tied-together branches.
"It's easier to see them than the chums when visibility's poor," Kostya replied. "Take your gus off outside," he added, pointing at my snow-covered outer garment. For a while we struggled with our thick, reindeer fur coats. Once off, we laid them in one of the
sledges that was leaning against the chum, he pulled open a small flap in the front of the structure, got down on his knees and crawled in followed by me.
Inside the chum looked bigger than it did from without. The diametre at its base was probably about six metres and its tallest point was around four metres above the wooden boards that made up the floor. A skeleton of wooden poles, their ends driven into the ground in a circle, supported the structure and sloped inward to give it its conical shape, exiting through a small hole at the top in the centre. Three metres in front of me as I came in a metal stove turned brown by age and countless fires sat in the centre of the chum. Inside it a fire roared, visible through cracks and holes in its side, and smoke was evacuated by means of a long, thin chimney made from a hollowed out tree trunk through the hole in the roof. At just above head height two parallel poles ran straight across the chum from the entrance, passing on either side of the chimney in the centre. Near to me some fur
boots were drying on them while on the other side of the stove hung a gas lantern that provided the chum's dim lighting, a large metal ladle and various other utensils. At the far side, opposite the entrance, a couple of small, low tables sat jammed into the angle between the floor and the wall.
"Hello everyone!" I said upon entering and was met by a chorus of greetings. After introducing myself Kostya passed me a stick and told me to beat the snow off my clothing so that it fell on the earth near the entrance rather than on the wooden boards.
"Now take off your malitsa," he said when I had finished. I took off the enormous fur coat and put it in a pile to the right of the entrance.
On the left as I came in, Kostya's brother Radik and his wife Sveta sat near the wall with their children on a pile of reindeer skins several metres long. In the other half of the chum, to the right as I entered, Kostya's wife Allya and her children were sitting in a similar fashion. There were also several dogs sleeping on the skins
or milling about by the fire.
"Well, here's our home," said Kostya's mum while Allya and Sveta took out two tables and began laying them about a metre out from the stove on either side. "We made everything ourselves, apart from the stove. My husband made the planks, the poles and the tables while I sewed together all the reindeer skins for the walls."
Some of them introduced themselves by Nenets names and some by Russian ones.
"Why is that?" I asked Radik.
"We all have a Nenets name and A Russian one," he told me. "Some of us use the Russian one more and some the Nenets."
Soon the tables were ready and laid. On ours was a bowl of raw reindeer meat on the bone, several lumps of raw, frozen fish, some bread cut into long rectangular slices, an onion, a tin of condensed milk to dip the bread in and a bottle of vodka. Soon everyone was tucking in and a single shot glass was being filled up and passed round, Kostya, his parents and myself taking it in turns to say a toast, down our shot then shove some food in
"I'm very grateful, and in fact can't even believe, that I've got the opportunity to spend five days with such people as yourselves," I said for my first toast, perhaps spurred on by the vodka Kostya's parents had given me back in the sledge. "I've come here because I'm interested in finding out about how you live, your work, your thoughts and especially your spiritual beliefs. I'll probably ask you lots of questions and please feel free to tell me anything you want, no matter how minor. Even if something seems small and unimportant to you, I promise that everything that you can tell me will be extremely interesting, because as of now I know absolutely nothing about your lives, the tundra or how you work with reindeer. And if you go anywhere or do anything, no matter how ordinary, I'd be very interested to come with you or join in, as long as I wouldn't get in your way. Anyway, thank you again for this opportunity! To Yamal and to the Nenets!"
This toast apparently went down very well as everyone smiled, nodded and from that moment on seemed eager to talk to me and
glad of the opportunity to tell someone about their lives.
"Do you often drink this much?" I asked Kostya when a second bottle of vodka was opened.
"No," replied Radik, who had not touched a drop. "If we often drank like this we wouldn't have any reindeer. We're really just celebrating New Year and your arrival. Normally we're out there working all the time, with no days off."
In the early hours of the morning curtains were hung from two poles that ran across the chum on either side about a metre out from the fire, separating off sleeping areas for the two families, myself lying down between Kostya and one of his toddler daughters.
For a while I was unable to sleep, the screeching of the wind and the creaking and groaning of the chum keeping me awake. Despite my two layers of thermal underwear, fleece trousers, padded trousers, goretex trousers, reindeer fur boots, polartec fleece jacket, wool jumper and Vaetrex jacket I was still cold, so I pulled two large reindeer hides on top of me as well. The fire had gone out but the lantern remained burning and swung from side to side,
causing shadows to flicker, jump and dance while my breath hung in the air above me in heavy clouds.
* * *
I was awoken for breakfast a few hours later by Kostya shaking me. Before the meal I put on my malitsa and went out into the cold to go to the toilet. Day had only just dawned and immediately upon exiting the chum I was greeted by a magnificent sunrise, thousands of shades of red, pink, orange, yellow and gold melting into one another like a vast watercolour hanging above the horizon. Beyond the immediate area of the three chums and numerous sledges the world was flat and white; nothing else was visible in any direction before the horizon. The wind, which was calmer than the previous day, was still strong enough that a layer of snow dust several inches thick was constantly flying over the ground.
As the snow below me turned yellow a reindeer suddenly appeared and began licking it up greedily. "What the hell?" I thought. Then suddenly there were three of them, then five, all vying for prime acces to the frozen yellow liquid and even fighting among themselves, jostling towards
me until their spiky antlers were inches away, far too close for comfort, and I began to have to walk backwards.
"Do reindeers usually like to drink...?" I began to ask upon re-entering.
"Yes, take a stick with you next time," the grandfather of the family replied.
While eating breakfast a vile smell crept over the chum.
"What the hell!" Kostya complained. "Damn, have the dogs got ill? Argh, they've got ill!"
He began beating the reindeer skins at the edges of the chum and several dogs emerged whining from beneath them. They received punches and kicks from everyone and were driven out of the door with their tails between their legs. On the other side of the chum a couple more dogs were also thrown out. One of Kostya's sons tore a clump of fur from a reindeer skin and began burning it.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Trying to make a nice smell," he replied.
After breakfast I left with Kostya, Radik and a man from the next chum, Radik driving a snowmobile and the rest of us sitting on a sledge attached to the back. We spent several
hours driving around checking up on various different groups of reindeer, occasionally driving them for a few miles if the Nenets deemed they had strayed too far. When on the sledge, taking off my goggles and scarf was unbearable but when not moving I found that I could do it for up to ten minutes. Likewise I could take my hands out of the reindeer fur mittens for ten minutes at a time to use my camera before it actually began to be painful.
"It's great weather, isn't it!" Kostya exclaimed at one point. "Not too much wind, nice and warm."
"You know," I said, "where I come from it was -13 C this year and that was considered extremely cold."
"Well you know for us," Kostya said, shaking his head, "that's not even warm, it's hot!"
At the time I thought he was joking but on my last day in the tundra, when the temperature went up to a barmy -25 C, I really did hear people referring to it as "hot".
"So what do you consider cold?" I asked him.
"When it's in the minus fifties, that's really cold," he said. "In
those temperatures it's agonising to turn your face towards the wind."
I tried to imagine temperatures fifteen degrees colder than they were now, with a potential added wind chill of thirty degrees bringing the felt temperature down to the minus eighties.
Around midday we stopped off at another chum to warm up.
"Look," Kostya announced proudly upon entering, "I've got a guest from England!"
We sat down around a table on which there was a bowl of fresh, warm blood and another containing several sticks of raw meat on the bone. The hosts also brought out a bottle of vodka and it soon became apparent that they were completely off their heads, their slurred and incorrect Russian incomprehensible to me, Kostya eventually having to get them to speak to him in Nenets then translating into Russian.
"They're relaxing," he whispered in my ear at one point. "It's weakness. They have no strength left."
"Do people often get so drunk?" I asked.
"No. If you drink, you lose reindeer. They just get away. These people will lose a lot. It's just that you've come in an extremely tough year. The snow is harder than
usual so the reindeer can move faster and further away. They're completely spread out. I've only once before seen such a hard year in all my life. These people simply have no strength left. They're relaxing. It's weakness."
While the rest of Russia was enjoying the ten day New Year's holiday, Kostya considered these people's one day off a sign of massive failure. I hoped for their sake that it would only be a single day off.
"Have some blood," people egged me on, "it's delicious!"
Trying to distract my mind as much as possible from what it was I was drinking, I put the bowl to my lips and took a sip. The warm, thick liquid was surprisingly pleasant and I took a second, larger gulp.
"I thought it was going to be unpleasant, but actually it's delicious!" I announced, to everyone's approval.
"It's great that you just sit and hang out normally with us," Kostya told me. "You're like one of us already! Hey, take one of those bits of meat on the bone and use the blood as a dip, it's tasty like that."
I did as he recommended and it
Nenets nomads packing up camp, Yamal Peninula
That's part of the reindeer herd in the background
was, as he had said, pretty good. I polished off several bits of meat in this manner.
After an hour or so in their chum we went back to ours, had some tea and relaxed a bit. During this time I decided to try going outside in just my Vaetrex clothing; without the malitsa and gus, however, it was no good and I was uncomfortably cold within a minute.
We went out again after dark. Bumping over the snow on the sledge I was suddenly struck by an interesting question: how on earth did they know where they were going at night?
"By the snow, the wind and the stars," Radik told me in answer to my question as we climbed off the sledge near a stray band of reindeer. "But the number one, the most hopeful, is the snow, the lie the land. We have to know every inch of this tundra. The stars are great but they can disappear with bad weather. The wind's ok but it can change and trick you. The most important is the land. Although even then, if visibility's very poor, you can still get lost. I once got lost for
"My God," I said, horrified at the thought and simply unable to imagine anyone surviving even one night out here. "What happened?"
"I don't like to talk about it," he replied.
"You see," the man from the other chum told me as we got back on the sledge, he and the others having inspected the stray reindeer we had found, "we have to constantly go out checking up on them, making sure they're not straying too far. We can't afford to lose a single one. They're everything to us, like you've seen: house, clothes, food. We even make these sledge harnesses from them and some of our tools. The thread women use to sew our clothes with is made from their sinews. With clothes made from reindeer you don't start smelling even during the winter months when you can't wash, and raw reindeer meat keeps your body and teeth healthy: we don't brush our teeth but they don't fall out because of the reindeer meat."
Even after twenty four hours in these people's world, I felt I had some sort of idea where this man was coming from. It had early on occurred to
me that when outside it was only this layer of clothing, hand made from the skin and fur of reindeer, that was giving me life, standing between me and a quick but probably fairly nasty death. Likewise in the chum at night, the wind screaming violently outside, I had been all too conscious of the thin layer of reindeer between myself and the savage elements of these Northern wilds. In a very literal sense, out here in the tundra reindeer meant life and I said so to this man.
"Yes, you're right," he answered. "For us, reindeer are life. What do you think of our life anyway? Do you like it?"
"Of course I like it," I said. "I think you lead very free lives."
"Well maybe we're free but our lives are hard. I've never had a day off. And this year is the hardest in a long time."
* * *
The next morning Kostya, Radik, Alya, Radik's eldet son and I set off, Radik driving the snowmobile and the rest of us sitting on the attached sledge. It was colder and windier than the previous day and an eery blue light covered
the entire world. It was clear that no one knew exactly where we were going as they all kept a careful lookout over the period of an hour, someone eventually shouting and pointing when we saw some brown dots near the horizon, instantly noticeable amid the vast, white emptiness of the tundra.
We arrived at a place where sledges, perhaps as many as a hundred, were scattered over a vast area and all the chums had already been dismantled. Nearby a gargantuan herd of reindeer was milling around. I quickly set to work photographing people loading sledges, many of whom came over to introduce themselves and say hello.
About twenty minutes later another group of herders arrived and the difficult task of lassoing specific animals began. I did not understand anything of what was going on at the time but what I later found out from Radik was the following: some of his and Kostya's animals, along with those of the other groups who had just arrived, had got mixed up with this herd and needed to be separated off since the herd was on the move, headed towards the taiga forests 250km south of here. Each family
could recognise its own animals from a particular symbol cut into the animals' ears.
Dogs began forcing small groups of reindeer to separate from the main herd and they galloped past the waiting herders in an arch perhaps 500m long, eventually regathering in another spot on the opposite side of the camp. Mostly the men stood still as the animals streamed by but once every few minutes, on recognising his family's sign cut into an animal's ear, sometimes at a distance of up to twenty metres, each of them would lash out with his right arm, his lasso sailing through the air and, more often than not, catching a reindeer by the antlers. What happened next depended on the reindeer: some could be easily reined in, other more unruly beasts would force another herder to come to the help of the lassoer while occasionally the man catching the reindeer would go flying and get dragged along in the snow behind it until he let go or someone came to his aid.
When the herd had been separated into two roughly equal groups a fence was quickly erected around them and lots of herders went in among the reindeer.
The people who were about to migrate south were searching for animals to pull their sledges while the newcomers separated off the last of their reindeer that remained mixed up with this herd.
When all was finally done, a family belonging to the group of herders that was about to migrate south invited me to eat with them. Seven of us sat in a circle on the snow and they fetched raw fish, raw meat and vodka from a sledge.
"Without this," the father of the family said while pouring me a glass, his moustache hanging on either side of his lips in huge white icicles, "it's not possible. It's especially necessary before you move camp, or spend a long time on a sledge for any reason. You shouldn't have a lot though - just enough to keep out the cold."
By this stage I had been outside for six hours and was glad of any opportunity to "keep out the cold." For ten minutes we sat there chewing on the meat and fish, passing round the single shot glass and saying toasts to one another's countries while the world darkened and the wind picked up force.
They then got up and left with the rest of their brigade, an uncountable number of reindeer and sledges crawling across the landscape like a column of ants and switching the predominant colour from white to brown.
"How many reindeer do you think there are?" I asked Allya as we stood and watched.
"About ten thousand," she replied.
After half an hour they were still there, drifting towards the horizon, but the rate at which their brown stain against the white tundra shrunk was increasing exponentially. In a few minutes they were just a smudge far, far away, a few seconds later just a line, then a dot, then they were gone.
We went home in the dark, myself now absolutely frozen from eight hours spent outside in spite of my clothing. I lay on the sledge, hugging myself and shivering, utterly miserable. The wind had picked up pretty much to a gale and the stars were no longer visible. Kostya had, for a reason I could not fathom, headed south to spend a few weeks with the migrating brigade, while Radik had left on some errand to Yar Sale with his wife and a son
and was expected back the following day.
"Will we be able to find our way home without the stars?" I bawled at Allya, barely audible even to myself.
"Probably," she shouted back, "but we might have to spend the night out here."
"What? How can you spend the night out here? It's not possible!" I screamed.
"It is possible," she reassured me. "We'd just have to turn the sledge upside down and sleep underneath it."
Fortunately it did not come to that though and we arrived back at the chum an hour later, myself chilled to the bone.
"You look cold!" said the grandmother of the family as I entered before coming over, taking my frozen hands and kissing them.
* * *
The next morning I went off with Radik's oldest son and Allya to cut wood. About twenty minutes away from the chum they pointed to what I thought at first were the tops of some small plants poking out of the snow fifty metres away at the bottom of a small dip in the ground. The overwhelming, unending whiteness of the landscape proved to have disorientated me though, as
we drove towards them on the snowmobile for another two minutes. As we approached they grew larger and larger until I realised it was a small copse at the base of a depression perhaps twenty metres deep.
We parked the snowmobile near some trees. Radik's son and Allya began hacking away at the small, thin, snow-covered trees.
"Can I load them onto the sledges?" I asked, pointing at the trees and branches they had already cut.
"No, you won't do it properly," Allya said. "If you want to help then you can carry them from here to the sledge and leave them in a pile next to it."
I began to do as she said, finding it particularly hard work with such heavy clothing on. After a couple of minutes I sensed that I was about to start sweating but chose to work through it without taking off my gus, as to do so was such an effort. A minute later my face was covered in crystals of frozen sweat and strands of clumped together hair hung in icicles from my forehead. I decided to take of my gus.
After we got back they broke
the wood into smaller pieces and piled it up between the stove and the back of the chum. The weather deteriorated to the worst I had seen yet. Going outside on toilet trips began to seem like a massive undertaking, something to be absolutely dreaded. The first time I left the chum I was almost blown over by the wind as it slammed unexpectedly into me, feeling like acid on the exposed skin of my face. On many occasions previously I have used the words "howling", "screeching" and "screaming" to describe a wind. On all of them, however, I was being too free with my language. This was the first time I had heard a wind make a noise of comparable volume and terribleness to a howl, only it was much worse than a howl because it came not from one source but from all around you, from the very air itself.
Inside the children played happily, laughing and screaming amongst themselves in the Nenets language while the dogs whined, slept and fought.
"Radik won't come back in this weather," Allya told me.
* * *
"What are they?" I asked Allya the next day, pointing
to three home made dolls, each about a foot and a half tall and dressed in malitsas.
"They're our ancestors," she replied. "This one's Kostya's grandfather, that one there was a great shaman."
"What do shamans do?" I asked. "Are there still shamans today?"
"I don't know," she replied. "I've never seen one. They can help people though and have great powers. This one here was run through the chest by a broken pole, you know the ones we use for driving sledge reindeer. He just pulled it out and went on like normal, wasn't even scarred. Galina Achemboevna saw that with her own eyes."
I made a mental note to ask Galina about it back in Yar Sale.
"What's that in the pouch around the shaman doll's neck?" I asked.
"Some tobacco and some hairs from his beard."
"And why do you make these dolls?"
"Sometimes because they ask to have one made after they die, sometimes because we just want to, to respect them. They even have their own sacred reindeer."
"What are sacred reindeer?"
"Every person has one. We don't kill them until they are very old,
then we choose another one that looks similar to replace it. There's a sacred reindeer for every person and every god."
"How many gods are there?"
"I don't know."
"Can you tell me some of their names?"
"I don't know them."
"Well you know Russians go to church and pray to honour their God - what do you do to honour yours?"
"Sometimes we sacrifice a reindeer in the name of the god, like when we need something from them or when we want to thank them for something. We still eat the meat but we also do this..." she placed a bowl a few inches in front of a mug on the table and a knife and spoon on either side of the mug. "We fill the bowl with meat and it's as if the mug, which represents the god, is eating it."
"And you have lots of gods, right?"
"Is there like one for the sun, one for the earth and so on?"
"And they don't have names?"
"Not in Russian, no."
"But in Nenets?"
"Of course, but you wouldn't
understand them anyway."
"Could you tell me the sun god's name in Nenets?"
"Yes, it's Yalentseo."
"And what about the sacred reindeer, do they have names too?"
"Yes, for example the sun god's reindeer is called Yalentseova tui."
"And what's special about sacred reindeer? Do you treat them somehow differently from normal ones?"
"Well we don't kill them until they're much older, like I said. And women aren't allowed to use them as transport."
"I don't know, I don't really understand it."
"Is there anything else women aren't allowed to do? And what about men?"
"There's nothing that's forbidden for men. As for women... well, we're not allowed to use the sacred sledge and... you see that pole there?" she was pointing to a pole on the opposite side of the chum from the entrance that sloped inwards to the hole in the roof like all the others but stood a few inches further in than them. "That's the sacred pole. Women mustn't touch it. And if you draw a straight line linking the door to the chimney to that pole, women mustn't cross that section of it
between the chimney and the sacred pole. And if you continue that straight line out into the tundra, women aren't allowed to cross it anywhere within sight of the chum. If we want to, we have to come all the way back to the chum and walk round the other side. Men and children can cross it anywhere though."
"Wow," I said. "Anything else?"
"We're not allowed to pass over anything that's been touched by a reindeer. For example if I want to cross an argysh I either have to go round it or lift the connecting ropes over my head and go in between the sledges like that."
"So how many times a day do you have to think about things like this?" I asked.
"Hundreds. Constantly. Almost everything's been touched by reindeer."
"It seems to me," I commented, "that for Nenets people reindeer are not only food, clothing and home. They're not just an animal necessary to survival like dogs, which you can hit and kick any time you want. It seems to me that you have a genuine respect for the reindeer as creatures and as spiritual
"Yes, that's right. You know, if a reindeer's mother dies after it is born we take it into the chum and bring it up ourselves from spring until autumn when it's ready to look after itself. If you'd come here in autumn you'd have seen for yourself, we had a few reindeer living in the chum."
I tried to imagine the place, already lively with six dogs and eight children, with a handful of reindeer added into the equation.
"And do you have some sort of special relationship with the reindeer you've brought up yourselves? I mean even after you re-release them into the wild?"
"Yes, we never kill them. When they're very, very old we give them away as presents to other families who kill them and return the gesture by giving us one of the reindeer they brought up in their chum that has become old."
"So when you look at your herd of reindeer you can recognise all the ones that you brought up in your chum?"
"And all the sacred reindeer?"
"And are there any other special categories of reindeer?"
"Well there's the
transport reindeer of course, sacrificial reindeer, the reindeer that protect the herd from wolf attacks, female reindeer that give birth when under a year old, reindeer with no antlers, reindeer with one antler, black and white reindeer, black reindeer with a white head. There's a different Nenets word for each of these types of reindeer."
"And you can really recognise them all just by looking at the herd?" I asked dubiously.
"Tell me," I said, "do you like living in the tundra?"
"Yes," she replied, "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."
For a while she had to help a child go to the toilet in the big metal tub near the door that the six small children used.
"Do you think Radik will be back today?" I asked when she had finished, thinking of the still appaling weather and unable to imagine anyone being physically able to stay out in it for three hours let alone find their way here from Yar Sale in the near zero visibility.
"He'll have to," she replied. "He can't stay away from the reindeer any longer."
Sure enough, Radik appeared a couple of hours
later with his son.
"How was the journey?" I asked. "Cold?"
"No, it was fine," he replied.
"Where's Sveta?" I asked.
"She's seeing the doctor in Yar Sale. She's got pneumonia. Again."
After dinner I made as if to go outside.
"Don't go without a torch," Radik said.
"I'll be fine, really," I said. The spot where I went to the toilet was only twenty metres from the chum.
"Seriously, you can't see anything out there," he told me. "Take the torch and whatever you do, don't go out of sight of the furthest sledge."
I went out and saw that he had not been exaggerating. So much snow was being tossed around by the nightmarish, skin-devouring wind that nothing was visible, not even the nearest sledges a few feet away. It was presumably under such conditions that Radik had once lost his way for a week. I tried not to think about the sheer horror of it but images kept flashing up in my mind of a man reduced to a skeleton, every last ounce of body fat ripped from him by the cruel weather, his skin aging by a
year every day, staggering through the impenetrable night, occasionally lying down and curling up in a ball when energy, willpower and the ability to believe in hope failed him, sucking desperately at the snow for moisture that could only dehydrate him further. I wondered what had signified the end of his ordeal - a passing sledge? The joyful sight of a chum, shimmering in and out of visibility through the raging storm? A chance stumbling upon a herd of reindeer, bringers of life to this brutal land?
Switching on the torch, I could just make out the nearest sledge and I struggled against the wind towards it, head lowered and chin pressed into my chest. From there I could just make out another sledge and headed towards it, and from there to another and so on.
On the way back I again made from one sledge to the next. It soon became clear that I had been going for too long and should already have reached the chum. I must have followed sledges in the wrong direction. I made a ninety degree turn to my right and shone the torch into the blizzard. Just being able to make
out the form of a sledge, I trudged towards it. On reaching it I shone my torch further in that direction and to my relief saw the conical form of the chum a few metres ahead.
* * *
After breakfast the next morning, on the day that I was to return to Yar Sale, Radik and I went out alone to check up on the reindeer and to search for a new spot for his family to relocate to in a few days' time. The temperature had increased to -25 C, the wind had died down and the strange icy blue glow of the previous days had disappeared from the world. After a while I realised that fully dressed I was going to be too hot, so I took off my gus.
At our first stop Radik jumped off the snowmobile, grabbed a stick from the back of the sledge and began digging through the snow.
"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"Moss, for the reindeer," he replied.
When he reached the ground about two feet below the surface of the snow it appeared that there was no moss so we moved
on, stopping again at another potential location.
"The ground here's to hard," he told me, having dug through the snow. "That means Southern Nenets must have set up their chums here at some point during summer."
We moved on to a new place which, after a quick dig, was apparently to Radik's satisfaction.
"OK," he said. "Let's head to the wood now to cut some trees. And you know those reindeer we saw on the way here? We need to drive them closer to the chum too. You're going to do it all while I relax and have a smoke on the sledge."
"What? But I can't..."
"Don't worry, it's easy," he told me. "To start the snowmobile you squeeze the accelerator on the handle very gently and pull the throttle sharply. The engine will start and you should squeeze the accelerator a bit more, but still lightly, to get going."
I managed to start the snowmobile on my second or third attempt and we were off. It was in fact amazingly simple: the accelerator controlled the speed, the handle bars the steering and there was nothing more to it. Soon I was bouncing
over the uneven tundra at full speed, even standing up to scan the horizon for reindeer as the Nenets did. I only stopped and turned round when I heard Radik shouting from behind me.
"Go up that small hill there," he said, pointing ahead of us. "From there you'll be able to see where the reindeer are."
As he had predicted, a stray group of a hundred or so reindeer was visible scattered over a small area a couple of hundred metres ahead of us.
"Can you see the chums on the horizon?" he asked. "They're directly ahead of us. Drive the reindeer towards them."
I could not see the chums but I took him on his word that they were there and started off towards the reindeer. When I was a hundred metres away they had not moved, nor at fifty. At twenty metres they were still happily grazing, and at ten. Were they just going to let me drive into them? Suddenly, when I was about five metres off them, the nearest spun around, their hind legs began kicking and they were off, the previously scattered group quickly clumping together in a miniature herd
and galloping over the snow just ahead of me. I drove them for some fifteen minutes before I heard Radik shouting from behind me again and stopped.
"Ok, that's enough," he replied. "The reindeer are all OK now but I don't want to waste the rest of the day so lets go and chop some wood. I know there's loads in the chum but still, it's better not to waste time."
We arrived at the small copse where I had been with Allya and Radik's son a few days previously and began cutting wood.
"You see," Radik said, "we have hard lives. We can't take days off. If you take days off you lose reindeer. I've never even celebrated my birthday."
"But would you rather live in Yar Sale?" I asked.
"Oh no, I like the tundra," he replied. "I once lived in the village for two years. I hated it. There you just drink all day every day and as soon as you wake up in the morning people want to go and get more beer. No, I didn't like village life."
"Yes, I noticed you don't drink now."
"It's better not
to touch the stuff," he answered.
Back in the chum I packed my bag and got ready for the journey back to Yar Sale. Allya laid the table with tea, vodka and a last meal.
"Try this," she said, dumping something on my plate.
"Yes," she replied, "reindeer tongue. It's delicious. Don't worry, we don't eat the tongues of the reindeer that hang around the chum, the ones that like to drink..."
"It didn't even cross my mind," I butted in.
We ate, the grandparents and I washing down our meal with half the bottle of vodka and myself using the opportunity to ask a few final unanswered questions.
"So," I began, "was life better under the Soviet Union or now?"
"Under the Soviet Union," the grandparents replied together.
"Why?" I asked.
They both started replying in their broken Russian which, while it may have been understandable to a native speaker, was beyond my comprehension. Radik translated.
"They said it was better because back then the collective farm helped us a lot. If we were in trouble they could send out a helicopter to rescue us, whereas
now we're pretty much on our own. Also now there are these gas fields in the North of Yamal. They don't affect us because our migration routes stop just south of them but for herders that live further north they're a nightmare. Not only do they destroy grazing, but the reindeer can't cross them and have to go round them instead, adding a huge distance to the migration route."
"And even more interesting," I said to the grandparents. "is that your grandparents must have been born before the Soviet Union. What did they think? Was life better before or during the USSR?"
"Before," they both answered together. Again Radik explained their replies to me.
"Before the Soviet Union my parents' parents were rich. I mean they didn't know they were rich but they lived very well and had lots of reindeer. Then during the USSR people came and took everything away from them. It got to the stage where all they had left was one loaf of bread, during the time of the great famines when everyone was dying. My father's grandad heard that people were coming to take that from them too so he grabbed it
and left, running for miles through the tundra with it while they chased and shot at him. He never stopped telling that story."
As I was leaving after the meal I began to thank everyone: "Thank you so much for everything, it's been the most amazing time..."
"Good," said Radik, "I hope you'll come back. Can you come this summer?"
"I can probably take a ten day holiday at the beginning of May," I replied.
"Ach, but ten days is nothing!" he said, visibly disappointed. "Can't you come for a month?"
"Not this year but possibly next," I replied.
"Great! If you come for a month I can teach you how to drive a sledge, even an argysh! Then you'll be a real Nenets!"
As I was battling my way into the two reindeer fur coats one last thought cropped up. "Does Yamal mean anything in your language?" I asked.
"Yes," Radik told me. "It means The Edge of the World."
* * *
Back in Yar Sale I asked Galina Achemboevna whether there were still any shamans.
"Who knows," she replied.
"But there used to be lots?"
"No, if there were lots they wouldn't be anything special."
"But it's interesting for me, are there really no more shamans?" I pressed.
"The most important thing," she said without looking at me as we ambled through the snow and ice on our way to her local shop, "is not to ask about them just out of interest. If everyone knew everything about them then there wouldn't be any shamans."
And that was all I could get out of her.
Click this link for information on guided travel to the Nenets of the Yamal Peninsula
and some information on Nenets culture and spirituality.
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