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Published: March 7th 2012
My eyes are frozen shut. I hear only the roar of the snowmobile dragging our sledge across the Gulf of Ob's frozen waters. After traveling for seven hours in -40°C the cold overpowers other sensations so that it is all I feel. Soon we will reach the coast of the Yamal Peninsula but for now we must bear another hour of this burning, soul-crushing cold. I relive the last few days as images dancing through my mind: laughter around the fire in a darkened teepee... and warmth; the rising sun lending its fiery glow to the silver trees around the Nenets nomads' encampment... and warmth; drinking fresh blood from a reindeer carcass... and its warm trickle down my throat. Always these fleeting, ethereal memories of warmth come back as we plough on through the Arctic night. Tomorrow will be a new day, when we will be brought as guests to a Nenets sacred site in the Yamal tundra, usually forbidden to outsiders. Then I will be able to form new impressions. As for now I cannot open my eyes, the engine's roar fills my ears and the unforgiving cold pierces my body and soul. I am in a state of extreme
sensory depravation, often unable to tell which direction we are traveling in, and all I have left are those cherished memories of a time when I was warm...
* * *
I remember being warm four days ago when we arrived at an encampment of nomadic reindeer herders at six in the morning, having traveled two and a half days by train, seven hours in an all-terrain vehicle and eight hours in a sledge attached to the back of a snowmobile driven by my friend Radik to get there. .
Radik, like everyone else in the encampment, is a Nenets, the Asian-looking people indigenous to this part of the Siberian Arctic who speak a language unrelated to Russian and follow an ancient animistic religion. 50%!o(MISSING)f the Nenets on the Yamal Peninsula live a year-round nomadic existence, dressing in reindeer furs, living in reindeer-hide tents called chums and following herds of up to 10,000 head on reindeer sledges along ancient migration routes.
In the starlight the dark forms of seven chums were just visible stretching away from us in a line, dozens
of sledges scattered around them in an area that appeared to be surrounded by trees. Radik's fourteen-year old son Myangche greeted us and we approached the third chum along, the spiky ends of the structural poles just visible poking from a hole in the top of its conical form along with a narrow, wooden chimney from which smoke was already drifting upwards so imperceptibly that it appeared to be just hanging in the air. Radik pulled up a flap in the front of the chum, crouched down and entered while holding it over his head, Ian and myself following him.
"Hi, Sveta!" I said to Radik's wife who, having heard our snowmobile, was already laying a table with soup, bread and tea. "How are you?"
"Alright," she said, smiling but not looking at me. "And you? How was your trip? Are you cold?"
"I'm alright, not at all cold," I said.
"Well yes, it's warm at the moment," she replied.
We took off our malitsas (ankle-lenght reindeer-fur coats with attached reindeer-fur hoods and mittens)and kisy (thigh-high reindeer-fur boots) while standing near the entrance and used a stick to beat the snow from them and our
boots. Immediately in front of us, right in the centre of the chum, sat the rusted metal furnace, the wooden chimney we had seen protruding from the top of the chum evacuating the smoke from the fire. The floor was made of wooden planks although, unusually, to the right of the furnace there were none, just snow. Immediately behind the furnace was a large pile of firewood and behind that a table against the chum's far wall. To the left of the furnace was the low table that Sveta had just laid and behind it the left-hand wall of the chum was lined with reindeer furs and yagushki . The wooden poles that supported the chum's conical structure (called shesti in Russian) sloped inwards from ground level to meet at the top and poke out with the chimney while two other horizontal poles ran from just above the entrance to the far side of the chum, drying clothing and a few utensils hanging from them. On the other side opposite the entrance the sacred pole stood a few inches out from the structural ones, forming the line between the chimney and itself
that extends out into the tundra and which women must not cross inside or within sight of the chum.
This, along with a vast number of other taboos and prohibitions that Nenets women have to observe, may be difficult for the Western mind to separate from ideas of sexism and inequality. Women must not cross the imaginary line mentioned above, step over anything that has been touched by a reindeer, step over men or children, step over hunting or fishing equipment, walk across bear tracks, cut the spine of certain types of fish, take part in sacrifices, visit sacred sites or touch the sacred sledge. The first time I noticed women observing these prohibitions - walking around the chum instead of crossing the imaginary line or lifting reindeer harnesses over their heads instead of stepping over them - I was puzzled, since in every other respect men and women seem to be on as equal a footing as in the West. Their fields of work are completely separate - the men have the tundra, the women the chum - but in their interactions neither one nor the other seems to wield superiority.
These two contradictions - gender equality
and a large number of taboos on women - can be explained by the fact that these restrictions apply not only to women but to anyone affected by sya mei. Sya mei is a force from the other world, that of birth and death, which can be harmful when it comes into contact with this world. Thus people affected by sya mei are prohibited from performing certain actions which may threaten important or sacred objects. Those affected include post-pubescent women, newborn children, relatives of the recently deceased and those present at a recent death or funeral.
"Sit down," Radik said, patting the reindeer furs on the floor next to him. "Sorry about the state of the chum. We haven't quite finished making the last floor boards."
Yelps and squeals erupted from below the reindeer furs that Ian and I sat down on, a pack of dogs emerging from under our backsides and fleeing out of the chum entrance.
"That's ok," I said, "I'm glad to be back."
"You're not back," Radik answered. "Last year we were all in my brother's chum. This is a new one."
"Ah, ok. How long did it take to make?"
I asked, taking my first sip of soup.
"About four years. It's made of four covers and each cover consists of thirty or forty reindeer hides sewn together. Apart from that it takes a long time to find branches that are long, straight and strong enough for the poles and to smooth them all off and cut them down to length, then you have to find wood for the floor boards and cut them into shape. It's a very long process and we just do a little bit every day when we have some spare time."
Just then a pile of reindeer fur next to Radik started heaving and after a few seconds the head of a seven-year old girl popped out.
"Look," Radik said to her while pointing at me, "who's that?"
She stared sleepily at me for a second before saying, "Edward!" She then stood up, walked over to me and held out her hand. I shook it and she said, "hello!" in Russian.
"Hello, Olya," I replied. "How are you?"
She looked at me, not understanding what I had said.
"She only speaks Nenets so far," Radik explained. "She's going
to school in Yar Sale next year, then she'll learn Russian. She'll stay there in the boarding school and come to the chum during the holidays."
"Why do some Nenets have Russian names like Sveta but others have Nenets ones like Myangche?" Ian asked Radik through me.
"We all have a Russian and a nenets one," Radik answered. "Myangche's Russian one is Alyoshka."
"So what's your Nenets name?" I asked Radik.
"I don't know, I've never used it," he replied.
"Feel free to ask anything else you want," I said to Ian, "they'll be happy to tell you."
"I'm not going to ask to many questions just yet," Ian replied. "I want them to get used to my presence first."
Just then the tent flap opened, bringing with it a gust of snow and cold air, and Radik's father entered. I jumped to my feet and shook his hand.
"How are you, Achemboy?" I asked.
"What?" he asked in a frail voice.
"How are you?" I shouted.
"Alright," he said.
"Sit down, sit down," Radik said to us.
"Are you here for long?" Achemboy asked.
not, just four days," I replied.
"Why such a short time?" Radik asked. "You can't see anything in four days!"
"Ian could only get two weeks holiday," I replied, "and it takes a long time to get here from Moscow, let alone Ireland!"
"You should come back in summer for longer," Achemboy said in his broken, heavily-accented Russian. "In summer it'd be really interesting for you. We do everything by reindeer sledge, it's warm, we can wear lighter clothing, there are polar bears, we go fishing..."
"You get eaten alive by mosquitoes..." Radik added.
"...In May they leave me and my wife in our own chum on their way north," Achemboy continued, "we spend the whole summer there fishing and they pick us up again in October on their way south."
After the meal was finished Radik, Ian and I got a couple of hours of much needed sleep.
When we woke up Sveta was once again laying the table. We sat up, crossed our legs and began to eat and sip tea. As we were doing so the tent flap lifted up and another familiar face, the younger, fuller, calmer, less cold-eroded
one of Radik's brother, came in.
"How are you, Kostya?" I asked.
Alright," he replied. "How was your journey?"
"Alright," I replied. "How's your family?"
"My sixth child was born last year," he answered.
"He's twenty nine and he has four sons and two daughters!" Radik butted in. "But for me it's not working out: I'm thirty nine and have only two sons and two daughters!"
"It must have been getting pretty crowded when you were all in one chum, what with all the dogs and orphaned reindeer too," I commented. Orphaned reindeer are always brought up in the chum until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Surprisingly, seeing as even sacred reindeer are killed when they are very old, orphaned reindeer are never killed by the family that brought them up. Instead, when they are too old they are given as presents to another family who kill them and return the gesture by giving away one of their own orphaned reindeer.
"Yes, it's nice that we have a bit more space now," Kostya answered. "But over summer we'll all be in one tent again when we're in the north."
Radik swore to himself as some yelping erupted from outside the chum.
"That dog's a bloody idiot," he said. "Always harrassing the others and too stupid to do any work. For a dog like that there's only one road."
"What road?" I asked.
"Death," he replied. "My other dogs are so clever. Look at this one for example - she herds the reindeer perfectly. When we're moving camp she even understands the exact moment when we're about to set off on the sledges and herds her own children onto a sledge before it goes."
Radik cuddled the clever dog for a moment before giving it a kick in the ribs.
"Our relationship to dogs is different from our relationship to reindeer," said Sveta, voicing my own thoughts. Every reindeer is important and many even have their own names, are recognisable to the Nenets from amid thousands of others and have special spiritual significance. In the Nenets language, the words for "life" and "wild reindeer" share the same root.
"We need dogs and the dogs need us," Sveta continued. "Without dogs we couldn't survive. They're the ones that do all the real herding. But with
the reindeer its different: we need them but they don't need us. If we weren't here they would still migrate along the same routes, still eat and have children."
After breakfast Ian took out some photographs of Ireland and began showing them to Kostya.
"Do you have reindeer herders in Ireland? Or England?" Kostya asked.
"A few I guess," Ian replied through me, "but they're not nomads like you. They keep all their reindeer in one place all the time, like on one large farm."
"But it's not possible like that," Kostya replied, "reindeer need more space, more grazing. Either they must have very few reindeer or the reindeer must all be thin and unhealthy."
We went outside the chum and into the crisp, fresh, minus twenty something morning air of Nadym Region. The sun was rising over the forest of silvery trees towards which the chum entrance was facing, reds, golds and oranges seeping out from it like watercolours spreading over the surrounding sky. Behind the row of seven chums was another wood, identical to the first in all but the fact that these trees were painted a glowing, ethereal red by the sun's
The sounds of people at work began to fill the camp. A woman outside one of the far chums began chopping firewood; Radik began shaving away at a floor board for his chum that he had almost got into shape; Kostya was fixing someth with a hammer in the space between his chum and the sun-reddened trees; Achemboy was sitting on one sledge and slowly building another. Instead of nails he seemed to be using tiny, well-honed sticks of wood which he slipped into holes in the sledge to hold it together. When this was done he began shaving away at the fronts of the runners, smoothing their curved-upwards-pointing ends. Every few minutes he would stop what he was doing, sit back and become motionless, just staring into space. When a plane flew far overhead, however, he leapt into action, shouting angrily and shaking his fists at it.
"Good morning," I said to him.
"What?" he asked.
"Good morning!" I shouted.
"Oh!" he replied. "I'm sorry, I can't hear anything any more. And look at me, I'm so weak I can't even work. I can only do a little bit at a time
on this sledge."
"Ed!" Radik said, calling me over to where he was working on the floor board. "By the way, tell Ian that you and he can go into my chum or any of the ones to the right as you come out of it freely but it's probably not a good idea to go to the ones on the left. There are a few unpleasant people there."
"What do you mean, unpleasant?" I asked.
"Well it's just one chum really, two down from mine. It's very disorderly and dirty inside. Don't tell anyone but they're going to be kicked out of the brigade this year."
"Ok," I said, sitting down next to him on a sledge and taking a deep breath. "What incredible weather this year - it's warm, the sun is shining, there's no wind... not like last year!"
"Yes," Radik said. "In years like this you should just enjoy life and be grateful."
Half an hour later we went off to cut down some trees, Ian and I riding on sledges attached to the backs of snowmobiles driven by Kostya and Myangche. We went for about five minutes into the
forest, every now and then having to jump off the sledges and push them when they got stuck in the softer snow. Kostya and I stopped about a hundred metres away from Myangche and Ian. Kostya took out an axe and began hacking at the base of a tree.
"So Ed, are you still not married?" he asked.
"No," I replied.
"And you're twenty eight?" he asked.
"That's right," I answered.
"That's late to get married," he said. "But on the other hand it's good. Getting married young is very tough."
"Why?" I asked.
"I had a childhood sweetheart, we were together for five years although we never slept together. Then when I was twenty my parents said I had to marry another woman, Alya, or they would never speak to me or support me again."
"Why didn't they like the other girl?"
"I don't know. I guess it was just because they'd known Alya's family for a long time."
After half an hour we had enough tree trunks piled up on the sledge and headed off back to the encampment, winding our way in between the trees which from
this close up were noticably white, not silver, and whose branches kept scratching at my face if I was not quick enough to hold my hands up in time. Back at the encampment we went into Kostya's chum.
"Hi Alya," I said to Kostya's wife upon entering. "How are you?"
"Fine thanks," she replied, smiling but not taking her attention off the furnace into which she was feeding firewood. "How was your trip? You didn't get cold?"
"Of course not," I replied. "It was good weather and we had good clothing. Without our malitsas and kisy it would have been a different matter though!"
"Of course," she replied. "Even here where it's always much warmer than on the Yamal Russian clothing's useless even on good days like today. Without a malitsa, no way."
"And how are your children?" I asked.
"Fine. Our oldest daughter's just started school in Yar Sale."
"Does she like it?" I asked.
"I don't know. She misses us and we miss her of course. It's very hard. Anyway, why are you still standing? Sit down."
We beat the snow
off our clothing with a stick then sat down on the reindeer furs and on the right side of the chum. Alya brought a small table from next to the sacred pole, placed it in front of us and began to pour out tea and lay the table with bread, mustard, raw meat on the bone and raw fish.
"You've come at a good time," Kostya said after we had begun tucking in. "We're not too busy at the moment. We'll have time to hang out and go for snowmobile rides. We don't have to herd the reindeer every day at the moment."
"Why's that?" I asked. "Last time I was here you were busy working all day every day."
"Well we're in a good place now. There's so much lichen here that the reindeer don't spread out very far so we don't have to round them up so often. This is the only time in the year when we can stay in one place for a whole month without moving camp. We arrived here a few days ago and in a month's time we'll start heading back up north, moving almost every day."
you think we'll be able to see the herd while we're here?" I asked.
"Of course," he replied. "We'll probably round them up tomorrow. Today let's go out for a ride though and hunt willow ptarmigan."
"What's willow ptarmigan?" I asked.
"It's a bird that sleeps under the snow. It changes colour too, like right now they're pure white but in summer they become brown. So
Kostya, Radik, Myangche, Ian and I went for a rather unsuccessful bout of hunting with four ancient-looking rifles. We saw no willow ptarmigan or any other livig creature, instead spending the greater part of two hours digging the sledge out of snow drifts and bailing the snow out of it every time it got stuck.
Back in Radik's chum that evening Sveta laid the table with meat, fish, bread and tea.
"Can you ask them if they know anything about the Yaptiks?" Ian asked me as we ate.
"What are the Yaptiks?" I asked.
"I'm not sure," he replied, "but I read somewhere about a Nenets legend to do with the Yaptiks."
"Do you know anything about the Yaptiks?" I asked Radik.
course," he replied. "They're the most important Nenets clan. Lots of Nenets have the surname Yaptik."
"Ian says therre's some sort of legend about the Yaptiks?" I asked.
"There are lots," Radik replied.
"Can you tell us one of them?" I asked.
"It would be impossible for you to understand," Radik answered dismissively.
"There's really not a single one we could understand?" I pleaded.
"Well I guess there's Zolotaya Baba ," he replied. "There was a golden statue of a woman, the most sacred object for all the peoples of the North for thousands of years. It disappeared at the beginning of the Soviet Union and no one knows where it is now."
I was disappointed, as he had not told us a real Nenets legend, which, according to anthropologists, are long, descriptive stories about ancient times, spirits, shamans and so on. Instead he had told us a myth that is widespread in the north and I myself had heard before. Over the last thousand years several European explorers and traders have claimed to see Zolotaya Baba. People say it was taken away and hidden at the beginning of the Soviet
Union to avoid it being captured and placed on an island amid the swamp in the taiga forest hundreds of miles from the nearest paths or villages. The last report of anyone having actually seen it was a blinded old man who in 1904 claimed to have had his eyes taken out after seeing Zolotaya Baba.
That night, after we had lain down down to sleep under the reindeer furs, Sveta filled up the furnace with logs. Very soon the chum became swelteringly hot and full of smoke. As I dozed off she continued doing something over there and I wandered whether this was not part of the Nenets smoke ritual that can cleanse people affected by sya mei or who have recently returned from a village.
The next morning was the same as the previous, although it was noticably colder. Sveta awoke before everyone else, heated the chum up, boiled snow for water and laid the table. After eating we got up and went into the mercifully windless outside world where the skeletal, snow-caked trees were once again painted a deep blood red. As the sun rose higher more people came out of the chums and the
campsite became busier, the sounds of tapping, chopping, sawing and beating resounding from all around, and the colour of the trees shifted to a fiery orange, then a glowing golden tint, before returning to their usual silvery-white. Once again women began cutting firewood, Achemboy started work on his sledge and Radik returned to honing his floorboards. People spilled out ot the chum two down to the left when coming out of Radik's and began disassembling it.
"Look, you can photograph them if you want," Sveta said, emerging from her chum and pointing to the other, which had now had the reindeer skins removed with the help of a long wooden pole and was just the interlocking skeleton of inwards sloping poles around the floorboards, furnace and furniture.
"You can't walk there!" one of the women said to another who was about to cross the imaginary line between the furnace and the still standing sacred pole.
"Do you mind if I take a photograph?" I asked the owners.
"No, no, no pictures," one of the men replied gruffly.
Most of the poles were taken down until just four remained, interlocking and bound together at the top.
The women then moved the floorboards, furnace and furniture to a spot a few metres away that a man had indicated and arranged them until they were in exactly the positions they would be in when the chum was ready. They then set up the first four poles that were already tied together at the top before adding the other ones, numbering around thirty five. Then two men put the reindeer-hide covers back over the skeleton with the help of another pole. The whole process took under an hour.
"Well, did you photograph it?" Sveta, who was carrying a big pot of snow to melt for water on the furnace, asked as we strolled back over to her chum.
"No, they didn't let us," I replied.
"Really," she said, shaking her head, "what's wrong with those people? They're the only bad people here in this encampment and their chum's always dirty and disorderly. You know how my floorboards are brown? Well, theirs are black with dirt. They're getting chucked out later this year. You know, that's why they didn't want you to photograph them - because they had set up their chum incorrectly and had to move
it to a new position. They were embarrassed."
A bit later Radik called us over. "What do you think - shall we go to see some friends in another encampment?" he asked.
"Definitely," Ian and I agreed.
"Slavik arrived last night," Radik went on. "We can go with him to his dad's encampment."
"Who's Slavik?" I asked.
"You met him last time in Yar Sale. He's the head of this brigade."
Wrack my brains as I might I could not remember who Slavik was, even on his appearance and shaking his hand, and doubted whether I really had met him. Nevertheless, he, Radik, Myangche, Ian and I set out on snowmobiles and sledges half an hour later to his father's encampment, first through a forested area, then through open tundra with only a thin lining of trees just visible far away on the horizon, then back into a forested area. After an hour we arrived at an encampment of three chums, the usual large number of sledges lying around and dozens of recently-cut reindeer skins hanging out to dry.
"Listen, Edik," Slavik said as we dismounted and crunched through the snow towards the
middle chum, "while you're in this encampment or the other encampment just let me know if there's anything you want to see or do, anything at all, and I'll try to help you. What would you most like to see?"
"We'd like to see everything possible," I replied, "but only if it's convenient for you. I mean, don't go out of your way or anything."
"So there's nothing in particular?" he asked.
"Well, there is one thing I didn't see last time I was here," I said tentatively, "but I don't know whether you'll be ok with it or not. If you're not ok with it then that's no problem. But since you said, I'll ask, and please forgive me if it's uncomfortable for you, you understand I just know nothing about your culture and what would be ok or not..."
"Just say it," he said.
"Well," I replied, "it would be extremely interesting to see a Nenets sacred site, if that's allowed, but please don't feel you have to, I really don't want to do anything inappropriate..."
The narrow, slanted eyes on Slavik's calm face had been cast down to about my chest
hight in thought while I babbled on after mentioning the sacred site but they rose back up to mine after a couple of seconds.
"Yes, we can take you to a sacred site I guess," he said. "Come on, let's go inside."
“It's on the other side of Yar Sale though from here,” Radik said as we went in, “so if you want to visit it we'll have to go back a day early.”
Radik lifted up the tent flap and entered the middle chum, saying something in Nenets to someone inside as he did so. As I entered behind him I saw that there were only two small children and a woman, who said something back to Radik in Nenets. Radik uttered a rather nasty Russian swear word.
"They've all gone out to cut down trees far away in the forest," he told me. "They'll be out all day because they're looking for a very rare and specific type of tree, a tall, thin, soft one that people in Yar Sale use to fill mattresses. Damn, they could have warned us before we drove all the way out here!"
Nevertheless we sat down in
the chum and our hostess served us tea.
"So normally," Slavik told me, "non-Nenetsaren't allowed to see our sacred site. But you've already been here once and you're coming again soon so you're not really a complete outsider any more. But you'll have to go through a certain ritual before you go there."
"What ritual?" I asked.
"You'll see," Slavik replied. "But let me tell you one thing - if you don't do the ritual or if you're not ready to see the sacred place, you won't be able to photograph it. Nothing will show up in the pictures or your camera will break."
"Well thank you very much," I said. "And what exactly is the sacred place?"
"Every family has one," Radik replied. "I'll take you to the sacred site of my family, the Serotettos. It's a hill of reindeer antlers. Every year or two years we go there and sacrifice reindeer to our family's patron spirit and the hill gets a bit bigger."
"So each Nenets family has its own patron spirit?" I asked.
"That's right," Radik replied, "and the most powerful one is that of the Yaptiks."
there other gods not associated with the families?" I asked.
"Lots," Slavik replied, but he did not elaborate and I got the impression I was pressing too hard for information so stopped asking questions.
"So your reindeer herders in England - they must be slightly
nomadic?" Radik asked. "I can't see how it's possible otherwise."
"They're really not," I replied. "They keep all their reindeer on a farm."
"Like that it's not interesting," Radik said bluntly after a moment's consideration, getting up. "Let's go outside."
We finished our tea and meat then went outside.
"Feel free to have a walk around and look at anything you want," Slavik said.
"Thanks," I replied. "By the way, which one is the sacred sledge?"
"That one over there," he replied, pointing. "You see, it's pointing in the opposite direction from all the other sledges apart from that one, which is also a sacred one."
Not long after we headed back to Radik and slavik's encampment.
"How was your trip?" Sveta asked.
"Great," I told her. "Slavik told us a lot of interesting stuff. For the first time ever I realised that in
each encampment all the sledges point in one direction apart from the sacred ones."
"Yes," she replied, "we do that too."
"And what's so special about the sacred sledge exactly?" I asked.
"Well we keep all out ancestor dolls, idols and other sacred objects on it," she explained. "Women aren't allowed to touch it."
“And all that sacred stuff – does it belong to Achemboy?” I asked.
“That's right,” she answered. Remarkably soon she had a meal ready for us..
"You see how wonderful this woman is?" Radik asked. "She's such a sweetheart. Without women, the Nenets life would be impossible. They work much harder than men - they wake up earlier, heat up the chum, get tea and food ready, then the men go out and they feed the children, then they clean the chum, cut firewood, sew clothing. They don't stop working from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep."
"We work in the chum while the men work out in the cold with the reindeer," Sveta added.
After the meal Sveta picked up Ian's malitsa and pointed out a tear near the armpit. She rummaged around
in a corner and pulled out a reindeer fur bag with beautiful, colourful patterns sewn into it. From inside she brought out what looked like a wafer-thin reddish brown belt with very frayed ends. She put a frayed end in her mouth, did something to it, peeled off one tiny piece of thread from the whole, passed it through a needle and began sewing up the tear.
"Is that reindeer sinew you're using to sew with?" I asked.
"Yes," Sveta replied.
"Can you ask her how she gets it from the reindeer and prepares it?" Ian asked.
"We just take it out of the reindeer all together as soon as we kill it," Sveta replied, "roll it out to make it flat and wrap it around a chum pole to dry."
We lay chatting on the reindeer furs at the side of the chum while the dogs all sat on their hind legs around the furnace, staring through gaps in its sides at the flames that crackled within.
"That means it's going to be colder tomorrow," Radik said, pointing at the dogs.
Sveta laid the table once again at 10pm. After dinner they
turned off the gas lamp and everyone went to sleep.
"So you're finally going to see the herd!" Radik said cheerily at breakfast the next morning. Until today the only actual reindeer we had seen were the few that milled around the camp and molested you thirstily every time you went to the toilet. "We're going out to round up and count the reindeer. We can't find four of the ones we recognise, which means probably about a hundred in total are missing."
"Which are the ones you recognise? Sacred reindeer, orphaned reindeer and so on?" I asked.
"That's right. When we get back in the evening you should go and see Kostya and Alya in their chum though, or they'll get offended at us."
We set out into the cold morning air, by now well below -30°C but still without a breath of wind, the sky above the tree tops lit by a jaw-dropping mix of colours. After an hour we arrived at the edge of a forest and Radik detached the sledge in which Ian were sitting from his snowmobile.
"We're going to leave you here while we go
into the woods and round up the reindeer," he told us. "Have a walk around and take some photos to stay warm."
As they shot off on their snowmobiles I put my feet inside a malitsa lying in the bottom of a sledge. I was beginning to suspect that there might be holes either in the inner layer of reindeer forehead or the outer layer of reindeer paw as my toes were already freezing. Ian, on the other hand, was having no problems and neither had I on my previous trip to the Yamal when it had been much colder and windier than this time.
After a couple of hours waiting and listening to the sounds of snowmobiles and shouts from somewhere within the forest, during which time my toes had become worryingly cold, a stream of reindeer began to appear on the far side of a thin tongue of trees jutting out from the woods. After another half hour Radik appeared, reattached the sledge to his snowmobile and drove us to the herd, stopping on the way at the top of a small hill to talk to one of the other herders. Just below us the reindeer
were streaming past, prancing, mincing, trotting or galloping depending on their proximity to the shouting snowmobilers and barking dogs that drove them on. This rippling brown column of reindeer, appearing over the visible horizon formed by a line of hills to our right, moved past us in one grunting, snorting, snow-crunching mass, providing relief from the unending whiteness that usually took up one's entiire sphere of vision in the tundra and eventually disappearing over the visible horizon to our left.
"Is the herd still as big as last time I was here?" I asked.
"Of course," Radik replied. "Ten thousand head."
We set off again and joined the other herders driving the reindeer. Suddenly that heaving, snorting brown mass, as it had seemed viewed from above, became divided up into real, individual animals, bounding through the snow alongside our sledge. "Bounding", however, is a word that I should reserve only for those animals that were running the fastest. In reality the dainty leg movements of most reindeer on the move, the way they can nonchalantly turn their head ninety degrees to right or left while making those leg movements to peer at you while perhaps lazily chewing
something and in fact the animal's entire camp countenance and manner while in action completely fit the English verb "to mince", perhaps even "to prance" or, most accurate of all, somewhere precisely in between the two.
We stopped in a flat area and the herd spread out so that we could not see how far in each direction it stretched away from us. Visibility was greatly reduced by the breath of ten thousand reindeer hanging in the air and having the effect of a fairly thick fog. I climbed out of the sledge and began hopping from foot to foot in an attempt to warm up my feet which were now actually in pain.
"Stay here," Radik said to Ian and me, "we're going to lasso a few reindeer for Kostya because his snowmobile has run out of petrol and one for us for dinner!"
The herders, on seeing a reindeer they wanted, would get its part of the herd on the move with the help of the dogs. They would stand still until, the nearest herder catching sight of the animal he wanted amid the flowing, cascading mass of reindeer, would lash out with his reindeer-rawhide
lasso and send it sailing through the air. Who knows what criteria they used to decide which animal they needed but more often than not the lasso would entangle itself on a pair of antlers and they would be satisfied with the catch. Sometimes one herder would reel it in or, if the animal was particularly stubborn, a second man would come to his aid.
Darkness began to fall and the flowing masses of reindeer and running, shouting herders became hard to see. One man came up to me, his moustache, eyebrows and in fact all facial hair, like that of everyone else, by now frozen into solid blocks of white ice.
"Edik," he said, "it's good to see you again. You remember me? We had tea, vodka, meat and fish on the snow last time you were here before we moved camp."
"I remember," I said, smiling, "good to see you again!"
"Welcome back to the Edge of the World," he said, grinning, using Russian words to translate the Nenets name, Yamal.
"Thanks," I replied. I blinked and felt my upper and lower eyelashes nearly freeze together. "This place is even more beautiful than
where you were last time we met."
"It's cold and harsh but it's always been ours and it always will be!" he said.
"Where do you like it more," I asked, "in the village or out here in the tundra?"
"In the tundra, of course!" he replied. "It's not interesting to stay in one place all the time. We need to be constantly on the move with the reindeer, living in different places. But I see you're the same as us - you came from England to Russia and crossed half of Russia to get here! By the way – you look cold!”
“Only my feet are cold,” I told him.
“Ok, put your arms around me and throw me on the snow,” he said.
“Come on,” he insisted, grabbing me and putting my arms around him. “Now throw me down!”
“Well, are you sure?”
Protesting turned out to be useless so I gently put my weight on him and pushed him down to the snow.
“Ok, now again!” he said.
This time he resisted, so I pushed harder and harder, both of us crouching and with
arms locked around one another. It was impossible to make him budge. Suddenly though he rammed forward and a split second later was on top of me on the snow.
“Haha!” he said. “Nenets wrestling! Let's do it again!”
Despite my attempts to get out of it we had three more bouts of wrestling, during which several other herders gathered round to watch and after each of which I was left sprawling on the snow with him on top of me. Thankfully everyone else quickly got excited though and soon they were wrestling one another while I was left to watch.
Radik returned leading a reindeer by a lasso attached to its antlers. He and another man lifted it into the back of a sledge then forced it to lie down and curl up by punching it.
"Now get in quickly and hold it down hard by the antlers," Radik said to Ian and me.
Despite several minor escape attempts by the luckless reindeer on the journey home we got it back without incident. I rushed into the chum to hold my feet next to the fire but a moment later I heard shouts of
"Ed! Come here!" from outside.
Next to the chum they had tied a reindeer-rawhide rope around the reindeer's neck. Radik held one end in his hands and the other lay loose on the snow on the other side of the animal.
"Pick up that rope and pull as hard as you can," Radik said. Throwing qualms aside I did as told. The reindeer tried to stand up but Myangche came in and hit it on the forehead with the butt of an axe, after which it sank to the ground again. While Radik and I tugged at the ropes the reindeer sat there so calmly, legs tucked neatly under its body, that you would have thought it did not realise it was being killed. Suddenly it tried to stand up again. Radik shouted something in Nenets and Myangche came in, dealing it another blow to the forehead with the butt of the axe. The animal collapsed back into its old position and for the rest of its life its tongue drooped out of the right-hand side of its mouth.
Once it was dead, not a single drop of blood having been spilled, its hide was slit open
and tugged off. Then they opened up its belly, still without spilling any blood, most of which seemed to lie in a pool at the back of the animal's body, and began taking out the organs. Someone brought a cup, scooped up some blood from inside the carcass and downed it in one before passing the cup on.
"Only have a little," Radik said to me when it was my turn. "Too much will upset your stomach if you're not used to it."
I took a couple of small glugs. The thick, warm liquid went down surprisingly pleasantly and did not taste at all as you would expect blood to. Afterwards, however, it left a strong aftertaste of blood around my teeth, tongue and gums that I could not get rid of for some time. Once everyone had had a cup they scooped the rest of the blood out into a reindeer hide sack and took it into Kostya's chum.
While the women finished removing all the organs, meat and bones and were placing them in separate piles on the snow, Radik and I placed three sledges on top of one another, each one at right angles
Our snowmobile under a bridge of the infamous 501 Salekhard - Igarka Railway of Death in Nadym Region, Siberia
One of Stalin's pet projects, thousands of gulag concentration camp victims died during its construction in the middle of nowhere in the extreme north of Siberia. When Stalin died work on it was abandoned as it was clear that there was no need for a railway in this place and the tracks were quickly destroyed by the elements.
with the one below, to form a structure on top of which the meat could be kept out of reach from the dogs.
Inside we ate the reindeer's heart raw while sipping tea.
“So, where will you bring tourists in twenty years time if there are no more reindeer herders, Ed?” Radik asked me.
“I doubt that will happen,” I said, trying to be polite but not looking Radik in the eye while I said it.
“It may well do,” Radik said. “They're trying to move people out of the tundra and into the villages. They built houses in the villages and force reindeer herders to move there, acting as though they're doing them a favour. But we don't want to live in villages where there are no reindeer and everyone drinks. Even old people like my parents, when they're too old to work they don't go and live in the village, they prefer to live out their days in a chum, moving camp with the reindeer.”
Historically in Nenets society, living a settled life without reindeer was a sign of poverty, failure and misery. It rarely happened, however, as pre-Soviet Nenets society had an
elaborate system of insurance and loaning whereby even if a herder lost everything he was rarely doomed to a settled life.
“But why are the gas companies doing this?” I asked.
“Because they need our land. They've already kicked us off a lot of our land and now they need even more. You think the tundra's big? It isn't any more, not now that they've stolen so much land. There are too many reindeer and too many herders in too small an area, and a lot of the old migration routes are now completely impossible so we have several brigades trying to graze in one area sometimes.”
“But last year when I asked you, you told me you had had no problems with the gas companies,” I interjected.
“That's right,” Radik said, “for us personally all the problems started last year when they built several new pipelines. For more northern herders the problems have been going on for a long time – migration routes blocked, reindeer being killed by debris from gas fields. And you know, even losing one reindeer for us is a huge problem.”
“Have you lost any reindeer personally?” I asked.
“Yes,” Radik replied. “We lost several to anthrax. Anthrax used to be a big problem here but under the Soviet Union all reindeer were vaccinated every year and eventually it was wiped out. Last year Gazprom built an underground gas pipeline though and it unearthed the anthrax virus. In every brigade that's crossed it several reindeer have died with the exact symptoms of anthrax. And you know, anthrax can kill people too. The remains of chums still stand on the Yamal where entire brigades, reindeer and people, were wiped out by it. Soviet policy was not to go near those chums and no one has to this day.”
“My God...” I said.
“Yes,” Radik went on. “And apart from that we rely on fishing as well as reindeer herding, as you know, but now lots of the fish in some of the main rivers have been killed by chemicals. So as you can see, there are lots of reasons why there may be no more reindeer herders soon. It's very, very scary.”
“Have they offered you any compensation?” I asked.
“None at all,” he replied.
“I'll try and tell people, to spread the word when I get back,” I said.
“You can't do anything against these people,” Radik replied. “But some local idiots are thinking about starting a mandalada.”
A mandalada was a Nenets uprising or revolt, the last of which took place in 1943 against the Russians.
“You shouldn't do that,” I said, “I don't think it'll get you anywhere. You need to get politicians and lawyers involved instead, you need to strike some sort of deal with the gas companies. A famous international magazine has agreed to publish an article I've written about Yamal and the Nenets after my next trip so I can use that to spread the word...”
“I hope so,” Radik said.
After dinner we went next door to Kostya and Alya's chum.
“Wow,” I said after entering, shivering from the cold wind that was whining outdoors and shaking snow off my clothes. “It's got really cold now.”
“Yes, and tomorrow it'll be even colder,” Kostya said, pointing at the dogs sat around the fire. We joined him on the furs behind a low table identical to that in Radik and Sveta's chum. Alya poured us some tea, put bread and fish on the table and sat down with us. For a moment we sipped our tea in silence, then Kostya smiled.
“Ed, you remember when we celebrated New Year together with my parents, drank vodka and stayed up until five in the morning?” Kostya asked.
“Yes,” I replied, grinning, “and the others said they heard songs being sung in Nenets, Russian and English!”
He, Alya and I burst out laughing and from that moment on the conversation flowed easily as between old friends, moving from one topic of small talk to another, reminiscing about the previous year then discussing their plans for the next, answering questions about my home country then asking them about theirs. At one point a little cry came from a kind of cocoon hanging from one of the two horizontal chum poles. From under a bundle of furs inside it a tiny, round, white face peered out. Alya leaned over and gave the cocoon a swing.
“Is that your youngest?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“The little ones all have such white faces,” I commented.
“It's because we don't let them out of the chum, apart from when we're moving camp, for the first three years of their lives, until they're strong enough,” she told me.
“And where was this one born?” I asked. “In the chum or in Yar Sale?”
“In the chum,” she answered.
“And isn't there some sort of ritual you have to do after a child is born?” I asked.
“Yes,” Kostya told me, “we sacrifice a reindeer to the gods outside the entrance of the chum where the child was born. It's to cleanse the chum.”
“Which gods?” I asked.
“Remember I showed you our idols last time?” Alya said. “They represent a few of our gods. We eat the sacrificed reindeer but have the idols at the table too and it's as if they get the food through us.”
“Would you mind if we had a look at the idols?” I asked.
“Sure,” Kostya answered, rummaging around in a corner below some furs and pulling out three headless dolls, each about a foot tall and dressed in malitsas. “This is the sky god, this is the sun god and this is the earth god.”
“They're much smaller than the ones Alya showed me last time,” I commented.
“Yes, the bigger ones represent our ancestors,” Kostya said, then shouted something in Nenets to Achemboy who was sitting alone on the other side of the chum. Achemboy produced a larger, two-foot tall doll in a malitsa and with a head, holding it up for us to see.
“And they all have their own sacred reindeer, right?” I asked.
“Yes, every person, god and the ancestor idols all have their own sacred reindeer.”
“Who made them?” I asked.
“Shamans made the god idols,” Kostya replied, “and we made the ancestor idols.”
“Shamans?” I asked. “So the idols are quite old?”
“Probably about forty years.”
“So when did the last shamans die?”
“The last real ones died about twenty five years ago. I remember one of them, although I was only one year old when I met him.”
“Why are there no more shamans?” I asked.
“Lots of them were killed under the Soviet Union,” Kostya told me. “They used to kill shamans and burn the sacred places. Even these days missionaries come here, burn our sacred places, tell us not to drink blood or vodka and not to believe in our gods or legends.”
“Awful,” I said, shaking my head. “Just don't listen to them.”
“We don't listen,” he replied. “Some people want to do something to scare them off.”
“Anyway, what legends do you mean?” I asked. “Like the legend of the Yaptiks?”
“I guess, but I don't actually know the Yaptiks' legends – they're a different clan. I know every legend about my own clan, the Serotettos, though. My mum and dad used to sing the Serotetto legends to me every evening as a child. That's how the legends are passed on, by singing.”
“Can your dad tell us one of the Serotetto legends do you think?” I asked him. Kostya said something to Achemboy, who began to ramble on in his broken, incomprehensible Russian mixed several times per sentence with Nenets. At first I could just about follow what was being said but then lost the thread.
“What was that?” I asked Kostya.
“I didn't understand either,” he replied. “He's started waffling, he's not talking about the legends.”
“What about you?” I asked. “Can you tell the legends?”
“I don't know,” Kostya said. “I'm not really comfortable doing it.”
We left Kostya and Alya's tent around 10pm and went back to Radik and Sveta's. A few minutes after we had come in Slavik entered.
“Edik,” he said to me, “come over to my tent for tea.”
We sat down on reindeer furs behind a low table laid with raw meat, frozen fish, bread and tea.
“So, Edik,” Slavik said, “why are you interested in seeing our sacred site tomorrow?”
“I'm trying to understand as many different aspects of your culture and beliefs as possible,” I replied.
“Mm,” Slavik said, nodding. “And what religion are you?”
“I'm Christian officially,” I replied. “but I'm a strong believer, really. I believe in your religion as much if not more than in Christianity, which is why I'm keen to learn about it and see the sacred site.”
“Tell me Edik,” Slavik said, “have you ever had any serious troubles or hardships in your life?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“And what did you do? Did you pray?”
“Actually yes, I did,” I answered.
“Who did you pray to?”
“I don't know,” I replied. “I just prayed.”
“You should have prayed to the sky. The sky is the one thing you can always rely on, that's always there. The earth isn't always there – not at sea. The sun isn't always there. And what about the Christian God – where's he? I've never even seen him once! But the sky is always there. That's why he's our most important god.”
“What's his name?” I asked, hopefully.
“His name is Num,” Slavik replied. “Next time you pray, pray to him.”
* * *
Back in Yar Sale I wake up under a thick blanket on a thin mattress on the wooden boards of Galina's floor. The previous day and night's eight hour sledge ride across Nadym Region and the Gulf of Ob in -40°C just a memory, although a still painfully real one, my toes still aching from the cold and dry skin flaking from my cheeks.
We have breakfast then head back outdoors, where the temperature is still -40°C. My hand nearly sticks to the metal knob as I close the front door behind me but I pull it away just in time. The air is heavy in my lungs and hangs in huge clouds before me after each breath. We buy a bottle of vodka, a loaf of bread and a sausage from the local shop then head off in the back of a sledge.
Forty minutes later we arrive at the sacred site.
“Radik,” I say, “we didn't do the ritual Slavik told us to.”
“It's ok,” Radik says after thinking for a moment, “we can't do it anyway. We need some things that we don't have here.”
“What things?” I ask.
“Unexplainable things,” he replies. “I can't explain them to you.”
“What does the ritual involve?” I ask.
“Basically you need to step through fire.”
“Look,” I say, “are you sure it's ok? I really don't want to offend anyone.”
“It's ok,” he reassures me. “I'm taking responsibility for it.”
We walk across the rock solid Yamal Peninsula snow, so different from the soft, crunchy stuff in the Nadym Region forest tundra, to a spot where a cone-shaped pile of reindeer antlers sits atop a small hill. Colourful bits of cloth flap from it in the wind, money lies scattered around and vodka bottles protrude from within. Radik takes our bottle and pours some vodka onto the ground next to the antlers. He then cuts off some sausage and bread and leaves them there too.
“My camera's broken,” Ian says after trying to photograph the site.
“Ok, pour out the vodka and let's eat,” Radik says.
I get my thermos cap and fill it with vodka.
“Are you having some?” I ask Radik, just to check.
“Of course,” he replied. I hand him the cap and he downs its contents in one, the first time I have ever seen this self-professed teetotaler drink. We continue passing the cap round, snacking on bread and sausage after each shot.
“Can you imagine how much money must lie there among those antlers?” Radik asks. “A million rubles at least. Everyone scatters a few coins every time they pass. And we can only see about a quarter of it right now. The whole thing is about the size of a chum.”
“But I guess no one ever tries to steal this money,” I say.
“Ha!” He laughs. “Let them try! One guy tried to steal antlers from it once to sell them. The next day he became completely paralysed and never recovered.”
We finish the food and drink, Radik asks us to walk in a circle around the pile of antlers then we leave.
“Radik,” I say, back in Yar Sale and about to leave for Salekhard, “thank you so much for everything. I know it's been tough for you looking after us – we're like completely useless people out there in the tundra. But really thank you, and I hope it hasn't been too difficult or caused you too many problems.”
“Ed,” Radik said, coming forward and hugging me, “don't worry about it. You've helped me in more ways that you'll ever know. I'll see you again on February 29th
“What on earth do you mean?” I asked. “How have I helped you?”
But it was one of those things we would not have been able to understand, being outsiders.
Have a look at the website of Yamal Peninsula Travel
if you are interested in taking part in a similar trip to this one.
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