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Published: February 23rd 2012
The train took us out of Moscow's suburbia with its usual rapidity and into the land of snow-coated wooden cottages, picket fences and endless forest that would greet our every glance through the train window for the next forty eight hours before thinning out into sub-Arctic forest tundra on our journey's third and final day.
We passed Rostov Veliky, turrets on the gentle, whitewashed walls of its Kremlin barely visible against the snowy sky. By the time we reached Yaroslavl, a glorious winter sun had emerged to lend a warm, glowing life to the outlandish colours of the cathedral domes amid the city's concrete sprawl. We went to sleep shortly after Vologda and woke up in the bitter cold of Kotlas where we stopped traveling due north on the Moscow - Arkhangelsk line and branched off northeast, heading towards Vorkuta on a 900 mile section of track built by concentration camp victims under Stalin where, in the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "beneath each tie two heads were left."
The train chugged to a halt in Kotlas and the carriage attendant let down the steps that fell from the door to the ground with a clang. The first breath of
air I took upon stepping out scratched and tickled my lungs as it does when the temperature is below -20C and I felt the moisture in my nostrils freeze over.
Teams of filthy-faced workmen approached down the ice-bound platform to scrape out the ash from the coal furnaces that heated each carriage while the attendants, as they had done at every long stop, began snapping off icicles from the underside of the train by jabbing at them with spades. Crowds of babushkas with an assortment of home-made food, drinks, preserves and ointments in buckets, prams, bags or just held in their arms wandered around and called out their wares to anyone who came near. Bleary-eyed passengers picked up their breakfasts while behind the motionless train a deep red glow was seeping up from the horizon like blood from a wound.
Once the train was back in motion that red glow changed slowly into a gentle golden one behind the tops of trees that were now far less often interrupted by signs of human habitation. The branches of some, long since deprived of leaves, reached, lurched and scratched skeletally at those around them. Others, evergreens, drooped sadly under the
weight of snow that their still green branches supported.
The villages we did pass were clusters of wooden cottages in forest clearings, the smallest numbering just three or four. The largest, their rows of snow-blanketed triangular roofs exuding tall but unmoving plumes of smoke, would often have a small factory or an area of rusting and apparently abandoned industrial equipment on the outskirts before the encroaching forest closed in.
Inside the girl opposite us sat calmly doing endless crosswords, not speaking with anyone else. The two babushkas across the aisle drank tea together at regular intervals, taking small dignified sips from glasses held in Russian Railways beautiful metal tea glass holders, occasionally refilling them from the samovar at the end of the aisle. Now and then they shared bread, boiled eggs and pickles, being careful to lay out two large sheets of paper first so as not to get any crumbs on the table.
Other people were more restless, unable to keep still while cooped up in this carriage which had long ago ceased being warm and was now bordering on uncomfortably hot. They paced up and down, talking loudly, buying beers and smoking furiously in the
cold, dirty space between carriages where a thin layer of snow covered the floor, the windows and doors caked in ice.
On the third day trees became fewer and further between, those that did flash past the window being so covered in snow and ice that they resembled a silver tinsel Christmas tree from my parents' Oxfordshire home. The train's stops no longer had stations or platforms but were tiny huddles of wooden huts, oil drilling sites or even just a single lonely shack. Sometimes we made a stop apparently in the middle of nowhere, no signs of habitation to be seen, empty, white, flat land stretching off in all directions.
We were now in the area beyond the road network where seeing a car is a rarity. Trucks capable of driving through the snow, all-terrain vehicles and above all snowmobiles were the norm in every settlement we passed, their tracks occasionally visible on the otherwise undisturbed snow that surrounded each village.
We stopped for two and a half hours at a wretched little place in the tundra called Seyda, just south of Vorkuta, one of the most feared concentration camps in the Soviet Union. From here
the railroad to Labytnangi, our final destination, branches off from the Kotlas - Vorkuta line. Most carriages of our train continued north while ours waited at Seyda to be joined up to a small local train from Vorkuta before rolling off east towards the Polar Ural mountains and, on their far side, Siberia.
The sun rose for a few hours around midday but set again quickly. We crossed the Urals in pitch darkness and arrived in Labytnangi at 21:30. A small crowd of shouting taxi drivers met the train, offering rides across the frozen surface of the River Ob to Salekhard, with a population of 42,000 the area's biggest settlement and the only town in the world located directly on the Arctic Circle.
In Salekhard we found the Trekol, a car of monstruous proportions and chest-high wheels, with whose driver I had been in contact throughout our train ride and which would take us north up the frozen surface of the River Ob to the village of Yar Sale on the roadless Yamal Peninsula. The other passengers were Nenets, dark skinned people with Asian features, indigenous to this part of Siberia. They speak a language utterly unrelated to
Russian, continue to follow their ancient animistic religion and 50% lead year-round nomadic existences, traveling by reindeer sledge and following their vast reindeer herds along millenia-old migration routes and living in conical reindeer-hide tents called chums.
"Where are you from?" the Trekol driver, a Russian, asked me upon hearing my foreign accent.
"England," I replied. He took a closer look at me.
"Didn't you travel with me last year?" he asked. I took a closer look at him.
"Yes, possibly," I answered. "I think I went with you from Yar Sale to Salekhard."
"And what about you, where are you from?" he asked Ian, my traveling companion.
"What's he saying?" Ian asked me, not knowing any Russian.
"He's asking where you're from," I told Ian. "He's from Ireland," I said to the driver.
"And what are you guys doing here?" the driver asked.
"Well when I was in Yar Sale last year I met some reindeer herders, went out with them into the tundra and lived with them in their chum for a while. Then when I got back to Moscow I put all the pictures on
Our snowmobile under a bridge of the abandoned 501 Salekhard - Igarka Railway of Death, Nadym Region, Siberia
A pet project of Stalin's in the middle of nowhere which claimed the lives of thousands of Gulag concentration camp victims, this railway was abandoned when, after its creator's death, everyone realised there was no demand for it whatsoever. It was immediately abandoned and destroyed by the elements.
the internet and wrote a blog about it. After I wrote that blog I got loads people writing to me asking how to get the Border Zone permit for Yamal, how to get to Yamal seeing as there are no roads leading there and so on. I started by replying and explaining the process for getting the permits and getting to Yamal but soon realised it wasn't helping anyone as without pretty good Russian the permit process is impossible. So I spoke to my friends in Yar Sale and we decided to start up a small guiding service, bringing tourists to Yamal to live with reindeer herders . Ian here is the first client and in February I'll be coming back with two Swiss photographers."
"What's so interesting about Yamal?" he asked me as we drove down the road between Salekhard and the village of Aksarka.
"Well, lots of people in England, Europe and America have heard about it from National Geographic and the BBC. People are interested in Nenets culture, the fact that they still live in chums, travel by reindeer sledge and dress in reindeer fur clothing. And Ian's just a
lover of extreme travel in general. He's traveled around Yakutia on his own in winter!"
"If he likes extreme travel," the driver told me, "he should come here at the end of April when the ice is melting. When you're driving to Yar Sale at that time of year you keep falling through the ice but luckily the Trekol can swim at 10 kph!"
At Aksarka we drove down the bank and out onto the frozen surface of the River Ob. After an hour or so we stopped and the driver pulled out some pies and a bottle of cognac. We got out of the car and shared them around in the unusually mild -20°C, the gassy green streaks of the Northern Lights taking up a large part of the night sky above us. Even as we ate and drank their brightness waxed and waned, parts disappearing, popping into existance or mutating into new spirals and splashes of light. After five minutes we got back in and set off into the Gulf of Ob, the Trekol throwing us around as it bounced and jolted over the contorted ice on its way to the Yamal.
hours later we arrived in Yar Sale and the wooden bungalow of my Nenets friend Galina.
"How was your ride?" she asked, after we had exchanged greetings.
"Fine thanks," I replied.
"Well come in. I hope my proletarian home will be ok for him," she said, nodding at Ian as we entered her house.
"Galina," I told her, "the last time he slept in a house was in the one small room I rent in a communal apartment that's a complete tip compared to your place, so don't worry."
She showed us to our rooms then bade us sit down at her kitchen table.
"And he won't be cold?" she continued to ask about Ian.
"He's traveled around Yakutia in winter so he's used to cold," I told her. "And anyway I hear it's been pretty mild here this winter."
"There's been practically no winter," she replied, placing a cup of tea and a bowl of reindeer meat and pasta in front of each of us. "It's been this warm almost every day."
We ate and made small talk for a while before Galina got up, saying it was late and
she needed to get up early tomorrow.
"What's the Nenets word for thank you?" I asked her as we got to our feet, wanting to thank her for the food and tea in her own language instead of Russian.
"We have no word for thank you," she replied. "The whole idea of thanking people goes against the Nenets way. You shouldn't say you're grateful - what use is that? - but show it by being good, kind and generous to the person you feel grateful to."
"Interesting," I said shaking my head as I walked towards the door of my room. "So anyway, Radik's coming from the encampment to get us tomorrow?"
"He should be," Galina replied, "but please explain to Ian that the tundra is the tundra and anything could happen. Any small problem, or the other herders needing his help, could delay him for a day. But let's hope for the best. And by the way, they're camped in a different place from when you were here last time. They're not even on the Yamal Peninsula. It's not flat, empty tundra but forest tundra, and there are seven chums in the encampment. You're going
to have to travel eight hours by snowmobile, across the ice of the Gulf of Ob and into Nadym Region."
I woke up too early the next morning and could not get back to sleep. I lay in bed, tossing and turning, unable to rid my mind of certain anxieties... If only I'd known there was an eight hour snowmobile ride instead of three like last time... I've promised Ian five days with the herders but now there will probably only be four... if Radik is late maybe only three... and anyway, eight hours on a snowmobile! I nearly froze last time when it was only three!
I threw off my blanket, stood up and shivered. The ice-wrapped outside world was just visible through a gap in the curtains. Somewhere a dog was barking and closer by the engine of a snowmobile was gurgling into silence. I put on my clothes and tottered out into the kitchen, rubbing my bleary eyes. I was about to turn left towards the bathroom but stopped in my tracks when I heard the outside door open and quick footsteps pacing down the corridor towards the kitchen. The door opened and a man
emerged, his huge reindeer fur jacket coming down to his ankles, its attached reindeer fur hood clinging tightly to his head, his hands buried deeply within the attached reindeer fur mittens, only the feet of his thigh-high reindeer fur boots visible under his malitsa. He jolted to a halt and for a split second we stared each other in the face, motionless. After that fraction of a moment, however, the tired sunken eyes under that hood, the skinny, lined face weathered so far beyond its years and the anxious, rushed expression it always bore at times when its owner was engaged on an important task, softened slightly. We each took a step forward at the same time, myself saying hi and holding out my hand which he clasped it in both of his.
"It's good to see you, Radik," I said, smiling broadly.
"You too," he replied, the momentary relaxation of his cold-reddened features saying more than the vague hint of a smile that had touched his lips. "How was your journey?"
"Alright," I replied, "and you? Have you just arrived from the tundra?"
"I've been here for ages," he replied. "I arrived
"You must be cold? Tired? Hungry?" I asked.
"I managed to eat and sleep for an hour on the way and warm up once I arrived," he replied proudly.
"Shall we go for a cigarette outside then?" I asked.
"What is this, my friend? Last time we saw each other you didn't smoke! I thought you were such a good boy! But yes, let's go and smoke."
"Last year I gave up for eight months but then started again," I told Radik while lighting up outside the front door, the very edge of the Yamal Peninsula dipping down just a couple of metres ahead of us to meet the white, icy expanse of the Gulf of Ob. As I lit up footsteps crunched through the snow behind me. I turned around and again the hard, wrinkled face which greeted me from under a reindeer fur hood morphed into one I recognised in a split second, that of Radik's mother.
"Hello! How are you?" I asked her, smiling.
"Fine," she replied, the corners of her lips curling upwards slightly in an almost unnoticeable smile and her eyes falling to the floor.
"Did you just come with Radik from the tundra?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied, before walking slowly towards the inner door.
"My parents have both become weaker in this last year," Radik told me, exhaling a plume of smoke that billowed into an enormous cloud in the cold Arctic air. "Anyway come on, I need you to come and help me fill up some canisters with petrol for the trip."
The procurement of enough petrol then the loading of the canisters onto sledges took several hours. Next, getting hold of reindeer fur clothing from friends and relatives for Ian and me took another few hours. By the time everything was approaching readiness the world had long since darkened.
"Go and get a couple of bottles of vodka for the road," Radik suggested.
"But you don't drink," I said.
"Of course, better not to touch the stuff, but this is for you guys."
"Ok," I said, remembering how much it had helped last time when we had done a three hour snowmobile ride in -35°C and very strong winds. "What about for you? Do you want anything from the shop?"
"I just like
juice and oranges," he replied. "Between April and November we're too far north to buy any products and even from December to March when we're nearer to Yar-Sale we can't really afford to... but it'd be great if you brought a bit of juice and some oranges with you!"
After my trip to the shop we sat down at Galina's kitchen table and had food, tea and vodka then set off at 9pm, leaving the Yamal Peninsula for Nadym Region on the other side of the Gulf of Ob, Ian and myself sat in a sledge tied with rope to the snowmobile driven by Radik. Twice we stopped on the frozen surface of the Gulf for cigarette breaks, the Northern Lights and star-studded sky lending the world a decent level of visibility. After three hours we hit the opposite shore at the village of Kutopyugan, smoke from its chimneys billowing into enormous clouds or hanging in long, tall, unmoving plumes, easily visible against the well-lit night sky above the wooden shacks that made up the settlement. We drove through a gap in a picket fence and parked the snowmobile outside a tiny wooden house, a pack of huge, ferocious
dogs barking wildly and throwing themselves against the sledge.
"This is my friend's house," Radik told us. "You won't find better people anywhere. We'll pop in, have some tea, eat, warm up then head on."
I was just thinking that I did not really need to warm up - it was not too cold, there was very little wind and my reindeer fur clothing along with a belly full of vodka were doing a good job of keeping me comfortable - when a door creaked open to reveal a figure in a malitsa and a well-lit room behind him.
"Nikita, it's me!" Radik called out.
"Ah, come in," Nikita said.
"You're dogs are amazing!" Radik replied. "Normally when I come they keep their mouths shut but they've realised this time that there are people they don't know!"
The dogs, however, seemed to have lost interest in us after Nikita's appearance at the door and we climbed out of the sledge unmolested. Inside the house's porch we struggled out of our malitsas before proceding into the kitchen.
"Sit down, sit down," said a little, middle-aged Nenets woman without introducing herself or waiting for us
to do so and pointing to a wooden bench on the other side of the table. Her plump cheeks, large dimples, smiling eyes and short grey hair tied into a neat little pony tail made one feel immediately at home in her house. Startlingly quickly, seeing as she could have had no warning of our arrival, she had a bowl of hot reindeer meat soup and a cup of tea in front of Radik, Ian and I.
"This is absolutely delicious," I said to her after my first spoonful. She just nodded and smiled.
"You won't find a better cook than this woman anywhere," Radik told us, "I don't know how she does it."
"So how do you like our little village?" she asked me.
"I haven't really seen anything of it yet but it seems nice," I replied.
"Well life here's pretty simple," she said. "This one stove heats the whole house, we cut our own firewood, we get ice from the river for water. That's how we live here in the North. We don't have much but we help one another."
"And what do you do?" I asked Nikita, who had sat
down at table. His son, a shaven headed man in camouflage dungarees, had also joined us and was sitting in silence, calmly cutting off slices from a frozen fish and feeding them into his mouth.
"I'm a hunter," Nikita replied. "My grandparents were reindeer herders on the Yamal Peninsula but they had such a large herd that under Stalin it got confiscated and they were sent to a concentration camp. They worked near here, on the Road of Death."
"The Salekhard - Igarka Railway?" I asked. "Is that really near here?"
"Yes," he answered, "you'll see it later tonight."
The Road of Death had been one of Stalin's pet projects. From 1949 to 1953 (when the project was abandoned upon his death as there was really very little demand for a railway in this area) tens of thousands of the prisoners working on it froze, starved, died from exhaustion or succumbed to diseases. Soon after work on it had ended, much was destroyed by the elements.
"How many more furs do you need before you can make a coat?" Radik asked him, changing the subject.
"Just a few," Nikita replied simply.
of furs are you collecting for a coat?" I asked.
"Sable," he replied, going into the next room and returning with a dead specimen of the animal in question. "But I hunt anything really." He disappeared again to re=enter proudly holding a huge Arctic Hare, its snow-white fur marred only by a large red hole in its side with a trail of blood droplets just below it.
"Wow," I said, shaking my head. Sable fur coats can sell for US$50,000 (although I presumed Nikita would not even see a fraction of that amount on selling his furs to a local dealer). In fact the entire conquest of Siberia by the Russians, who before the 16th century had not had a single settlement there, had been solely in pursuit of this one animal, so highly prized was it both in Moscow and in Europe. Back in those days, the sable furs from a single expedition to Siberia had been enough to set each of its members up for life. It was due to the ill-fated sable that, within a hundred years of the founding of the first Russian trading posts in Siberia just to the north of where I
was now sitting, bands of brigands officially working for the government had set up forts across the whole of the region, even as far north-east as the Chukotka Peninsula next to Alaska. These early colonists would capture native clan leaders or their relatives and hold them as hostages to exact fur tribute from indigenous people. Entire communities that resisted were wiped out. Many had to devote so much time to acquiring furs to pay tribute that they had no time for anything else, either resulting in the loss of their traditional way of life or, worse, starving and freezing since they had no time to make clothing or hunt food.
The Yamal Nenets, however, did not suffer the same fate. Hunters and gatherers with only a handful of domestic reindeer for transportation, they suddenly took up large scale reindeer herding upon the appearance of the invaders four hundred years ago and fled north onto the Yamal, an area remote from Russian settlement. Even under the Soviet Union, despite collectivisation of their herds, forced education of their children in bording schools and the killing of their shamans, they still managed to preserve their culture, traditions, language and religion better than
any other Siberian indigenous group, surprising considering that they have had the longest period of contact with Russians - at least since the eleventh century. Possibly this was due to the fact that, unlike Nenets from other areas, whole families were allowed to keep living as nomads and the very fundamentals of their way of life changed little - they continued living as nomads year-round although their animals now belonged to the government and a quota had to be handed over every year for slaughter. Possibly their resilience to change was also aided by some inbuilt strength and adaptability in the very culture itself, as shown by their ability to switch from hunting to reindeer herding so quickly upon the appearance of the Russians in the early seventeenth century.
Halfway through dinner two of Nikita's other sons entered with identical shaved heads and camouflage dungarees.
"Hey, come and meet these extraterrestrials!" Radik called out to them, pointing at me and Ian.
"What do you mean?" one of them asked.
"They're from England!" Radik replied.
"Yeah right," one of them replied.
"You don't believe me?" Radik asked.
"Of course not," one of them answered,
without much interest.
"Where are you from?" Radik asked me.
"England," I replied.
"What?" one of the sons almost shouted, his jaw dropping in disbelief that he had just caught a hint of a foreign accent.
"I'm from England," I repeated. A smile spread over his face and he shook his head. For the rest of our stay there he smiled a lot but said not a word, worried that someone was playing a trick on him.
After dinner Nikita took us into a shed next to his house, not a single wall of which was visible from inside as all four were piled floor to ceiling with frozen fish. In front of the wall of fish that stood opposite the shed's door lay a gargantuan pair of antlers about two metres wide.
"Elk," Nikita said, looking proudly from the antlers to us and back at the antlers again.
"Well done," I congratulated him.
We put our malitsas back on and went out to the snowmobile. Radik took out a repair kit I had given him as a present and began fiddling around with something.
"I'm going to be a few
minutes," he told me. "Have a bottle of vodka with Nikita."
Nikita brought a cup from his kitchen and he, Ian and I took it in turns to do obscenely large shots. When Radik was finished we all went back indoors for one more cup of tea.
"Edik, Edik, drink up," Nikita said to me while we drank, he and Radik pouring their tea out onto saucers and slurping it up in the way Nenets do across the North of Russia. "I've got something I want to give you." He got up and stood next to the door, waiting for me.
"Just a moment," I said, almost burning my tongue as I tried to drink up while he waited impatiently.
"Come on, come on," he insisted, waving me over then heading outside before I had even got up. I followed him out into the shed where he began piling frozen fish into my arms. Each was at least two feet long, their bodies twisted and contorted as though they had frozen solid while still alive and thrashing upon removal from the river. When I had four in my arms I assured Nikita it would be enough
but still he kept piling them on until I could hold no more and could not see where I was going when leaving the shed.
After thanking Nikita and his wife we set off into the night, snowy trees illuminated by the silvery starlight flashing past us on either side. Occasionally we would drive along a frozen river for a while, the sound the sledge made as it scraped along the ground immediately becoming louder and harder, while at other times we would leave the forest altogether and appear to be traveling across open tundra, although the trees would reappear quickly each time.
"How do you know where you're going?" Ian asked Radik through me.
"I know every inch of this forest and tundra," Radik repllied.
"You got lost though once, didn't you?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied, "for eight days on foot."
"But what were you eating and drinking?"
"Nothing," he replied. "There was nothing to eat or drink. It was February."
"Was it cold?" I asked.
"It was the coldest winter I've ever seen. The wind was so strong that you couldn't see anything, there were no stars and
snow was just flying aound everywhere," he replied. In bad winters the felt temperature (including wind chill) in the Yamal tundra can drop below -90°C.
"How on earth are you still alive?" I asked.
"Well yes, by the fifth day I was thinking the same thing - 'this is it, this is the end.'"
"And what happens normally if you're out and the weather suddenly becomes too bad to find your way home?"
"You sleep under the snow and wait for better weather," he replied.
We headed on into the night, arriving at the encampment at 6am.
To be continued...
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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