Secrets from The Edge of the World

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April 14th 2012
Published: April 19th 2012
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The nine families, nine chums and 10,000 reindeer of the second Yar Sale brigade were on their way north, their annual 1200km migration begun after a six-week winter break in the forest tundra of Nadym Region. To a casual observer who somehow stumbled on the nine conical tents amid the flat, treeless, white expanse of the Yamal Peninsula tundra, it would not be immediately obvious that these Nenets nomads were on the move. To a more trained eye, however, signs were everywhere: the dark skin of the herders, deeply bronzed by the sun after 200km traveled by reindeer-drawn sledge from the forest tundra; the reindeer herd, which during the six-week winter break had been allowed to wander up to 20km from the encampment, now milling around in a depression a few hundred metres away, ready to be gathered up quickly and set on the move; the fact that people were constantly absent, doing last minute provision runs to the village of Yar Sale while they were still camped near enough, stocking up for the summer and autumn throughout which they would be too far from any settlements to buy anything. They were moving camp on average twice a week, 15 - 20km each time, racing against the retreating ice to cross the Iuribei River in the north of the Peninsula before it would melt in June.

I was there with a British photographer, Cristian Barnett, a client of my guiding service Yamal Peninsula Travel .

I awoke on the morning after our arrival under the reindeer furs that lay in piles on the sleeping side of the chum. We had slept in a row, the order of which had been strictly dictated on every one of my visits: Radik, as the father of the family, sleeping just to right of centre, Sveta as his wife sleeping to his right, me as his guest sleeping to his left and Cristian as my guest sleeping to my left.

For the first time ever on Yamal I awoke not with a freezing draft blowing on my head from the edge of the chum and my breath hanging in thick clouds, but merely in a tolerably chilly morning daze and with a near certainty that a glorious spring morning was breaking.

Sure enough, a trip outside revealed a clear blue sky and the sun just peaking over the horizon, lending a warm glow to the chums and the hundred or so wooden sledges scattered around them. It was so mild that reindeer fur clothing was not even necessary.

"In weather like this," Radik told me, "you just have to be greatful and enjoy life."

Having seen temperatures in the -40s on Yamal complemented by the loudest, strongest winds I have ever witnessed, I could to some degree appreciate what he was saying, although he had said almost exactly the same thing to me three months previously while sitting outdoors in -30°C.

After a breakfast of raw, frozen fish and tea the sun had risen even higher and the snow, which spread as far as the eye could see in all directions, had become dazzling. People spilled out of their chums and began work: the person who had been out overnight with the reindeer returned and the next man begun his twenty four-hour watch duty shift; a sledge left to cut trees for firewood; others began whittling away at wood, adding the finishing touchs to sledges, chum poles or floor boards.

After an hour Radik's brother Kostya went out to lasso a reindeer and brought it back to the encampment on his sledge. It was killed, had its hide removed and was opened up before everyone sat down around it on the snow to eat a meal of aibat - warm blood, organs and meat straight from the carcass of a freshly killed reindeer.

This whole process of killing and eating is quite ritualistic and takes place in the exact same way and order every time. For those interested in a detailed and gory description of it step by step, have a look at my account of reindeer slaughter and a Nenets aibat meal during a previous trip. The same blog also contains information on Nenets history, culture, religion and so on.

Bellies full and chins, cheeks and lips splashed with bright red blood, everyone got back to work.

So what are the secrets mentioned in the title of this blog? They are quite hard to define. They are not facts for the most part but feelings and understandings of certain concepts that are difficult to put into words.

I'll start by explaining the real meaning of the word tundra. It is not, as I incorrectly described it in a blog on my first visit there four years ago, "a vast, empty wasteland of water and swamps." When the Nenets use the word it holds so much more information than the mere physical characteristics of the biome. It's the real world, the place where the real life can be lived, a vast home where they can move freely from place to place without restriction, where incredible hardships are suffered but where life is interesting and full of magic, where the unwritten rule is to help anyone who needs help without asking for anything in return.

It is a network of invisible territories, lines and features: reindeer migration routes, ancestral domains of various clans, sacred places dedicated to different gods and clan spirits.

The word tundra conjures up an entire way of life, an entire universe even, right next to that other universe of settled people. The nomadic Nenets have the ability to flit from one to the other, have done so ever since childhood while visiting non-nomadic relatives, but have made the choice to remain in the tundra.

"If I could, I'd go back to this life," told me Galina, Radik's sister and a non-nomadic village Nenets from Yar Sale, while sitting around a low table in a chum on a visit to her relatives.

"Why don't you go back then?" I asked.

"I can't now, I've built my own life in the village," she replied.

"So why did you leave the tundra in the first place?" I asked.

"Because my husband was from the village," she replied.

When I meet her in the village she is a different person, a member of the local government dressed in smart Western clothes rather than the beautiful Nenets furs she wears in the tundra. In the village she is less cheerful than the happy, talkative woman who moves from chum to chum visiting different sets of relatives and friends while in the tundra.

Most of the secrets from the Edge of The World are not secrets because they are closely guarded, but more just because usually no one who does not already know them goes to the tundra unless they have to.

There is one I've learned, however, that is a fact and not a feeling. When I first visited the tundra I asked whether any Nenets shamans, who had been massively persecuted during the Soviet Union, were left. Back then I received only cryptic responses. Now I know the real answer.

Other than that, the secrets are, in short, understanding of the tundra, of the pleasures, virtues, and freedoms of a life that to others seems dull, repetitive and harsh, and knowledge of the beauty, magic and infinite variety of a place that looks empty and bleak.

Of course there are hardships, conflict, unhappiness and (a very few) people who break the unwritten law of the tundra. But there is also something that draws people to this way of life. There is a reason people who have once experienced it choose it over all others. There is a reason why after school or university many Nenets return to the tundra to live out their days as nomads. There is a reason why, even though you can make more money as a fisherman than a reindeer herder, reindeer herders who come into money through a temporary spell of fishing decide to invest the money in their herd rather than set themselves up as permanent fishermen.

Those reasons are the secrets from The Edge of the World.

Additional photos below
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20th April 2012

I like the pictures, those faces, that life, so different to mine, what a place!!! I would love to go sometime. It seems to me they are closer to human nature than me, as a westerner... Hugs from Argentina. Graciela.
20th April 2012

You have indeed captured the essence of the tundra
Still waiting for you to pull it all together into a book. Your life and chosen path is an interesting one and your glimpse into this lifestyle is mesmerizing. Again--- great photos.
27th April 2012

Thank you. Thank you very much. Great story.

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