Visiting exotic cultures and tribes is a driving motivation for my travels. I absolutely love staying with tribes of people that still dress uniquely and live very different lives from my own despite the globalizing world where everything is becoming the same and all cultures are morphing into one. For me, traveling to visit these tribes has been a priority, as these cultures and their way of life is sadly vanishing at astonishing rates. Their languages, traditional clothing, customs and even the habitat they depend on is disappearing. For the tribes of the Arctic regions, this is no exception. Many Arctic tribes have been forced to assimilate, have lost their traditions and have even become plagued by alcoholism, depression and high rates of suicide. So, when I discovered an Arctic tribe-the Nenets in the Siberian Arctic, that still proudly live as nomads, moving around the tundra with herds of reindeer, dressing in reindeer fur and even building teepee like houses, I knew this was a place I had to visit.

About the Nenet Reindeer Herders

The Yamal Peninsula is a rough place to live. It is a flat, featureless frozen tundra that for most of the year experiences sub-zero temperatures, which in the worst of winter commonly dive down to -50 degrees Celsius.  The very name Yamal is a Nenet word for the end of the world.  Despite the difficulties in living in such a hostile land, the Nenets have made the Yamal their home for thousands of years by learning how to adapt to the land. In the beginning they were hunters but as game became scarce, they learned how to domesticate reindeer for their survival.  The Nenets, although living above the Arctic Circle, are more closely related to Mongolian pastoralists than other Arctic peoples.

The Nenets depend entirely on reindeer for their survival. Reindeer are their entire world. Not only is the Nenet diet heavy on reindeer meat, but their clothing and homes are also made of reindeer hide and fur.  The need for reindeer to find tundra grass, and lichen to eat constantly keeps a Nenet family on the move.

The Nenets revere their reindeer and even though they use them for food, they consider them sacred and believe that they can be reincarnated into a reindeer. Nenets practice shamanism and have their own God’s, believe in ancestorial worship and have mostly thwarted any attempts by communism or missionaries to put an end to their religion and culture. Nenets also speak their own distinctive language even though most also know how to speak Russian.

Approximately 45,000 Nenets live in the Yamal Peninsula and of those 1/2 of them live a nomadic life despite the Russian government’s efforts to convince them to adopt village life. The Yamal is one of Russia’s leading natural gas producing areas, and the nomadic lifestyle of the Nenets clashes with the natural gas industry. Pipelines intersecting the Yamal have cut off reindeer migration routes, and in some cases, pollution contaminating the tundra poisons and kills the reindeer. Most of the Nenets I met were infuriated by the impact of the natural gas industry on their herds. 

How to Visit the Nenets

for years-Before even arriving, you need a Russian visa and a special permit to visit the far north. The permit must be applied for months in advance and requires a contact in Russia to apply on your behalf.

The gateway to the Yamal is Salekhard, the biggest city in the region. To reach Salekhard you can either travel by plane or train. Train is the most adventurous option and the route I took to get there. The journey took 3 days/2nights. From Salekhard, you likely will need to get to Yar-sale, a small Russian village with many Nenets. In this town you can arrange visits with nomadic relatives of Nenets living in town. The journey to Yar-sale is an 8-hour trip by trekol, a giant all terrain passenger vehicle.

Then there is the question of logistics. The Nenets are usually found further in the north of the Yamal in the summer so it can be difficult to reach them unless you do so by helicopter or have lots of time to travel over the tundra in a 4wd vehicle. The Nenets are most accessible in the south via Salekhard during the worst time of the year-winter when the Yamal is at its fiercest. This is the time of year I chose to visit them, in February. Not only was it easier to access them because they were in the south of the Yamal, I wanted to see how they adapted to the cold harshness of the Siberian Arctic and naively I figured I could handle the cold, after all I grew up in Minnesota, but I discovered just how wrong I would be.

I discovered the Nenets from a fellow adventure traveler, Edward, a fellow explorer, who has explored some of the world’s most remote tribes. He is from England but had lived for years in Russia with his wife and learned Russian. During Edwards travels around Russia, he spent time with the Nenets and developed friendships with many of them.  Edward provided me instructions on how to visit the Nenets independently but the logistics of traveling there for a couple of weeks without knowledge of Russian in the dead of winter seemed foolish, so I asked Edward to join us on the journey.  He was happy to do so since he was just starting his own adventure travel company. We  flew out to Moscow to meet him and begin the journey.

 

Location of the Yamal-Home of the Nenet People

Starting Out in Moscow

February 2013: My friend Kent and I flew to Moscow on Aeroflot. When we arrived in Moscow, it was cold and snowy, and we still had about 1000 miles further north to go before arriving in the Yamal so we knew the weather would not get any better from here on out.

Kent and I stayed in an old Soviet era guesthouse located above the train station. It was drabby, noisy but cheap and within walking distance, albeit a long walk, to many of Moscow’s highlights like the Red Square. The Red Square is the heart of Moscow and maybe the most interesting part of the city. It borders the historic Kremlin, where Putin lives, St. Basil’s Basilica, built in the 1500’s by Ivan the Terrible and the Lenin Mausoleum, where the preserved corpse of the first premier of the Soviet Union Lenin rests on display for those lucky enough to be present during the rare times that it is open.  Also, you never know what will be happening in the Red Square. During one trip I was there during a pro-communist protest with protestors waving Soviet flags and banners of Lenin. 

St. Basils Basilica-Built by Ivan the Teriible in the 1500’s

St. Basils Basilica

Pro-Communist Protest

Pro-Communist Protest/Lenin Banner

Three-Day Tran-Siberian Train to the Yamal

We met Edward at the train station in Moscow, bought some snacks and beer for the long trip and boarded our 3rd class berth on the Arkhangelsk line. There was no privacy, no doors and our cabin consisted of row after row of bunk beds with approx. 50 people squeezed into the cabin of our old Soviet era train.

Train to Yamal

The train become my home for the next 3 days/2 nights, and all 50 passengers, mostly Russian miners and oil workers heading to the far north, became my close friends. No one in our cabin spoke English and Edward would occasionally translate for us but on the most part traveling with him was largely like traveling with a Russian who didn’t speak English. He would rarely translate and was often intoxicated. But all of this was fine, because he was less a guide and more a co-traveler.

The train, an old Soviet era one, ran on tracks that were built by gulag prisoners on some of the northern stretches of railroad. Many of the gulag prisoners perished during the harsh conditions of gulag labor and are buried beside the tracks. A stern female attendant with orange dyed hair was in charge of keeping law and order in our cabin and would conduct frequent patrols. The train was heated by coal that is shoveled into a furnace in between carriages so there is no way to regulate the heat. The trains windows did not open and there was no way to regulate the stifling heat and dry conditions inside. Many passengers were barefoot and shirtless wearing shorts trying to cool off. At times in the middle of the night, I would awake unable to breather because it was so dry and hot. Then there was the snoring to add to the misery. I had to fall asleep to music to drown out the cackling snores all around me.

3rd Class Cabin packed with miners

..We made acquaintance with many of the Russian miners on our train, and we were invited to do shots of vodka, share meat, and play cards with them. We attempted to communicate with broken bits of each other’s language but to no avail. One group of miners in the back of the cabin with beds near the bathroom were seemingly always drunk and every time I needed to use the bathroom, a tiny compartment with a toilet that opened into the railroad below, the miners would invite me to drink with them. On occasion I would but most of the time I would pass. This group of miners by the bathroom consisted of about 7-8 young guys and one female. Regardless of the time of day, the female was almost always severely inebriated. On one occasion when I approached the bathroom, the girl had just exited the bathroom with 3 different guys, and I realized that she was likely a prostitute. This was confirmed when one of the miners invited me to a turn with her in the bathroom, which I declined.

The cabin in the old train was cramped, hot and smelly. To cool off, I would stand in between carriages on the connection platforms where the freeing air would leak in through the flimsy enclosure while other passengers would take their smoke breaks. It was a good place to catch fresh air even if it was mixed with tobacco smoke while watching a train attendant shoveling coal into the furnace, the source of heat for its cabin.

Bunk Beds

Vodka, meat and beer with new friends

Highlights of the train journey were all of the random stops in small Siberian wooden villages that appear unchanged since Soviet times. Maybe it was because it was winter, but the people, and buildings all appeared depressing and gloomy. Next to the tracks at each stop would be a few head scarfed babushka women selling pickled meat, vegetables in jars, dried fish. During each stop, I would watch a train attendant with a pick chisel away the urine icicles beneath the toilet cabin, I imagine this was done to prevent blockage of the toilet. Most passengers would also get off the train in their shorts, t-shirts, flip flops and wander around outside in the frigid cold. Kent and I explored as much as we could, looking at the Lenin statues, and other relics from Soviet times but we were careful not to venture too far because we were never certain how much time we had in each stop. Once the train sounded its horn, you had approx. one minute before being left forgotten forever in freezing Siberia.

Foods for sale by babushka women at each train stop

Ubiquitous Lenin Statue observed in a Siberian Village

Salekyard to Yarsale

We exited the train in Kharp, site of a prison for Russia’s most serious criminals, in the night and it was dark, depressing and colder than words can describe. We took a taxi to Salekyard that was approx. an hour’s drive and when we arrived in Salekyard we stayed in the house of one of Edward’s friends, a young Russian bachelor, who recently lost a finger during a drunken challenge involving stabbing a knife in between his fingers as fast as he could without cutting a finger. He missed. The house was a complete Russian student’s bachelor pad with empty bottles of alcohol lying on the floor, posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his body building days, bench presses in every room with stacks of nudie magazines on top of them. I pushed some soiled clothing aside on a bed that was also used as a bench press to clear some room for me to sleep.

My bed also a bench press

During the next day we attempted to explore Salekyard, but the -50 degree C weather with wind chill and knowing we would be deep in the tundra soon, kept us mostly inside where it was warm. Our only activity being having dinner at a restaurant that turned into a techno bar where a drunken Russian stumbled into me trying to start a fight.

Late in the evening, we departed in the scheduled tundra truck-trekol convoy to Yarsale. The convoy ended up leaving later than scheduled. There are no roads to Yarsale in winter other than the ice road that travels over tundra, snow and frozen lakes and rivers. The trekols are one of those giant mechanical monstrosities that you can only find in Russia. We left in a group of 3 trucks because in this weather a breakdown can mean imminent death in the cold. Inside the truck, the seating was not designed for passenger comfort. I was crammed in the back and seated on a gearbox. The heat was cranked to the max and our driver from Uzbekistan, like many workers in the far north, they come from the Stans, was blasting electronic music at ear piercing levels. The journey lasted 8 hours across the tundra and on occasion we would stop to use the outdoor bathroom facilities but would make sure to avoid wandering far to avoid being lost in the blizzard white out conditions. At one point in the journey, one of the trucks lost its heat and the passengers were freezing so we crammed them into our truck and the experience went from uncomfortable to miserable. At some very late hour in the day, we finally arrived at Yarsale where we met up with a Nenet family that Edward had befriended in his prior travels to the region. The truck dropped us off at their house and we slept in the warmth of their home for the rest of the day trying to recover our warmth. Our plan in Yarsale was to wait for the nomadic Nenet relatives of the family we were staying with to arrive to take us to their tundra camp.

Trekkol Convoy to Yarsale

Yar sale is a small village of approx. 800 people, mostly Nenets. The Nenets that live here have either permanently given up the nomadic lifestyle or are nomads just visiting relatives in town. The nomads also come to town to sell their antlers, and meat and purchase goods like food and vodka or to receive medical care. On the day we arrived in Yar sale it was about -70 degrees C with windchill, and we walked around town for only a few minutes at a time before the cold got the better of us. The forecast for the week was a consistent -50 to -70 degrees Celsius every day and this was for Selekhard. According to Edward the weather in the tundra was always much cooler than in Salekhard.

Yarsale House

My travel companion, Kent napping with the family’s dalmation dog

The Russian father of the house where we stayed

We stayed with a Nenet family that Edward had befriended during his previous travels. Edward had spent months exploring and getting to know the locals in the area and he interacted with them as more of a family member. For two days we stayed in the warm, cozy house with a dalmatian dog, and a box of kittens. The family we stayed with consisted of a Russian white man, his Nenet wife and their children. There were also other Nenet nomads, relatives staying in the house in between trips to the tundra.

During the day we watched Russian soap operas, sipped vodka while eating frozen reindeer meat as we waited for a group of nomadic relatives of the family to arrive to take us to their tundra camp and they were one day late already. Phone reception on the tundra is non-existent and according to Edward Nenets were never punctual, so schedules were always hit or miss with a tendency to be a miss. Finally, the nomads showed up one morning, the family with their snow mobiles and sledges. The mother Nenet and her daughter continued on to the tundra with the young son driving the snowmobile.  I assumed we would be leaving immediately too with the Nenet father but supposedly we needed to purchase fuel in town for his snowmobile and for reasons unknown to me, this wasn’t happening. We did not get any updates as the waiting turned into more vodka drinking which continued late into the day. Now that everyone was well intoxicated suddenly it was announced that we would be departing soon. We were promised the malitsa, Nenet full body coats with leggings made from reindeer hide, with the fur worn on the inside. They are threaded together with reindeer sinew, the traditional reindeer clothing, which in this cold is essential to survival. The Nenet father provided us a reindeer fur coat with hood but didn’t have any leggings that fit us. He claimed there were more back in the chuum, house in the tundra that would fit us and that we would be fine without them for the snowmobile ride. I did have synthetic snowpants, boots, wool socks and long underwear on but this was not as effective at insulating heat as the reindeer clothing. I was hesitant to take the chance, but we decided to set off anyways. Before departing we took more shots of vodka which the Nenet said was needed to keep us warm. Kent and I sat in the wooden sledge and Edward on the snowmobile with the Nenet man and we finally set off right before sunset in -70-degree weather.

Journey Into the Cold

According to the Nenets, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad preparation for weather. In other words, as long as you are well dressed and prepared for the cold, there is nothing to worry about and wearing the right clothing is essential to survival in the tundra.  In the tundra there is no effective substitute for the warm Nenets coats, called malitsa. 

Me in the malitsa are also made from reindeer hidebefore setting off into the tundra

Nenet Mother and daughter of the family we stayed with before departing to the tundra in their sledge from Yarsale

When we set off in our snowmobile, the hue of the sunset was beautiful outs. As we left town, we passed a Nenet graveyard with all of the coffins buried aboveground due to the ground being frozen. We also stopped by a sacred Nenet site-a pile of antlers, to pay our respects by drinking a shot of vodka and pouring a shot over the antlers.  The Nenets are known to scared sites located all throughout the Yamal that are typically off limits to outsiders.  Then we set off into the deep tundra with the sun set soon leaving us surrounded by darkness and deathly sub-Arctic temperatures of negative 70 degrees with the wind chill. Kent and I were huddled together in a wooden sled while being dragged violently across the empty tundra by the snow mobile.

I sat in the sled holding my head down to protect myself from as much of the cold as possible. There was nothing to look at and nothing to do but think about the current situation. The deep realization dawned on me that my adventure lust may have brought me and my friend Kent to die in the dead of the Siberian Arctic winter. I knew deep down inside that leaving at night was going to be a bad idea and I foolishly agreed to do it and now he we were on the verge of freezing to death. We traveled across the Yamal Peninsula, a treeless tundra that borders the Arctic Ocean in one of the coldest environments on Earth.  The snowmobile towing our sled was driven by a vodka impaired Nenet man, a nomadic reindeer herder, who was taking us from the village of Yarsale to an encampment of chums, resembling North American Indian teepees made of reindeer hide, where he and his family lived during the migration of their reindeer. 

Sacred Nenet site/pile of antlers

Bleak emptiness of the tundra

 Our plan was to stay in the chuum with his family for a week and observe the Nenet way of life.  The Nenet man was warmly enshrouded in reindeer fur from head to toe, while my REI purchased winter pants, wool socks and snow boots, that had never failed me in any Minnesota winter, was proving to be an embarrassment to the Siberian cold. 

The Nenet man promised us that reindeer fur clothing was waiting for us in his chuum and that our clothing would be good enough for the snowmobile ride, which he swore would only be two hours long.  After two hours came and went, we were still in the middle of nowhere. My legs were numb, and the cold air stabbed into our lungs with every breath.  

As I sat in the sled hoping to keep my vertebrae intact during the bone jarring ride, I tried not to surrender my thoughts to dread. But I couldn’t help wondering if I had possibly made one of the most foolish decisions of my life. Did I really entrust my life to a drunken nomad to take us into the middle of the Siberian Arctic in the dead of winter? I began to wonder if this would be one of my last adventures when suddenly our sled flipped overthrowing us to the snow.  I looked up and saw the snowmobile turned over. Our Nenet guide was sitting on the ground and looked unphased by the incident. He and Edward were alarmingly casual about our situation, and I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing.  Edward translated for him and in his words, he said, “Where are keys?  No problem, I can turn snowmobile on with wires or we sleep under snow until morning and walk back to the village.” I asked him how far that would be, and he said, “one day.”  Then he offered me his bottle of vodka. My instinct was to lash out at him in anger, but I knew that this would serve no purpose.  I looked out around us and there was nothing but blackness, no distant village lights, houses or roads, only the stars and the vast bleak Siberian tundra. I realized that in this cold with our existing lack of clothing and on our own, my friend and I would be dead in only a few hours. Our lives were now completely dependent on this man and all I could do in this moment was trust him and avoid making him angry. 

I explained to him that my friend and I could not feel our legs. He turned to me and with a very sobering look said with Edward’s translation, “You save feet, drink vodka and wrestle. “As I always do when in this kind of situation when traveling, I tried to focus on being positive. So, I grabbed the vodka from the man’s hand and took a swig finishing the bottle and as I handed the bottle back to him, he lunged for my legs and flipped me over his back. We continued to wrestle and indeed he was right, the vodka and wrestling warmed me up and I could almost feel my legs again, at least for a little while. He eventually found the snowmobile keys and we set off deeper into the tundra, traveling in the pitch darkness. It amazed me how the Nenet was able to navigate. There were no village lights, or obvious landscapes to guide him. There were snowmobile tracks, but they seemed to go in all different directions.  I would later find out that the Nenets can navigate by the stars and that even land that may appear featureless to me may still have many recognizable characteristics to them to help them navigate. After three or four more wrestling stops, the impenetrable darkness suddenly gave way to a small oasis of flickering light. I couldn’t believe we found the chuum. We feet were numb, and I quickly jumped out of the sled and ran into the chuum ahead of the group with one goal in mind, to warm up my legs. I entered the chuum, and for me it felt like I died and had gone to heaven. The chuum was warm and cozy. It was a conical, teepee structure with wooden boards on the ground in the entire and reindeer furs and blankets speared out over the floor with a small iron stove in the middle that was a lit with a blazing wood fire. The Nenet mother, daughter and son were inside the chum and seemed to have no reaction to my arrival. I greeted them as I plunged for the fire, and they just stared at me. I would learn during my stay with them that even though Nenets are not the most outwardly friendly people, they are very caring in their own way. I removed my boots, my coat and put my feet as close to the fire as possible without actually lighting them on fire. Soon the rest of my group arrived, and we all sat around the stove fire finishing off a new bottle of vodka. Edward and his Nenet friends laughed into the night, speaking in Russian leaving Kent and I largely ignored but it didn’t matter I was warm and safe. I fell asleep happy next to the fire inside my thermal sleeping bag. 

The wood stove inside the chuum and one of the reindeer herding Samoyed dogs

Nenet boy by the lantern used to light the chuum at night. The family had a small generator they used for a short period of time in the afternoon every day to power electronics a Ipad with video games, a phone with music but most of the time because of the shortage of fuel they would use lanterns to light the inside of the chuum. 

First Night in Camp

Then at some point in the night, I woke up freezing. It was dark, the fire was out and the temperature inside the chuum, which was warm from the fire when I fell asleep, now had plunged to sub-zero temperatures now that there was no longer a fire. I thought to myself, why would they allow the fire to go out in the middle of winter. When I went to sleep without my coat or snowpants on, I thought I would be fine because there is a fire to keep us warm. I never thought in a million years that the Nenets would allow the fire to die, and no one bothered to warn me.  The air was so cold, that it was painful to breathe. My sleeping bag did little to keep me warm, and because it was dark in the chuum, I couldn’t find my coat or hat.  According to my watch it was only midnight and during this time of year, the sun rises around 10am, so I knew that the night was going to be painfully long and cold. No one around me was awake. There was nothing but snoring. All I could do was bundle up inside my sleeping bag, which now in order to keep warm had two Samoyed puppies from the reindeer herding dogs sleeping inside of it. Once again, my feet became numb and all night I tossed and turned to keep warm while covering my head with my sleeping bag to insulate the air going into my lungs. Then finally around 8am, I heard some stirring inside the chuum and some of the Nenet women awoke to start the fire in the small iron stove by throwing a few logs inside to boil some snow to make tea.  Once the fire was lit, Kent and I bathed ourselves in its heat. A fire and warm tea never felt so good. 

Breakfast inside the chuum

Nenet Boy in his Malitsa

A Day in the Tundra

Thankfully the Nenet father for the week, came through on one promise; he did have reindeer leggings waiting for us at his chuum. which along with the coat, I did not remove for the remainder of my week stay with the Nenets. I vowed to never be caught without this lifesaving layer of clothing again during my stay here.  The Malitsa fit like a straight jacket. It was not flexible, and it was very tight around the neck. It also constantly shed reindeer fur which would find themselves in my eyes, throat and tea. Beneath the Malitsa, I wore two fleeces, snowpants long underwear, and wool socks. The Malitsa’s leggings covered my feet to form and my hands with reindeer fur and were far warmer than any pair of gloves or boots that I had. 

Now that I was properly clothed to go outside, I decided to explore the camp for the first time in daylight. The exit, a heavy flap of thick reindeer hide that almost formed a kind of seal around the chuum when closed, had to be pushed open to leave the chuum. It was also only about 4 feet of the ground, so I had to lower my head significantly to leave the chuum. The Nenet mom rarely spoke to me, but I sure heard an earful from her when I did open and close the flap on the door properly. Evidently if the flap is opened incorrectly and not allowed to reseal, the temperature inside the chuum, which is ordinarily freezing anyways, can plummet a further 20 degrees. The exit strategy was harder than it seemed and no matter how hard I tried during my stay, I always seemed to make a mistake earning me some scolding words from the mother in her language. Once outside, despite the best efforts of the sun, it was bitterly cold. With the malitsa on I knew I would stay warm, but I could still feel the cold on my face. At times I wore a ski mask to protect my face, but the cold still lashed at my eyes, and I still had to breathe. Breathing -50-degree air was like inhaling glass shards. But it felt great to be outside. The surreal scene of reindeer gathered around the chuums in the bright snow and blue skies with stunning. Our camp was a group of 3 chuums. with approx. 200 hundred reindeer in total. In the chuum next to us, there was a young couple with a newly borne baby and a old man. Sadly, I heard that one of the family members from that chuum had committed suicide recently. High rates of suicide are a problem with Nenets.

Me in my malitsa in front of the chuum

My feet stayed warm even though I wasn’t wearing boots inside my passed reindeer leggings. It felt like I had giant padded bear feet that made a padded squishing sound with every step I made into the snow. 

The chuums at sunset

The chuums are a wonderful sight to behold. They are made of reindeer hide and supported with carefully placed tree logs that are reinforced from the back by the reindeer sled. A Nenet family can disassemble a chuum in 30 minutes and pack it into a sled during a migration. During our stay, we weren’t sure if we would be migrating to a new spot. We were just there as visitors and didn’t want to interfere with the daily lives of the Nenets. Our goal was to just observe and stay out of their way. if they wanted to move, we were prepared to help and move with them even though it would have meant more time in the bitter outside cold. 

Nenet boy in front of a chuum

Chuums reinforced by the sledges 

Right when I thought things couldn’t get any more exotic, out of nowhere in the horizon a Nenet man being pulled in his sled by reindeer approached in maybe what is the closest scene I will ever have to a real Santa Claus. The man arrived at our camp, approached me and without hesitation smiled and shook my hand. During our stay we would receive almost daily visits from random Nenets traveling across the tundra. Usually, they would just pop in for a few hours, have some reindeer meat and finish a bottle of vodka before setting off into the tundra again. 

A Nenet man who came out of nowhere being pulled by his reindeer to visit us

One of the only Nenets I saw wearing an Arctic Fox Hood

Tasks were divided by gender. The men herded and tended to the reindeer and would take them into the tundra in pursuit of tundra to graze on. The women were responsible for all tasks related to maintaining the chuum and raising the children. During my stay I observed the women, doing most of the cooking and work inside the chuum like sowing, and preparing the fire. They also would chop the firewood. Firewood was scarce in the tundra, and this explained why we seldomly used it and it was only used for cooking. The firewood we had come from the forests of the taiga and would have to last the Nenets while they were in the tundra, so they would chop it in small slices in order to gain more efficiency out of each log. 

Stella, the Nenet mom cutting firewood

Nenet father of the chuum where we stayed

I was advised by the Nenets that when you are outside for a long time and active, that because of the sweat that can dampen the inside of your malitsa, you need to hang it up to dry afterwards. Having any level of dampness from sweat in the reindeer leather can render it ineffective and can potentially be the difference between life and death in the tundra. I would rarely be outside long enough to need to dry my malitsa, but the Nenets would and when they returned from the tundra, they would always hang theirs up to dry over the fire when a fire was made for cooking. 

Hanging the malitsa up to dry

The Reindeer

The Nenets have a close relationship with their reindeer. They rely on them for food, clothing and shelter and for currency. Even though they eat them, they treat them well and revere them. I had seen a few reindeer hanging around the camp on our first day, but it wasn’t until the 2nd day that I saw the main the herd. The Nenets are constantly moving the reindeer across the tundra so they can find new grass to eat. In the winter there is little nutrition in the grass but there is still enough to nourish them beneath the snow but to keep them fed they have to cover large areas of tundra. 

Scene of the herd in the distance when they were arriving

Herd

Hand feeding a reindeer

Bull reindeer

Nenet boy who I watched separating the herd

The herds are constantly being separated mostly for reasons I do not understand but partially in order to keep rival males away from each other or other females or to separate reindeer that will be taken to market or ones that need to be taken into the tundra for grazing. it was amazing to watch the Nenets in action as they sorted out the reindeer like pros in the freezing cold. 

Catching a reindeer with a lasso made of reindeer hide

Catching a reindeer with a lasso made of reindeer hide

Reindeer Round-up

Lasso Hold on a reindeer

The herd sorrounding the chuum

Reindeer separated to pull a sled

Every Nenet family has selected a few reindeer that are considered sacred. These sacred reindeer are coddled in comparison to the others. They are revered and, in some cases, when they are young even allowed to sleep inside the chuum. These reindeer are not eaten until the very end of their lives when it is certain that they will die. 

Sacred reindeer

Nenet boy showing me the sacred reindeer

Later in the day the Nenets asked me if I wanted to go with them into the tundra for an undetermined amount of time to take the reindeer graazing. As tempting as this idea was, I declined because there was no doubt that we would be spending hours and hours in the cold and given how much more adapted to the cold the Nenets are compared to me, I would just slow them down. 

Day to Day Life in the Tundra

Later in the day the Nenets asked me if I wanted to go with them into the tundra for an undetermined amount of time to take the reindeer grazing. As tempting as this idea was, I declined because there was no doubt that we would be spending hours and hours in the cold and given how much more adapted to the cold the Nenets are compared to me, I would just slow them down. Instead, Kent, Edward and I stayed back in the chuum. In total we stayed with the Nenets in their camp for a week and the experience because of the cold was physically grueling even though we did very little in way of physical activity everyday. The days were long and hours of sunlight short. The sun was only out from about 10am until 2pm. On occasion we would walk around the chuum but there was nowhere to go and once you walk too far from the chuum the visibility can be poor from the wind blowing up the snow and you could become disoriented. We spent most of the day reading but it was hard to read because the temperature in the chuum was too cold and my fingers would become too cold to turn the pages of the book.

The daily routine was always the same.  My favorite time of the day was breakfast when a small fire would be lit in the stove because it marked the end of the long cold night. During breakfast a cheap bottle of vodka would be opened by the men and once any bottle is opened tundra rules would mandate that it be finished. The Nenets drank vodka because according to them it warms them up and gives them courage and energy to go out into the tundra, which they do every day when they take the reindeer grazing. In the course of an average day, at least 2-3 bottle of vodka would be consumed in the chuum. One for breakfast and 2 for dinner.  Probably more if the men weren’t gone all day.

Breakfast in the chuum 

Our meals consisted of mostly frozen fish, reindeer meat, cookies, tea, and oatmeal packets that I brought. We never actually drank cold water because all of our water came from snow and would need to be boiled in order to turn it into drinking water.  The fire in the chuum was lit only two times per day; breakfast and dinner. Dinner was my second favorite time of the day because the fire would stay lit for longer and the chuum was very warm and cozy during this time and sometimes I would go outside at night to watch the stars which were incredibly bright. I wish I would have taken some night photography, but I just didn’t have the patience for it in the cold. I was told by the Nenets that the day before we came, they had one of the best northern lights shows they had ever seen. 

Using the toilet was tricky. To urinate we would go outside and just go in the tundra. There was no designated place to go, only a men’s and lady’s side. Then there is the difficulty of removing your malitsa, which is not easy. Given the wind chill you need to face away from the wind. I had only a few seconds of wind exposure during one urination and experiences mild frostbite on my sensitive parts. The goal is to urinate as quick as possible, but this is made hard by the reindeer who the moment that they observe you urinating race over to you in order to be the first to lick up the salt from the urine in the snow. They are quick and smart and know what you are up to even if you try and walk away from them, they will find you quickly. Trying to urinate while being blasted by frostbite inducing winds with shark reindeer antlers flailing around your nether regions is no simple task. 

Then if you need to do Number 2, the task is even more difficult. In this situation the reindeer are not interested but the dogs are and will instantly eat organic items left on the tundra. I didn’t realize the dogs did this until after I let them lick my face for the first few days of the trip. 

Kent trying to urinate while fighting off reindeer that wanted to lick the urine salts from the snow

Afternoons were a good time of the day when the Nenets would pass around a bottle of vodka and tell us stories of theirs lives in the tundra. Only the men would drink and never the women. The puppies would also snuggle with me on my sleeping bag until the fire went out and then they would go inside my sleeping bag. 

Trip to Another Camp

During our stay we planned to cross the Sea of Ohb to visit a giant Nenet encampment located in the taiga with thousands of reindeer and hundreds of Nenets as well as some well preserved gulag camps but the weather conditions were just too cold for the journey of 8 hours and if our snowmobile were to break down we wouldn’t stand a chance. It was very unfortunate that we couldn’t make this trip because it would have been amazing but we had to play it safe. Instead we visited a a few nenets living in other chuums in our camp and in other nearby camps. In a separate chuum in our camp, the Nenets their consisted of a young couple with a newborn baby and an old man who claimed to be a shaman. The baby was tucked away warmly into a small wooden basked insulated with reindeer fur. The baby did not have a name because according to the couple it was bad luck to the name the baby when it was so young. The couple was also reluctant to allow me to take a photo at first because taking a photo might unwillingly attract bad sprits to the baby. I tried to discuss shamanism with the old man of the family, but Nenets are reluctant to discuss these topics with foreigners. We did find out that the family did have a sacred reindeer sled, a small miniature sled with miniature figures representing the family members. When I asked if I could see it, the shaman changed the subject and eventually mentioned that it was not politite to discuss such topics.

Newborn baby in insulated reindeer fur cradle 

One day Kent and I went by sled to a different chuum camp. Like before we were pulled by a snowmoble and the trip was really rough on our backs and cold. We stayed for a few hours with another nomadic family drinking vodka, eating raw fish and hot tea and cookies before returning to our camp. The experience reminded me of how much I dreaded traveling in the cold by sled and I didn’t look forward to the long trip back to the village of Yarsale later in the week. 

Chuum in a Separate Nenet Camp

The Blizzard

One day, a bad snowstorm came upon us. The winds picked up and lashed at our chuum  and the temperature outside plummeted. I tried to go outside but quickly came back in. I could barely see more than 5 feet in the storm. The walls of the chuum flapped violently. I thought that there was a very strong chance that our shelter would collapse. But the Nenets were resolute in their necessary tasks. This was nothing out of the ordinary for them and they didn’t look the least bit worried.  The women went outside to dog out the snow piling up against the chuum creating pressure against its walls. They would inspect the wooden poles to make sure they were holding strong and reinforce any of the ones that became loose. This went on all night during the blizzard until finally with great relief the winds subsided. 

Nenet mom returning from the cold during the blizzard where she was helping to reinforce the chuum against the battering winds and snow

Finally Going Home

The Nenet men finally returned after being gone longer than they said they would be gone for, and we had one last night together drinking vodka. During the day, another group of Nenets arrived visiting our camp to announce that they had heard on the radio that Hugo Chavez from Venezuela had died.  They were saddened and proclaimed him to be a great man. When they discovered we were Americans they asked jokingly if we planned to claim their land for America and raise an American flag. 

We traveled back to Yarsale again in the sled pulled by the snowmobile stopping a few times to visit Nenets along the way to share vodka with them. Some of the Nenets wanted to see our faces because they had never seen an American before outside of the movies. They invited us to their chuums in the tundra, but we had enough fun in the cold, and it was time to go home. We returned to the house in Yarsale, where we spent the night and where I had the best warm shower of my life. The Nenet men stayed for a few hours, had some food and vodka but surprisingly did not shower. Instead, they returned to the tundra. 

From Yarsale, we hired a 4wd taxi, not a trekol this time, that traveled along the ice road to Salekhard, where we caught a flight back to Moscow. 

Nenet snowmobiles

6 + 7 =

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