A Siberian Journal. A personal chronicle of an expedition to visit the Reindeer Herders of Northern Siberia.

In October I was privilaged to join Piers Vitebsky  (Anthropologist) on an expedition to visit the ‘Eveny’ people of North Eastern Siberia. In the ‘Forbidden zone’ of Northern Russia on the Arctic coast. Few if any westerners had been there before. I had no idea what I had let myself in for.

I have written a journal in the first person, from the notes made along the way. The images below vaguely accompany it.

Click on this and all will be revealed.. It redefines travel writing!!!

Siberian Diary 2018

The Verkhoyansk Mountain range..

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Moscow Airport.. Vodka toast with Piers before the flight…

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Our first stop over the Urals and six hours of forest, is Yakutsk…. a town on Perma frost.. pavements buckle, The wooden posts of old houses are forced through tarmac, as the ice marls and twists this old fur trading outpost. Now a boom town dealing in Siberian diamonds ..

Yakustsia (the region) is the size of India with a million people in it. We have to fly over it northward over mountain ranges to get to Tiksi our next stop.

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The old quarter. Old wooden houses still occupied, though neglected and forgotten.

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The next day we fly three hours North to Tiksi, over the Verkhoyansk mountains, we leave the last tree’s on the Taiga, and fly over never ending mountains, in a school bus with wings.

 

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Meet Tolya, (big character) Pier’s great friend. A Deer Herder turned anthropologist. He can read the mountains. and points out villages and valley’s he and Piers have travelled.

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After three hours the Arctic ocean comes into view..

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Lakes reminding me of Narwal skin.

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We arrive in Tiksi, in the forbidden zone on a sensitive coast. As the ice retreats due to global warming the Arctic offers great potential as a trading route from East to West, avoiding the Suez and the South China seas, pirates wouldn’t survive up here. It’s also a long and lengthy border very close to the U S and Europe.

Mainly occupied by the military and sea men it once had a population of 20,000 now only 4000. meaning 4/5 ths of it is empty. It certainly feels like it..

The few shops  that exist don’t advertise themselves, no need to.. and the concrete blocks are crumbling, you can only tell they are inhabited when dim lights appear in windows at night.

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A Tiksi street.

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One of the docks.

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The off licence..

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The corridor where we had to report to the ‘Border Police’ office.

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We visited the Museum.

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The museum Gallery

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and a selection of local creatures, stuffed…

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Note the polystyrene sea

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A reconstructed Mammoth.. supported by welded electrical conduit and wire.

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Cast Iron radiators seemed to have a myriad of uses.

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walk back from the museum.

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We were kindly put up by a local administrator..this is the stairway to the flat.

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We rested the night and set off the next morning for the land trip to the tiny village of Naiba, which is the base for the Herding community in this region. We heard we were to travel in a ‘Tank’ an all terrain vehicle. These had a reputation, we were pensive.

 

Our hopes were not raised on arrival.

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We discovered we were to sit on top of the vehicle for the duration….

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Vlodjar steered the ‘Tank’ with two levers,each controlling a brake, burning brake fluid soon filled the cab.

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One of the many break downs, that hampered our progress..

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A hobby I took up..

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After 14 hours, we had made little progress. There was talk of a man in a hut at  a Goldmine an hour away, (the only refuge for hundreds of miles) we could stay the night there if we could get to it, or we could freeze….

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The Goldmine was empty for the winter, a man guarded it against bandits. He was lovely and made us supper, offered us beds in the Miners dorm.

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5o gallon drum, wood fired stove.

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Our dorm..

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Huts on skids for easy movement in the snow..

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The next morning we prepare to leave.. another gruelling day ahead..

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We break down many times, the caterpillar tracks coming off after 15 hours travelling.. It’s dark and it’s snowing.. I crawl into the back to sleep with the husky on a bag of onions as Vlodjar tells us the river between us and the village is to high to cross and we have to detour.. he then gets lost.. we are rescued in the early hours of the morning..

We wake to find ourselves in the tiny fishing village of Naiba.. population 400, this Eveny village is the only inhabited place in an area half the size of Wales.

The mountains at the rear of the village are the ones we were lost in the night before. You can just make out the river in the foreground, the Arctic beyond.

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We wake to find out we are still a day away from the Reinder Herders hut.. we have to get back on the machine early as we need to be there before nightfall…

Our lovely hosts bid us farewell

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Our tracks.

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Our third day travelling on a deafening bone crunching concrete mixer, in sub zero temperatures unfolds..

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We finally see a pin prick of light in the dark.. it takes another half hour to reach the tiny wooden hut, housing six men, who make up a ‘Brigade’ of Herders. The Deer are somewhere deep in the mountains.   Head torches strafing the dark and barking dogs greet us.. frozen we are ushered into the hut for boiled Reindeer.. and Tea.

Tonight we are curios, the Herders find our quirks most amusing, how we hold a fork, how we chew and our left handedness all raise mirth..

 

Anatloy the Brigadeer.. we sleep head to head on bunks that line the walls of this ancient hut..

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Tolya now totally at home , tells stories. Re-enacting scenes that have taken place in these hills for centuries..

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The wonderful stove , the heart of the hut, kettles constantly boiling. The wood is whittled into kindling for the dawn lighting.

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White Sausage, blood plasma in Intestine

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My bunk, Reindeer hide..very comfortable..

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The next morning we wake to find out where we are, and what we’re staying in!

 

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Numerous dogs emerge from tufts of grass their night-time lairs.

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My first Reindeer, tethered to a post, being broken in..hut in the rear.

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Piers examines a saddle, made of Reindeer.

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Anatoly saddles up  in preparation for going out to find the herd..

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The Larder.. high enough to avoid Wolves Bear and Wolverine..

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Nothing rots as it never thaws.. here are the left overs of months of meals..

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A skinned fox..

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The specialized hoof of a reindeer. It splayes out to maximise surface area on the snow and the hairs (unique to the reindeer) help with surface tension.

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The Hide clad door to the hut.

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At last, the climax of the whole trip! The herd appear in the valley. Ushered by Yuri and Anatoly on their deer.  They flow over the land like lava, their antlers like a coralline forest.. they settle in a swirl like a shoal of pilchard. the sudden presence of 3000 eyes and consciousness’ is intimidating.

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Lasso’s are made of twisted Reindeer gut and the toggle at the end is carved from Mountain sheep horn.

 

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After a day with the deer we retreat to the hut for more venison and tea.

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The next day we have to return. The time it took us to get here,and the uncertainty of safe passage back, means our stay is short.

We retrace our steps like a rewinding video tape…

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The river at Naiba is just low enough to cross..

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The next day I explore the Orthodox grave yard, distorted by the Perma frost..like an Expressionistic stage set..

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That night we experience the first Aurora Borealis of the year, the villagers whistle to it to encourage it….

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We travel for another two days. On arrival in Tiksi we discover the Airstrip is frozen and we are stranded for a week.. we nervously await news, and then Tolyas brother a herder some 700 miles south, phones on his satellite phone to tell us our plane is coming.. he’s seen it in the sky.. we pack and sure enough the plane arrives..

I think this is a good place to stop…

 

Exhausted?  try reading the text… you may find the pain worthwhile..let me know if you manage it..

Thankyou for staying with it.. back to sculpture next week.. you never know there may be a Siberian influence..

 

Thanks..Lxx

 

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