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Magnificent Siberia and Its People

Most people envision Siberia as an extremely cold place where people who disagreed with the current political system were incarcerated for long periods of time, some of them never reappearing. To me, a long-term passionate supporter of ecological travel development in Eastern Russia, Siberia represented yet another mysterious Russian region to be explored and discovered. So when a business associate asked me to handle logistics for a British film group documenting one of their country's celebrity surviving a remote reindeer camp in Yakutia, Siberia, I was ready to go and very excited about the opportunity.
"The republic of Yakutia (or Republic of Sakha, the names are often intermixed) is situated in the north-east of the Russian Federation. It is the biggest region in Siberia and occupies one fifth of Russia. Over 40% of the territory lies within the Arctic Circle.
The republic plays an important role in the Russian economy because of its tremendous mineral resources. The main industry is mining for diamonds, gold and silver. It is also a major producer of coal, natural gas, timber, fish and other resources.
The major ethnic groups living in Yakutia are Russian and Yakut (Sakha), along with the indigenous minority groups of Even, Evenks, Yukagirs, and Chuckchis."

The first indication that travel in Siberia was far more complex than in the Russian Far East dawned on me while embarking the flight from Khabarovsk to Yakutsk. First off, the flight was delayed due to weather conditions in Yakutia, a common occurrence, I was told when traveling to and in Siberia. Secondly, the small Antonov 24 required one to lug one's own luggage not only from the terminal to the plane but also to heave it on the plane, quite an accomplishment for a 110 lbs female. This is not unusual while traveling to remote locations in Eastern Russia.

 Once on the plane, settled down in my cozy seat next to a small window, I quickly got acquainted with my seat partner, a mature, very animated, Yakut woman. She was exquisitely dressed and to my surprise, had traveled the world over, even to my birthplace, the Netherlands. Four hours later, we arrived in chilly Yakutsk, greeted by our local travel partner, who winked me away in a couple of minutes. My first impression of Yakutsk, it was raining, was quite depressing. Sagging old green wooden houses, lined up along muddy, potholed streets and there were very few lights along the roads we were traveling. This was a total surprise to me, as what little information, I had found on Yakutia, affirmed that it was one of the richest regions in Russia. Apparently, just like anywhere else in Russia, the vast wealth associated with its natural resources had not made it to the hands of the local population. A fact that was later affirmed in my conversations with several of the local population.

My hotel, the Lena, was located on the main street and was just one more typical Russian hotel, with a grand marble lobby and one requisite floor for foreigners. My room, was very cold, apparently the heating only worked in the hallways. Why, I never discovered, just one of those irrational things that often happen in Russia. As it was by now 1:00am, there was little I could do but go to bed, fully clothed, hoping to find a solution the next morning.

Our hosts, the next morning had already made the changes and I moved to the best hotel in Yakutsk, the Tygyn Darkhan, located behind the local government offices, close to the main square, of course, name after Lenin. Rooms were spacious and clean outfitted with all of the modern comforts. The restaurant in the hotel was famous for its Siberian dishes (mostly meat or fish based), but offered little choice for vegetarians, like myself. However the ambiance was great, the staff mostly Yakut and very helpful, and I just told myself that vegetable salads were extremely beneficial to my overall energy and health and indulged myself in Snicker bars to add variety to the menu.

In a week of recognizance, I found a lack of variety in consumer goods, i.e. there was very little choice of brands, something that I had gotten used to in the cities of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. Very little information about Yakutia in English in the bookstores and no postcards or any travel related items anywhere, even at the airport. Business services, such as e-mail connections, were difficult to find and were mostly closed during evenings and weekends, and as May is Holiday Season in Russia, I was challenged to find anything open at all.

Positive elements were in fact the lack of traffic, specifically western type cars, again very different from the traffic problems in the major cities in the Russian Far East. During Holidays, the main street was closed and literally every family was walking and socializing. It was then that I realized the great number of Yakuts living in the Republic of Sakha. At the last census in 1996, 38 percent of the population of Yakutia was noted to be Yakut.

 "The Yakuts or Sakha are thought to have migrated northwards from around Lake Baikal to the middle reaches of the Lena River and the lower Vilyuy and Aldan Rivers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They gradually moved to the Arctic Ocean shores, assimilating indigenous ethnic groups.

The Yakuts brought with them a southern economy based on horse and cattle breeding. This contrasted with the hunting and reindeer activities of the original and much smaller populations, mainly Even, Evenk and Yukagir. The Yakuts were influenced by the original cultures and adopted their customs".

Our British group, seven burly guys, including our celebrity, Jack Dee, came in through Moscow with literally, hundreds of pounds of equipment. We faced, of course, some of the typical Russian paranoia, when the team tried to film Jack getting off the aircraft, and an official, very sternly said that was impossible. An urgent phone call to Sakha Air, from whom we had already received verbal approval, finally calmed the official, and our Siberian adventure began. Upon arrival in the hotel the team getting ready to board the helicopter the same day for the small Even village of Sebian Kuoi, took over the lobby literally repacking their equipment on the floor. Luckily we were the only guests and every one, including staff just stood there with an astonished look on their faces. All our rush proved to be unnecessary as the weather worsened towards the end of the day eliminating the chance of flying towards our destination.

 The next day, the weather report was more positive and again the whole caravan moved to the small helicopter airport. Packing the helicopter was quite an experience, not only did we have to load the equipment and our personal luggage, but also food to last us ten days, as most of us, were not ready to face a steady menu of reindeer meat, as the main staple. In addition to the group, we were carrying about four local Even and Buryat people, our expedition leader, his interpreter and two students, who assisted us with a variety of shores and who both spoke English

Finally after rigging the helicopter so the film team could film both inside and the outside landscape, we departed. The landscape underneath the helicopter changed continuously, starting out with taiga with patches of snow criss-crossed by the wide frozen Lena and other rivers to snow covered rolling mountains. The rivers appeared sometimes as crystal blue ribbons cutting through a pristine white landscape. From time to time small villages appeared out of nowhere. Since we were fully loaded it took about three hours for us to reach the small Even village that was our destination. Since there is little or no communication between outlying area and the city of Yakutsk, we arrived unexpectedly and it took some time for local transportation to appear so that we could unload the helicopter.

 Unloading our luggage provided some amusement in the village about these invading foreigners. Because we were staying in very primitive surrounding, we had brought fourteen large bottles of water for both drinking and other purposes. These were the kind you usually find in offices. Doing this created a bit of a cultural clash as our guide explained while we were in Yakutsk, that the village and the reindeer camp were located close to frozen rivers which ice is used by the locals to provide all their water needs. Being proud people exposed to very few western concepts, they felt if their water was good enough for them it should be good for us, foreigners. The villagers, however, not burdened by cultural aspects, kept pointing to the large bottles and laughed out loud about our very strange habits.

The village itself consisted out of mostly wooden houses, quietly nestled among the mountains. The absolute silence was the first thing that most of us noticed.
Getting every one settled in their home stays and storing all our food, took quite a bit of time and organization. Here it finally dawned on the team that the hotel had in fact offered quite luxurious accommodations. Most of us spend the next two nights in bare rooms without doors in houses being heated by wood burning stoves normally used for cooking their meals and with no indoor toilet facilities. Our hosts, however, all Even people made up more than adequately for our discomforts, as they were gracious, warmhearted and did everything they could to make us feel welcome.

 By virtue of the fact that we had found out that our hosts only cooked Even style meals, always including reindeer meat, I was nominated to be the cook for the team, even though my experience so far in this field, had only been boiling an egg now and then. So I was housed at the chief's home where his wife, Ludmila and I immediately took to each other and had a great time exchanging views between western and Even style cooking. In between meal preparation the kitchen filled with children and acquaintances who all wanted to learn English, so with the assistance of Zhenya, one of the students, in between peals of laughter, we went through the alphabet and some of the most common words in English.

Zhenya, whom I later on discovered, was actually of Buryat descent, was a delight. She spoke excellent English, having spent two years in Maine in the US attending a high school. She was also an excellent photographer and we were not surprised to find out that the pictures we had so admired in the dining room of our hotel were actually hers.

 Ludmila and her husband Inokentiy had three children. The two boys, Dima (13) and Ganya (5) had been raised away from the village among the reindeer herd and Dima as a matter of fact was tending to the herd while his father was in the village. They lived in a comfortable wooden house at the outskirts of the village. The house contained a small kitchen, large living room and three bedrooms. At home with their parents the children mostly spoke Yakut, a pretty guttural sounding language. However, in school at all levels all subjects were taught in Russian.

We spend two nights in the village where our celebrity was taught the rudimentary skills of a reindeer herder, taking to them quite easily. In the meantime we waited for the reindeer herd to return from where they were grazing, approximately seven hours from the village. As we were one day late, the herd had returned to its normal grazing ground, specifically since somehow they had been told that we had postponed out trip for at least ten days. On the second evening of our stay, we were treated to a wonderful dance performance at the local school. This created not only excitement for us but also for the local villagers. I will never forget the small child trying to balance paper flowers on her head while her feet were involved in intricate movements. So intense was her concentration that when it was over, it was hard for her to let go, but the rousing applause finally elicited a great sigh of contentment.

When we returned to our home, the first group of beautiful, well fed reindeer had arrived and filled the yard. This view raised our level of excitement; this meant we were leaving tomorrow for the wild beyond. In between happy thoughts, my brain was also entertaining heavy thoughts about how all of our stuff was going to be transported. In this I wasn't the only one, as it turned out the next day.

The next morning we started packing early. All of our food was packed in boxes and Ludmila, who was going with us, shook her head at this foolishness. First, because she did not understand why we needed all that food and secondly because she knew the packing would not stand up against the weather conditions. Following her advice, we packed everything that had the potential of freezing in -20 degrees Celsius temperatures in bits and pieces of our clothing. So dedicated to this task was Ludmilla, that at one point of time, without any thought she pulled of the drapes in her house because we had run out of clothing. The entire morning was taken up packing the sledges securely and attaching the various reindeer teams. We ended up with 38 sledges and about 79 reindeer, including at least ten to twelve people herding them.

 Ludmila like a concerned mother also provided us with more appropriate clothing. The temperatures in the village were much milder; she said that what was to be expected where we were going. So both Zhenya and I, amidst much laughter put on the traditional Even clothing including reindeer skin boots, hat and jacket.

 At 1:00pm we finally set out on our journey. There were separate teams, some small like ours, three or four sleighs lead by Ludmila, all following along in an ever extending line. By means of a long stick the reindeer were prodded in the right direction or to increase their tempo. Ludmila had already shown me the medals that they had won for reindeer herding at the annual Yakut festival in June, so I wasn't surprised at her obvious expertise. In the beginning stretch I shared my sleigh with Ganya, who alternatively slept or quietly hummed a song of contentment. While sitting on the sledge certainly required less energy than leading a team, I found to my surprise that balancing myself on it, going over rocky ground, required my steady attention and the use of protesting parts of my body.

We moved slowly through an absolutely breathtaking landscape dotted with small tress and shrubs. Multiple stops were made as Jack; our celebrity learned how to run his own team not always totally successful. The whole slow moving journey took eight hours the cold increasing significantly as we traveled farther from the village and as the sun lowered itself in the sky. By now most of us were experiencing some back pain and an ever increasing sleepiness, not to be recommended in these circumstances. Finally, we saw our camp, small wooden tents and buildings amidst a coral in the midst of looming, snow covered mountains.

Our home for the next seven days was a small wooden building consisting of two small rooms. One was to be used as the living and sleeping space of the logistics team (5 including Ganya); the other with six metal-framed beds was the home for the film team. The outhouse was approximately 50 meters away from the main cabin.

Our celebrity was given its own tent not far away from our accommodations also with a wood-burning stove. All our foodstuff was stored in our living space under our beds and alongside the walls, except frozen goods which were merely stacked outside on the shelves. Before we started our first meal, Inokentiy blessed the fire welcoming us to his home in the camp.

 Serving meals provided quite a few challenges, the British team wanted their meals on certain times, specifically breakfast at 8:00am in the morning. They were extremely goal oriented, trying to finish the picture in less than the time originally scheduled understood as filming in this remote location was costing them quite a bit of money. This meant that all of us had to get up at the crack of dawn to clear our sleeping bags, start the fire and make preparations for whatever type of breakfast we were going to serve that day. For us, foreigners', rising early is normal, but for Russians and I include the local people in this group, getting up before 9:00am requires a conscious effort. Inokentiy, however was up for the challenge. At my usual wakeup time around 6:30am I would cautiously look out of my sleeping bag and see him watching me from the other side of the cabin ready to jump up and start the fire.

 Another challenge we had to face was the preparation of two separate meals, one for the foreigners requiring their own food and than the next one for the local people, usually consisting out of bread, tea and different preparations of reindeer meat. The English, as they were called by now wanted their own meals as a means of discussing their daily activities, however meals in Russia, no matter the circumstances are always taken together. This is a matter of pride and as we were depending on the local people to assist us, it was necessary to bring the two groups together. After discussion with the group, the agreement was made to just do it for one night as a social occasion, however from that point we just pushed the two separate tables together when every one came in at the same time. This was not merely a cultural necessity but also a logistical one as fitting 15 people in a small space just could not be accomplished in any other way. It must be said though of the English that they were incredibly polite, thanking me profusely after each meal regardless of how it turned out.

The next day we participated in another Even custom the slaughtering of a reindeer as a welcome to the guests. The custom was filmed with Jack participating in the ritual all though he was not allowed to actually kill the reindeer. It should be understood the reindeer do not only serve as transportation for the Even people but also as a food source I must say that my stomach was a bit squeezy as one by one the local people came in delight on their faces savoring the various parts of the reindeer, especially parts of its liver.

During the next two days Jack was taught how to catch a reindeer, he learned how to shoot, crack the ice and make water, cook his own reindeer meal with rice, start a fire, etc. before he moved his tent to spot about ten minutes away. During all this time the team followed him around, having conversations with him about his reactions to this very different type of life. It must be said that of all of the English, he and his Director were the most conscious of the extreme effort that the Even put out to make this film happen. He was courteous, never complained and shared his thoughts freely.

Slowly during the next couple of days the group started to loosen up somewhat. Having to take care of their own cabin, cutting the wood, stoking the fire, cleaning the cabin, made them more appreciative of what life in a reindeer camp is all about.

In the meantime, Ludmila shared with us what life was all about for the Even people. Their family was one of the lucky ones, all though scantly paid 500 rubles a month (a little bit more than $15 for herding reindeer belonging to the state reindeer, they also had their own herd. The additional income was shared with others in the villages that were not as fortunate. The school in the village catered to all grades taught by local teachers. There was neither hospital nor a doctor in the village creating huge problems specifically with the birth of new babies. Lumina's son was one of the lucky ones surviving a very difficult childbirth.

Most of our days, while fairly cold, between -20 and -25 degrees, offered beautiful sunny weather amidst heavy snowstorms. By the end of our stay we were up to our thighs in snow. One sunny day, after we had taken care of our duties, Zhenya and I ventured out to stop at the valley where the female reindeer were having their babies.

 The ride itself was spectacular through narrow canyons, surrounded by snowy mountains, every turn presenting breathtaking views. Upon our arrival at the beautiful valley, we plowed through the snow to watch the female reindeer drop their babies, lick them clean upon which the small ones would stand on their shaky legs and follow their mother foraging for food. At one time, Zhenya found one of the babies separated from its mother, she did not know what to do, so she told me to hold it until she asked the reindeer herder who was somewhere in the neighborhood. This was no easy task and the small animal was kicking mightily all the time whimpering something that sounded to me as "help." Finally I gave up and the animal scampered away, I was trying to follow, but the snow was too deep and I kept falling over. Luckily Zhenya returned with the reindeer herder who advised us to leave the small animal along stating that its mother would eventually find it.

Another funny incident was the lone Canadian, about 60 years old, who had joined us at the last moment when we were departing with the herd from the village. The professor, our Even expedition leaders had told him he could come along, even though the English who paid for the helicopter had told him that they did not wish anyone else foreign around. The first few days we did not see the Canadian as he was lodged with the professor. However, the third day or so, he showed up at mealtime, stowing away such an inordinate amount of food that we came to the conclusion that he must not have eaten for at least a few days. In conversations he told us that he was a college professor from Canada, studying the Even reindeer transportation system, however, he did seem to do this without communication with the Even people.

Over the next few days he joined every meal and when not eating he was searching our shelves of food, going even so far as looking under my bed for cookies, cheese or anything else that was edible. After a while, we started concocting stories about his behavior, one of them being that he was looking for gold on an extremely low budget.

The last day arrived, and all though we enjoyed each day as a new adventure, by now the sixth day of our stay, every one was ready for a more civilized way of living. However, a snowstorm arrived early in the afternoon and it became more and more difficult to communicate with the helicopter base and our hopes of departure grew smaller and smaller. At 6:00pm just as I was picking up my knife to start peeling potatoes, some one starting to yell helicopter. Everyone was up immediately, running with equipment and luggage to board the continuing to rotate helicopter. Hurried goodbyes were shouted, quick embraces were given and within ten minutes we were on our way. Never mind that most of us were sitting on top of the luggage scattered among the helicopter with no way to fasten our seatbelts. Afterwards we all were astounded that nothing was left behind. It took us a good 3 ½ hours to return to the helicopter base, where transportation was waiting to take us to the hotel.

The English having finished the project were ready to depart the next morning. Our local tour operator managed to get them seats on the 9:00am plane to Moscow and off they were. I stayed behind a couple of days to mostly recuperate and enjoy my newly found friends, Zhenya and her family and Sergey and his wife, who were the local tour operators. I finally returned to the US, through Khabarovsk again a couple of days later.

Notes: Reindeer herds such as the one we observed are slowly disappearing from Yakutia. Being with Ludmila and her husband has given me a greater appreciation of the harsh life that the Even are living but also has taught me great respect for what they accomplish under these circumstances. They made this experience special; their efforts to share with us their lives will remain an unforgettable experience.

Of course, being the adventurer that I am, I like to share this experience with others. We will do this in cooperation with the local tour operator and the Even people. We will not spend six days but two nights and three days in the camp, and the same amount of time in the village. We will learn about Even customs and share their traditions. The trip will take place in March, which is a bit colder than the time we were there, but offers considerably clearer weather, thereby eliminating some of the problems with helicopter transportation. Minimum group size if twelve due to the cost of the MI-8 helicopter. Please let us know if you are interested.

WWEN is a private enterprise and as such operates ecotourism program to offset the cost of its operations. WWEN also manages an extensive Web Site www.traveleastrussia.com promoting travel to remote destinations and providing extensive information about indigenous cultures and nature preserves.

 For more information, please address your questions to info@traveleastrussia.com
 

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