Vaygach Island

Polar-bear infested Vaygach Island off the north coast of Arctic Russia‘s Nenets Autonomous Okrug is often referred to as “The Nenets Mecca” and “The Easter Island of the Arctic” because is covered in 200 idols and sacrificial sites to the gods of the nomadic Nenets reindeer herders and every Nenets was expected to make a pilgrimage there once in their life. Although during the Soviet Union the government forced an end to this practice, local Nenets still hold the idols to be sacred. When in 2001 an archaeological expedition from Moscow took one of the idols back to the capital to restore it, the ceiling of the room it was kept in collapsed, electrical appliances kept spontaneously combusting, people got ill and had car crashes and one member died. They returned the idol to Vaygach without finishing restoration.

Nenets man next to idol on Vaygach Island, Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Arctic Russia

Nenets man next to idol on Vaygach Island, Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Arctic Russia

The weather on Vaygach is so bad that it often renders the island inaccessible. The best time to visit Vaygach is June to August when the straits can be most reliably be crossed by boat. Even at this time, however, storms can kick up that render passage impossible for two or three days. In May or September it’s usually also possible to get there but chances are lower. In winter the strait between Vaygach and the mainland does not freeze enough for snowmobiles to cross it but there is still enough floating ice for boats to be unable to cross! Only in March does it freeze enough to cross by snowmobile and even then not every year. In 2012 it froze completely solid only for a couple of days in March. Helicopters very occasionally fly to Vaygach from Naryan Mar, the capital of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, but this can be once every two weeks, once a month or once every two months and is totally unreliable.

The island is about 15km off the north coast of the Yugorskiy Peninsula. The nearest still-inhabited settlement on the mainland is Amderma, which has weekly flights from Arkhangelsk on Saturdays. Children of Vaygach’s reindeer herders go to school in Karatayka, however, and the settlement has more links with Vaygach although it is located further away, so if trying to hitch a lift to Vaygach Karatayka might be a better start. Karatayka is accessible by highly irregular helicopter flights from Naryan Mar and, in winter, weekly or twice weekly all-terrain vehicles from Vorkuta in the north of the Komi Republic.

There is also a meteorological station north of Karatayka and nearer to Vaygach. Only 4 people work there but all-terrain vehicles bring goods there occasionally and boats / snowmobiles from Vaygach pick them up.

It goes without saying that Vaygach is one of the most inaccessible places in Russia. From Amderma, Karatayka or the meteorological station you might, if lucky, find boat or snowmobile transport with locals on provision runs to Vaygach but to be honest it’s unlikely and you’re more likely to have to pay someone (quite a lot) to take you there specially. If you don’t hitch and end up paying then going from Amderma will be much cheaper as it is so much closer. Make sure, however, that you go with a Nenets, someone who has local friends on the island and who knows the location of the idols and sacrificial sites (you’ll probably actually need someone from the island itself for this as it’s 45km wide and 100km long so just hunting around for idols is no use).

Vaygach, Karatayka and Amderma all require a special permit to get to. See the main Nenets Autonomous Okrug page on how to get this.

As of 2012 I have permission to take a small number of tourists, photographers or journalists to Vaygach each summer. We will explore the island on foot and by motorboat, visiting the most important idols and sacrificial sites. If you’d be interested in coming, have a look at itineraries and costs at my other website’s page on Vaygach Island The necessary permits will of course be provided.

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