The Yamal Peninsula
The Yamal Peninsula, in the far West of the Siberian Arctic, is home to nomadic reindeer herders who have preserved a strikingly traditional culture, way of life and system of spiritual beliefs. Dressing in home-made reindeer-fur clothes and living in conical reindeer-hide tents they constantly move camp with their 10,000-head herds of reindeer in search of grazing, travelling by reindeer sledge and following millennia-old migration routes. Physically they seem something like a cross between Mongolians and native Americans and their language is completely unrelated to Russian. Their religious views have them in a world full of gods and spirits inextricably intertwined with the reindeer, and their daily lives are governed by the observance of various of laws relating to the spirits and reindeer.
The Yamal is the place in Russia where large scale nomadic reindeer herding and the culture of the herders has been best preserved. Although there are around fifty reindeer-herding ethnic minorities in Russia, the majority of them are a sad reflection of what they were before the Soviet Union, alcoholics doing shift work with small numbers of reindeer to earn money for vodka. Only among the Nenets (as well as some Komi and Khanty living in Nenets areas) and the Chukchi of Chukotka is reindeer fur clothing still the norm. Sadly alcoholism is rampant among even the Chukchi and many Nenets from areas outside the Yamal, with a lot of them working 3-month shifts in the tundra then spending 3 months drinking in a nearby village. In other Nenets areas the Nenets language has been forgotten, with no one under 40 speaking it. By contrast, on the Yamal children know only Nenets, and people over fifty speak much better Nenets than Russian.
Among all of Russia’s reindeer herders, only on the Yamal (and among a few Nenets groups just to the south and west) has alcoholism failed to make inroads and people continue to live year-round nomadic existences, their culture, language and spiritual beliefs preserved in their entirety. The reason for this may lie in the way in which the area was administered under the Soviet Union. While all other nomadic groups had their reindeer taken from them and were forced to settle and work on collective farms, the Yamal Nenets were allowed to continue migrating year-round along their traditional routes, merely handing over a certain number of reindeer to the government each year. While most groups had their way of life destroyed utterly, the Yamal Nenets continued to live as they always had but under changed conditions.
I will not go into Nenets culture, daily life and spiritual beliefs on this site as that is covered to some extent in my blog about my first trip to the Yamal Peninsula and also on my site offering Yamal Peninsula tours.
Today there are several small villages on the Yamal Peninsula, such as Salemal, Yar-Sale, Novy Port and Seyakha. Their populations are a mixture of ethnic Russians and Nenets. Of the Yamal Peninsula’s Nenets population, roughly half are nomadic reindeer herders and half live sedentary lives in these villages. During winter you will see plenty of Nenets dressed in traditional reindeer-fur clothing even in the villages.
The access points to the Yamal from the rest of Russia are the towns of Labytnangi and Salekhard, 30km apart from one another and located directly on the Arctic Circle. Salekhard can be reached by boat from Omsk (on the Trans-Siberian Railway) during the short summer navigation period or by airplane year round. Labytnangi can be reached by a 2 – 2.5-day train ride from Moscow. There is little to see or do in either of them, other than perhaps a reconstruction of the 17th-century Russian fortress of Obdursk founded on the spot that would later become Salekhard. Also, if you only get this far and are not going further north up the Yamal Peninsula, it may be worth checking out Salekhard’s market as you will likely see a few Nenets reindeer herders dressed in their furs and with their sledges nearby.
There are several major problems that have ensured that almost no travellers make it even as far as Salekhard, and even fewer travel on up the Yamal Peninsula. These problems are, however, not unsolvable, and I will address them and their possible solutions here one by one. I include all the advice I can give to the independent traveller and finish with details and costs of a trip with me as a guide / interpreter to stay with my nomadic reindeer herding friends on the Yamal Peninsula.
While summer temperatures range between +5C and +25C (but can still be VERY cold due to the wind), winter temperatures can reach as low as -60C with bad wind chill bringing it down to -90C, although that is a very extreme case. Out in the Yamal tundra, the AVERAGE felt winter temperature (including wind chill) is -50C. Even in Salekhard the wind is strong but out in the tundra it can be enough to knock you over and burns your face like acid. It’s the only time I’ve heard a wind that really deserves the description “howling”, only it’s louder and more frightening than a howl because it doesn’t come from one voice but from everywhere, from the air itself.
In short, if you come during winter you need to be prepared for -50C plus extreme wind chill. I advise getting the Marmot 8000m down suit, or the Northern Outfitters full set. This is the warmest clothing available on the market, but will still not save you if you get caught in bad weather out in the tundra or have to go on a 3-hour snowmobile ride. Only Nenets reindeer-fur clothing will keep out that level of cold for extended periods. I once spent eight hours outdoors in minus 50C in the Yamal Peninsula tundra in January wearing the Northern Outfitters jacket under Nenets reindeer-fur clothing. For the first six hours I was perfectly comfortable, not even slightly chilly. Sometimes this clothing is sold by people walking up and down the aisle on the Moscow – Labytnangi train and sometimes in Salekhard’s market. If you can’t find it in either of these places there will definitely be people with spare garments in Yamal Peninsula villages such as Yar-Sale. Just ask around.
On top of the Marmiot or Northern Outfitters gear the other really essential stuff is:
1) a synthetic base layer for upper and lower body. This is essential, because synthetic material will wick any sweat away from your body and provent you from becomingg wet and cold. I once broke sweat in the Yamal tundra in non-synthetic base layers and i was extremely cold and uncomfortable.
2) Ski goggles. Without these any snowmobile ride will have to be spent with your eyes closed. You also need some thick scarves or a balaclava to cover the rest of your face.
3) Fleece pants coming up to your chest and some other thickly padded and waterproof trousers on top, also coming up to your chest.
In short, the winter cold is absolutely no problem if you come well prepared with your own clothing and get a full set of Nenets reindeer fur clothing too before heading into the tundra. The Nenets survive out there not because they are superhuman but simply because they have good clothing.
The lack of roads
North of Salekhard there is only tundra, a vast swampy wilderness, and a small number of tiny settlements. The only things capable of year-round travel north up the Yamal Peninsula to these settlements are all-terrain vehicles and helicopters. In summer boats also go up the coast, stopping at Yar-Sale and Novy Port. In winter all-terrain vehicles drive on frozen river surfaces and in summer they go straight through the tundra. They generally do not go further north than Yar-Sale, unless you want to pay a driver to take you somewhere specially. The ones going to Yar-Sale offer seats to passengers but do not run according to a timetable and leave from different places in Salekhard or Yar-Sale. Check the airports in Salekhard or Yar-Sale for notices with all-terrain vehicle drivers’ phone numbers. Public transport helicopters also link Salekhard and the Yamal Peninsula villages a few times a week. To Yar-Sale as of 2012 they run on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. They leave Salekhard at 10:50 and the return journey leaves Yar Sale at 12:45.
There is also a freight train running daily up the west coast of the Yamal Peninsula to the Bovanenkovo gas field in the north. It takes 24 hours to get there. They accept passengers too, but there are no villages along this route and reindeer herders obviously stay as far from the gas field as possible. If you knew the exact location of a reindeer-herding encampment it might be possible to get off the train somewhere along its route to meet up with them, but to be honest trekking through the tundra on your own to them is not recommended as in winter it’s cold and in summer it’s full of bears and swamps! Another problem with the freight railway is that to be accepted as a passenger you musr submit copies of your documents to them a month in advance. You need to submit them your passport and border zone permit (see below). To obtain your border zone permit you will have had to submit your visa a minimum of two months in advance. That means you will have had to have your visa ready more than 3 months before your actual trip, which unfortunately some Russian embassies don’t allow.
The need for a border zone permit
To come to Labytnangi, Salekhard or the Yamal Peninsula you need a special permit completely separate from your Russian visa and invitation letter. You can click this link to use my services to obtain a Yamal permit or, if you speak good Russian, go through the laborious process described below and obtain the permit yourself. If you opt to obtain it yourself be prepared to phone up to check up on them every few weeks and then hassle them to find it when they say they’ve lost your application.
To get the Yamal permit yourself you need to phone the Salekhard Border Division on +7 349 224 1553 and get them to send you an application form by fax. They will only send it to a Russian number. Then you need to fill it out in Russian and send it back by fax along with a scanned copy of your passport..
When filling out the form you must mention every settlement and region you plan to visit. Saying just Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug is not enough – you have to mention the individual regions and settlements within the okrug.
Sometimes the person receiving your application wants certain parts to be completed in English, such as your address, but other times different people want you to translate every word and name into Russian for some reason, so phone them up to make sure everything is to their liking after you send in your application form.
Call the Border Division and ask for their fax number before you send the documents as they seem to have different fax numbers working on different days. After you fax them these documents be sure to ask them for a reference number. I once forgot to ask for the reference number then next time I phoned them they had lost my application and could not find it because I did not have the reference number.
They must receive all these documents and your completed form a minimum of 60 days before your arrival in Labytnangi, but to be safe I would send them in 90 days in advance. Any mistake by them or you (both extremely likely in this infuriatingly complex process) will delay the procedure to more than 60 days. Phone them up every few weeks and quote your reference number and the date you applied to check that the process is underway and they have not lost your application. When the permit is ready you will need to supply them with a fax number within Russia that they can send the permits out to.
Don’t expect any language other than Russian to be spoken at the Border Division, don’t expect anyone to be particularly helpful and don’t expect them to actually get the permit for you without constant badgering and regular phone calls to check up on its progress. They don’t even have a website and can only accept applications by fax, not email!
If they do lose your application, which has happened every time I have applied for a permit, phone +7 34922 37435 . This is the number of the department that actual processes permits, whereas the number above is that of the department that receives applications.
The lack of tourist infrastructure and English speakers
There is no tourist infrastructure and no one speaks any English. Even Russian is a second language for those Nenets who speak it. Independent travel here is a real adventure and requires knowledge of the Russian language, patience, time, ingenuity, confidence and the ability and willingness to put yourself out there into a completely wild place far away from your ordinary support structures. Interpreters can apparently be hired in Moscow but charge vast sums (like US$150 a day) for this sort of work. Transport connections are unreliable where they exist at all, so if planning a trip here make sure you leave several spare days on either side of each journey you plan to make. For example if planning to go to Yar-Sale, to be safe you should allow 1 – 2 days in Salekhard after arriving from Moscow, 1-2 days in Yar-Sale before you go back to Salekhard and 1 – 2 days in Salekhard before your train to Moscow.
Getting out to the reindeer herders
Reindeer herders’ encampments are generally located at least 70km from the villages, so even if you knew where they were located walking would not be an option (cold in winter, bears and swamps in summer). Village Nenets visiting nomadic relatives in the tundra get to the encampments by snowmobile between October and April or reindeer sledge from April to October. Your best hope of getting out to the reindeer herder encampments is to spend some time in a village, befriend some people and then mention to them that you’re interested in visiting a reindeer herders’ encampment. If you get on really well with them they might agree to help you. A less hopeful alternative might be to ask shop keepers, or approach people you see packing up sledges ready for a trip into the tundra. Sledges are, however, usually fully packed with provisions, so I am not sure how likely this is to work. It is at least theoretically possible, as I have done exactly the same in Kamchatka myself, but Yamal being far less-visited I have never heard of anyone even trying it here. At the end of the day it would come down to speaking good Russian and getting on well with the people so that they were interested in you coming with them to an encampment.
You could also try to pay someone in a village to take you specially on their snowmobile or sledge to a reindeer herders’ encampment. The cost of this would rise into the hundreds of dollars, however, as someone would have to take time off work and fill up with petrol.
If you had lots of money and little time, you could also hire a helicopter direct from Salekhard to a reindeer herders’ encampment. This costs US$2500 per hour in the air and US$120 per hour they wait for you at your destination, up to a maximum of 24 hours. In short it would cost around US$10,000 for a trip to herders in the south of Yamal, US$20,000 to herders halfway up the peninsula or US$35,000 to herders on the north coast (there are only herders that far north in summer though). The problem with hiring a helicopter to get to an encampment of unknown herders is that you have no idea what their reaction is going to be, and it is a bit like turning up uninvited on a stranger’s doorstep.
The snowmobile / sledge option would be much more recommended, as at least then the driver would take you to an encampment where he knew people would happily accept you, probably his relatives. Agree on sleeping arrangements in advance as there may not be much free space in the chum (conical reindeer-hide tent). You should really bring a tent with you, which in winter would mean something really strong and warm such as the Arctic Oven by Alaska Tent and Tarp. Also the herders work 365 days of the year with the reindeer, not even celebrating birthdays, so may not have much time to spend on you.
In winter reindeer herders are further south, with some located 80km north of Yar-Sale. In summer they move further north, so are better accessed from the freight railway mentioned above. Whether in winter or summer, however, the only guarantee you have as an independent traveller is of being able to reach one of the villages on the Yamal Peninsula or the Bovanenkovo gas field, and that’s if you speak good Russian, can find out when the next helicopter or all-terrain vehicle is going or organise a lift on the freight train and have enough time to wait around for them. After you arrived in a village, getting out to the nomads would require either a mixture of luck, charisma, Russian language and time or some local contacts.
If you want to stay with my reindeer herder friends…
I am always keen for an opportunity to go back to visit my friends among the Nenets nomads. I live in Russia full time, speak fluent Russian and am happy to take individuals or small groups to visit them. On such a trip the stay in the chum with the nomads will be absolutely guaranteed. I will liase with my friends on the Yamal Peninsula villages months beforehand and arrange all the details, so that the reindeer herders come to the village to pick us up on a set date. I will get all necessary permits and purchase all tickets as well as coming with you as interpreter and guide.
If interested you can check out my other website which offers guided tours to the Yamal Peninsula including a stay with my nomadic reindeer herder friends. It contains detailed information on such trips as well as the advantages and disadvantages of travel there at different times of year, the safety and ethical aspects and some information on Nenets culture and spirituality.
Alternatively use this website’s contact form to get in touch with me if you are interested in such an expedition or if you would like to ask me any questions about the Yamal Peninsula or Nenets. I will always be happy to offer advice for anyone attempting to go it alone there!
Click here to read one of my blogs about staying with nomadic Nenets reindeer herders on the Yamal Peninsula, with 9212 words and 87 photos.
Click here for my most recent blog about the Yamal Nenets with 25 photos and 4889 words.
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