It’s quiet in the tundra

Ethnocultural tourism in Chukotka

6 minutes
It’s quiet in the tundra

Chukotka is a land where the spirit of the past is very strong. You can go there to learn the legends of sea hunters, feed the elusive inhabitants of the tundra, find a new name for yourself and listen to how the blizzard howls with its chilling voice. When the world is changing rapidly, only at the end of the world will you be able to find something truly worthwhile — it will open only to those who are ready to seek beauty in the middle of the icy desert.

Video: Vitaliy Selin

Wild nature and unpredictable weather conditions reign in Chukotka — you should not plan trips to this region on your own. Contact experienced guides, for only local residents will acquaint you with the culture of the Chukchi ethnic groups and help you tackle the indescribable landscapes, which simply cannot be covered alone in off-road conditions. Our film crew was met by the Chukotka.travel team and the Department of Culture and Tourism of the Chukotka Autonomous Region.

We were asked to tell travellers about the S7 Airlines Vladivostok — Anadyr flight. While gathering material for this project, we got to know another universe and fell in love with it. Eleven days through a snowstorm and a grey immensity: how one lives in the middle of an icy wilderness, read our travelog.

Come to people

Anadyr city. Sunday evening. April. We had just returned from a long trip to the tundra, where we were filming a herd of deer. Sasha, our guide, kindly invited us to come over. To talk. Indeed, in Chukotka the evenings are long and dark. It’s the best time to listen to stories. We are greeted by his mother Larisa, a philologist, a native Chukchi woman; his wife Svetlana and her father Oleg, a sea hunter — both are Eskimos. And two more little daughters of the young couple — Tilya and Linel. Outside the window there’s a harsh northern wind — just 12 m/s at -15°C gives you the feeling like it’s -32°C, but such trifles are of interest only to visitors.

Sasha’s mother is a “tundra woman”. This is the name given to those who were born and spent their childhood in the tundra, roaming with their families along with a herd of deer. Today we, the film crew from different parts of Russia, receive a generous gift — the stories of people whose lives were placed at the intersection of traditions and rapid changes of the 21st century.

Sasha gives us some treat — an ice cream called kopalhen — an indigenous delicacy. This is fermented walrus meat, which sours in the ground for several months, acquiring a pungent smell and taste. Previously, kopalhen was the only source of vitamin C for the Chukchi and Eskimos, but for an unprepared person even a small piece can be very dangerous. We, the Moscow citizens, are more accustomed to avocado-toasts and frappuccino, so we timidly lower our eyes — we are not ready for such experiments.

Sasha found another treat for people with a more refined taste — bright orange upa, the sea potato. At first glance, it seems that this is a plant, some kind of root, like ginger, but hold on… this is an ascidian — the simplest animal. Upa is caught under the ice, and “upalka” (fishing, in other words) is similar to hunting for sea urchins. Upa is eaten raw, cut into thin slices - the intense taste is reminiscent of either seaweed or squid soaked in sea water.

Something changed in my mind. The seemingly small kitchen where you can hear the old kettle sniffing while Sveta is showing photos. But the feeling of an ancient mystery is getting stronger by the minute — after all, if you forget that you are now in a Soviet panel housing, if you imagine that we met in the last century or even earlier, gathered around the fire to listen to fairy tales and learn wisdom from the elders… The grandmother recalls her childhood, that’s all.

The wisdom of the tundra

Tundra reindeer herding is a complicated profession. One needs to survive in the eternal winter, create and feed a family, raise a herd of 800-1200 deer… It is necessary to constantly cover very long distances — reindeer herders strictly monitor the timing of migrations while tending to their rituals and holidays. The herd cannot stand still for a long time neither in winter nor in summer. Getting food from under the snow during winter, the deer kick with their hoofs and quickly trample the pasture, thus getting lichen becomes more and more difficult. In the spring, you need to move the herd to the rich coastal pastures, but even there it is constantly on the move so that the deer do not get eaten by the gnat.

The traditional dwelling of the Chukchi tundra people is the yaranga. Such a dwelling is easily disassembled and assembled — the conical shape consists of poles that rest on the crossbeams, and on top there is a sheared reindeer skin. Once the yaranga accommodated a patriarchal family of two or three generations, but today, as a rule, only one family lives there — parents and their children. The yaranga itself oozes with the legacy of millennia.

A woman is in charge of the yaranga — she must be able to both build a dwelling and dismantle it while a man watches over the herd. Of course, children and old people help her with the housework. Everything is sacred in the yaranga. The house is clean, and outside there are evil and kind spirits. These are called kehle. The house is quite spiritualized. These are not just poles under the skin of a deer — it is a whole microcosm. The Chukchi see the yaranga as a materialized part of the spirit. It is called Tynequit. While spending time in the yaranga, children listen to the earth and their souls silently converse with the tundra.

There are bear spears hanging at the entrance to the yaranga. Their purpose is to remove snow from clothes before going inside. But there is also a ritual meaning — you just came from the tundra where many spirits live. You need to remove these spirits and only then enter the house.

Nothing happens in the tundra just for no reason! It all starts with rituals. When you go fishing — you need to feed the river. When you go for berries — you must feed the tundra. Even if you do not have anything edible but matches, pinch off some and offer to the spirits. Place them gently on the moss. Just as a sign of respect. There are many spirits of the animal world around you, the spirits of the areal, the tundra, the mountains and the river. Every one of them needs to be addressed directly. If you stop to drink some tea — do the honors, treat the owner of the area.

When you go fishing or hunting and if you shoot a partridge, first of all, you must find some body of water. It can be either a river or a lake. Approach it, take the prey and place it with its beak to the south. Take droplets of water, dip the wound, and then the beak. And say these words, “I killed you in order to feed myself and my family, and everyone in the neighborhood just to be useful for life.” So that it’s not all about you, but by doing this you show your care for others. There is a clear rule — when you go hunting, you take exactly as much as you need to provide food for the moment. You don’t kill all the game just to bring in a bag of meat and flex on your peers with your prowess. You take as much as you and your relatives can eat. And then you go hunting again.

From point A to point B

In addition to heartfelt conversations in Chukotka, they are, of course, engaged in other activities. These activities are the basis and necessity of life. You can get acquainted with the life of the peoples of the north in the national villages — Lorino, Sireniki, Inchoun, Uelkal and Omolon. We were lucky to get to the village of Egvekinot. It was pure luck, not otherwise — in Chukotka you never know how long it will take to cover the same route — a day, 12 hours, or maybe even several days. It is impossible to fight against time and the elements, and you need to learn to wait.

You drive along the winter tundra, and around you is a sheer white blizzard. You look into the distance and you see only whiteness, in which the horizon is indistinguishable, there are no boundaries, and only the wind and snow draw strange symbols on the ground. The sun, reflected in a myriad of ice crystals, blinds the eyes, another gust of wind knocks you down and snowflakes pierce your cheeks with immense speed. You will turn away, hide and cover your face with your hands until you understand — it’s all futile. This is the wind, and it is the ruler here, and you are just a guest, your part here is just to observe and live by its rules.

The SUV bounces on bumps. Then, upon your return, it will be difficult for you to understand how the cars drive so smoothly and quickly — and where are they going in such a hurry after all? But now it’s past 20th hours and you are still jumping up and down, imagining the outline of the winter road in the windshield. You have learned to doze between jumps, propping up a nearby chair with your elbow, you almost never spill tea from a thermo cup and from time to time you go outside to silently talk to the tundra. Soon the first shades of dawn will appear behind the hills, the wind will die down in anticipation of the beginning of a new day.

“The blizzard will subside and a fox will rush through the snow, and, meeting the sun, a raven will rise against the sharp lines of the mountain.”

This is how it is — nature dictates its own rules and you adjust. People learn to help each other, not out of profit, but just for the sake of it. Everyone here knows that one day each of us will need help, and therefore it is necessary to help the one who is close to you. Our driver Elchin, who moved to Chukotka from Azerbaijan, told how from time to time northern kindness convinced him that there is no better and warmer home than the Arctic. For example, when he just bought an apartment in Anadyr, he moved into an empty apartment of panel housing and neighbors and friends came to him. He went shopping and when he returned, he thought that he had wandered somewhere else. He even checked the floor — no, that was all right. He went back again, and his whole apartment was already furnished. Everyone brought something — so Elchin got home and comfort.

“In Chukotka, the warmth is stored in the most secluded place — in people.”

Hope

In Chukotka, we saw strength and benevolence in everyone who met on our way. But there are no words to describe the warm light and modest dignity that can be seen in the eyes of the mushers — representatives of the local aboriginal people. A musher is a driver of dogs or deer harnessed to sleds. The traditional dog sled race “Hope” has been held in Chukotka for over 30 years. We managed to take pictures of mushers near the village of Egvekinot and at the finish of the race in Anadyr.

This year, mushers have covered more than 1150 km in 17 days. We waited for them at the border of the Arctic, where the road from Egvekinot to Iultin crosses the Arctic circle. At some moments we could not even get out of our transport — the gusty wind tore the cameras out of our hands, the fingers were freezing at the same time, and even opening your eyes and seeing something through the blizzard sometimes seemed impossible — the fine and prickly snow was stinging like wasps. In such conditions mushers conquer Chukotka again and again, wresting from the elements the right to live on this land. It is true that the North loves the strong.

We saw how a musher was carrying a dog in his arms, whose paw was injured on the way. Between the checkpoints of the route, the racers spend the night in the villages and during the night they treat the dogs' wounds, feed them and only then rest themselves, if they have time. Mushers of “Hope” are known among racers in Alaska and Kamchatka for how they treat their dogs — the hard workers of whole families and the most reliable winter transport. With great care.

We saw how a musher was carrying a dog in his arms, whose paw was injured on the way. Between the checkpoints of the route, the racers spend the night in the villages and during the night they treat the dogs' wounds, feed them and only then rest themselves, if they have time. Mushers of “Hope” are known among racers in Alaska and Kamchatka for how they treat their dogs — the hard workers of whole families and the most reliable winter transport. With great care.

Conscious simplicity

It turns out it’s easier to enjoy the simple things in Chukotka. The wind died down — then it’s a holiday; when you for the first time got on a snowbike and taken off — it’s pure joy; when the temperature rose to 0°C — it’s spring time, also known as, “I would like to have a scoop of the most delicious ice cream… no, better give me five.” A crab ran out of a crack in the ice — so your fishing was successful. And the sauna has already been prepared for you somewhere. Shall we?

From the editor:

Every part of the Earth is beautiful in its own way. You just need to try to discern its beauty. Come to Chukotka to contemplate the fjords, whales and the cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean from July to the first half of September. And from the second half of March until the end of May you can come to witness a dazzling winter of a harsh land, where real people, the Luoravetlan, live.

We thank the Governor of Chukotka Autonomous Region Roman Valentinovich Kopin, the Chukotka.travel team and the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Chukotka Autonomous Region for organizing this expedition.

Video: Vitaliy Selin

Photo: Alexander Mazurov

Text: Alina Kazakova, Anastasia Gvozdeva

Creative producer: Alina Kazakova

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