Visiting any other tribal or nomadic group might raise concerns of disrupting their lives or threatening their culture with too much exposure to the outside world. With the Nenets of the Yamal Peninsula, however, the situation is a little different.
In the 1930s the Soviet government began forcibly taking Nenets children from their parents and educating them in boarding schools. By the 1960s the majority of Nenets children were being schooled. This practice continues to this day, meaning that all Yamal Nenets have been to school and some even to university. 50% of them, after completing their education, choose to return to the tundra and live out the rest of their lives as nomads with the reindeer.
In other words, the Yamal Nenets culture is so strong that they seem able to take what they want from mainstream society without letting it affect their cultural identity. They experience both worlds then make a choice, 50% choosing one way of life (nomadism) and 50% the other (a settled life in Yamal Peninsula villages). Those that choose life as a nomad do so because this is the life that they want, not because they have to. The reindeeer herders that guests of Yamal Peninsula Travel will stay with will earn decent money and will use it buy necessary provisions and tools and increase the size of their reindeer herd.
Whereas in large cities there are multiple threats to safety – crime, traffic accidents, etc – none of them exist on the Yamal Peninsula. The only thing that could be a potential threat to safety here is the cold (and that only in winter).
There is a saying in the Far North of Russia, where nomadic people have to spend entire winters outdoors in temperatures of -50C: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” And it’s really true. Dressed in Nenets reindeer fur clothing the author of this site once spend 8 hours outdoors on the Yamal Peninsula in -50C in January and felt absolutely toasty for the first 6 hours. The last two hours were a bit uncomfortable but nothing serious.
Much of the worry people in the West have when thinking of remote Arctic travel probably comes from all those explorers who perished in the North from cold and hunger on exploratory expeditions in previous centuries. The sad thing is that many of those explorers died within a stone’s throw of native villages of people who had been living happily and comfortably there for millenia and could easily have helped them. The trouble was that the explorers viewed natives as savages to be stayed well away from, their abilities to catch seals and stay warm in such a clime obviously demonic witchcraft or something innate to their savagery that could not be transferred to the civilised Europeans.
The moral of the story? No place is extreme or dangerous to people who are used to living there, whose way of life has evolved there and who have learned how to survive there over thousands of years. While the frozen tundra of the Yamal Peninsula may seem like a pretty extreme place to us, to the Nenets it is home and with a hospitable Nenets family looking after you you will be in the best possible hands for such an expedition. Just as to a member of an uncontacted tribe plucked from the Amazon Rainforest a modern city may seem pretty extreme and impossibly hard to navigate – “there are 4-wheeled objects flying around everywhere that kill or cripple you if they touch you and belch out poisonous gases and everyone seems not to worry about them and know when to cross roads but I can’t work it out!” – if he had a local showing him around and taking care of him then he would be absolutely fine.
The chances of anything going wrong out on the Yamal Peninsula are probably the same as crossing the road in a big city, the difference being that if anything does go wrong in a city you have immediate access to medical help whereas on the Yamal you don’t. If by some chance you do get food poisoning or break a leg then in winter you will probably be a 3-hour snowmobile ride from the nearest village with a medical centre, from where public helicopters fly five times a week to Salekhard (and all-terrain vehicles go every evening and take 7 hours) where there is a good (by Siberian standards) hospital.
In short, it is essential that for this trip you take out a good insurance policy with a reliable provider that offers medical evacuation by air ambulance. You will also need a satellite phone whose network covers the area, such as Iridium. You can either buy or rent this yourself before you come or get one in Moscow. To rent one costs US$25 a day, a deposit of US$2500 and outgoing calls are US1.50 a minute. Iridium phones can be bought new online for around US$800 or as low as US$400 second hand on Ebay.