Life at a Nenets Camp


The low clouds of Yamal hang just above our helicopter which flies equidistant between them and the glowing tundra below. The sky is a perfect blue, the clouds as puffy and white as balls of cotton wool, almost as perfectly surreal as a child’s painting. Below the tundra is lit up by the glorious, never-setting Arctic summer sun. Dark patches enshadowed by the clouds are spattered among burningly bright, almost golden, strips of vegatation ranging in colour from green to yellow, brown, orange and red.

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Nomadic Nenets reindeer herder riding a hand-made, wooden, reindeer-drawn sledge through the tundra in summer, northern Yamal Peninsula, Arctic Siberia

Nomadic Nenets reindeer herder riding a hand-made, wooden, reindeer-drawn sledge through the tundra in summer, northern Yamal Peninsula, Arctic Siberia

From up here it is easy to understand how 60% of the Yamal Peninsula can be water – quite apart from the permafrost lurking just below the ground, 50,000 lakes and 3,000 rivers bend, curve, intertwine and devour the swampy land as far as the eye can see.

We fly for a matter of hours from the village of Yar Sale in southern Yamal to the Mordi-Iakha River in the north. In that short time we cover the distance that my Nenets friends Radik and Kostya, along with their families, have covered in three and a half months since our last meeting in April. They crawled over this vast, apparently empty landscape on wooden, reindeer-drawn sledges, following a migration route that their people have used for centuries. In the bitterly cold winter, when their nomadic encampments were located not more thn 200km from Yar Sale, it was easy to reach them by snowmobile. Now, thanks to the local government, I have been invited on a helicopter expedition to their reindeer-herding brigade near the northernmost point of its migration route. Our aims are to get them to fill in questionnaires on their opinions of the gas pipelines and to register the coordinates of any sacred sites that we pass on our migrations, as these can be protected under Russian law.

There are two Nenets men seated near the door to the cockpit. One has the weather-beaten face of someone who has spent their life in the tundra and is dressed in camouflage gear and dark aviator glasses. The other, wearing corduroy trousers and a blazer, has the soft, chubby cheeks and wobbly chin of a lifelong town dweller. They constantly stare out of the windows, Tundra pointing out features of the landscape below and explaining them to Town. Often the two of them would get up, cross to the other side of the helicopter and stare out of the window, sometimes even running from one side to the other and back again frantically as if to check and re-check that their assessment of our location was correct. Every few minutes Tundra would open the cockpit door, say something to the pilots, inaudible above the roaring, deafening howl that filled the entire helicopter, then return to staring out of the windows. He, like most tundra Nenets, displayed a degree of knowledge of the region that bordered on the unbelievable – not only did he recognise features of the landscape in this flat, apparently empty wilderness, but he also knew the migration routes of every band of nomadic reindeer herders and where they would be located on every day of the year.

After forty minutes we flew over three chums, the white conical tents in which nomadic Nenets live. After an hour and a half another three came into view. This was apparently where Tundra and Town wanted to stop as they opened the door to the cockpit, spoke to the pilot and we began descending and circling the encampment. We touched down but did not switch off the engine or the propellor. Tundra opened the door, the pilot let down the steps and Tundra descended to be met by three fur-clad Nenets women, the hair of the two not wearing headscarves flying to one side and dancing like the surrounding vegetation in the wind from the propellor. The eyes in their hard, deep brown faces squinted to the extent that they became merely black lines against their leathery, eroded skin as they handed over three white sacks to Tundra who nodded, said something and re-entered the helicopter. The women turned their backs and walked towards their chums, where a group of children had gathered to watch, and we took off again.

Tundra and Town dumped the sacks at the back of the helicopter, opened one and took out a shiny, silver, three-foot long fish. They then sat down in their places and produced a thermos of tea and a bottle of vodka. They finished the lot in five minutes, during which time the smells of tea, vodka and fish filled the whole helicopter, then went back to staring out of the windows, running from one side to the other and chattering amongst themselves.

Soon we were flying over the Obskaya – Bovanenkovo railway, a single set of tracks leading 525km north up the Yamal Peninsula, built and owned by the Russian gas giant Gazprom and not found on any Russian Railways maps.

We land and refuel at a station on the railway by the name of Khralov, then touch down twice more apparently in the middle of nowhere. At each stop Tundra and Town get out to take measurements and photos.

After four or five hours we reached the encampment of the Second Yar Sale Brigade, circled its seven chums once then began descending vertically, long grass dancing wildly as the helicopter lowered itself towards the ground. The lower we got the more frantically the vegetation jirated until it was doing so with such speed that individual plants became indistinguishable and for a radius of 50m around the spot where the helicopter would land the ground undulated like a vast bed of slithering, wriggling snakes. Once again the pilot did not shut off the engine but opened the door, put down the steps, let us out and flew off.

The seven chums were stood on a slight ridge. The entrance of every chum was facing the same way, towards the flat ground between us and them, most of which was occupied by over a hundred wooden sledges. Some were empty, some were packed with belongings and covered by a tarpaulin, others were turned on their sides and had fish, hides, entrails or clothes hanging from them to dry. The ground around some was covered in wood shavings where a man had sat working on new sledge parts. Behind the chums the land dropped away slightly before flattening out into a large, flat expanse of tundra which, dotted with a few medium-sized lakes, stretched away to a point where it rose back up into small hills on the horizon.

Familiar faces approached from the chums, people I had previously only ever seen in winter dressed in reindeer fur clothing so thick that it more than doubled their width, now dressed in lighter, ankle-length reindeer fur jackets and wellington boots. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged before we headed to the chums. One by one we opened the flap in the front of the chum, held it over our heads, crouched down and entered.

Much had changed in the chum’s appearance since winter. Then there had been floorboards which Radik had spent many hours every day carving from trees he had felled in the southern forest tundra where their camp had been located; now there was only naked tundra below our feet. Then there had been an ancient, cracked, rusty metal furnace in the centre of the chum; now an open fire crackled and smoked in its place, a bubbling, black cauldron of boiling water dangling above it from one of the horizontal poles that crossed the chum at head height from the entrance to the back. I commented on all this and asked where the floorboards and furnace were now.

“We left them behind near the Iuribei River [hundreds of miles to the south] on our way north,” he replied. Every year on their northward migration Radik’s parents, who during winter live with his brother Kostya in the nextdoor chum, put up a separate chum near the Iuribei and stay there fishing, drying or salting their catch to preserve it for the winter. On the brigade’s southward migration they pick up their parents again, who move back into Kostya’s chum.

“In summer when there’s no snow it’s harder to travel over the tundra,” Radik continued, “so we leave everything we possibly can there – thick winter clothing, the furnace, the chimney, floorboards, winter sledges.”

“You have winter and summer sledges?” I asked.

“Of course,” he replied, “didn’t you notice? All the sledges here are summer ones. The ones we travelled on in winter were much bigger.”

We sat down on the reindeer furs that lined the wall to the left of the chum’s entrance and Radik’s wife Sveta brought out the foot-tall table that was kept at the back of the chum. She placed it down in front of us, poured everyone tea and produced a bowl of glistening, dripping, raw fish. She then handed everyone a large knife and we began eating, picking up pieces of fish that could be up to a foot long, holding one end between our teeth and sawing off the desired amount with the knife.

“Where’s Kostya?” I asked.

“He’s on night duty,” Radik replied. “You’ll see him tomorrow when we move camp. Do you want to come with me on night duty some time?” he added, grinning.

“Maybe at the end of my stay, when I’m more used to walking and running through swamps in wellington boots…” I began.

“Don’t worry, I’m just kidding, you wouldn’t be able to do it,” Radik replied. “You have to stay with the reindeer for 24 hours, never sleeping, constantly running with them and making sure you don’t lose any.”

“Do you do it on your own or in pairs or what?”

“With 10,000 reindeer it’s not possible for one person. We do it in pairs or threes.”

“So there are eight men here… every third night you just don’t sleep?” I asked.

“That’s right,” he replied.

This time, as well as the usual pack of dogs that came and went incessantly, there were a young reindeer and a baby falcon in the chum.

“Is that one of your hand-raised reindeer?” I asked.

“Yes,” Radik replied. Hand-raised reindeer are ones that are orphaned while they are too young to fend for themselves. The Nenets take them into the chum and bring them up themselves and they are the only reindeer that will never be killed by the family that brought them up. Instead, when they are too old to walk, they are exchanged for another family’s hand-raised reindeer and each family kills the other’s animal.

“How many did you have this year?” I asked.

“Just this one,” Radik replied.

“And how long will she live in the chum?” I asked.

“As long as she wants,” Radik replied. “She’ll be free to move between the herd and the chum all her life. You knw, they’re the only reindeer that eat human food. Their favourite is bread.”

“And you recognise all your hand-raised deer even among 10,000?” I asked.

“Not just the hand-raised ones,” he replied, “we recognise every reindeer by its face and coat. Each family has its own sign that it cuts into its reindeer’s ears after calving but that’s really just a precautionary measure, because everyone knows whose deer are whose.”

“This one’s ill,” Nihowe said, pointing at the hand-raised deer on the other side of the chum. “If it dies we’ll want to cry.”

“What about the falcon?” I asked.

“I found him this morning and brought him into the chum,” Ngatena, Radik’s eighteen-year old and eldest son said.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s just interesting to bring up a bird,” Radik replied. “Ngatena’s always finding birds. Last year he brought in an owl but when it grew up it flew away. A few years ago when we herded with different people one family brought up a pair of gulls. Those gulls could fly away for days or even weeks but they’d always find the chums they were brought up in a fly back sooner or later. Another family once brought up a pair of wolves in their chum. They were really tame, like dogs, never bothered anyone at all, but when they grew up they started getting too interested in the reindeer and had to be shot.”

“One time,” Sveta said, suddenly bursting into laughter and remembering a funny story, “Radik was sitting outside. A falcon was chasing a ptarmigan [one of the Nenets’ favourite foods] and the ptarmigan flew right into Radik’s arms! But he was so shocked he just threw it away!” Sveta, who was kneeling, rocked backwards with laughter.

“Does the falcon have a name?” I asked.

“Not yet,” Ngatena said. “You think of a name for him.”

“Is it a he or a she?” I asked.

“We don’t know,” Ngatena replied.

“You haven’t checked?”

“We don’t know where his checker should be,” Ngatena answered. “What’s the word for this sort of bird in English?”

“Falcon,” I told him.

“Ok, then he’s called Falcin,” Ngatena declared.

“No, not Falcin, Falcon,” I said. But the name Falcin stuck until he was trampled by a reindeer on my last day at the encampment.

In the early hours of the morning we went to sleep under reindeer furs, the sun hanging above the horizon like a giant snooker ball of molten metal, the sky around it dripping with reds, purples, golds and oranges that left a fiery tint on the sparse yet claustrophobically low clouds of Yamal. It would be over two weeks before we had good weather again.

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