|2005-03-30 - A visit to nomadic Chukchi...
A visit to nomadic Chukchi reindeer herders on the tundra
30 Mar, 05 - 17:44
GPS-pos: N68°43´ | E158°42´ | Alt: 9 M
30th of March today, Wednesday, and the unpleasant cold have returned and keeps Kolymskaya in its grip. Temperature is -33°F daytime, which is awfully cold I have to say. We won´t leave the settlement until the temperature rises quite a bit, since we feel that we just can´t cope with another bunch of uncomfortably cold nights in the tent, with temperatures below -40°F. We´re physically and mentally run down right now. The fact is, we´ve been pretty much freezing cold since the 25th of September 2004.
´´We women get up before everyone else in the morning and we go to bed last of all´´ ,Olga tells us in her powerful voice, ´´we hardly ever take a rest.´´
Olga´s a legend in the area. She´s the only Chukchi woman who´s been in charge of all the reindeer herders in this giant area. She was also part of the local political leadership during the Soviet Era. She smokes ceaselessly, looks physically very strong, she smiles with a toothless grin and she runs the yurangi (tent made of reindeer skins) like a dictator.
´´Life is very good on the tundra´´ ,she continues, ´´it is very rich. You´re close to nature, the air is always crisp and clean and the reindeer gives us everything we need to survive.´´
During the time Olga tells us this, she´s fully occupied with attempts to dress her grandchildren, who´s roaming around the yurangi. An experience I will never forget. When she´s caught the youngest one, she grabs a well used Pamper, where white lichen has taken the place of cotton, and places the child on top of it. Sterile, ecological and soft. Then she dons the child with a full body outfit, beautifully black and white reindeer skins, which covers every part of the body except the face and bottom. There´s no problem at all for the child to take care of the necessities. There´s a piece of fur which you close and open easily. The outfit is made up of two parts of fur, where one is facing the body and the other one the cold. That´s all, no more clothes. Once the child is ready, it is no easy thing to move around. It looks more like a penguin stuttering about.
´´I hope you will tell people what a healthy life this is´´ , Tatiana remarks at the same time as she´s pulling out the tasty marrow from a collection of freshly slaughtered bones, ´´I have noticed that you neither smoke or drink and you are very strong. The same applies to our men.´´
Tatiana is tundra yugahir, which differs in dialect and customs from the taiga yugahirs we came across in Nelimnoye and Zyryanka. She´s worried that we will write the truth that all reindeer herders smoke incessantly and don´t say no to a load of vodka. People here just love the tundra life. They think it is far superior to all other ways of living. They´re easy to like. They are very proud, generous, spontaneous and relaxed. They all seem to call themselves Chukchi, even if they´re a mixture of Chukchi, Even, Yakut and Yugahirs.
´´It doesn´t take us more than 20-25 minutes to pitch the yurangi´´ ,our friend from Kolymskaya, Vera, explains whilst she´s preparing the intestine soup we´ll eat during the celebrations of the God of Fire, ´´and it is good to use for many years. This particular one is on it´s seventh year.´´
It´s a fantastic creation. The yurangi. It´s made of about 40 reindeer skins and stitched together with veins from the same impressive animal. It´s not only beautiful, it is also very functional. A wood stove in the middle holds the tent up together with branches from the birch and there´s plenty of fresh air coming in from a decent whole in the roof. Before you enter the yurangi, you have to clean off all the snow from your boots and clothes, because the ground is covered with skins.
´´I´d like to show how to use a lasso´´ ,Nikolai tells me when he comes over to greet me, ´´I have a lot of respect for both of you, who have skied such a distance and come all this way to see how we live. And understand our simple life.´´
Nikolai´s one of the youngest herders we´ve come across. Only 25. He say´s the young of today can´t handle the hard work which is expected out here on the tundra. That´s the reason there´s so few youngsters.
´´I just love summers myself´´ ,he says, ´´and I look forward to us moving north in a couple of days. Up to the sea and a nice rest over the summer.´´
´´Nikolai´´ ,I ask him, ´´I´ve read that you tundra Chukchi know how to orienteer and that you use the stars to find your way over the tundra in the winter. But, what do you do, when there´s a complete whiteout and you have no visibility at all?´´
´´We just think back from which direction the last wind came´´ , he explains slightly surprised at my dumb question, ´´and then you see what direction the sastrugi (hard packed snow dunes of all sizes) lies and after that you know.´´
It took us 7 hours, return, travelling by snowmobile over the tundra, to reach the camp. A spectacular experience in itself. A bit of a whiteout with hardly any horizon and knowing the difficulties of orienteering, it was even hard for us to be able to tell the direction of the sastrugi. (A neighbour just knocked on the door and gave us at least 3 kg:s of reindeer meat. Such is people here!) And then, suddenly, in all this whiteout, something black appears out of nowhere. A reindeer camp. Snowmobiles, reindeers, oil drums, diesel generators and fireplaces everywhere. And, suddenly, in the midst of it all, our ravens Hugin and Munin shows up. At the same time as we start celebrating and offering to the God of Fire and drinking the intestine soup. I really hope our film camera didn´t stop working, for the rest of the trip, due to their arrival. We´re in deep trouble than. Have our luck changed?