Traveling to the Edge of the World
We arrived in early March with a bag of merino wool thermals, goose down-stuffed jackets and faux fur hats. I wore everything, and was still cold. I was so tempted to drag out my -40 degrees Celcius rated sleeping bag to wrap myself in it. But of course I only had too peek out from my ice crystals laden eyelashes to know that I have truly arrived to the “edge of the world” in the local language. And so I began my 10 days of living with one of the last remaining nomadic tribes in the world.
Nenets are reindeer herders who live in one of the toughest, most unforgiving environments on Earth. Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula lies entirely north of the Arctic Circle. During the short summer, it is a steamy swamp populated by voracious mosquitoes, but for most of the year it is frozen solid, with temperatures plummeting so low that tropical Sandra wouldn’t stand a chance.
As I bounced along frozen river ice in a Russian-made Trekol an all-terrain vehicle with tubeless tyres that is also amphibious (necessary in case a river’s frozen surface gives way), it suddenly dawned on me that I have not brought any vegan camping rations for the fear of offending my hosts? Did I pack enough wet wipes? Battery packs?! All these elemental questions race through my mind.
During the 8 hours bone-shattering ride, I have not seen anyone or anything but then suddenly, our destination emerges out of nothingness. 2 traditional nomad’s tepees or “chums” stood out like sore thumbs. And then I saw the reindeers, two thousand of them to be precise, spread out across the treeless white space, like ants.
Our hosts- grandpa, son and daughter-in-law promptly put us to work. The women are to chop wood, fetch ice, babysit and pack sledges while the men went in search of firewood. I think we got the shorter end of the stick.
Back in the chum with my measly energy bar, I was told
“If you don’t drink warm blood and eat fresh meat, you are doomed to die on the tundra”.
I tried not to think of my gnawing hunger as I slept on reindeer skins laid on ice, surrounded by herding dogs and a cell phone that has no reception. Too often, we feel like we can’t get by without the comforts of home, familiar foods, digital everything and the creature comforts of modern life. And yet here I am, in a chum, made of 60 hand-stitched reindeer skins in the emptiness of the Siberian tundra, with the only sounds coming from the click of the reindeer hooves outside, every moment feels unladen and smooth. And, at least for that moment, I can breathe.