Where: Salekhard, Arctic Circle
When: Late March
What Happens: Reindeer sledge races and traditional activities such as reindeer lassoing
Remember to Bring: Warm clothing, boots and a lasso
Where’s the Party?
The best time of year for the traveller to visit Salekhard is late March, in order to coincide with the Reindeer Herder festival. This takes place each year on the frozen river Ob by Salekhard, usually on the last weekend in March. Hundreds of Nenets travel from the surrounding taiga forest and tundra, in order to compete in reindeer sledge races and traditional activities such as reindeer lassoing.
The Nenets have retained an extraordinarily rich and well-preserved culture. They dress in furs and traditional hand-sewn clothes, live in reindeer-hide teepees and travel by reindeer-drawn sledges. The Nenets are famous throughout Arctic Russia for being the best reindeer herders with the biggest herds, the longest migration routes and the most well-preserved culture, religious beliefs and language. They are the guardians of a style of reindeer herding that is the last of its kind. Over the course of a yearly migration of a thousand kilometres they move gigantic herds of reindeer from their summer pastures in the north to winter pastures just south of the Arctic Circle. No-one knows for certain who is leading who – the reindeer or the people – but whoever is in charge, they have to battle one of the world’s harshest environments.
What’s It All About?
The Yamal peninsula in the Russian Arctic is home to 15,000 reindeer herders. Their centuries-old way of life is now under threat because of increased gas drilling in the region.
Nenets women play an important role in the herders’ migration across the region, as they steer reindeer to new pastures. Their work is strenuous, setting up camp in a different place every few days.
The area boasts the world’s biggest reindeer herds, with roughly 600,000 animals managed by 15,000 Nenets nomads. The conical tents, known as ‘chums’, are home to the reindeer herders and are made of wooden poles and reindeer hide. Whole families sleep inside and there is a wood burning stove in the middle.
The Yamal Peninsula is one of the least known, but most important, regions of the Russian Federation. In the language of the indigenous Nenets Yamal means ‘the end of the world’. With a territory around 1.5 times the size of France, the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District (YNAO) is located in the north of West Siberia, just northeast of the geographic border between Europe and Asia above the Arctic Circle. Today more than 10,000 nomads herd 300,000 domestic reindeer on the pastures of the Arctic tundra. Under those pastures are huge gas deposits holding almost a quarter of the world’s known reserves.
Salekhard has a small domestic airport which serves flights from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and other regional cities on a daily basis.
Direct train services are also avalible several times a week from both Saint Petersburg and Moscow, usually taking two nights. The railhead is across in the small city of Labytnangi, buses cover the last kilometers.
During summer, ferries sails along the Ob river from the more southern railhead at Priobye, a convenient option if arriving from central Russia.
Twice a year the Nenets of the Yamal Peninsula migrate 60km across the frozen Ob, a bay of the Arctic Ocean. This intense migration can take up to 24 hours. There is no pasture along the way meaning it’s a race to get to the other side before the reindeer become too weak from a lack of food. There will be no breaks for the herders, the animals or for you. At the end of the crossing we are invited to the annual reindeer herders’ festival in Yar Sale, which will offer a chance to witness some extraordinary events such as reindeer racing and traditional sports.
Where to Stay
There are lots of companies offering experiences to join the Nenet on the crossing by completely immerse into their lives during the migration. This means dressing, eating and travelling like a local and even be kitted out with a Nenet traditional suit and boots.
The Arktika Hotel (www.arctica.salekhard.ru) is recommended as a comfortable and convenient place to stay.
Outside, people are moving towards the market place. Indigenous peoples from the whole area have come here with their handmade crafts. State farms have brought reindeer meat and sausages, but the longest line is in front of the saleswomen from Uzbekistan with beautiful textiles, beads and lace that are enormously popular among the attendees.
Salekhard, although it appears in very few guidebooks to Russia, is certainly an interesting and attractive place to visit. Highlights include a monument marking the exact line of the Arctic Circle, which runs directly through the city, and the I.S. Shemanovsky Regional Museum (details via www.russianmuseums.info), which has many excellent and informative exhibits.
For an excellent photo story see this story