Probably the toughest journey a traveller can make in Europe by train is the trip 2000 miles northeast from Moscow to Russia’s biggest gas field, on the Yamal Peninsula in Arctic Siberia – especially in midwinter, when the temperature can plummet to below minus 50 degrees Centigrade!
On reaching the end of the passenger line, 48 hours or so after leaving Moscow, the train finally stops at Labytnangi station, on the west bank of the mighty Ob River. Across the river, more than a mile wide at this point, lies the city of Salekhard, capital of the so-called Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, which is home to Russia’s biggest gas fields. In summer the trip between the two cities is made by ferry boat, but in winter, when the river freezes solid for 6 months or more, the trip between Labytnangi and Salekhard is made by taxi across the ice.
No doubt as a result of the crucial strategic and economic significance of the huge gas fields in this region, with exports to Europe and elsewhere accounting for a large proportion of Russia’s GDP, access to this remote area is restricted. Tourists can visit the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, but must have a specific permit, which should be applied for around 3 months in advance. The independent traveller is likely to need assistance in applying for this visa via www.yamaltour.ru
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, which has many excellent and informative exhibits. The Arktika Hotel is recommended as a comfortable and convenient place to stay.
Directly outside the Museum, there is a small, colourful, daily market, which is well worth visiting. The traders are mostly from the native Nenet tribe who originally populated this region prior to the arrival of European Russians centuries ago. The Nenets survive by fishing and herding reindeer, migrating between the taiga forest to the south and the Arctic tundra of the Yamal Peninsula to the north, and in the market they sell their fish and reindeer meat. For the traveller, the best items to buy are beautiful traditional clothes and shoes made out of reindeer skin and fur.