Text by Oleg Doktorov
Photo courtesy Russia- Discovery
Chukotka has been in my dreams for two weeks now, and I keep checking the Chukotka daily weather forecast. A light draft has given me a cold, and I’m pumped full of medicines, with a compress around my neck, asking myself: how come that in Chukotka, when I was outdoors in snowstorms, in Arctic winds, I walked barefoot and slept in the cold, and I was fine?
Chukotka, a land the size of Bulgaria, lies at the extreme north-east of Russia, between two oceans: the Pacific and the Arctic. For two weeks, when Europeans were getting into their beds, we were mounting snowmobiles and heading for our next destination in Chukotka.
Why did I go there? I wanted to experience unexplored land, to verify the little information available about this place and then share the truth. I wanted to meet people different from us - indigenous peoples of the North. And, I anticipated that the return home would be so good, and that life would feel so different after such a trip.
It did. I laughed at the requests of my numerous friends to tell them what I thought of the place “in a couple of words”. I made friends with Chukchi and Eskimos, I saw a polar bear, I did dog- and reindeer-sledding, I went 1500 km by snowmobile, I stayed overnight in a Yaranga, I tasted whale meat and caught a crab. I was on the shores of two oceans and I feel different now. What else? I brought a small Chukchi hat of deer fur to add to my collection of traditional head-dresses.
Anadyr and bone-carving
We arrived in the capital of Chukotka - Anadyr which has a population of 12,000 and two traffic lights. The buildings are multi-coloured; they say it is easier to live throughout long winters if they are brightly coloured.
We visited a local bone-carving master. Our visit interrupted his practice session with his home-made guitar. The most famous bone-carving masters live in Uelen, but the art is alive everywhere in Chukotka. All masters seem to know each other and jealously discuss the others’ success. Bone-carvings are in the form of mini-sculptures of walruses, bears, dogs, Chukchi and Eskimos during hunting. Real masterpieces cost a fortune, but watching the masters at work in their workshops is something else.
What is the Chukotkan tundra like in winter? Vile, malicious? Neither, just not to be joked with. The locals recalled a lot of horror stories of frostbite and the death of careless people. The tundra is immense, endless! White silence, real snowstorms, occasional wildlife. Majestic and beautiful is the tundra. I dream now of snowmobiling, when you are going towards the horizon for hours - no settlements, no people, only mountains and huge polar hares. Even the animals are impressive in the tundra. I could not understand if the white hares were that fat or just seemed to be so because of their thick fur, but I was struck by the speed of these dazzling white balls.
Eskimos of Uelkal
We met our first Eskimos 200km away from Anadyr; sea mammal hunters of the Uelkal settlement, where 250 people live. They were all very friendly and hospitable. In summer, they traditionally hunt whales and walruses; in winter they wait for the summer and fish. Eskimos children are like any children - curious, funny, merry and care-free.
The Junction Point
We passed the junction of the Arctic Circle and the 180th meridian, the line where the dates change. It is just a point on the map, but I lovеd searching, with a GPS in hand, for this point in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, on a wonderful day, when a snowstorm was stirring, and bizarre light was sneaking through the clouds. We came to the conclusion that actually Chukotka is the land of the rising sun, the land where day breaks.
Reindeer and Chukchi yarangas
That’s what I am – a reindeer! - I was saying to myself whilst trying to steal up to a 2,500-head deer herd unnoticed. At this time of the year, reindeer shed their antlers, and some males had gaping holes. Others were shaking the heads trying to get rid of the horns.
In winter as well as in summer, yarangas are open and cold, the walls only offering protection from the wind. The small fire in the center of my yaranga created a lot of smoke that made my eyes sting. But it felt so good to be warmed by hot tea, and lie on deer skins next to the fire, picking into strips of boiled deer meat, which is practically the only meal available for the herders. At night we retreated to the only warm place in yaranga - “pologs”, small compartments of reindeer skins, heated by candles and breath.
Everything was interesting and new. A grandfather is very proud of his grandchildren who won a reindeer competition among the children of the herders. A grandmother chops ice for boiling the water for tea. Children play between the yarangas. The women seemed carried away by studying a Playboy magazine that was in our luggage. We found no traces of “civilization”. It was hard to believe that you could spend your whole life this way.
Dogs and the Arctic Ocean
I plan to come back here, to this settlement of Chukchi seamammal hunters, in autumn, when the walruses come ashore. This time, in winter, Vankarem became for us, our destination, the extreme point of our travel, on the shores of the Chukchi Sea, the Arctic Ocean.
We saw a polar bear! He came to Vankarem, sniffed the air and wandered off towards the “feeding spot” arranged by the locals a few kilometers away. I ventured outside in the early morning to take a photo of the bear, and a huge Chukotkan dog suddenly jumped at me, to lick my face! When I asked our host, Sergei Kavry, wnythe dog didn’t bite me, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “But you smell like my house.”
Dog-sledding was interesting. Dogs don’t like standing on the spot while harnessed in a team. Every dog knows its name and role; the leaders have strong characters. Mushing is done to loud throat cries in the Chukchi language
In the evening, we had a farewell celebration, and our Chukchi host slowly and with visible pleasure sliced for us mantak, a traditional Chukchi delicacy, whale lard with skin.
One of my old friends who is stuck in a mid-life crisis at 40 years says he has got everything, and nothing interests him. He complains about the injustice of the world, and is envious of me that “I have my own way out” – adventures. They are a part of my life, and this part is becoming more exciting every year. I look forward to holidays, anticipate them, and arrange them. My advice to everybody is to make an amazing holiday for yourself - travel to Chukotka. There is so much to see and to do!
Chukotka used to be a closed zone in USSR, you still need a permit now which takes a travel company 50 days to get, so a decision to go to Chukotka should be taken well in advance. The Moscow-Anadyr flight lasts for 8 hrs and costs around EUR 1000 for a return ticket.