written by Tyler Merkel (based on notes and interviews with Simon Straetker)
Siberia: A far off place where permafrost enveloped landscapes never melt, polar bears and reindeer roam the tundra, and cars on the street never turn off their engines (unless you don’t mind restarting it in the spring).
This Spring, Greenpeace photographer Markus Mauthe and I travelled to the region of Chukotka, which is located at the northernmost tip of Russia, deep in the arctic circle. We would visit Russia’s ancient nation of reindeer herders: the nomadic Chukchi.
Markus and I were visiting the Chukchi people for the final chapter of our documentary entitled “Nature and Tribes”, which has taken us to the obscure corners of the planet. To bring you up to speed, in the past two years we’ve marched across South Sudan’s dusty plains, dove in Indonesia’s teeming aquamarine waters, and waded through the thick, muddy water of the Amazon river-- all to visit the most remote communities that are fading out in our increasingly globalized world.
The goal of the film is this: to portray, photograph, and make real the rapid changes that climate change and other, sometimes unforeseen influences of the modern world have on these indigenous communities.
But the last chapter in our trip almost didn’t happen. In far northern Siberia our would-be guide, Nikolai, dropped the ball and happily told authorities that we were filmmakers before we had even entered the country. That was a fact we were trying to keep under wraps, because Russian officials get pretty antsy when you venture into their territory with a car load of camera gear.
So...the Russian government promptly revoked our travel permission and said we couldn’t board the plane, and we shouldn’t even bother showing up. Too late - I was already on my way to the Frankfurt airport, my bags stuffed with every down jacket I could get my hands on. Things looked bleak.
So we rearranged our travel schedule, went to Indonesia instead, and our German friend Steffen Graupner helped us to sort out some new travel plans (aka convince the government we were definitely not trying to film some kind of Putin exposé). He quickly found us a more discrete guide - Michael Rezyapkin. But there were strict new stipulations to our new travel permissions. First, we wouldn’t be allowed to pilot our snowmobiles. Second, our five week deep dive into Siberia would now be a two week trip. Last of all we couldn’t tell anyone, especially immigration, that we were filmmakers.
Bribes and Lies
So what happened first? Almost immediately after landing in Moscow, Russian immigration agents found out we were filmmakers. Of course.
We stubbornly insisted we were tourists, but they weren’t falling for it. We stared at each other for a good minute. Then we were led into a bare white room scrubbed clean of dirt and hope, and we argued for two hours. Finally the officials demanded a large cut of our funds. We countered that we would go home rather than cough up the bribe money. Markus was sullen, and I was mentally packing my bags. We had reached an impasse.
But luck was on our side. After another long, silent staredown, one of the officers just let us go, as if it wasn’t a big deal, like we had chosen to be interrogated. I stumbled out of the room, dazed. I think they had been messing with us for fun. I just hoped that getting out of the country would be a little easier than getting in. If they let us out at all!
Welcome to Chukotka
After all that trouble we skipped town as fast as we could and hopped onto a flight bound for Anadyr, the capital city of the Chukotka region and the easternmost town in Russia. This peculiar flight from Moscow to Anadyr lasted a gruelling 9 hours, which incidentally made it the third longest domestic flight in the world. The flight was packed, which was quite surprising, since the Chukotka region barely holds 40,000 people.
When we dipped down below the clouds the Anadyr airport finally came into sight. It was a barren grey collection of buildings with aqua blue skylights, a dash of color against the endless tundra. It was already springtime, and temperatures were at a sweltering -5 °C. Thick blades of green grass were popping through the ice and snow.
When we touched down, our plane was the only aircraft on the slick, icy tarmac, save for 5 military helicopters tucked into a corner.
Michael, our chummy new guide and translator was waiting for us outside, along with Maxim Rozgon (Max) and Alexander Makarov (Sascha) who would pilot the snowmobiles. The airport was located across a river that runs through the heart of Anadyr. So before we crossed over we decided to explore an abandoned military town on the edge of the city. We wandered through the dilapidated Soviet barracks, tool sheds and stores. Every inch of the rooms were covered in snow and ice, from the floor to ceiling. When we dug through the powder we uncovered broken glass, warped silverware and a battered roll of film.
After that we continued toward town. Anadyr is on a bay and is separated from the airport by a large river with no bridges, so we drove across the river’s icy surface which was growing slushy with the spring heat. I wondered how many days we had before our exit melted away?
At this stage in our trip our plan was this: make a mad dash for the polar sea and hopefully meet the famed reindeer herders somewhere along the way.
But before we embarked we had to test out our snowmobiles in Anadyr. So we headed to the frozen (but melting) lake. We had three snowmobiles in total. Michael got his own, I rode with Max, and Markus shared a mobile with Sasha.
In the first five minutes Michael fell over and Max (the de facto snow mobile expert) was zipping around at 40 mph+, launching off small snow banks, sliding across thick blue ice, and bursting through banks of powder.
After we thoroughly tested our transport, we spotted some ice fishermen on the far edge of the frozen lake. We rode over and saw that about 100 people were out there, with twenty bulbous 4x4 cars congregated on the ice. The ice looked more like swiss cheese for all the fishing holes augured into it. Michael matter of factly told us that everyone in the group was fishing for fun, as it is third most exciting thing to do, after the cinema and sauna.
But these hobbyists catch quite a haul, about 100 in a day. I gave it a go for an optimistic 10 minutes and didn’t catch anything. So instead, I munched on fried fish with a fellow angler who was having much better luck. It was 10:30, the sun was weakening, and the temps dropped to -5, so I decided to head home and put on five more layers of down. We would be rising with sun in 3 ½ hours.
Okay, so a sunrise departure was ambitious. We spent two hours packing our sleds, which were a winsome mess of rope and blankets and gasoline. Our excursion started out on our practice lake.
After 20 kilometers we encountered the first bump on the road; Michael’s snow mobile’s electronic chip had already malfunctioned about eight times, so it was decided that Max would rush back to Anadyr and swap out the chip while we continue forward. It would have been a fine plan, if any of the rest of us had even the slightest sense of direction.
When Max caught up with us later that afternoon we had spent a total of four hours driving in wonky circles. Even worse, in a 10 hour span we had only travelled 30 kilometers total. After reuniting with Max, we raced through the next 130 kilometers, through dense clouds of migrating fog, past craggy mountains. When we arrived in Uelkal that night everything I had was soaked to its core.
The next day we rode 100 kilometers, and I even got to take over and drive for a good chunk of it (I mean, we were in Siberian tundra, who’s around to tattle)?
Along the way we ran into some locals who were making our exact journey via tank. They took a week to traverse what we had done in one day.
Amguema, Gulags and Vodka
On our way to Amguema we crossed over the polar circle and took part in a proud Russian tradition: drinking vodka. But honestly - our Russian comrades always found some reason to drink.
Along our ride we spotted a few abandoned gulags, half buried in the snow. I would later learn that in 1779 the Russian government started a long, fruitless war against the Chukchi. But by the 1760’s the Russians had given up, and decided to end the war if the Chukchi agreed to not attack settlers anymore and submit some furs in lieu of taxes. But in the 1930’s the Chukchi were forcibly relocated to state-supervised economic collectives (socialist settlements where work and compensation were completely controlled by the government).
Also during this time, millions of Soviet citizens were arrested and deposited into newly constructed gulags in the heart of Chukchi territory. These labor camps didn’t just hold proper criminals like thieves and murderers, but also political prisoners (which included real opponents of the Soviet regime but also innocents who were picked up by the Secret Soviet police for some truly absurd reasons). For example, during the Stalin era, if you arrived late to work three times, you could spend three years in prison. Or if you cracked an innocent joke about a Communist Party Official you could go to be picking tundra berries for 25 years.
As we looked down at the dismal sight, Michael told us that it often wasn’t the cold temperatures alone that had killed the prisoners there. What really killed people were the unpredictable changes in temperature. A prisoner could survive -40 if he or she had enough time to acclimate to it. But if -10 dropped to -40 overnight, that’s when people froze. We rolled into town sometime around 9 p.m.
Amguema isn’t like the other towns-- it’s where all the reindeer herders’ children live. So while their parents are guiding the reindeer herds through the tundra, the children are at this town’s boarding school getting a modern education, browsing the internet, watching blockbusters, play video games.
Some of these children will never join their parents out in the frosty frontier. They can go to a university, become a doctor, or join the Russian army. They are presented with a world of options, and see little reason to embrace a simple nomad’s lifestyle.
The Reindeer Herder’s Boarding School
The principal of the school gave us a tour. Everything looked quite new (which you don’t expect for a school at the end of the world). The books weren’t dog-eared and the chemistry equipment was rather shiny.
What surprised us was that there was a classroom devoted entirely to Chukchi culture. The principal told us that these kids only know Russian, so they have to learn their parents’ language as a secondary language. The classroom was littered with miniature figurines of sleds, reindeers and fish, each with a small placard next to it with its Chukchi name.
But when we visited the classroom no one was inside. We found the missing students in the dim computer lab playing Roller Coaster Tycoon and FIFA 2014. But things got a little stranger from there. OK, a lot stranger. We found other students in the gym. Some were marching in army formation, others were in the corner were dismantling and reassembling AK-47’s at lightning speed. We just stood there. Dumbstruck. I thought to myself “what the hell?”
The principal leaned over and told us the students were doing this for the local scout club. He said there is a AK-47 dismantling contest later this year, which is sort of like Siberia’s version of a soccer tournament or talent show.
After this we were informed that the Fifth Brigade (a group of Chukchi herders and their reindeer) had set up camp in a snow plain just 60 kilometers north. In a rush, we hopped on our snowmobiles and drove for two hours into the fog.
Saying Yetti (hello) Reindeer Herders!
For the most part there are two vocations for the Chukchi peoples: whaling and reindeer herding. They differentiate themselves correspondingly as Chauchu (the Chukchi word for rich in reindeer) and Anqallyt, Maritime Chukchi (the sea people).
The Maritime Chukchi live in fixed, semi subterranean villages but the reindeer Chukchi have lived as nomads, flitting from one spot to the next, travelling by sleds pulled by deer, constantly chasing edible foliage.
When we met the first family of the 5th Brigade, spring had reached their valley and there were only a few pockets of ice. The large winter yaranga (a tent composed of heavy reindeer furs and long wooden beams) was packed away. Outside of the breezy tent, Michael introduced us to Vladimir and Rimma Rultynkeu, and their teenage son Artem, who were gathered around some steaming tea. Everyone was wearing their modern winter clothes (dark wool coats and canvas pants), since fur was exclusively worn in the dead of winter.
It seemed that everyone was in Chukchi summer vacation mode, happy and warm. But Markus and I panicked a little, because we needed shots of the brigade in the icy tundra and braving freezing temperatures. But for the time being we put aside our shoot list and sat down to talk with our new comrades.
This 5th Brigade had lived out in the tundra for every single winter of their lives, just like the rest of the hardcore Chukchi herders. We chatted for a few hours, and they told us about their migration. In a span of eight years, they’ll move their little encampment every month. On this day, eight years from now they’ll come back to this area when the grass has fully regenerated.
We also were told that household duties were gendered. Everyday, the Chukchi men watch their reindeer nibble on long grass and scare off the hungry bears and wolves that edge toward their flock. Meanwhile the women’s work included cleaning and repairing the yaranga (the traditional tent-like house), cooking food, sewing and stitching clothing, and fashioning floppy reindeer skins into respectable blankets.
We explored their encampment, but this troupe of Chukchi didn’t have their full tent set up-- just an improvised summer tent with the traditional polog inside.
After visiting for a few hours and sipping copious amount of tea, we headed 10 kilometers east to visit the second family in the 5th Brigade, who were looking after the male reindeer (they had to be separated since the ladies were giving birth).
Winter was still in full swing at the second family’s encampment. Everyone was wrapped up in their reindeer furs and there was a thick layer of snow on the ground.
We introduced ourselves to Valerie and his wife, snapped some photos of the camp and pulled some sleds around. I flew my drone for a few minutes before the propellers started to freeze midair.
What surprised me through all this was how timid the reindeer were. Both male and female reindeer have antlers, so from a distance I expected the them to be brazen. Instead they were as skittish as rabbits and always cleared a path for us as we meandered through the flock.
After all the filming, the family invited us into the polog (heart of the tent) to eat, huddle by the heater, and eventually sleep. It was quite cozy and we had almost drifted off when Michael burst through the furry entrance yelling, “northern lights, northern lights!” We rolled out of bed and stumbled back out into the cold to look at the sky that was streaked with a ethereal neon green.
After the excitement we scarfed down some boiled reindeer meat soup and laid down on the polog's furry floor, still fully clothed in our down jackets. I fell immediately into a dreamless sleep.
During breakfast the next morning back at Vladimir’s place, he shared a few facts: this brigade (an independent economic unit of Chukchi nomads) consisted of two families. In this case, that meant five people total. We also discovered that until seventy years ago most Chukchi had only one given name. As it was, the Chukchi only started conjuring up surnames after the government pressured people to adopt a family name (based on the father's given name) in order make school registrations and other bureaucratic paperwork easier.
We also convinced them to tell us a few stories. Vladimir told us about his grandfather, who used to be one of the wealthiest Chukchi, with over 25,000 reindeer. But he didn’t inherit his fortune; he stole it. How? By eloping with the daughter of the wealthiest family in the whole region. After exchanging some speedy vows, they snuck back into camp together and took her whole family’s herd.
Apparently, the wronged family tried to chase them down to get the herd back, but could they never catch up. A few generations later, Vladimir’s family looks over 4,000 reindeer-- a mere fragment of their once colossal flock. But they don’t actually own them. Rather the state currently permits them to subsist off the land, free from taxation (and sometimes they even throw in a few snowmobiles). Additionally, the Chukchi people get to explore beyond Siberia, since the government gifts each Chukchi native a free flight once a year to any place in Russia or sometimes even abroad. Who would have thought that the Chukchi’s socialist, reindeer based economy would be one of the few living relics of Communist times?
The father, Vladimir, had travelled all over, as far as St. Petersburg. At the age of 56, out of an initial eleven siblings he only had one living sister. Living conditions are quite harsh out in the Tundra, he lamented, and even said that he lost his brother and father in a single day when they were crossing a frozen river and the ice below them crumbled. He quickly said that the others got lost wandering into storms or were killed by polar bears.
After our long conversation with Vladimir, we packed our sleds and sped 5 hours north towards the city of Vankarem.
Siberia is Melting
The ride to Vankarem was uneventful, and when we arrived we immediately sat down for dinner across from Sergey Kavry, the head Polar Bear researcher of the region. Sergey had been working with the WWF as an environmental coordinator since 2006, and was tasked with protecting the polar bears and walruses. Daily duties included scaring off poachers and searching for polar bear ice dens.
As you probably know, global warming and greenhouse gases are melting arctic ice at a rapid rate. If the global community doesn’t drastically reduce greenhouse gas pollution, polar bears won’t have their ice- sea hunting habitat (and thus no access to seals, which make up the majority of their diet).
But travelling up here on slush that used to be ancient permafrost, you don’t need to look at facts and figures to know that this environment is being meddled with. But why is permafrost melting exactly a bad thing? Well, permafrost is perpetually frozen soil, and occurs mostly in high latitudes. It covers 24% of the Northern Hemisphere, but when that ancient ice turns into slush, it causes erosion, landslides and the disappearance of lakes. But the big twist is that permafrost has always stored massive amounts of carbon. So if all of that is released into the atmosphere, our blanket of heat-trapping gases will only grow thicker, and expedite the warming of our delicate planet.
Additionally, this mass melting has some truly strange and terrifying consequences for the Chukchi people. For centuries in Russia, there were nasty outbreaks of Anthrax, even in the far reaches of Siberia. Luckily, those dead bodies were entombed by the permafrost. But now that is all melting, exposing perfectly preserved Anthrax riddled bodies to wandering reindeer, who in turn expose their herders to the deadly smallpox causing agent (that we don’t have a vaccine for because it is a much older version of the disease). Most importantly, this isn’t a “what if” scenario. It’s already happening. Quite recently a five year old child died and 13 people became ill when they unknowingly came into contact with a thawed Anthrax-infected reindeer. It’s madness right?
Searching for Polar Bears
We had dinner in Sergey’s apartment, which was packed with dusty books and trinkets from far corners of the world. His wife gave us a massive plate of steaming fried potatoes and large bowls of fish and meat soup, along with a cup of hardy honeyberries from the tundra.
Over our steaming dinner we made plans to tag along on his patrol the next day.
At this point in the trip we were quite sleep deprived. As filmmakers we always want to be shooting in the good light at sunrise and sunset, but up in Siberia at this time of year the sun sets at 10:30 p.m., and rose just four hours later. Which meant that, for the past few days, we had been sleeping only a few hours a night. Markus and I had developed a kind of casual narcolepsy, falling asleep whenever and wherever we possibly could.
Finding the Brigades wasn’t as easy as it sounded either. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reindeer based economics system dwindled and suffered. Without certain subsidies, there are now only 65 Brigades, which is just a fraction of the 220 that roamed the tundra before the late 80’s.
By some stroke of luck, the next day, right before we showed up at Sergey’s apartment, we heard that the 7th Brigade was nearby. We desperately wanted to visit. The only problem was that we only had permission to chat with the 5th and 6th Brigades. In order to make this trip possible in the first place we had to adopt a strict travel schedule by request of the Russian government.
Chukotka is a border region, which means there is an obligatory checkpoint in every town. Whenever we came up the next checkpoint, Michael had to report exactly what we were doing, where we were going and who we were going to chat with (whether that was a Chukchi herder or the owner of a liquor mart). Also, we were probably two of 10 foreigners on the entire Chukotka Peninsula, so slipping under the radar with other tourists wasn’t an option.
The Vankarem officers, like all the other guards from the previous towns, would check up on us a lot, and make sure we hadn’t been fibbing about our destinations or meetings, which hadn’t been an issue until now. I know what you are thinking-- yes, we could have just asked to change our itinerary. Yet, after spearheading so many expeditions and tours, Michael felt some unsavory vibes and was sure that they would say no.
So Michael and Sergey came up with a plan: we would go poking around some polar cave dens and “accidentally” stumble across the 7th Brigade's camp.
We rode our snow mobiles deeper into the tundra and started searching for polar bear ice dens. How? Well the brave, and insanely astute Sergey pulled out a long wooden pole and started gleefully sticking it deep through the ice, seeing if it poked through into a cave (or a bear). Luckily we didn’t disturb any napping polar bears, since according to Sergey, most of them had already stopped hibernating.
After poking our way through the tundra, Sergey discovered two dens, each about 5 meters wide and 4 meters deep, both of which tapered to a point at the end. I crawled into both and was surprised by how warm they were. The glaciologist in me was geeking out over the magical deep blue veins in the cave.
After crawling around some ice dens for a few hours, we drove our snowmobiles to the very edge of coast and saw the ocean splashing over icicles and snow that had formed on boulders that dotted the beach. I was beginning to think we had run out of luck, but then in the distance we spotted a massive herd of reindeer on a snowy, featureless hill.
We ran over as fast as we could. The Chukchi of the 7th Brigade had their full yaranga assembled, which was emitting a thick golden light from within. Yarangas consist of two layers of tents (an outer tent and inner tent called a polog) and are structured like a rounded out teepee. The tent poles the Chukchi use are scavenged lightweight logs that wash up on the icy beach, since trees don’t grow in the tundra. They’re strung together with a patchwork of deer skins and knobby rope; it takes about 50 deer skins to make a medium sized yaranga. There was also a group of ten fluffy, wolf-like dogs chained up, all of which were barking quite viciously. After a few deep breathes, we popped into the tent to chat with the family (regrettably, we never caught their names).
Due to the abysmal conditions of the tundra, hospitality and generosity is an unceasing gesture. Multiple people told us that it is essentially forbidden to refuse anyone, even a stranger, shelter and food. Stinginess is almost a crime. Thus, Chukchi communities are always going to provide for everyone: orphans, widows, the poor and even wonderstruck German wanderers.
Everyone’s body heat had made the Yaranga quite toasty, which was impressive since the temperature outside was hovering at -20 degrees. But we didn’t get to stay very long. Our time was running short, and our funds even shorter. We retreated back to Vankarem during the blue hour of 10 o’clock.
When Cultures Clash
The next day we pored over the shots we had gotten so far and realized that we didn’t have what we needed. Uh-oh.
We decided that we had to visit the 7th Brigade again. But the trouble was, everyone wanted much more money for this extra excursion. Sergey, our drivers, and even the 7th Brigade needed pay and fuel money to make the trip worth their while. Our budget was already far overdrawn. But we had come to the end of the world to get these shots, and we couldn’t give up now.
So we set out on the same path. Along our journey Sergey was poking the ground again for more caves, and he stumbled into one with a mother and two cubs.
Then we met back up with the 7th Brigade family, chatted some more and began to get our shots. What we needed were shots of people in traditional Chukchi clothing. So we grabbed a few willing herders. But halfway throughout the shoot the mother of the family told us she didn’t want to be photographed, so we stopped.
It threw a wrench in our shoot, and presented a moral quandary that I think every documentarian faces at some point or another. We are photographers. We need shots. We need to see into the lives of people. It’s what we do for a living, and we do it for a good cause. By documenting the lives of remote peoples, we work to portray the beautiful diversity of human cultures. We want to show the world that it is important to preserve these cultures, that their difference is valuable.
We see it as a tragedy that the Chukchi language is dying out, that the children no longer speak their parent’s tongue, that climate change and social pressures are endangering their way of life.
But on the other hand, what makes us think we have the right to pry into someone else’s life? What makes us think we have the ability to capture an entire culture in a fleeting documentary? This is a nomadic family. They were not our tour guides. This woman was smart. Would you trust some foreigner who had only spent a few days in your country to accurately photograph you, and define you, and present you to the rest of the world?
All a documentarian can do, then, is approach his subject as any traveler would--with respect and love, looking to make genuine connections with other human beings. Only then can the camera come out--and only if these people truly want to share their lives and their family with the rest of the world.
But let’s be honest - none of this would have been remotely possible without Michael’s anthropological prowess. He has been researched Chukchi culture for decades, studied the language day and night, and accompanied the Brigades on innumerable migrations. He managed to get us the shots we needed, obey (or skirt around) the local legal limits and make the locals happy while doing so. It is an impossibly hard job.
After that final meeting with the 7th Brigade we started our long journey home, which was kicked off with a dense, icy blizzard. To avoid the brunt of the storm Michael took us deep inland, through the heart of polar bear country. Our guides weren’t too concerned (or at least they pretended not to be for our sake). We had single weapon in case we ran into a hungry polar bear - a modified kalashnikov slung around Michael’s shoulder.
Luckily, he never had to use it. But the trip was not without incident. At one point my snowmobile lost traction started to skid sideways across the ice. Everything was in slow-motion. Max and I looked at each other and knew we had to bail. We jumped off just as the machine flipped, sliding upside-down along the ice.
There was no damage, but we decided that was enough adventure for one day. So for the first time in our turbulent excursion, we set up our own tents. We pitched our tents in the billowy snow, unfurled our insanely thick sleeping bags and capped off the night with a bucket of steamy risotto.
I crawled into my tent, curled up in my warm Yeti sleeping bag and was shocked to find that I was immediately warm and cozy, despite the fact that it was -15 outside and quickly dropping. I was asleep before I knew it.
The next morning was quite pleasant, except for the fact that I nearly blew up our campsite. At the time I didn’t know how to work our fuel stove. So while I was whipping up some breakfast I let too much fuel out, unknowingly struck the flint, and lit everything around me on fire (which was luckily just snow). My comrades heard the commotion and quickly found me with a stark ring of melted snow around me, with a bit of charred grass poking out. But later on I got to redeem myself when I was put on dish duty, and boiled a few buckets of snow to scrap off the bits of food that were thoroughly cemented to each plate.
On our 10th day in the tundra we finally got to witness a jaw-dropping phenomena: the Chukchi reindeer’s monthly mass migration. After a long trudge through some thick morning fog we met back up with the 5th Brigade.
The migration goes like this: the family spends two hours packing away their pots, generator, gasoline, soups, dried meat, furs, and garments. They tear down their tent in layers, like how you would peel an onion. As they disassembled the yaranga, I saw all the thick dark layers of reindeer fur, the chiseled wooden supports and the waxy outer layer rainproof fabric.
After this, they load all their belongings onto 10 sleds that have distinct cargo. One sled is stacked high with winter coats and cozy clothes while another carries all the reindeer meat and dried tea.
And then they must lasso and wrangle reindeer to pull each sled.
At that point we hadn’t seen the male reindeer yet. Valerie and his son hopped on their snowmobiles to get them, telling us that the reindeer were grazing on the other side of ridge. So we waited. After a while I saw everyone in camp turn and look to the eastern horizon. I followed their gaze and almost couldn’t believe what I saw--a massive collection of these shadowy figures with tall, tangled horns. They were cresting the white horizon and running right toward us.
Immediately, Markus and I fished our heavy telephoto lenses out of our bags and started sprinting towards the top of a ridge right beside our valley. Valerie and his son were zooming around, encouraging the deer to march forward, using their mobiles to carve the path of the herd.
The flock was massive, but what was so strange was that they were completely silent--as the 1,500 reindeer came closer I could barely even hear their steps, nor did any of them chatter, grunt, or groan. All we could make out was their muted clomps and the whirr of the snowmobiles.
As they came zooming past, Valerie, Vladimir and his son stepped off their mobiles and fished two lassos out of their bags. Then they positioned themselves at opposite ends of the herd and took turns chasing the reindeer whilst throwing the lasso into the dense crowd. They needed 10 to pull all the sleds. Each time Valerie wrangled a buck he would draw it close and look at it. Some were too weak or tired, so he would just release them back into the crowd.
If it was strong he slipped a saddle over its twisted horns and tied it to the sled. In the meantime Valerie’s wife and daughter brewed some tea and roasted some thick slabs of reindeer meat for everyone to munch on.
After a few hours of wrangling they had enough reindeer for the sleds. They lined up all ten sleds behind the massive herd. Valerie and his son got back on their snowmobiles and urged the herd forward. The march began. Markus and I walked alongside the plodding reindeer, snapping photos and weaving through the crowd.
At the end of our migration the reindeer, dogs, sleds, people and snowmobiles took over the lily white hill that appeared before us like an apparition. Once we peeked over the summit we saw mountains that were colored blood red by the sunset. The Fifth Brigade had found their new home. A new slice of tundra to devour.
Once everything was settled, the reindeer who were pulling the sleds were cut loose and we began to pitch the yaranga in the golden light. It was around 11 o'clock p.m. when the tent was finally set up. Everyone decided to stop unloading the sleds and focus on warming up their frozen toes and hands.
Later that night, while we were gathered around a simmering fire I couldn’t really comprehend what we had just witnessed. We had just dismantled an entire home, picked up every scrap and moved it across the harsh tundra to this otherworldly hilltop. What’s more, Valerie’s family did this every single month of their lives. I didn’t think this kind of freedom existed in our world.
Interview with a Reindeer Herder
On our last day with the 5th Brigade we got to interview Vladimir. He told us that his brother used to live in St. Petersburg. Not too long ago that brother passed away and left his apartment to Vladimir. A ticket out of nomadic life. For a while he was tempted to abandon the tundra and live in the city.
But one day he was in the city looking out that flat’s window, and all he could see were people and buildings hovering over the horizon. He decided he would miss the vast, free emptiness of the tundra too much. Chukotka was his real home.
After we said goodbye to the 5th Brigade, we continued south towards our starting point: Uelkal, then onto Anadyr. Along the way we saw a peculiar, gaping hole in a frozen lake. We later found out that the commuter tank we encountered in the beginning of our trip had broken through the glass and had sunk to the bottom. Luckily the men riding inside had escaped in the nick of time and were presently indulging in some well deserved rest/ vodka.
Atao (good-bye) Siberia!
Still reeling, Markus and I decided to spend our last hours in Siberia on a frozen beach and watch water drain from the plains into the ocean (all the snow in this region has melted away a full month early). The ocean before us was covered in puzzle piece slabs of ice. We impulsively hopped onto one of the chunks and gazed on, awestruck, as the swollen red sun dipped below the horizon. When we scrambled back onto shore we watched the shards of ice drift farther apart and float out to sea, much quicker than we’d like.
“Why did I sign myself up for this?” I remember wondering halfway into our trip to Namibia. It was the first chapter of our project, and I had jumped on the plane bursting with excitement. I was going on a pleasant adventure through the sunniest country in the world to see some lions and elephants, and bond with the Himba people.
But I had been wrong. Instead I spent most of the trip in a barren, sizzling 40 °C desert, with horrid food and just a single gulp of water left in my canteen.
That first night, in my dehydrated, disillusioned misery, I was convinced that I would never be interested in these various collections of eternal nomads, or the places they call home. But that was before. Everything has irrevocably changed.
After innumerable interviews and misadventures, I’ve gotten the rare chance to spend quality time with the world’s most isolated communities, who’ve graciously shared so much with me--hopes, histories, beliefs, fears, aspirations. I’ve been told awe-inspiring stories-- everything from an enterprising Chukchi couple that stole an entire herd of reindeer to a Bajao man who went blind from gazing too long at his beloved sea. I began to realize, slowly, that these cultures all had something to offer, something that people from “modern” cultures, people like myself, were missing.
Everything from the Tiny House Movement, to off-grid living, to the new digital nomads trend provide evidence that people of industrialized societies are trying to downsize their living spaces, assert their independence, and curtail materialism. I know now that these people are reaching back toward ancient roots that they don’t even know they have.
These novice nomads of the industrialized world are re-learning the ins and outs of nomadic life, everything from planting potatoes to milking a goat to composting. They are starting from scratch. But the nomadic communities I have been lucky enough to visit have been harmoniously living off the land for centuries. In a real, practical sense, they already have it all figured out. Which is why it is critical that we respect and preserve these nomadic communities, because their lifestyles, communal knowledge, and survival skills are something we can’t afford to lose as human beings. This is why we tell the stories of the world’s most isolated communities--to preserve our shared human heritage, to revive our most ancient knowledge, to remember where we come from and most of all, realize who we can be once again.