Modern Reindeer People
Text and photographs from the April 29, 2006 Good Weekend insert into the Sydney Morning Herald, written by Julius Strauss.
Frozen in time: a girl from the nomadic Neustroyev family tends reindeer, maintaining a tradition that has existed for centuries.
Photo: Julius Strauss
It's a village where winter lasts nine months, the cows wear fur on their udders, and minus 30 degrees is considered balmy. Julius Strauss rugs up for a trip to remotest Siberia to visit the coldest permanently inhabited settlement on earth.
The temperature is below minus 30°C as the children skip through the icy snow without their hats. Their fathers and older brothers who are working outside - chopping ice, splitting wood and carrying cubes of frozen milk home to their families - have stripped away their warm outer layers to reveal flannel undergarments. "Oh, it's very warm," Lyudmila Repina, a teacher, says as she begins a Russian class for 10 year olds. "We think minus 40°C at this time of year is good but minus 30°C is amazing. Today the children will be outside playing during breaktime."
In the village of Oymyakon, nestled in a shallow mountain valley in far north-eastern Siberia, locals don't usually bother with the attribute "minus" when talking about the weather. The summer is fleeting (after July and before August, they like to joke), and the winter lasts from September until May. On January 25 last year the mercury fell to minus 62°C, marking the coldest day in a more or less average year.
In most years the temperature falls into the minus 60s. In January 1926 meteorologists measured an air temperature of minus 71.2°C. Only in the Antarctic has colder weather ever been recorded. Oymyakon is the coldest permanently inhabited settlement on earth.
The village is more than 320 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, but its peculiar topography - it lies in a dip about 1800 metres up in the Verkhoyansk Mountains - is what makes it so cold. In the winter, cold air settles in the hollow and slowly forces its way down, pushing out the warmer air below. With each passing day the temperature creeps lower. When it drops below minus 50°C, the kindergarten in the village is closed; at minus 53°C primary school students are sent home; and at minus 56°C the secondary school is shut.
"We camp where the deer are. They are not scared of us": family members in herder Mikhail Neustroyev's nomadic tent.
Photo: Julius Strauss
If Oymyakon is the north pole of human settlement, then Yakutia, the region in which it lies, is its polar icecap. During the winter its huge landmass (the republic is almost the size of India) is deep frozen. For thousands of years the area was an empty wasteland, home only to small communities of nomads who lived off the reindeer herds which subsist on tree bark and roots dug up through the snow. Today it is one of Russia's richest regions, with some of the largest gold and diamond deposits being mined in the world. Even so, like their ancestors, many locals still keep a gun in the house and hunt and fish to bring food to the family table.
Just getting to Oymyakon from Moscow takes several days. From Moscow a passenger jet flies six hours across thousands of kilometres until it reaches Yakutsk, the region's capital and, by reputation, one of Russia's roughest cities. As the plane begins its final descent, the city appears as a small orange glow set against a tabletop landscape of endless tundra broken only by huge boulders and cavities. Ice and snow gnaws at the very edge of the airstrip, almost enveloping the small runway lights. Winter temperatures rarely rise above minus 30°C, and the least wind bites into the exposed parts of your face; gloveless fingers are numb in minutes.
Oymyakon is two or three days' drive to the east of Yakutsk, across almost 1000 kilometres of frozen, rutted roads. The only vehicles to be seen are Russian. Even the hardiest four wheel drives struggle to survive these temperatures; in any case, spare parts for them are expensive and few. There are also trucks - some heading into the frigid interior, others to Magadan, once the dark jewel in the crown of Stalin's gulags, an area Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the dissident writer, called "a pole of cold and cruelty" Some trucks keep their engines running for a month to stop them freezing.
Just outside Yakutsk, the road crosses the Lena, one of Siberia's mightiest rivers. The river is frozen to a depth of several feet in February. It takes nearly half an hour to drive across it, weaving between chunks of ice, holes and boulders. Every year a car or a lorry is lost here; some years it can be several.
"It's always the greedy and impatient ones who go in," says Valentin Atlasov, the mayor of Yuchugay, a small settlement two days' drive away, who has hitched a ride, bringing along his wife and daughter. As the old Russian van bounces from one pothole to the next, Sergei Zubkov, the 49-year-old driver, says, "People here are very special, you know. It's probably because the conditions are so difficult - it forces them to work together."
The first day's drive ends at the settlement of Khandyga. Until the 1930s this was as far as the road went. Then Stalin decreed that political prisoners should build it through to the coast, more than 1600 kilometres to the east across some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth. Gulags were set up along the road to provide manpower for the road construction. Hundreds of thousands of innocents died as they worked. The entire stretch became known as the Road of Bones.
Today the Road of Bones is unremarkable and potholed. To the right and left are scraggy larch and pine and occasionally a herd of small fat ponies that locals raise for their meat. Outside the small towns there are few travellers. Occasionally the remains of the gulags can be seen, like crooked teeth against the blanket of luminescent white.
One of them is only a few hundred metres from the road, but getting there through kneedeep snow leaves us panting in the cold. All that is left is an old brick chimney and a few wooden posts. Mayor Atlasov, who is soft-spoken and has a large, round, smiling face, says, "My father was a driver here in the 1940s. He saw the prisoners and he saw the many terrible things they did to them. He said he'd never forget what he saw those days. Stalin was a terrible man!
Cold comforts: like many Siberians, Yegor Vinokurov and his wife favour decor that lifts them out of the reality of life in Oymyakon.
Photo: Julius Strauss
In Moscow the winter is cold, but in Yakutia the word takes on a whole new meaning. At minus 40°C, exhaled breath crystallises and falls to the ground with a gentle tinkle the Yakuts call the whisper of the stars. A few degrees lower there is a roaring in the ears, and eyebrows become coated in frost in minutes. Plastic bags, cables and clothes hung out to dry become brittle and snap like matchsticks. Fuel freezes. Metal cracks. At minus 50°C settlements become engulfed in a layer of thick fog. Locals say it is the frozen breath of the people who live there. It can become impossible to walk even a few metres without becoming disoriented.
At about minus 60°C the very ground seems to crack and split. "It is an awful sound," says Albina Vinokurova, a 43 year old housewife in Oymyakon who has lived in Yakutia all her life. "It wakes you up in the dead of the night and if you don't know what it is you'd think the end of the world had come."
Few people in Oymyakon are old enough to remember the record breaking temperatures of the 1920s and 1930s, which some scientists say will never be repeated because of global warming. One of them who does is 75 yearold Yegor Vinokurov. "The most awful winter came when I was about five or six years old," he says. "We couldn't leave the house for weeks. It was so cold that birds froze in midair and crashed to the ground. At that temperature the very air crackles like dry hay. The only way we could go outside at all that winter was if we covered our faces in rabbit furs."
At such temperatures, not only the people suffer but the animals, too. Even during a normal winter, the cows in Oymyakon have fur pouches tied to their udders to stop them freezing. During a very cold winter cows can collapse and die. Ponies frequently miscarry.
Despite the privations, many say that they love the climate and look forward to the winter. Atlasov says, "The cold is good for you. It keeps you healthy and it kills bacteria. Nobody gets sick when it's minus 50°C.
"I could live in Moscow. But this is where I want to be - the land of hunting and fishing. Life here might seem difficult to you, but we have clean air, clean food, mushrooms, berries. We are happy."
Most people living in Yakutia today have long since abandoned the yurts of yesteryear and live in wooden houses. In the city, prefabricated concrete flats are built on stilts to keep them above the permafrost. But some still cling to the old ways. A few hours' drive from Oymyakon, the Neustroyevs still herd reindeer in the shadow of Shaman Mountain, just as their ancestors did. Reindeer are their main source of income; they sell the meat and make boots from the ftir to sell to traders from neighbouring towns (reindeer boots are the warmest you can buy and fetch up to $480 a pair). The Neustroyevs also receive a salary for tending reindeer that belong to the state.
When we arrive, the afternoon sun is shining in a cloudless sky, but even so the temperature is still below minus 40°C. Reindeer mill around the camp, some with jingling brass bells on their necks. Their breath makes lacy patterns in the frozen air and ice hangs from their nostrils. The Neustroyev family are Evens (pronounced Eh'vens), an ancient people who have lived in the northern mountains for thousands of years. The Evens have wide, flat noses reminiscent of the Mongols and are thought to have originally migrated from the grassy steppes far to the south. It was only in the 17th century that the first Cossack traders appeared in the area seeking pelts. They bought from the herders but also bullied and subjugated them, sometimes taking hostages until ransoms were paid in furs.
By the 19th century the entire vast region was under the sway of St Petersburg. It was during this period that the Tsars set up the first prison camps. In 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power in western Russia. But it wasn't until the mid 1920s that their commissars arrived in this far flung land, setting up "red tents" to cajole the herders into joining collective farms. When Stalin seized power he renewed the onslaught. Many of the Evens were violently forced to join the farms. Their shamans, who acted as both priests and medicine men to the communities and preached a gospel of living at one with nature, were taken to the gulags or shot.
Today the Evens number only about 15 000. They still predominantly speak their own language and many have a poor command of Russian. Freed from the ties of the collectives, their herds are once again increasing in size. Mikhail Neustroyev, 30, is a herder. During the summer he lives in a yurt; in winter he prefers a tent, which is easier to erect, take down and carry. Each day Mikhail follows the herd, fending off wolves which trail his reindeer, killing an average of one animal a day. "We camp where the deer are, usually near wood and water," he says. "They are not scared of us, they know us and they know our voices.'
Part of the secret of surviving in this extreme climate is the diet. Mikhail and his family barely eat fruit or vegetables. They survive almost entirely on bread and meat. For lunch they offer reindeer stew, fresh reindeer liver and raw reindeer bone marrow. Mikhail can live outside in temperatures other men would consider impossible. When the temperature drops very low the herd moves a lot to keep warm, and the herders must go with them.
Asked for an example, Mikhail thinks for a while and then says, "In 2004 1 slept in the snow on January 27. It was minus 55°C and I had walked all day without food because there were wolves about. At night I just put down some furs, built a fire and wrapped my clothes tightly around me.'
Perhaps ironically, in Yakut, the native tongue for many of the region's inhabitants, Oymyakon means "the river doesn't freeze" It is named after a warm tributary of the mighty Siberian Indigirka river, where hot springs keep a trickle of water flowing during even the harshest winters. In Oyrnyakon itself they use wood rather than stone to build their homes as it is more flexible and lighter. Because of the sub-zero temperatures there is no plumbing. The lavatory is an outhouse with a small hole in the floor, usually some distance from the house. (The locals say a Yakut never lingers on the lavatory - in the winter it is too cold and in the summer the mosquitoes are too numerous.)
Water for cooking is kept outside in hewn blocks of ice that are brought into the warm house and melted in large metal canisters when needed. Municipal buildings are heated through huge insulated pipes that snake across the snowy landscape. Small stepladders are constructed so that people can cross them as they make their way around. In the centre of the village a large chimney puffs out dirty black smoke.
By Russian standards, Oymyakon is a healthy and prosperous village. With a population of about 1000 it has a small hospital with a handful of beds, a Soviet era monument to its status as the coldest settlement on earth and a new, spacious school. Many villagers have computers, there is a slow internet connection and, although mobile phones don't work, they now have direct telephone lines.
Unlike many Russian villages, Oymyakon has largely escaped the alcoholism and crime that blight much of the country. Valery Vinokurov, the local weatherman who measures the temperature twice a day with an almost religious fervour, is an ex policeman. He was once stabbed in the neck. "During the 1980s and 1990s things were terrible here, like all over Russia," he says. "Everyone was drunk, there was no money. We had two or three murders in a year just in our region. But now people are paid, crime is almost gone. The most you'll see is a fight on a Saturday night at the local disco.'
In many ways life has changed little for centuries. During the short, hot summer locals work from daybreak until sunset in the fields. "The summer is very hard work," Marianna, a 35 year old teacher at the school, says. "We have three cows and six calves now and all day we must scythe grass to feed them through the long winters.' There are modern imported sweets and biscuits, but much of the food is still traditional - strips of frozen fish or of pony meat. They are kept in larders dug into holes under the houses and can be reached by trapdoors, usually from the kitchen.
Although the shamans are now all dead, the Nakuts still hold strongly to their ancient beliefs. Almost every house has a charm made of a wooden handle with luxuriant strands of pony's tail flowing from it. It is placed above the front door to ward away evil spirits. According to these beliefs the cold is depicted as a bull that lives in the northern ocean. On January 31 each year the bull symbolically loses one of its horns, representing the end of the coldest days of winter. Two weeks later it loses its second horn. On the biggest holiday of the year, June 21, the whole village lines up behind seven male and seven female virgins to offer blessings of pancakes, flour, butter and kurnis (fermented mare's milk) to the God of Fire. That night no one sleeps. They believe that if you do, evil spirits take your soul.
One night in Oymyakon I travel to meet hunters and fishermen on the banks of the Indigirka. We drive for half an hour up a frozen tributary to reach their cabin. It is a remarkably clear night. The men work for the state as engineers, janitors and drivers. But their ancient passion for hunting and fishing is undimmed. "For us, hunting and fishing are what make us Yakuts. You are not a man if you don't hunt and fish" Valery Vinokurov says.
Before we set out to fish, there are toasts and titbits. An offering to Bayuani (the God of Hunting) of raw pony meat and bread dipped in vodka is thrown on the fire. A blue flame leaps as it burns. Down on the river Vladimir Atlasov begins scooping away the icy crusts from holes he drilled in the ice the day before and pulling up long baited birch poles from the riverbed. As a turbot comes wriggling out on a hook, he pulls it off and throws it to the ground. "My wife likes to cook them but I prefer just to cut off the head and eat them raw," he says.
Back in Oymyakon, in the warmth of Albina Vinokurova's house, she says, "The air is clean. The water is clean. The hunting and fishing are good. The people, too, so good. I love this place. I've been in Oymyakon for 20 years and never want to leave. It is so beautiful. just like in a Tolstoy novel.'