Siberia: Experience the End of the World

Nenets in Siberia. The family slaughters reindeer every couple of weeks, eating it raw and with pasta.
Nenets in Siberia. The family slaughters reindeer every couple of weeks, eating it raw and with pasta.

Experience the End of the World: Exploring the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia

By Kristen Richard

“Living like a local,” is the greatest way to get a feel for a new place. For most of us that means relaxing on the beach and eating from a favorite local restaurant. For those traveling with Secret Compass on their Yamal Peninsula Expedition in Siberia, that means being handed a pair of newly mended boots to wear and raw meat for a meal.

A Chume is what Secret Compass Travelers will be staying in.
A Chume is what Secret Compass Travelers will be staying in.

Secret Compass will be traveling to the remote Siberian peninsula in March 2016 and joining the Nenets on their Reindeer Migration. This trip is part of Secret Compass’s new series of “minimalist expeditions.” On these journeys, explorers come with minimal supplies, truly live the way the locals live, and travel the way locals travel. This is one of the toughest yet most unusual tours you can possibly imagine!

“We do pioneering expeditions to places not many people go. One of those places is Siberia” says Imogen Prince, company’s Marketing and Communications Director.

The Yamal Peninsula, which translates to,“the end of the earth,” is one of the most important regions in the Russian Federation. The Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District is located in the North West of Siberia above the Arctic Circle.

This is a 17-day expedition. On day one travelers will arrive in Moscow and on day two fly to Salekhard and journey to Yar Sale. Travelers will then sledge across the Gulf of Ob and meet the nomads in the Nadym District.

The reindeer migration is completed by different groups made up of families and community members.

Put On Your Skirts

Travelers will be staying in reindeer skin tents called Chums. They will not be bringing any camping or any advanced cooking technologies.

When expeditioners arrive in Yar Sale, women will be asked to wear skirts, everyone will be given newly mended boots, and a traditional cape made out of animal hide to wear. The Nenets have retained their rich and diverse culture. They continue to dress in traditional furs and hand-sewn clothing. Those traveling with Secret Compass will do the same.

“We find that because we are not turning up in our western clothes and our western ways, and we are living exactly as they do we are well received, they are proud to show off their traditions and their way of life.” Says Prince.

A herd of Reindeer Running.
A Herd of Reindeer Running. Siberian Times photo.

When you live up in the arctic there is always a job to be done. The first four or five days will be spent preparing for the trek across the Gulf. Secret Compass will be helping the nomads by chopping wood, collecting ice for cooking, packing sledges, tending to dogs, helping catch the reindeer, watching children, mending tents and equipment, and preparing food.

A few small migrations will also take place in the first few days before crossing the Gulf of Ob.

The Nenets diet consists of mainly meat. Travelers can expect to eat raw meat which is mainly reindeer, dried fish bought from local fisherman, and soup with pasta or rice.

While the journey will be treacherous travelers will experience a unique culture. The Nenets are known throughout the land for being the best reindeer herders and having the largest herds. The Nenets practice and preserve and type of reindeer migration that is the last of its kind in the world. Even the modern migration route stays true to its origin.

Temps Low, Winds Brutal

While this is a truly unique experience travelers should be aware that reindeer and man alike will be facing temperatures as low as -58 degrees Fahrenheit, which is – 50 degrees Celsius and brutal arctic winds. Man and animal will be facing pivotal problems together.

When the conditions are right the Nenets and Secret Compass will cross the Gulf on reindeer sledges and snowmobiles. It is critical everyday that Secret Compass is fully involved with the tasks, but it is crucial everyone is giving their all and then some when crossing the Gulf. There is nowhere for the reindeer to graze and if it takes over 24 hours they will grow weak and die.

At the end of the migration when the reindeer have reached their new grazing pasture everyone will return to Yar Sale where the annual Reindeer Festival will take place.

Hundreds of Nenets from all over the Yamal come together for the festival to socialize and celebrate the end of their perilous journey. Much like their everyday life the festival is very traditional. There will be games such as Nenets wrestling, sledge jumping, stick tug of war, lassoing, and many more.

“It sort of looks like a traditional highland game.” Says Prince.

There will be a bit of a language challenge on the journey. Most of the Nenets children are sent to boarding school and know some English. The Nenets speak Russian alongside their tribal language and there will be a translator.

nenets herding
Nenets herding reindeer. Survival photo.

Secret Compass offers a cultural experience that is unlike any other. If this sort of experience is something that you are looking for in your next journey, but battling below freezing arctic winds is not for you, Secret Compass goes all over the world.

People can book expeditions to Africa, Eastern Europe, Central America, Central Asia, Eastern Asia, and beyond.

“We look for places that most people do not necessarily go and quite often have an unjust bad reputation,” says Prince.

One upcoming expedition is to Burmese Nagaland where travelers will get to experience the unique Naga culture that is sadly disappearing.

Travelers can also experience Israel on horseback. Secret Compass will have you walking, trotting, cantering, and galloping in the steps of Mark Twain. You will travel from the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem, Jericho.

Journey to the beautiful world of Gabon. Here one can pack raft the Kongou and Djidji rivers, Explore the Ivindo National Park, and explore the rainforests of the Equator.

Secret Compass offers many more expeditions that are unlike any other. One needs to understand though these are not sightseeing vacations, they truly immerse one in the culture.

To go on these trips one must fill out an application. Travelers should also be aware many of these journeys demand that you be at a certain fitness level. If you are interested in traveling to the Yamal Peninsula or another a journey with Secret Compass visit their website.

kristen richard


Kristen Richard is  a graduate of Umass Amherst. When she is not writing she enjoys photography, running, biking, horseback riding, and finding new places to travel.

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