YamalOne of the last refuges of Siberia’s nomadic reindeer herders, a land of vast plains stretching to the Arctic Ocean, its remoteness has been key to the survival of its ancient traditions.
With much of its territory above the Arctic Circle, Yamal means ‘edge of the world’ in the language of its indigenous people. The Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District spans from the slopes of the Polar Ural Mountains, north to the Kara Sea. Its administrative centre, the historic town of Salekhard (population 43,000) straddles the Arctic Circle. The Yamal Peninsula was considered so inhospitable that Stalin built his prison camps here. And yet a rich, colourful and resilient culture and ancient shamanistic religion have managed to survive here. Yamal is the home of the Nenets, custodians of a style of reindeer herding that is considered the last of its kind. To survive Yamal’s extreme climate, the Nenets migrate with herds of up to 10,000 strong from their winter pastures in the southern taiga, north to their summer grazing lands near the Arctic Ocean. Crossing the frozen Ob, the world’s fifth largest river, is just part of a journey which can span over 1,000km, one way. Yet the biggest challenge facing the Nenets way of life today is industrial development, due to the discovery of Yamal’s immense oil and gas reserves. Rarely visited by outsiders, an excursion to Yamal provides the opportunity to experience traditions that have remained unchanged for thousands of years, and to hear from the Nenets themselves how vital it is to keep this extraordinary culture alive.