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7Jun/180

Life in Tundra. Numto Nature Park. Part III

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Valya, Nents and Lyudmila, Khanty

In the previous posts I wrote about my experience of getting to tundra and living with reindeer herders. After that a Nenets family took me to the village of Numto, in the center of Numto Nature Park. Again I sat on the narty (sledges) with Valya. Traditionally, a man is riding a snowmobile and women travel in a narty behind. There was a blizzard starting and we had to hurry but in the middle of the road the snowmobile got broken. While Kostya, Valya’s husband was fixing it, Valya said philosophically – reindeer are slower than a snowmobile but they don’t break in the middle of the road.

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Valya, a nents woman in her husband's malitsa (winter coat of reindeer skin)

Valya and Kostya don’t have reindeer. They live in the village of Numto and work for the construction company from Yekaterinburg. This company is building wooden houses in Numto for the natives. Most of the natives live in tundra at their pastures but don’t mind getting a house for free from the government. The population of Numto is about 60 people. Officially 120 but that’s including children and adults who study and work in the mainland.

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The village of Numto is a cultural and social center of the nature park: it has a clinic, one shop and a helicopter parking. The helicopter comes twice a week bringing goods, food, salaries and pensions for the locals. The citizens of Numto are Khanty and Nenets. One Mansi man, the husband of the doctor is a new comer. He told me that life is much harder here and more primitive than in other districts of Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Republic. So this man hopes to leave the place soon. Since not long ago one Russian man came to live here permanently. Anton, a worker of the Yekaterinburg construction company married a local girl and stayed in Numto. He’s probably the only one Russian who has ever done it in tundra. Another builder Aleksey married a native woman from Numto but took her and her kids to Yekaterinburg.

Russian workers in Numto. Aleksey (left), Anton (right)

Russian workers in Numto. Aleksey (left), Anton (right)

I stayed in Numto at Granny Tanya, a Khanty woman. Her family lives in tundra and she came to the village for a couple of weeks for medical treatment. In April there’s not much work at the pasture so her husband stayed alone but Tanya always has something to do. First of all we drank tee with sweets and home-baked bread in her kitchen - a usual ritual of the natives when a guest arrives. Then Tanya showed me the malitsas (fur coats) that she was making for her family members. For a malitsa Khanty and Nenets people use various furs: silver fox, swan feathers. The fur is worn inwards. Deer skin malitsas are used only for severe winter days when the temperature drops below -50C because the reindeer fur and skin is very warm. As Tanya said,  you can sleep in it on the snow in winter. Threads are made of reindeer veins, ordinary threads from a shop are not so reliable.

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Tanya, a Khanty woman in a traditional malitsa

Tanya, a Khanty woman in a traditional malitsa

Tanya showed me how she was making kisy (boots). They are made of reindeer kamusy (skin from animals’ legs. For a pair of boots you need about 18 kamusy (legs) but they will wear for 20 years, Tanya promises. Kisy have two layers: with fur inwards and the other one outwards.

Kisy (reindeer skin boots)

Kisy (reindeer skin boots)

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Tanya is often invited to the towns in the mainland to hold workshops for native women. She teaches them various techniques on how to make traditional clothes, boots and other things.

Tanya and an article about her in a local newspaper

Tanya and an article about her in a local newspaper

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Tanya is lucky – two of her sons chose to stay in tundra. The daughters got married and left for bigger towns. The problem is that at the age of 7 native kids are taken to the mainland. They study at boarding schools and visit the parents only during school holidays. Of course, the majority don’t return to tundra later - to work hard getting only reindeer meet in return and some money from selling berries and mushrooms in August-September.

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After having lunch of reindeer meet, Tanya collected all the bones and we went for a walk. At first I didn’t understand why she took a bucket with deer bones with her. But then I realized that it was a part of a shamanistic ritual. She disposed the bones in the river that flows into sacred Lake Numto. Despite the fact that some natives were converted into Orthodoxy and the village even has a small church, most of the people remain shamanists and animists.

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Skulls of reindeer on a tree - is a sign of a shamanic shrine. People are not allowed to toch them

An island in the middle of Numto lake is a place of shamans gatherings in summer time. In the past the natives didn’t even fish in the ‘sky-lake’ (num – sky, to – lake). Now they do fishing and swimming but it’s still forbidden for women to swim there. Tanya said that women go swimming to another lake in summer time far away from the eyes of the people. A life of a woman in Numto is very conservative. Females wear scarves and hide their hair all year long. And they wear dresses all the time. Tanya said that she can’t understand Russians in the city – wearing pants they all look the same men and women.

Fishing boats under snow

Fishing boats under snow

 

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wooden container for fishing

In the evening our neighbors heated a banya (steam-bath) and I enjoyed having a hot wash. At the end of April it was -20 in Numto and about -30 at night time. But the wooden houses are well heated with ovens and it’s very warm indoors. Fortunately, Khanty and Nenets live in forest-tundra here, so wood is not a problem.

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Next morning I had to leave Numto. Again getting to narty, this time 40km to the car road seemed ok, even great. The red sun was rising at 4am above the white solemn frosty tundra. I wrapped my face with a woolen scarf, so that only eyes were seen and was thinking that tonight I’ll be in Yekaterinburg where it’s +15. Unbelievable!

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Before going to Numto I had been told that after visiting the tundra you will want to come back again and again. And it’s true. I know that I should bring beads for Lyudmila’s needlework, ointment for Tanya, as her hands are in constant pain of hard work, bullets for Grigoriy as they are cheaper home than in the North. It means that, next visit is inevitable now and by the way, you are welcome to join!

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29May/180

Life in Tundra. Numto Nature Park. Part II

In the first post I wrote about Lake Numto, Numto Nature Park and how to get there on zimnik – winter road. This is a story about living with the native Uralic people.

My hostess Lyudmila, Khnty woman

My hostess Lyudmila, Khnty woman

I stayed with the family of Grigoriy, a Nenets reindeer herder and a worker at the Numto Nature Park. His wife Lyudmila is a Khanty woman. The languages of Khanty and Nents people are different though they are distantly related. So at home Grigoriy and his wife speak mostly Russian but with the time Lyudmila learned the Nenets language to be able to speak to her huband’s relatives. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the natives managed to preserve their culture and traditions there despite speaking Russian, using mobile phones and driving snowmobiles instead of riding reindeer.

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The women make a lot of clothes themselves in a traditional way. They decorate everything with traditional ornaments. Men wear belts with plates made of reindeer bones with carvings of sacred northern animals: elk, bear, rein deer, duck etc.

Lyudmila posing in her hand made dresses

Lyudmila posing in her hand made dresses

Lyudmila posing in her hand made dresses and kisy (deer skin boots)

Lyudmila posing in her hand made dresses and kisy (deer skin boots)

The indigenous people are very hospitable. They don’t ask many questions - who you are or why you are here. If you are here they will share their food, will boil tea quickly and offer you a place to sleep with many warm blankets for as long as you need. When I arrived Lyudmila offered me hot tea with lots of sweets and grouse meat that Grigoriy had brought from a hunt. Two things the natives got used to and now can’t live without are wheat bread and sweets, so it’s always a good idea to bring something with. Later we ate reindeer meat in various dishes. Every time it was so delicious.

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reindeer meat

reindeer meat

Eating reindeer tendons

Eating reindeer tendons

A day of a Khanty or Nenets woman begins at 6 in the morning. She gets up, goes to the water well to fill in heavy buckets. To get water she has to break the ice first. Then she hacks wood outside to heat the oven, boils tea and cooks breakfast. At 8am her husband gets up. They have breakfast and he leaves for hunting or checking reindeer or fixing something in the yard. Lyudmila stays at home alone for a whole day now with her companion – Kisa, the cat. She cooks, knits, hacks wood again and brings more water. In the evening as her husband comes home he switches on the generator. Then the family can have electric light in house, charge their mobiles and watch TV.

Lyudmila and her cat are going to bring water from the well

Lyudmila and her cat are going to bring water from the well

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She has to break a layer of ice first

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On the second day Grigoriy took me to the pasture. In winter time reindeer graze far from home because they can’t walk in the deep snow in the forest. Again I sat on narty (sledge) holding them tight with both hands. This time I wasn’t as stressed as on my first day travelling in narty. I was getting used to this way of transportation

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 Meeting reindeer was one of the greatest moments of my journey. The animals were solemnly walking in the sunlit white tundra. Some of them were grazing, digging out yagel (moss) from snow. Others were lying, resting in peace. Tundra was completely silent. Grigoriy brought a sack of frozen fish – a special treat for the reindeer. Obviously, the animals knew that trick and came closer. No matter how hard I tried to lure them with a frozen fish, they wouldn’t come to close to me. Reindeer are wild animals, to use them for riding a man has to catch them first with a lasso. Then it takes time and special knowledge how to tame them.

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In winter (which in Tundra is a season from October till early May) reindeer are quite self-sufficient. May is a difficult month for a reindeer herder – this is when bears wake up. Still hungry a bear can kill all the calves in one day. A rein herder should watch his animals for 24 hours. By the way, bears are still sacred for the native Uralic people. They kill bears only as a big necessity, never for fun. After killing a bear there were long rituals of asking for mercy from a bear because the brown bear is a fore-father of humans according to Khanty’s and Mansi’s beliefs. As Grigoriy said – it’s useless to search and hunt for bears. If a bear is ready to leave this world he will come to you himself. Besides, you have to be a very skillful shooter to shoot a bear.

Grigoriy, Nenets, a reindeer hereder and a worker of the Numto Nature Park

Grigoriy, Nenets, a reindeer herder and a worker of the Numto Nature Park

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Having spent two days in the forest with the reindeer herders I was taken to the village of Numto on the shore of the sacred sky-lake. To be continued…

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23May/180

Life in Tundra. Numto Nature Park. Part I

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At the end of April 2018 my dream came true – I managed to get to the Tundra and to meet native Uralic people of the North of the Urals Khantys and Nenets living in their natural environment.

I visited the territory of Numto Nature Park on the border of Kanty-Mansi and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous areas. Numto means a sky lake. Large Numto lake is a sacred place for the natives. It has an island in a shape of a heart that attracts shamans. In the past people didn’t fish there. These days they do fishing but it’s still forbidden for women to swim in the lake.

Numto Nature park is located 450 km north of Surgut city. Surgut is easy to reach by train or plane. Then a 4-hour drive through a vast sandy terrain of tundra. After that the road ends and the last 40km to the village of Numto and the lake are only accessible on zimnik.

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Narty - wooden sledge that native people use

Zimnik - winter road for trucks and off-road geeps

Zimnik - winter road for trucks and off-road geeps

Zimnik  - means a winter road. It’s a snowy road made by tractors when the soil is frozen. Without that road Numto is only reachable by a helicopter that comes to the village 1-2 times a week bringing pensions and salaries to the villagers, food and other products that the natives have ordered from the main land. Fortunately, winters are long in tundra. At the end of April it was still -20 and the snow was solid. However, the natives also use snowmobiles a lot - even in summer time a light snowmobile can easily go through sands and swamps.

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The journey starts from the territory of the oil and gas company. In fact, the nature park is surrounded by drilling rigs that made Green Peace take some actions at Lake Numto. At the same time the workers of the oil and gas company are the source of income for the natives as they can trade with the Russian workers selling them reindeer meat, wild berries and mushrooms in autumn. Otherwise nobody buys those things as generally speaking there are no humans for many kilometers away. The only thing that is strictly forbidden to bring through the check points of the oil company is alcohol. Then again, they are not allowed to check the natives so tundra is not quite a sober land.

My friends arranged my accommodation at the family of Grigoriy, a Nenets reindeer herder who lives with his Khanty wife Lyudmila at the winter pasture. To get there I had to sit on narty – wooden sledges covered with warm reindeer skins, and off we go through the forest and tundra.

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My guest family lives in a small wooden cabin and they have many other wooden shelters around to store goods and snowmobiles. These days native people in that area are not nomads and they don’t live in a chum(yurt made of deer skins). The families migrate several times a year changing their winter home for the summer wooden residence. Some families move around 4 times a year changing pastures every season. As Numto located in the forest-tundra, the natives prefer living in the woods while their reindeer graze in an open space in tundra. There the snow is not so deep and the animals can easily find yagel (moss).

 

Lyudmila in her winter house

Lyudmila in her winter house

Lobaz - Khanty storage of food on tall legs - to prevent from animals, especially bears

Lobaz - Khanty storage of food on tall legs - to prevent from animals, especially bears

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Reindeer are everything for the natives – food, clothes, necessary equipment (they make threads and ropes of skin and veins) and transportation. When our snowmobile got broken in the middle of tundra and in the middle of a blizzard, Valya, a Nenets woman said that reindeer are slower of course but they don’t break and don’t need expensive fuel. Yet, these days even natives prefer to go faster. To be continued…

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