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Siberia: The spring migration

It’s 5am and I’m barely out of my sleeping bag, but the vodka bottle has appeared. Never too early, it seems. The fire is already throwing its golden net and glasses are passed around. Vasili slices frozen reindeer meat (like sorbet mixed with ham), placing pieces on the low wooden table, which we kneel around.

Siberia: The spring migration
A girl plays outside her parent's chum. Image: Kate Eshelby

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Today, we’re crossing the Gulf of Ob, the single biggest journey on this year-long route. “It’s tough as we cross a big frozen sea, open to the elements,” Vasili, the head of the camp, says. “Temperatures can plummet below minus 50 and winds come at us from the Arctic Ocean.”

Vasili and his extended family are Nenet reindeer herders; some of the world’s last true nomads, in the far fringe of Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula. They migrate almost 1,250 miles by reindeer-drawn wooden sledges; from the forests of Khanty-Mansiysk, up through treeless tundra, to the Arctic shore where polar bears stride, before retracing their steps: continuously seeking new pastures for their herds.

Yamal is beyond the Arctic Circle, and, in their language, means the edge of the world. Outside, dawn pokes through the sky, illuminating the snow, which spreads over everything. But there’s no time to delay. The chums — tipi-like tents covered in heavy reindeer skins — have to be dismantled and packed up onto the numerous sleighs scattered outside.

Suddenly the tempo builds. Three thousand reindeer swarm towards us across the bright white. Lassos Catherine-wheel through the air, husky dogs bark and shouts of ‘hey-ho’ crescendo as the men catch individual reindeers trained to pull the sledges.

A sea of majestic antlers gathers in a kraal, created by nets. I’m busy ensuring I don’t step over any lassos or ropes because here it’s believed that a man’s possessions will lose their protective power if a woman walks across them.

After the selected reindeers have all been harnessed and dressed in vibrant regalia, hard-working hands wrap around hot mugs of tea. It’s time for a quick break. Mouths become smeared with blood, as raw meat is eaten — picnic-style — on the snow.

Once the migration begins, it’s like some fantastical fashion shoot: the women glide off, in their sumptuous white hats and long reindeer fur coats with embroidered trims. Each leads a chain of sleighs, directing the leading reindeer with a long pole. It resembles a scene out of Narnia. Their young children are wrapped up in reindeer fur beside them.

The rest of the herd dissolves into the distance. Silver birch and fir trees dot the big white space, before we come to the bare gulf. Here the reindeers seem dwarfed, appearing like bands of centipedes scuttling along a monumental sea of ice under a blue sky.

The cold is relentless, my hands get frost nip; but the beauty is almighty. We finally arrive at the next camp close to midnight. Wooden floorboards are placed over the icy ground, and the patchwork of skins is hauled up onto the poles. Everyone is moving fast.

Then — the moment I’ve been waiting for — the fire is lit. Warmth creeps into my face so deliciously. Inside, the chum glows comfortingly. Outside, the reindeer’s bums stick in the air as they dig the snow with their hooves for their lichen supper.

We are close to Yar Sale, the region’s biggest village. The chat turns to what food Vasili’s family need to buy. This is the last village they’ll pass for the next six months. The bottle of vodka is out again. But despite Stalin and collectivisation, this is far from a destroyed culture: Nenets haven’t become deadened by alcohol, as has happened with some other indigenous people.

“All our children go to school, but most choose to become herders once they’ve finished,” Vasili says. “This is a prestigious job and you can become rich.” With this, he snuggles down onto the reindeer skins, on which we sleep.

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