Ten tips for life in the tundra

Russian tundra is one of the harshest natural areas on our planet. Over there temperature goes bellow 50 degrees, and aborigines still live a nomadic life and respect the ancient customs of their ancestors. If you decide to pay them a visit and feel their hospitality, you might need a few tips…


1) Build a Chum ( traditional conic tent made of reindeer skin). This tip does not apply for men because for everything related to the house, including its construction is by tradition, in charge of women. The construction is managed by the oldest women. First you must dig a big hole. Don’t be surprised if under the snow you encounter more snow, and then on a thick layer of ice. Don’t forget you are in the area of perennially frozen ground, and that in the next few days you will find snow even underneath of you bed (because it melts slowly). Set “bourgeois” furnace in the middle of hole. Then dig long poles into the snow, firmly fasten their tops with a rope and  conical base of Chum will be done. Make sure you don’t dig poles too deep because in this case, the Chum will eventually sink under the weight of snow so you won’t feel comfortable for it will be too low. But if you don’t dig the poles deep enough, the building will be blown by the wind. Cover the wooden base with tarp and reindeer skin. These “leather walls” will protect you even from the strongest wind. Set wooden planks on the floor and cover it with leather. Your apartment is ready.

2) Learn how to enter into Chum. As you enter the chum rotate . It is, above all, an old custom, but probably the only way to enter without getting wrapped into leather which covers it.

3) Get used to sleeping at cold.  In Chum you will have to sleep on floor covered wit leather. The furnace is set on fire in the evening, but gets cold by morning what makes Chum just a little bit warmer than outside. So you should probably bring your winter sleeping bag with yourself. It will be a great night’s sleep and you will be well rested after only a few hours of sleep.

4) Make friends with your neighbors. It is very difficult for a men to survive tundra alone, so the settlement of local reindeer breeders usually consist of several Chums. people are basically friendly, but before you go into your neighbors Chum you should respect a few simple rules. First of all, stay on the right side of the tent because it is anticipated for guests. The interior of the Chum is conditionally divided into two parts. The host and his family live on the left side of the tent, and the right half is intended for guests. Second of all, if you still want to go in the “family section”, pass by the entrance. Part of the Chuma opposite the entrance is a sacred place for Nenets people, so it is not advisable to enter there. When going for a visit, as a gift you may bring fruit; apples or oranges. The hosts will be very grateful because it is very hard to find vegetables or fruits in tundra.

5) Establish a connection with the world. Telephone lines are pretty bad in tundra. In order to hear something, you have to climb to the top of the sled laden with bags, sit up as much as you can and shout into the phone to our interlocutor. Phone can be charged by generators which now have every reindeer breeder. In some Chums you can even find TVs and laptops but usually without an internet.

6) Drink tea five times a day. For Nenets, each meal is called “drinking tea”. Served wit a tea is a bottle of vodka and a snack that consists of reindeer meat in 99% of cases . Be prepared to drink tea and eat reindeer meet at least 4 to 5 times a day. Do not worry, you will not get tired of it. In fact, as the evening approaches, you will wish for a sixth meal because you will work real hard from early morning till late night on intense cold. For holidays you will be served with “stroganin” made of muksun ( Siberian salmon). “Stroganin” is traditional meal made of raw frozen grated fish (rus. strogatʹ – grind, hence the name of the food). Blueberry and cranberry preserve is also mandatory. You will have to learn how to eat without dishes.  It is not convenient to carry dishes if you are constantly moving from place to place. Reindeer breeders are still nomads and go through the tundra together with their herd so they all eat from one or several common plates.

7) Do not be surprised by anything. Nenets people like small talks with tea. They will tell you a lot of amazing stories like the on in which you can manage aurora borealis by using bottles made of green glass. Also, do not try to nurture their children. If you see a little child walking barefoot in the snow on – 30 degrees, don’t shout or get shocked at such disregard from parents. No one will understand you…You have to realize that their parents also did it as children, and consider it normal.

8) Learn to tell diference between reindeers.  It is custom with Nenets people to give a child a reindeer when his first tooth comes. It is also given for holidays or special occasion. For example, a grandmother can give a reindeer to grandchild for its birthday or at the end of the school year. Thus, until the age of eighteen children acquire their own capital: herd of reindeer. Young reindeer is kept near the Chum and after they grow, put them into joint herd. Even though there are thousands of reindeers in  in the herd, each breeder recognizes his own from afar. We have to note that almost all reindeers have antlers ( look at tip no. 9), and they all run so fast that it is almost impossible to notice any marker or sign of recognition.

9) Scrape reindeers horns. No joke. If you shorten horns in time it can save your life. Before you harness a reindeer you have to shorten one of its horns in order not to hurt the man who manages drawn carriage. While other horn remains so that reindeer could survive in herd and defend itself from rivals. After a while it will grow back and have to be shorten again. Horns are cut only for the reindeer that pull a sleigh ( so called “bulls”) while the others can be proud of their horns.

10) Fall in love with tundra. Reindeer breeders can’t imagine their lives outside of tundra and are proud to live exactly there. A lot of people come back from the cities to live in tundra again to breed reindeer, regardless of the hard life and everyday work. How could one live in extreme conditions on such a harsh place without loving it from the bottom of his heart.


Source: Russia Beyond The Headlines

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