MOSCOW, March 24. /TASS/. Our five teams, led by traveler Sergei Seimanov, will drive more than 3,000 kilometers - from the Perm Region to Yamalo-Nenets Region. About 80% of the roads we take are so-called temporary winter roads. In the Polar Urals we will admire the views, the northern lights, halo and rock-hard snow waves.
Everything around us is white. The horizon line can be barely seen between the sky and the land. The car ahead of us stirs up the picky ice dust. We can see only fog lights. At times, the snow curtain hides away the cars which lead our caravan.
Away from cities
"Watch, the wood!" We can see many trucks, carrying cut wood.
"Move!" The radio interrupts the silence.
The traffic stops. A tractor pulls a truck up a long slope.
The snowstorm begins with an airy snow stream above the asphalt. Very soon the asphalt road will end and we will drive the winter roads - unpredictable routes connecting hard-to-reach settlements with cities. In the endless white color and frost below minus 30 degrees the area seems sterile. As if the villages are cut off the outer world.
"Some people doubt traveling Russia is possible," Sergei said. "Not many know that the North is very interesting, it is a place of the northern lights, deer, herder tents, and stroganina (raw, thin, long-sliced frozen fish). Many people have not traveled beyond Russia’s central part. I have subscribers, who have never left Moscow. Some have never set by a fire in the open air. The country is huge, and seeing it all is practically impossible and expensive. Moreover, until last year traveling inside Russia was not popular."
His driving experience began when he was 18. He has traveled a lot. Driving tourism at first was a hobby, and later on a profession.
"The year 2020 was a turning point. I lost a lot on the equity market, like many others. Since I had a certain experience of organizing trips, I decided to develop this sector."
"How many are you here?" The hotel receptionist was at a loss. "We’ve never had that many guests at a time!"
She takes our passports. The geography is impressive: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, the Krasnodar Region, Arkhangelsk.
A kitchenette, clean and cozy rooms, a shower - what else to dream about after a long trip?
"Travelling Russia is a big challenge. To the very last moment you can’t be sure whether you’ll get a room, whether there are the conveniences you’ve seen online. Always an adventure. But on the other hand, trips to the North are always about something different, they are always about people. Only here you can see what Russia, real Russia, is like."
For Sergei, the most complicated trip was to Dikson.
The stormy wind, air temperatures went as high as plus 6 degrees - the soft snow could not support the cars. The two teams had to stop many times - they had to wait for storms to calm down. The first complicated passage was between Novy Urengoi and Dudinka. In fact, there is no winter road there, just a few technology passages. In certain places they had to cross virgin snow layers. It took Sergei and his team six days to cover that part. The return trip was one day long. After Dudinka, the temperature dropped to minus 35, and the harsh wind of up to 20m/sec seemed to blow through all and everyone. Sergei says he can remember even now how freezing it was there.
The cameraman was the first to get sick. Sergei was next. On the way back, the second car’s driver hit the arm. The solar oil kept freezing up on the way there and back.
"The first joy was in Dikson: we were welcomed, had a tour, took a shower. The biggest unforgettable impression was from hot water."
On the way back, Sergei’s car partially slid into the thawing ice.
"We had been driving the Yenisei’s ice for recent 50 kilometers, and all of a sudden - the cracking, everything jumped, the car lied on a side. The second car could hardly pull us out. I always know losing a car is probable. I realize it may happen any time," Sergei said.
His plans are great: to visit all key points of the Northern Sea Route. In 2018, he traveled to Tiksi, in 2019 to Pevek.
We are leaving the Khanty-Mansi Region heading for the Yamal. Winter roads run from one point of warmth to another. The main rule on these roads is to save the lives: own lives and other people’s lives.
"There is no public transport here, no taxi; the only option is to get a lift. Drivers on winter roads always give a lift," Sergei says.
During the previous trip to the Yamal, some 150km from Muzhi, Sergei stopped to assist a man and a woman, whose snow bike’s engine was acting up. They drove with pauses. The frost was minus 40. The woman was taken into the car, the man was accompanied to the village. They drove for three hours.
We are driving to Muzhi and can see vessels. No wonder the Malaya Ob is nearby.
The locals traditionally are fishers, deer herders, or work in agriculture (growing potato or working in greenhouses). The village has budget organizations and the administration.
You will not find a gas or oil well in the region. Or a paved road. "We are happy people living in the nature," the locals say.
We stop near Muzhi, at the Zhivun nature reserve. "Zhivun" in Khanty means "unfreezing water".
"What’s up there? Ventilation?" a tourist looks up the tent. Right, up there the poles and covers leave a hole. In the past, it was used to let out the smoke from the oven, and now a pipe goes up through it. It takes a woman an hour to assemble and dismantle the tent. Alla Koneva, working at the park, says over years of nomadic life, the hands "feel" which pole goes where.
Tourists may choose where to stay: inside a tent or inside a Khanty house.
"Not that we have many tourists, we have just started this sphere," Anna Brusnitsyna of the Center for Educational Tourism said. "Most visitors are from St. Petersburg, or foreigners. If there is anything to develop here - it will be tourism. Other sectors - I’d say no - we don’t have roads. Getting here is an adventure already. Sure, it would not be a mass tourism destination. We don’t want it here."
For more than 120 days a year, Muzhi and the neighboring park are cut off the world. The only option to get here in autumn and spring is by a helicopter.
In summer, it is easier. The Meteor boat takes tourists from Salekhard to Muzhi. From late December to early April use the winter road.
"As for 2020, we haven’t seen high demand here. Too little advertising, perhaps?"Sergei Popov, who organizes tours, said. "We have own audience. Fishers come to the Voikar for big pikes. Those are men - 80%. The biggest attraction here is the people. Whenever you come, to the Khanty, or to the Nenets - they invite you inside the tent, immediately offering tea, food. Once, we ask them - why? The answer was very simple:"One day, my kid goes to the city, and there people will help him."
A Khanty house is warm: made of cut wood, with a stove. For the night, instead of blankets we are given national female outwear - yagushka. The Nenets call it panitsa. This beautifully decorated outfit is inherited from mothers to daughters.
"The older generation speaks the native language, the youth would not know it. The language remains alive mostly among those who nomad far from the civilization. The culture lives on, though changing. Inside the tents you may see televisions and generators," Anna Brusnitsyna said.
Alla Koneva tells us her father was one of the last wizards. He told her not to open a museum in the places of old settlements, saying it would be correct to make something new.
"When I stand next to the sacred trees, I feel delighted. My father used to make a ceremony, when we opened this museum. He was asking the spirits for approval," Alla said.
The world, the Khanty say, consists of three parts. The upper world is where gods and their assistants live. Humans live in the middle world, and next to them, in forests, are different spirits and substances. The lower world is the world of diseases, ugly substances, and to there go the souls of the dead.
Those worlds are connected by a bear, the son of Hum-Torum, the Super God. Killing this animal is allowed only once in seven years or if the beast attacks herds, interferes with humans. If a bear comes, the locals know that it is some relative visiting the family. This explains special attitudes to bears.
"They have bear-devoted games. Or sing saint songs. They are numerous, a few hundred. They take a special stick, where they cut out marks to see how many songs are performed. In short satirical performances about human weaknesses. Actors, always only men, wear birch masks, special hats and gowns. As of now, we have only one man, who knows those songs and the order in which they are to be presented," Alla said.
"Here, in the North, you will not find the luxury and gloss, which you can find in Turkey, where everything is made to attract tourists and serve them. Any possible wish is noted and can be seen on the price list. But, on the other hand, it gives the impression of something artificial. One of our guys said once: "Our rest is the rest outside the zone of comfort," Sergei said.
We stop on the winter road between Muzhi and Labytnangi to help a family, whose car has slid off the road.
We drive on.