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Traveling Russia before winter roads melt away

Russia's winter roads lead to far-away villages and herds

MOSCOW, April 20. /TASS/. Winter roads have their own rules. They melt away in spring to get formed by the yearend. Those are the country’s mysterious roads, leading to far-away villages and herds. Together with car traveler Sergei Saiman we drive on - this time to deer herders.

Khanty speaking

"We do not use dirty language at the table. You, people from cities, live in a harsh world," Mikhail Lar, a Khanty deer, grasps firmly a frozen fish, accurately cuts off the scales and then slices the fish into even, transparent curls. On the table there are boiled venison and stroganina (sliced frozen fish), black tea, candies and cookies. Hospitality rules are observed in the tundra. It’s a rule to give food to anyone who comes in from the frost.

Wood is burning in the oven, the smoke bursts from a metal pipe and rushes into the dark sky.

Maya, Mikhail’s wife, a Nenets, is the last to take a seat by the table. She is trying to calm down Kiki, Kirill’s junior son. The name is the father’s idea. He speaks the native language with the son.

The language and its loss is a special topic for the Nenets and Khanty.

"Before going to school, my senior kids spoke fluently. And now, the daughter speaks with an accent, mixing up the words. Both kids can understand, through speaking for them is complicated already," Mikhail said. "I also studied in Russian at school, but never forgot my language. I speak Khanty and Nenets fluently."

When the senior kids, Alina and Artem, come to the herd for holidays, the father would not allow them to speak Russian. He says, speaking Nenets or Khanty depends on parents. "It is good when a family knows its language. Everything disappears, gets forgotten. We may become the last generation speaking the national language."

Between November and March the herders remain at one location. They may go to the village for whatever purposes, they fix the sledges, make runners for them, repair harness and clothes. In the tundra, they still use animal veins in sewing: threads are not reliable enough. From the age of seven-eight years, girls are taught everything around the house, and by 16 years girls become true home masters.

"Nowadays, all girls leave to get educated: some move to the village, others to the city. If we followed the old traditions, my daughter, who is 17, would have been a bride by now," Mikhail said. "People get educated, and it is good. Some must receive education, but some must still live in the tundra. Otherwise, nobody will remain here. Take for example my pastures. Who will come here?"

A white dog runs into the chum with some of the guests. It lies down by the oven, squints, looking at the owner: whether he will allow it inside or not. Because of living in severe frosts, the fur is so thick that it springs under the palm.

"This is my dog. The smartest. Without it I am nothing," Mikhail is far from joking. "I have a special attitude to dogs. Some people may kick their dogs. Whenever I travel to the village, I always take the dogs with me."

There is something special about what chums are like inside. No corners, borders, ascetic living, everything is simple, and thus people are free.

Very soon - in April - the team, which is ten adults and their kids, will leave this location to nomad across the tundra.

When a herder moves along his own route, everyone has a different route, he leaves in the tundra the things he does not need at the moment. A snow bike, sledges with food for the autumn. Only on rare occasions bears could mess loaded sledges. Nomads never touch other people’s sledges. Mikhail has inherited the nomad route from his father, and later on Mikhail’s son will use this route.

"Many people would come from land and ask: how can you find directions in the tundra? It is complicated for you as much as it is nothing special for us. We know everything from childhood. If you place me in a garden, I will get lost there."

Mikhail laughs. About some of our questions and responses, about how we cannot find the entrance to the chum. His laughter is kind, friendly.

Even in the tundra, which seems endless, there are special places, going where for no reason is not allowed. "As for the sacred places, we do have restrictions. We do not go to certain places without special reasons, and there we behave carefully not even to break a tree branch there."

"My family also has a sacred place. I go there: start a small fire, slaughter a deer. We go there once in three years. And behave properly."

It’s all about fur

The herd does not graze near the camp - they go to places where they can find yagel (reindeer moss). Thus, we take snow bikes. Maya allows me to wear her yagushka (national outfit). Making this "fur coat" is time consuming: in May-June, women process skins, and in July-September they make the coats. They take orders. The price begins from 50,000 rubles ($660).

Maya helps me to put on the coat, to tie the leather laces which are used instead of buttons. All the housekeeping is done by women, she said. Even cutting wood for the oven. "Men are busy with their work. They fix the sledges, make skis and harness. There’s a lot to be done."

The snow is trampled down as if after a crowd. Those were not people but deer. They walked and dug searching for the moss.

"From here and for as far as you can see stretches my land, " Mikhail stands on the snow bike, pointing to the horizon. "Further down is another pasture. If my deer get there, they’ll give me a call saying: "Mikhail, get yours away from here."

Between me and Mikhail across the seat lies a dog. Local dogs always accompany their owners. It waits for a signal to run, to chase deer, to work. Deer horns are shining in the sun. The snow dust, stirred up by hundreds of hooves, would not settle. How many animals - nobody here would ask it: this question is not proper in the tundra.

The exhaled air freezes on lashes. It is a strange feeling to wear a yagushka - the movements are limited and thus get smoother.

"Are you warm?" Saimon’s question is not of curiosity. He is one of the Bask Team - they are travelers, mountain climbers, athletes who risk lives in extreme conditions. Correctly chosen clothes may save lives. This is why we often argue, try, what failed and what was handy in a trip.

"Your safety depends directly on how much correctly you are dressed. The problem of all newcomers is incorrectly chosen outfits: they either get cold or feel hot. Gradually, with every new season, people tend to use correct clothes," Sergei said.

Nobody makes outfit specifically for car tourism. Thus, travelers have to combine. Shoe covers - tactical equipment, down - for climbers, and possibly something ski-related.

The approach to clothes remains unchanged - always have many layers: thermal underwear, fleece, a down vest, a thin down jacket, a thick down jacket. Clothing should be loose. The upper layers are one or two sizes larger than for regular clothes.

"I will never go anywhere wearing just a jacket,- on top of a malitsa (national outfit) Mikhail has a warm cloth shirt, which repeats the lower layer outline, but it is more loose. - I may change in the village, but after the malitsa I feel cold. I can feel the wind blow."

Malitsa is worn over the head. It is made of reindeer skins with fur inside. To the sleeves are sewn gloves of kamus (skin from lower part of deer legs) and a hood. In severe frosts, on top of a malitsa the locals put on a sovik or goose - made of fur. If bad weather catches you in the tundra, you will be safe in such clothes.

"I can’t say how many times I have drowned, got frozen, but the thing is - never give in and you’ll survive," Mikhail said. "Human spirits can do a lot."

Other herders ask me: "Who’s come to you by cars? Must be brave people. Worth meeting them."

Many more bears than people

The tourist trip is over. All the crews, except two, return home. Sergei and a team of travelers from St. Petersburg, Yaroslavl and Maxim will drive on - to the White Island, which is across the Malygin Strait from Yamal.

The return trip will take about ten days. They will be lucky to travel on frosty and sunny days, which are untypical for March. A year earlier, when Saimon was traveling to Dikson, a snow storm continued for almost a month.

A part of the route will be along the winter roads, organized by different corporations. In a lack of winter roads’ maps, going astray is no wonder. "In the long run, we managed to make it to the peninsula’s northern part and followed the direction."

"At first, we drove ice-covered flat river, then got to the tundra, where the landscape changed, got more complex. We crossed the Malygin Strait by rather good ice. When bypassing the island, planning to get to the weather station, we came across complicated places. We saw huge cracks in some passages - it took us too much time to pass them: we had to get ashore and return to the ice further down, " Sergei said.

We spent two days at the Popov Marine Hydro-Meteorology Station, which was opened in 1933. After a fire in 2001 and a year-long break, there was built a new modular house. Every three hours, simultaneously across the globe, meteorologists put down records. In Russia, all the data is transmitted to HydroMetCenter.

Oleg, Viktor and Irina, the station’s personnel, told us about life in the Arctic: the island has been restless as about 15 polar bears keep wandering nearby. Saiman’s team saw a predator on their first day on the island. Next day, another grownup male approached the station.

The route across the Malygin Strait, the Ob Bay, via the Syeyakha and Payuta villages, along winter roads brought the expedition to Salekhard.

Here begins our road back home.