Ethics and Safety
Visiting some tribal or nomadic groups might raise concerns of disrupting their lives or threatening their culture with too much exposure to the outside world. This is certainly a valid concern for tribal groups who have had very little previous contact with outsiders. However, with the Nenets of the Yamal Peninsula, as with most nomadic groups in Russia, the situation is a little different.
In the 1930s the Soviet government began forcibly taking Nenets children from their parents and educating them in boarding schools. This practice continues to this day. Although back in the 1930s the Nenets resisted it, since the 1960s absolutely all Nenets have received an education and it is generally viewed as a necessary and positive thing. Over 50% of them, after completing their school or university education, choose to return to the tundra and live out the rest of their lives as nomads with the reindeer. There are almost 7,000 nomadic Nenets on the Yamal Peninsula alone, without even counting other districts of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region. The nomadic population is growing steadily.
This situation, often referred to as “the Nenets phenomenon”, is extremely unusual. Often, when tribal groups get a taste of mainstream society, they are reluctant to return to their traditional way of life. However, it seems the Yamal Peninsula Nenets culture is so resilient that they are able to take what they want from mainstream society without letting it affect their cultural identity. They experience both worlds then make a choice, with over 50% choosing one way of life (nomadism) and just under 50% choosing the other (a settled life in Yamal Peninsula villages). Those that choose life as a nomad do so because this is the life that they want, not because they have to. The most successful reindeer herders have an amount of property that would be valued at over a million dollars.
For an idea of just how such an unusual situation might have developed, you could have a look at two articles written by our owner / founder / director. One was published in the Geographical magazine and one in The Calvert Journal. The cultural success of the Nenets may partially be thanks to the very forward-thinking policies of the local government both in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras.
Given this situation, it seems that receiving the odd individual or small group with a real interest in their culture is unlikely to be disruptive. On the contrary, the money they earn really does raise their quality of life. It helps them have a more varied diet, buy medicine, replace an old snowmobile that is in dangerously bad condition, etc.
Having said that, it is important that visitors do not stimulate any major change in the lives of the Nenets. The aim of the trips we organise is total cultural immersion. These are real working nomads and are not there to put on a show for us. During our stay, they will continue living and working as they usually would, taking us with them to watch and help whenever they go out to herd reindeer, visit neighbouring nomad camps or do anything at all. They are among the busiest people in the world, and rarely have any free time. This means that guests will be busy most of the time. It is likely that you will see everything you wanted to see naturally, without the need for any shows especially for us.
Exceptions to the above can, of course, be made for photographers or film crews who need to shoot something very specific. In this case we must be advised of what you need to shoot far in advance. This will give us time to contact various different nomad camps, explain your project to them and find one that is happy to cooperate.
Everywhere has certain potential threats to safety. In large cities the most obvious ones would be traffic accidents and crime. The point is to have the experience, knowledge and sense to be able to minimise the risk to near to zero.
In Arctic Russia there are, of course, almost no traffic accidents or crime. When travelling in winter, the main potential threats to safety are the cold and the lack of easily accessible medical facilities. As with cities, the point here is to have the experience, knowledge and sense to be able to bring down the risk to near to zero. During your trip to Arctic Russia, you will be looked after 24/7 by your guide and local hosts, who have thousands of years of cultural knowledge and a lifetime of personal experience of how to survive in this environment.
Our trips are therefore somewhat different from most people’s idea of an Arctic expedition. These trips are not feats of endurance and will involve no arduous physical activity or isolation from human contact. You will be the guests in the warm home of a family who know how to live comfortably and safely in this environment. They will work hard to make sure that you are comfortable and safe too.
You will also be accompanied by your guide, who has many years of experience in Arctic Russia working with the locals and with foreigners. He will give you a safety briefing at the beginning of your trip. He will also be on the look out for any health and safety issues during the trip and will clearly explain them to you if they do appear.
For those worried about the cold, we like to refer to two common sayings in Russia:
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
“A northerner is not someone who doesn’t feel the cold. It’s someone who knows how to dress warm.”
This is really true. Dressed in Nenets reindeer fur clothing you can sleep outdoors on the snow in -50°C and feel absolutely toasty. Of course, we do not want any of our guests to try that! However, the point remains: if you have the right clothing you will be comfortable in any conditions.
Much of the worry people in the West have when thinking of remote Arctic travel probably comes from all those explorers who perished in the North from cold and hunger on exploratory expeditions in previous centuries. Part of the reason those expeditions failed is they simply had no experience of how to live comfortably and safely in the Arctic. Another reason was that their clothing was usually completely unsuitable for Arctic conditions. Luckily for us, clothing specially designed for exactly those conditions is now available. During the booking process, we will of course advise you on all the necessary clothing and equipment. We will also offer you our own rental clothing, boots and sleeping bags.
The sad thing is that many of those explorers died within a stone’s throw from native villages of people who had been living happily and comfortably there for millennia and could easily have helped them. The trouble was that the explorers viewed natives as savages to be stayed well away from, whereas in fact they should have asked them for help. If one of those 19th-century Inuit had been dropped in the middle of a big city, he might have found it pretty terrifying and almost impossible to survive. However, if he had a local showing him around and taking care of him, he would be absolutely fine.
The point is that no place is extreme to people who are used to living there and whose way of life has evolved there over thousands of years. While the frozen tundra of Arctic Russia may seem like a pretty extreme place to us, to the locals it is home. With a hospitable locals and an experienced guide looking after you, you will be in the best possible hands for such an expedition.
The chances of anything going wrong on our trips are probably the same as crossing the road in a big city. On our 200+ Arctic Russia trips, we have never had any serious problems. However, if something did go wrong, you would of course be quite far from the nearest hospital, which brings us on to the second potential threat mentioned above: the lack of easily accessible medical facilities.
Most regional centres (Salekhard on Yamal, Yakutsk in Yakutia, Anadyr in Chukotka) have very good hospitals capable of carrying out complicated surgical procedures. Small villages have more basic medical facilities. If you get ill or injured in the tundra not far from a village, the fastest way to get help will probably be to lie down on some mattresses and furs in a box sledge attached to the back of a snowmobile (in winter) or an all-terrain vehicle (in summer) and travel to the nearest hospital. In winter, when all nomad camps are located relatively close to settlements, this will almost always be the fastest way to get help.
In summer, however, all nomad camps and wildlife-spotting areas are located far to the north and often a two-day drive by Trekol all-terrain vehicle from the nearest village. In this case, if anything went wrong, we would need to use our satellite phone to call an air ambulance. This could also potentially be necessary in winter if someone was so badly injured that they could not lie in the back of a box sledge. Luckily, the hospitals in the regional centres mentioned above all have good air ambulance services. Guests must, however, have travel insurance covering helicopter evacuation.
On our summer polar bear spotting trips, the bears themselves become a potential threat. For this reason, whenever visiting these areas we will be accompanied by armed, trained biologists with decades of experience working in areas with polar bears. They will know the best way to approach the bears, how to read the bears’ behaviour and when to back off. We will always make sure we have an escape route planned in advance (usually the motor boat on which we arrived) before we begin any excursion. If camping, we will provide a top-quality electric fence, which we will employ extra people to guard at night.
It is essential on polar-bear spotting trips that everyone stays close to the guide, does not spread out and always knows where both the bears and the escape route are located. Never allow the bear to come between you and the escape route. Likewise, never come between the bear and the sea. Most important of all, do not get too carried away with your photography and always listen to what your guide says and watch what he does. He has a lot of experience in these situations.