Expedition to Siberia with Nenets people of Yamal Peninsula

April 2015

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Expedition itinerary
| Expedition information
| Pictures of Nenets and reindeers
| Contacts and Copyright
| Italiano

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Yamal peninsula expedition itinerary

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The peninsula of Yamal (or Jamal) is located north of the Arctic Circle in western Siberia, under the administration of Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, a remote region of Russia sparsely populated and characterized by a very cold polar climate. The Yamal Peninsula is a place almost completely unknown to the outside world, for which there isn't much talk in travel forums or magazines, so it might be natural to ask why a tourist should go up there, facing many difficulties which include a complex procedure to get the permission (a simple visa to Russia is not enough). The answer, however, is simple: the Yamal peninsula is inhabited by Nenets people, an indigenous ethnic Russian group, who still lives on rooted traditions very far from those of the modern world, a nomadic population that moves almost continuously following the transhumance of reindeers, an animal at the center of their lives and fulcrum of the simple economy. A trip to Jamal peninsula allows visitors to live for some days in close contact with a Nenet family, sleeping in their tents, sharing food and spaces, moving every day to a different place along with the herds of reindeers that can count hundreds or thousands of animals: a true expedition and an authentic experience like very few remained in the world.


As we are talking about a place in the middle of nowhere, with very few tourists, you're probably wondering how to get in this remote region of Russia, mostly unknown to the outside world. Well, surprising, the main difficult of getting to Yamal peninsula is not the means of transport to arrive there because, although mainly unpopulated, Salekhard (the capital of the region) is served by several flights per day onto Moscow, lasting approximately 3 hours (jet service). The problem of getting to Yamal is represented mainly by the bureaucratic difficulties, since the region is closed to foreigners (including most Russians from other regions) and in order to have the privilege of visiting these places, visitors must apply for a special permit (the simple visa to Russia is not enough) that is released only to few people per year and only after a long process that must be followed by an authorized local operator, typically the travel agent that arranges the expedition. The reason for such caution is that the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug has one of the most important natural gas reserves in the world, as well as deposits of oil, for which the local government does not want casual foreigners looking around. Once you have the permission and after a landing in Salekhard, the Jamal Peninsula and the Nenets people are reached on-board a heavy 6 wheel drive vehicles, capable of traveling on snow, ice, tundra or even streams, with a trip to Yar Sale usually lasting 5-6 hours. From Yar Sale, the trip continues to Nenets camps by snowmobile (the travel time depends on where they are actually located, as Nenets are nomads and they will not stay in the same place for long time).


The Jamal peninsula is interesting especially for the ethnic-cultural aspect, as it offers the opportunity to live in close contact with a Nenets family, participating in the seasonal transhumance and sharing with them all the daily activities. The place is however, interesting also for the extreme nature and the dramatic landscape represented essentially by a boundless ice desert. The reindeer are so numerous to constitute the landscape itself, while the winter months, when the nights are still long enough and dark, the northern lights phenomenon will likely keep visitors out of the tents during night. The city of Salekhard, the entry gateway to Yamal, deserves a visit, especially for the interesting museum of natural history, which houses many artifacts (including mummified mammoths found in the region, among the best of the world).


The Yamal peninsula, as well as much of the Yamalo-Nenets region, is a destination not suitable for who like to travel independently. In addition to the extreme environment posing issues to who is not well experienced with serious weather and terrain conditions, there are, as already explained, bureaucratic difficulties that must be supervised by a local operator. Last, but not least, do not expect that people will speak even just basic English. For all these reasons a trip to Yamal Peninsula is not a regular tour, but a real expedition to unknown places. Based on my knowledge, there are a couple of travel agencies organizing this expedition, one is located in Italy (Terre Polari) and another one is located in Spain (Tierras Polares)


It is a great privilege and a really authentic experience, that only very few regions of the world are still able to offer, to live in close contact with a family of natives in northern Siberia, sharing daily activities with them and following a part of the reindeer migration. In the pages of this travelogue, you will find a description of the typical day of a Nenets family, documented with hundreds of photos taken during a 10 days expedition.

The typical day of Nenets people, and therefore of the visitors, starts with an alarm clock ringing early morning, followed by an inspection around the camp to check if the weather conditions allow to move the whole camp and the reindeers to another place. Then, after a quick breakfast, everything is packed and loaded on the sledges, a process that takes several hours.

After a second breakfast, the tireless Nenets start to gather together hundreds of reindeers, separating males from females and capturing some leader by lasso. The activity is absolutely hectic: observing the shepherds who run over half meter deep snow snow, chasing the reindeers, screaming "HE HO!! HE HO!! HE HO!!" and throwing the lasso, visitors perceive an absolutely huge effort, which follows an already challenging and tiring job just to break the camp. After the reindeers have been gathered together, it will be already early afternoon.

Once the herd of reindeers has been gathered, the migration to new pastures starts, traveling for a few hours along a distance of several kilometers. Sometimes the heard of reindeers make a single line that may be hundreds and hundreds of meters long: the scene is absolutely magnificent, the reindeer are not animals in the landscape, but they form the landscape itself: the visitors will feel inside a National Geographic documentary!

Many hours have passed from the ring of the alarm clock in the morning and, finally arrived at destination, the reindeers are left free to eat the dry vegetation hidden below a thick layer of snow. The sledges are unloaded and the activity starts once again preparing the new camp, first setting up the tents of reindeer skins (chum) supported by fifty heavy wooden poles. On completion, late in the evening, visitors and Nenets family eat the dinner together around a small table slightly raised from the ground, consuming mostly raw fish, reindeer meat either cooked or raw, some bread, jam and condensed milk.

After more than 14-16 hours from the wake up call in the morning, it's now time to sleep. Visitors are accommodated together with Nenets family on the ground of the tent, together with Samoyed dogs and protected with warm reindeer skins.


The Yamal Peninsula is an area closed to foreigners, so the local people are not used to deal with tourists. English is almost unknown and visitors shouldn't expect any comfort or anything that is "normal" in western countries. During the expedition with Nenets, the bathroom is only outdoor in the wild, without washing facilities, and low temperatures makes everything more complicated. Drinking water is prepared by melting and boiling snow, while the variety of food is extremely limited and represented mainly by raw fish and reindeer meat prepared in hygienic conditions far from western standards. Overnight stays are on the ground in the tents, along with the Nenets family and their Samoyed dogs (although during the day and during meals the tent is heated with a wood stove, at night, without any fire burning, it can be very cold and visitors will need top quality clothes). During the month of April, the temperature is not very rigid (varies from a few degrees above zero to -15 centigrades), but the strong wind increases the feeling of cold. Therefore, a trip to Jamal peninsula with Nenets is only suitable for tourists with a great ability to adapt and already used to this kind of holiday (actually a real expedition to unknown places, rather than regular travel).

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Yar Sale Getting to Yar Sale, the start point of the expedition <<-- GO
Yar Sale is the last outpost before the desolation of the Jamal peninsula, in the Siberian region of Yamalo-Nenec, and is the main logistics base for Nenets people, the nomads of Siberia, who migrate seasonally with the herds of reindeers. Spending a few hour in the city, reveal a nice architecture and an interesting small museum.
Traditional Nenets chum (tent) The typical day of a Nenets family from morning wake up call <<-- GO
The typical day for a Nenets family, a nomadic ethnic group of northern Siberia, starts early in the morning checking weather and snow conditions, before breaking the camp and loading all the materials on the sledges pulled by reindeers. Nenets people follow the migration of the reindeers, moving the camp almost every day.
Capturing a reindeer by lasso Gathering the reindeers all together <<-- GO
After breaking the camp, Nenets begin the complex operations to gather together the reindeers, separating males from females and capturing the leaders by lasso, an hard work that a Nenets start to learn from a very young age. Samoyed dogs provide valuable assistance, while in the air resound the screaming voices of the shepherds trying to rule the animals.
Herd of reindeers The annual migration of the reindeers and nomadic Nenets people <<-- GO
Once the heard of reindeers has been gathered, Nenets finally leave for the today destination, in search of new pastures where the animals can find the necessary sustenance. The distance run is usually around a few tens of kilometers, with some modern snowmobile used an an aid over the sledges pulled by reindeers.
Nenets of Siberia Setting up the camp to spend the night <<-- GO
After a tiring day, as soon as the shepherds arrive at their destination with the reindeers, it's time to set up the camp again and pitch up the tents, unloading the materials transported on sleds first. After a quick dinner, usually based on raw fish and reindeer meat, it's finally time to sleep under the reindeer skins.
Yamal Peninsula Photos and information about Yamal Peninsula <<-- GO
Although this is mainly an ethnic expedition, where the main target is to live for a few days together with a Nenets family, we must not forget that the trip takes place in a region featuring a very unusual landscape, that will certainly unleashes traveler's curiosity. And then ... how to resist to the beautiful northern lights?
Salechard Salekhard the capital of Yamalo-Nenets region <<-- GO
Salekhard is an interesting town looking much different than other cities of Russia, featuring modern and colorful buildings. The main attraction is the beautiful museum of natural history, where mammoths and other mummies are some of the best you can find in the world.

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