Chukotka: On the Edge of the World
This is the last article in our “Travel Russia Stories” project. In case you’ve missed it, we went to South Siberia first, then visited Baikal region… And now the time has come to explore the most mysterious region of Russia – Chukotka, a peninsula located in the Far North-East of the country. Our guide to Chukotka will be Timur Akhmetov, an experienced traveler and photographer who loves and knows this region.
Hi, Timur! Let’s first talk about the beginning of your traveling career. What was your first real trip? And how come that you travel mostly around Chukotka?
Hello! Well.. My parents, as many caring parents do, used to encourage me to go to various hobby clubs when I was a kid. I tried drawing, model airplane engineering… but nothing could beat the hiking club, where we also did photography. Over years, the small camping trips we used to organize there have evolved into long expeditions and the love of photography that I first learned there has become my lifestyle. I live in Chukotka now, having moved back here after 10 years in Moscow. And whenever I have an opportunity, I discover new interesting routes in this region, try them out and preserve the memories of my adventures on photos. By now there are more than 7 000 kilometers of travels behind me. This includes not only backpacking trips, but also quad bike, snowmobile, rafting, and cycling trips.
Very impressive! You know the region so well by now, how would you characterize it? What can you say about the nature and the weather there?
Chukotka is a place that has its own peculiar mood. It’s impossible to feel it during just a short visit. But the longer you stay here, the more you absorb this northern spirit. These plants, volcanoes, birds’ cries, low clouds, and drizzling rain are all in a wonderful harmony. It’s so mesmerizing, that you would not even feel the discomforts inherently connected with the trip there. It wouldn’t matter if you’re cold or wet to the bones anymore. I haven’t experienced this state of mind in any other place. Chukotka doesn’t possess the postcard beauty that will leave you breathless. Here one has to look for beauty and find it, and this makes Chukotka so precious. If you have it in you, the North will open its heart to you.
Nature is stunning here! Chukotka is sheeted with forests and endless snow planes that turn into swamps in summer. Icy waters wash its ocean coasts and plants bow their heads to escape the wind. And obscure and mystical rites of the ancestors are still remembered and observed in Chukotka among the nomad tribes and the sea hunters. As centuries ago, the Chukchi are still traveling with the herds of deer across the tundra. Sea hunters leave the land to hunt for food with their harpoons the same way their great-great-grandfathers did. And no celebration can go without playing yarar – a traditional Chukchi tambourine.
Gosh, now I want to see it all with my own eyes… But I have no idea how to organise a trip there. What are the travel options that Chukotka offers?
Chukotka is still quite an unexplored part of Russia when it comes to tourism. Plane tickets cost a fortune! So right now the region is mostly visited only by photographers, romantics, artists and true fans of the North. I must warn hikers that Chukotka is not the best choice for active tourism in Russia. There are much better places for this, Caucasus Mountains, for example. Instead of concentrating on the sport value of the trip, one should come here to become part of the nature and the unique traditions, to enjoy the silence without hurry, to see the villages of sea hunters and deer herders. Chukotka without its people, their stories, traditions and life philosophy is just a region with typical harsh Northern nature, one can find that in many other places in Russia and other countries on the same latitude.
Unfortunately, travel industry in the region is virtually non-existent. After working here for a whole year, locals try to escape to warmer places for holidays, they don’t travel their own land. The tourist influx from the outside is very tenuous, there are very few travelers that are motivated enough to find money and ways to come here. The biggest part of tourists here are elderly travelers brought by cruise ships from Alaska or Kamchatka. Such a ship goes along the coast, making short stops every now and then. But what can these tourists see?
You can’t trust your trip planning to any agency because there are none, so you have to plan all your trips around Chukotka by yourself, which is a real challenge. For example, most of the villages here belong to a borderland zone, so one has to get a special pass to enter them. The transportation system is also tricky – there are frequent delays, often there are no tickets, and some of the remote villages can only be reached by a helicopter that goes once in two weeks. Doesn’t matter what TV and newspapers say about promoting tourism here, Chukotka will stay a closed place while the logistics is unmanageable and there are difficulties in getting borderline passes and tickets. Of course, this situation is no good but look at it from another angle. Here, in the North, “wrong” people don’t linger. Coming to Chukotka requires a lot of patience, as you have to solve all the bureaucratic issues and save quite some money for the tickets. It’s no small challenge, but the reward is also big. It’s like an entrance test, and those who get scared away, who abandon the idea of travelling to Chukotka because of the difficulties connected with the trip, will never discover its beauty.
Fine, but where should I start when I am there? I mean, do I just randomly come to a village and start talking to people?
Well… Yes. Actually, it’s a very good idea to just come to a village and start getting to know the people. Everybody here is very hospitable and friendly. They will take you fishing, picking berries or mushrooms, even on a whale hunt! The only thing that you might want to keep in mind is that all this will take time. The notion of time is very vague for the people in the remote parts of Chukotka. Basically, time doesn’t matter. We are already on the Edge of the World, so why hurry?:) The main factor in the lives of people here is weather, not days or hours. So if you want to see Chukotka, you’ll need 2 – 3 weeks minimum.
And do you have a favourite travel route here?
Honestly speaking, I love travelling along the rivers. These are often very calm and relaxing trips. There is always a lot of wood on the river banks, so you can set up a campfire anytime you want. By the way, fire not only keeps you warm but also allows you to make fresh herbal tea. My friends laugh at me, but I have sort of a tradition – a cup of wild rosemary tea wherever I go. Rivers also take away all the negative emotions that you inevitably accumulate in this rush world. All these bad feelings, they get washed away with the river flow.
A river trip sounds like a great choice! However, I’m sure travelling around Chukotka is not for everyone. How fit should one be to set off on a trip there?
Obviously, you have to be very fit in order to make a long trekking trip. But it’s even more important to be morally ready for the weather, landscape, and mosquitoes. It’s important to understand all the hardships ahead. You should not embark on a trip to Chukotka if you have zero experience with travelling in the wild. Here it can snow even in August, seriously! Besides, the land here is very peculiar – it’s tundra covered with bunch grasses. It takes some time to get used to walking it. You will be surprised, but doing even 20 kilometers a day on a terrain like that is a major feat! If you’re unprepared for the trip, you will face twisted ankles, calluses and ligament pains. Even for me, it’s problematic to cross a stretch of tundra with bunch grasses after long breaks in travelling. Besides, flat tundra landscape devastates you psychologically. And if you add heat or drizzling rain and mosquitoes to the equation… You’ll get real Chukotka!
Speaking about planning a trip, let’s discuss the timing. Most of the people want to go to the North to see the Northern lights. I know one can see them also in Chukotka. What is the best season for spotting them?
Yes, the Northern lights are definitely one of the miracles of this region. If you watch them from tundra and not from a city, you’re guaranteed overwhelming emotions. I guess the charged particles in the Northern lights not only affect the atmosphere, but also the human brain. Once my friend and I were standing with our heads up and literally yelling of happiness caused by this storm of green and red waves. And the more you move to the North, the brighter are the lights and the bigger the chance to see the lights in many colors. For example, in Anadyr, the administrative center of Chukotka, the lights are mostly green, while in Pevek you can catch tens of different hues. Once I even saw the blue ones! The peak season for spotting Northern lights is from March to April, so come and enjoy them!
All photos are courtesy of Timur Akhmetov.
This article has first appeared on the Russian version of 80days&counting.