It is early October and we are ankle deep in snow, with two reindeers next to us jingling away while lugging our backpacks in its wooden sleigh, as we hike through the mountainous region of Eastern Siberia. A child’s dream comes true. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was apparently out of town, but I suppose I can let that pass, just. But let’s rewind back seven days before we begin the story of the Evenki people and their antler friends.
After an intense and arduous week of driving from Moscow to Lake Baikal, covering 5500km (two third of the width of Russia), it was refreshing to be back on our two legs. The muscular exertion was most welcome. We became slaves of the number on the mileage counter with a daily goal that had to be met under all circumstances. During the day, if we wanted to stop to explore a place en route, then we had to make up the distance by racing through the night. After all, we had an appointment to keep with Sasha, the head of an Evenki family living in the north of the oldest and deepest lake in the world – Lake Baikal.
The site of the lake is breath-taking and worth every effort we took to get here. It is little wonder why people, like our friend Uncle E, from neighbouring towns decided to make their home here. They came around 1970s to build the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) that runs north of and parallel to the Trans-Siberian railway stretching over 4000km. It was to be a strategic alternative to a railway that, in certain parts, is a little too close to China. Uncle E stayed and takes the growth of his community of Severobaikalsk personally. He is trying to establish the Great Baikal Trail that will allow hikers to trek all the way round Lake Baikal. We wish him all the best!
Uncle E is also the one who introduces us to Sasha and partly the reason why we are out here in the freezing cold listening to reindeers foraging through snow on the ground to find moss to munch on. Sasha, for one, walks at twice the speed as us and we are left fighting for our breath at his heels. We soon find out Sasha is quite a special breed among the small population of Evenki people who reside in Siberia. It’s not just because he is half Russian and half Evenk, but because, as one of eleven in his family, he is the only one who has chosen to carry on the way of life his ancestors would have lived.
This means: fishing; hunting bears and wild reindeers for food and fur; building his own shelter and set traps for animals like sables. While his ten siblings decided to lead a ‘modern’ lifestyle in various towns and cities, every 20 days Sasha takes a treacherous 50km drive from his home in Uoyan, that takes five hours to reach, followed by another 10km of walking and a short boat ride across a lake to reach his reindeer farm. Needless to say, he is a busy and diligent man with a pair of eyes that rays out youthful vivacity that is contagious. This energy coupled with an open mind and willingness to work hard is perhaps the key for survival when faced with the adversity of rapid change that is modernisation.
Looking around I finally realise how alone we are. As I pause from playing with Sasha’s two Laika dogs and the snow I listen to the sound of nothingness. Save for the sound of rushing water, that is the River Mama a few miles away, and the sound of snow crunching at our every step, there is nothing else. Complete silence. The trees tower around and over us while the snow-capped mountains in the distance stares at us with a cold and stony face. I feel an uneasiness that reveals the insignificance of my human existence.
At the mercy of mother nature, I was glad, therefore, that we had followed the shamanistic ritual of asking for nature’s protection, before we set off, by banging on this massive drum followed by walking close-wise around it three times. We also tied a ribbon on a tree branch for protection from Sasha’s father, just for extra measures. Better to be safe than sorry! Out there, mother nature rules and she is unforgiving. But Sasha makes it look easy. Like all Evenks, he is at ease in the face of the eeriness and loneliness of nature and makes us feel like it’s his backyard. It might seem like a hard life fighting for survival and living in solitude but it a place where you can truly find yourself. I already miss the snow and its peacefulness.
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