Life 36 deg C below zero

Life 36 deg C below zero

FOR centuries, the Nenets of Siberia have lived off reindeer meat and blood, utilising every inch of the animal from hide to heart, to bone and antlers even - nothing is ever wasted.

As soon as the reindeer is dead, the hide is meticulously removed and kept in one piece to be used for clothing.

Then the feasting begins and everyone partakes in eating the parts of the reindeer they most enjoy.

My eight "Women On A Mission"(WOAM) teammates and I felt extremely privileged to accompany these exceptional people during a portion of their epic yearly migration across the frozen gulf of Ob in northern Russia.

Photo: Women On A Mission (WOAM)

WOAM is a non-profit organisation headquartered in Singapore, which combines challenging self-funded expeditionary travel to remote locations around the world with the support of humanitarian causes.

Our expedition partner was Secret Compass.

The Nenets of the Yamal Peninsula are among the world's oldest surviving true nomads.

They are guardians of a style of reindeer-herding that is the very last of its kind.

In their language, Yamal means "the end of the world" and indeed, as Arctic desert, along with their gigantic reindeer herds, we felt as if we were pioneers standing at the very edge of humanity's first settlement.

Dangers on the tundra

On migration days, we were up at 4am, helping the women dismantle the camp and load their belongings on the sledges, while the men went off to lasso the specially trained transport reindeer from the main herd.

Photo: Women On A Mission (WOAM)

Once the reindeer were harnessed to each of the sleighs, the tribe was ready to go.

Then began the journey that spanned 20 to 25km to the next encampment, with the sleighs forming a 2km-long convoy snaking its way across the frozen landscape.

We would not eat or drink all day, or at least until the new camp was set up.

It was overcast and dreadfully cold. When the wind picked up and the snow began to swirl violently around us, the temperatures would plummet to minus 36 deg C.

Photo: Women On A Mission (WOAM)

We were grateful for the reindeer fur coats and thigh-high boots the Nenets lent us.

In these extreme conditions, however, despite the many layers we were wearing, our extremities begin to feel dangerously numb.

Our biggest risk, as we spent close to 10 hours without shelter, was frostbite and hypothermia.

Thus we kept a watchful eye on each other throughout the day for any early warning signs of these conditions.

Mystical women

When Yuri, the head of the tribe, found a suitable place to set up camp, usually near a large, flat area where the herd could easily be rounded up, everyone started unloading sledges, unharnessing reindeer, and setting up chums (traditional conical tents made of reindeer hides).

Photo: Women On A Mission (WOAM)

Once the camp was finally set up, it was time for warm tea and a feast of frozen fish and bread - laid out in front of us as we all piled eagerly into the chums to warm up.

Antonina, Yuri's mother, brought out the vodka, while the family's nine dogs curled up on the furs around us, watching expectantly for any scraps.

She then began to tell us about the rules. "In Nenets culture, women have a lot of mystical powers," she began.

We were elated to hear this, and then quickly realised there was more to it "Anything to do with the birth-giving area of a woman's body can be harmful and is considered somewhat of a taboo," she explained.

Photo: Women On A Mission (WOAM)

We soon discovered the laws of the tribe, as they related to women: We were not allowed to step over men or any of their tools - a rule, unfortunately, many of us failed miserably to remember over the next few days, given the restricted space in the chums.

If we came across one of the men's lassos or tools on the ground while walking through the camp, we had to always walk around it and never over it, lest we incur horrible bad luck for the whole tribe.

Additionally, we could not cross or put our hand through the invisible line, which goes from the centre of each chum all the way to the back of the tent and extends another 100m outside.

Toileting activities had to be carefully conducted out of sight of any of the men, which in itself was a real challenge, given the Nenets men are in constant motion, checking on their herd or doing chores, coming in and out of the camp from any side and at any time.

Additionally, the landscape around the camp - although incredibly stunning - is for the most part completely flat.

Thus our trips to the "toilet" turned into real treks of 200 to 300m or more, sometimes in knee-high snow.

Furthermore, despite carefully planning our toileting expeditions, we discovered to our horror that the reindeer craved the salt in our urine.

Thus they constantly shadowed us like ninjas and pounced on us when we were at our most vulnerable, with pants down, clinging without any success to the last shreds of our dignity.

Other camp activities included chopping wood, in order to keep the stoves in the chums burning, drawing water through a man-made hole and pulling it back to camp on a sleigh, as well as weaving traditional belts and other articles.

The simple life

As the days went by, we fell deeper in love with the magnificent Arctic scenery and the remarkable way of life of these nomads.

We learned to appreciate the tranquillity of the boundless empty spaces and the deafening silence of the frozen tundra.

The dramatic sunrises and sunsets were unforgettable, even if we often confused the two, given the days were so short.

Photo: Women On A Mission (WOAM)

Despite the harshness of the environment, we adapted surprisingly well to our new way of life, but it was also because the Nenets were so hospitable - treating us like their daughters, making sure we were warm and well-fed at all times.

Yuri's pregnant wife Elena saw that I was about to step out of the chum to go herding with the men, who had made an exception by inviting our women's team to see how they moved 10,000 reindeer across the tundra.

I could not find my balaclava, essential to avoid frostbite when riding on the snowmobiles to reach the herd.

Elena quickly pulled off her own embroidered scarf and tied it tightly across my face to make sure the skin was protected, while whispering words of motherly concern in the Nenets language, as I ran out.

Undoubtedly, the proud Nenets people cast a beautiful spell on us. The contrast with our comfortable, materialistic lives could not have been more extreme.

Although their world now also incorporates some modern items such as phones, generators and snowmobiles, their way of life remains pure and, in many ways, far richer than ours.

By the simplicity of their existence, the Nenets reminded us of the real importance of community and family values for survival. For me, this humbling experience will count as one of the highlights of my life.

This article was first published on February 23, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.

This website is best viewed using the latest versions of web browsers.