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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Off to Chukotka the Edge of the World
Stefania Zini

A Chukcha hunter sits on the peak of a bare hill, elbow resting on his knee, he smokes a cigarette, and enjoys a rest. He stares into the distance, and a fluffy white dog beside him points his nose, trying to catch a far-off scent. The rays of the setting sun break through low-lying leaden clouds and dapple the stream-crossed summer tundra with shades of silver. The Chukcha peers across the horizon where the mountains merge with the sea, and the sea with the sky. All is quiet and one imagines the only sound is that of the droning wind. Like a breeze through the hair, it teases apart the fronds of the low bushes, flashing their many different colours.

This scene from a painting captures the spiritual essence of that far away land, which few know, although many have heard of, because the multibillionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club is the regional governor. One look at this landscape, and you envy the hunter and understand that you must see this at least once with your own eyes.

Those who have heard of this remote region in Russias extreme north east, probably think of it as a god-forsaken land far, far away on the roof of the world. But still some people are drawn to this region, perhaps because of its very remoteness.

Those who have been there know, that when you arrive, you feel as if you have entered another dimension. What seemed important in ordinary life suddenly dissolves and acquires new unexpected colour. You feel something enigmatic, on the edge, something between the lines of the many legends of the northern peoples and the stories told by the locals. You look at these people, listen to them, and understand that they live in a different way, not like you. Your soul is captured by the desire to know the Chukchi way of life. Do they really still wear hand-made fur clothing and still live in deer-skin tents?

This enigmatic life is hidden in the depths of this land, among the sharp peaks of the Chukotka highlands, along the banks of the many rivers. There the Chukchi still move from place to place with their reindeer herds, while teams of geologists search for gold among the volcanoes, and prospectors dig for gold in the tundra and alter river courses to recover the precious yellow metal. In small coastal villages, the native inhabitants preserve their old customs and continue to live by hunting marine animals. In summer, they go to sea in motor boats and leather canoes, in winter they look for holes in the coastal ice to catch walruses, ringed seals and square-flipper bearded seals or whales. These gigantic inhabitants of the northern seas are still the main dish in the daily diet of the local coastal population.

However, not only Chukchi reindeer herders and hunters live in Chukotka. Today, people come from central Russia, "from the continent" as they say there, in search of high wages. They also did so in Soviet times, when the prospects of a substantial "northern" weighting of the standard pay-packet and the desire to do their duty to the State compelled thousands of young specialists to make their way to Chukotka. The government encouraged their exploits in the Soviet Arctic and the romantic spirit of the daily struggle to survive and tame the harsh natural world; this combined ideally with the State doctrine of "subduing the far north".

It's time to pack our bags, before fear of the unknown conquers the romantic impulse of our hearts. Any trip to Chukotka turns into an expedition, whether you want it to or not. You only know where it will begin and can only surmise how and where it will end. It's better to take a back-pack, not a suitcase, and forget about elegant suits or fancy dresses. Your most important cosmetic items will be mosquito cream in the summer and sun cream in the winter. A sleeping bag and mat will not be out of place, even if the itinerary does not include sleeping the night in the field. Sunglasses are needed in all seasons; the ultraviolet rays even break through the clouds at high latitudes, and sunlight reflecting off the snow in winter can cause temporary blindness.

When choosing a route and time to travel, Chukotka requires cold calculation. You cannot go to the "edge of the world" impromptu. Any trip to the far north requires careful preparation: the route must be worked out carefully and any move planned. It is best not to improvise on the spot this may cost a great deal of money and loss of time. There is almost no tourist infrastructure in the accepted sense. Only in the last few years have a few tour firms appeared, offering boat trips down the rivers of Chukotka and walks through the tundra.

Its not difficult to get to Chukotka. There are regular flights connecting Moscow to Anadyr and Pevek, and there are flights between regional centres. The main problem is getting about within Chukotka. There are few roads between settlements, especially in summer, when the entire region turns to swamp. In winter, so-called winter roads are put through, passable only by trucks and off-road vehicles. When the spring thaw sets in, the only possible overland transport is a cross-country vehicle.

It would seem that you could quickly reach the most remote corner by helicopter, but this is very expensive (about $1,500 per flying hour). And that's only if you're lucky. A blizzard, hurricane, or low cloud can force you to wait for days or even weeks.

Trucks and cross-country vehicles are not the fastest or most comfortable form of transport, but they are the most reliable. You are less dependent on the weather, which is fierce and changeable. The weather sets the pace of life here and those who know Chukotka like to joke, with good reason: you need two weeks to get to the start of your route, two weeks to get out, and .... the rest of the time you can travel about a bit.

Chukotka is a zone with special frontier conditions and it takes two months for a foreign citizen to obtain a pass. Without which you will simply not be allowed off the plane.

Air links from Moscow: Domodedovo Airlines (Domodedovskie Avialinii) and Transaero provide regular flights to Anadyr. The airline Kavminvody Avia flies to Pevek. The airline Chukotavia runs internal flights through Chukotka (planes and helicopters). For more information, The Le Petit Fute book Chukotka

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