Siberian Success: Life Is Good for the Nenets Herders of the Yamal Peninsula in Northwest Siberia, Says Ed Vallance. Unlike Many Indigenous Groups, They Have Found a Way to Preserve Their Traditional Way of Life in a Modernising World

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It's -40[degrees]C but the wind has died down so, in our thick, ankle-length reindeer-fur coats, which make us three times wider than usual, it's bearable. All around us there is an unending, frozen whiteness. The snow on which Radik, Kostya, Alya and I trudge merges with the sky at some indefinable point.

We arrive at a place where more than 100 wooden sledges lie scattered over a vast area. The encampment's chums, the conical reindeer-hide tents in which these Nenets nomads live, have been disassembled.

Nearby, a herd of reindeer is snorting and stamping, some of them digging through half a metre of snow to graze. Radik and his brother Kostya are already hurrying over to where a group of ten men is collecting, 100 metres from the herd, lassoes made from reindeer rawhide in hand.

'How many reindeer are there?' I ask, turning to Alya, Kostya's wife. Only her slanted eyes and the dark skin of her nose are visible under her tightly drawn reindeer-fur hood. 'Ten thousand,' she replies.

The herders to whom the reindeer belong are about to migrate south. Before they do so, the young, castrated male animals used to pull sledges must be separated from the herd.

Dogs begin to drive small groups of non-transport reindeer away from the main herd. In a thin stream, they gallop past the waiting herders, regrouping in a slowly growing huddle on the other side of the encampment.

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Mostly, the men stand still as the animals flow by but occasionally, on spotting a transport reindeer attempting to break away with the others, someone lashes out with his right arm. His lasso sails through the air and, more often than not, catches on the correct pair of antlers.

INNER WARMTH

When all is finally done and we've been outside for seven hours, one family from the migrating group invites me to eat with them. Seven of us sit in a circle on the snow and they fetch vodka and lumps of raw, frozen meat from a sledge.

'Without this,' the father of the family says as he pours me a glass, his moustache hanging on either side of his lips in huge, white icicles, 'it's not possible. It's especially necessary before you travel by sledge. You shouldn't have a lot, though--just enough to keep out the cold.'

For the first six hours outdoors, the many layers of reindeer-fur clothing kept me comfortable. But now the cold is starting to make itself felt and I'm grateful for anything that will keep it at bay. A cup of the fresh, warm blood that the Nenets so love to drink would be perfect right now. Unfortunately, none is forthcoming.

For ten minutes we sit chewing relentlessly on the meat, passing around the single shot glass and toasting one another as the world darkens and the wind strengthens. Then my companions get up and leave, reindeer and sledges crawling across the landscape like an army of ants, turning the predominant colour from white to brown.

Half an hour later, they're still visible, drifting towards the horizon, but the rate at which they shrink is increasing exponentially. In a few minutes, they're just a distant smudge; a few seconds later, a line; then a dot; then they're gone.

CONTRASTING HISTORIES

Not all groups of Nenets exercise as much caution in regard to vodka as these. Here on the Yamal Peninsula--the 'Edge of the World' in the local language--most reindeer herders will drink no more than a few glasses at a time, or none at all. In contrast, a group with whom I lived in European Russia's Arkhangelsk Region often got so drunk that they could neither speak nor walk. They would take it in turns to work three-month shifts with their 1,300-head herd in the tundra then spend three months drinking in a nearby village.

The Yamal Nenets, on the other hand, are divided into two groups, each comprising roughly half of the peninsula's indigenous population: those that live permanently in villages and those that live a nomadic existence in chums as their ancestors have for centuries. …