Monday, September 28, 2009

Dogging the Dolgans

The bone cracking cold that whiplashed my face relentlessly as the sled over which I gingerly perched raced through one of the wildest and remotest tundra in the world I realized that this could well be the final journey of my life and with that self-effacing thought my face grimaced into a smile of supreme contentment.

I love latitudes; not that longitudes are any less desirable or necessary but it is the former that always takes me to the two extremes possible on a sphere. And I love cold places; colder and icier the better while coldest and iciest the best. A cursory glance at a globe will divulge five lines of latitude that evenly cut across our earth for reasons beyond my comprehension. These are (from North to South): Arctic Circle, Tropic of Cancer, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn and Antarctic Circle. Of course they are not there on ground, though on my first crossing of the Equator on a ship I did maintain a sleepless vigil on the quarterdeck staring deep and hard at the green ocean over which my ship sped with a white wake etched behind. While I have crossed the southernmost of these lines on two occasions I have no idea how many times I have crossed or rather crisscrossed the other four. On one of my crossings of the Arctic Circle I visited the coldest inhabited place on earth and befriended one of the least known, understood and studied clans of people and even stayed in their reindeer-pulled homes. Here’s the story of the people who survive and thrive at the literal edge of the known world; an edge which is largely unknown to the civilized world where only a handful of outsiders have ever managed to reach.

Taymyr Peninsula in northern Siberia girdled by the Laptev Sea of the Arctic Ocean is far, really far from anywhere. Not much of any landmass lie north of this peninsula and I was headed for one of the northernmost and unknown human habitations on Earth. A chance discussion with one of my Russian counterparts, while in Russia brought up the subject of Siberia, through which I had earlier taken the trans-Siberian rail and had climbed some. Boris (name changed) invited to take me over to Taymyr where he had a reindeer herder friend. The only obstacle in my way was a leave of absence of around a fortnight from my place of work. Well, for reasons unknown, at least to me, my bosses have always tolerated and even encouraged my abrupt and illogical pangs of desire to go into uncharted territories. Either I was too good an asset for them to lose hence they let me follow my whims or else I was so useless that they were always looking for an excuse (of which I gave them plenty) to get rid of me (with a forlorn hope perhaps that I would not return to torment them any further). No wonder they always looked so disappointed every time I reported back on duty. Whatever might be the case the fact is that on a misty morning in the month of March in a year I would not like to mention Boris and I stepped on the tarmac of Yakutsk airfield. If it can be called an airfield (which the signboard in Russian proudly proclaimed) and if it was indeed a tarmac (as Boris patriotically challenged) then I was certainly Rudolph the reindeer.

The overnight flight inside the flying coffin, lovingly called a Tuplov, had rattled every bone of my body and frozen the balance of my brain in that order. Yakutsk is the capital of the Republic of Sakha or Yakutia, the largest Siberian Republic with a high degree of autonomy permitted within the Russian Federation. Sakha is largely populated by Russians and indigenous Yakut people who speak the eponymous language. As I touched the permafrost and breathed a sigh of relief Boris mumbled, ‘Welcome to Siberia my friend, the real journey will begin now.’ Despite at the end of one of the most life-threatening flights of my life I was feeling jubilant and ebullient since cold does that to me. ‘Let’s make a quick detour to Oymyakon,’ I suggested. ‘You do love your cold, don’t you?’ Boris sniggered. We hired a battered jeep and slam-dashed to Oymyakon, which holds the record of being the coldest permanently inhabited place on Earth where the mercury once plummeted to an unbelievable – 71.20C. On the day of our visit, it was rather warm and comfortable at – 440C. Though an uninteresting and drab industrial township by the banks of river Lena, I found a curious fact about Oymyakon. The primary schools closed only if the temperature fell below – 560C; the reason: a mildly chilly day that might cause cold and cough to the toddlers.

When I saw the vehicle (was it an aircraft!) that was going to take us further north of Yakutsk I quickly redefined my threshold levels of what we normally termed dangerous and crazy. Topping it all the native flying ace spoke a dialect that escaped even Boris. The next six hours of my life was one that I would not like to repeat ever again. I finally realized how a sack of potato feels when handled by some unruly farmers. With my knees knocking and mind screaming out of sheer terror I simply fell out of the window-cum-door of the vehicle (I still couldn’t believe it had actually flown) on to a patch of snowfield that must double up as a private barn as well. We were now in Saskylakh. The Frozen Anabar River viewed from the air as a white ribbon muscling its way north like an inverted question mark now lay close at hand. The air crackled at – 580C. So, while the kids in Oymyakon stayed home by their warm hearth, the two idiots, driven by another manic Serb sped north along the frozen river into what might as well be the last outpost for mankind. After what seemed an eternity, our driver dumped us at the tiny village of Uryung-Khaya, where the road literally ended since nothing on wheels would go any further north. Now we were deep into Dolgan territory. Before proceeding further a short note about the Dolgans is necessary.

As a race, Dolgans can be traced back to the north Asiatic group of the Mongolians. Today they number less than 10,000 and are a potentially endangered race. They don’t have any written script and use the Russian Cyrillic. Dolgans are nomadic people relying on hunting and fishing for sustenance. They breed domesticated reindeers and hunt the wild ones for food and fur. But for reindeers Dolgans would not have survived hence reindeer is highly regarded. Their habitations, which constantly move along with the changing weather and seasons, are widely spread across the Khatanga River basins of Taymyr Peninsula and around River Anabar in Yakutia. They are a patriarchal society with perhaps the highest adaptability to the Arctic Cold in the world. Dolgans live in complete harmony to nature using simple instincts and acceptance of their harsh and unforgiving world to survive.

Our Dolgan host and Boris’ friend Mev greeted us with a wide grin on his deeply etched face. His age was impossible to guess and Mev seemed timeless as the wasted land all around. He tied a wooden sled to his mechanized one and off we went towards an indeterminate horizon where the ice and sky all melted away into a white oblivion. I had no idea how Mev navigated since he did not carry even a rudimentary compass and there was absolutely nothing conspicuous around. Flat ice covered tundra and far off forests concealed under a thick sheet of snow. Even with the snow goggles strapped tightly to my face I find it hard to keep my eyes open. The wind howls into my ears. The spectacularly boundless space and the sun’s pulsating colors keep my mind riveted. Shortly my extremities begin to freeze and go numb with a certainty that by then I had begun to accept must befall my fate sooner or later. I start beating myself on the body while moving my toes for all I was worth and intermittently box my rapidly whitening nose. Boris does likewise but Mev remains as he was, seemingly intent at the horizon and encapsulated within the flurry of snow into which we race relentlessly. Another five long and tormenting hours we start sighting a group of humps on the horizon. Well into the pinkish glow of an Arctic twilight we reach Mev’s campsite. His group comprises of twenty-three baloks – tiny wooden houses supported by wooden runners that can be pulled by reindeers. There are eight Dolgan families here with 30 members. Mev welcomes us into his guesthouse—a 10 X 8 ft balok with reindeer skin lined floor. It is strangely comfortable and after the outside cold and wind, the internal temperature of – 190C decidedly feels warmer and cozier. Huge blocks of ice, gathered from lakes that could be 5 – 6 hours away, lines up each balok. These are the only source of fresh water for the Dolgans.

Mev, being the group head, possesses the largest balok and he holds a feast in our honor. The meal comprises of two different kinds of reindeer meat, liver and kidney and a kind of frozen fish dipped in salt. In the coming days I learn to eat all such delicacies in order to survive. Next morning we accompany one of Mev’s friends for collecting ice blocks from a frozen lake and the day after Mev takes us to show his skills as the master reindeer hunter. I play with children and their pets and watch the woman do their homely chores. We spent few more days around and visit another campsite a day’s journey across to meet a legendary polar fox hunter. He regales us with his epic tales of survival and tricks of laying traps under snow. We return with our heads full of stories and wonderment. Each night when everyone is asleep I step out of my balok to marvel at the pulsating northern lights. This extra-terrestrial performance is literally electrifying. I gaze up at the endless sky and don’t wish the night to conclude. The cold penetrates my deepest thoughts and rattles me from within. Amidst all the wonder I cannot stop marveling at my host and his people and their tenacity. Where every breath is a struggle and each mundane chore an ordeal they live happily and have absolutely no desire to be anywhere else but here that they call home.

When the hour comes to bid goodbye I realize that my heart has long lost the desire to return. I feel I belong here to these simple nomadic people who know no boundaries and understand no evil. As I hug and lift Mev’s youngest child, a two year old girl, to my chest I know that I would never see her or her people again and it is a terrible struggle for me to let go of her. But the girl simply smiles into my eyes and hugs me in return. She knows too that she would never see me again but that does not matter to her or to her people much. They have learnt to live in ‘now’ and to enjoy whatever life offered in any proportion. It is only us, living in our make believe world who measure happiness in scales of big and small. To Dolgans it was simply to enjoy what they had and not to ponder about what they didn’t.

Back at the village of Uryung-Khaya when I wave from the jeep at Mev’s smiling form I know that at that moment I separated from a friend I am never going to find again. But the thought doesn’t make me sad. Dolgans will continue to live in my dreams and I would like to believe that I would once again be able to return in their midst and ride once again into the fading dusk to shepherd the reindeers back home.

P.S. Despite several valiant and dogged attempts this remains till date my only brush with the Dolgans who according to me are among the most amazing race of people on Earth.

The photo accompanying this post is from the collection of my friend and fellow polar explorer Borge Ousland.


  1. usual.

    and the sooooo cuteee..adorable little imp.

  2. simple beautiful life... we'll go there together one day, except make sure u get me a heated body suit!