Rub shoulders with the locals as you experience overnight train travel in Russia. Meet the local Nenets people, the Siberian Arctic’s indigenous reindeer herders. Visit a traditional Nenets campsite and see the reindeers up close. Try your hand at fishing and then enjoy a picnic lunch on the banks of the Horomdo Lake
There are expeditions and then there are expeditions; this trip, to the far reaches of Russia, definitely falls into the latter category. After a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stop in St Petersburg, travel by train, bus and Trekol to the Yamal Peninsula; quite literally ‘the end of the world’. Extending far above the Arctic Circle, this isolated region has been home to the Nenets, a tribe of nomadic reindeer herders, for centuries. For the first time, the Nenets are inviting Intrepid travellers into their community for a first-hand glimpse at their daily existence. Learn about life on the frozen tundra, how they stay warm when the temperature hits -50°C, and how much the nomads rely on their reindeer herds. This is definitely one of our most eye-opening, off-the-beaten-track adventures yet.
Zdrastvutye! Welcome to Russia. Truly one of Europe's finest and most dazzling cities, where Baroque architecture stands alongside the opulent palaces of Russian royalty, St Petersburg’s history, emerging art and music scene, and riotous nightlife won’t fail to get under your skin. The legacy of Russian tsar Peter the Great, who founded the imperial city in 1703, will clearly be felt as you explore its enigmatic streets, cathedrals and museums.
If you arrive in town early, spend some time exploring. Perhaps climb to the colonnade of St Isaac’s Cathedral for magnificent views over the city, or stroll along Nevsky Prospekt – St Petersburg's main thoroughfare – popping into one of the many bakeries or pancake shops along the way. Non-squeamish travellers may like to check out Peter the Great’s ghoulish collection of oddities at the Kunstkamera, while art-lovers should head to the Hermitage Museum, one of the world's premier art collections, housed in the former imperial Winter Palace.
Your expedition begins with a Welcome Meeting at the hotel at 6pm. Please look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask the reception where it will take place. If you're going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. We’ll be collecting insurance and next of kin information at the meeting – please ensure you have all these details ready to provide to your leader. You’ll also need two copies of your passport, visa and migration cards ready. One will be collected by your leader, the other is for you to keep on you at all times while on this trip.
If you are on a winter departure - make sure you talk to your leader about clothing and footwear to ensure that you have suitable attire for the extreme temperatures you will experience in the Yamal Peninsula. If you are travelling in summer, adequate protection against mosquitoes is a must! Your leader will be able to recommend the best places to purchase anything you need in St Petersburg before you leave
Today is a long travel day, as we board the overnight train to Velikiy Ustyug (approximately 22 hours). Be sure to pack a good book or deck of cards for the journey!
Trains on this journey are simple but comfortable. You’ll travel 2nd class on this trip. There's a toilet/bathroom at the end of each carriage with a small sink and cold water. An attendant is assigned to every carriage to look after your comfort and safety (although service standards can vary greatly). Each compartment has four bunks with luggage storage space inside. Bedding is provided, although some travellers still prefer to bring their own sleeping sheet. There's hot water available for making drinks or instant meals, tea and coffee. Sometimes snacks and drinks are available for purchase on board and most trains also have a dining car although with a limited menu. We recommend stocking up on snacks prior to travel. Please note that in many cases, due to high demand for tickets on this route, the group is not always together. It's likely that at least some members of the group will be sharing compartments with other travellers, either foreign or local, particularly if your group does not divide evenly into four.
A brief word about drinking on the train: Social drinking is common on trains in Russia and can be an enjoyable way to meet local people as well as interact with your fellow Intrepid travellers (in moderation). While alcohol is often available for purchase on the train, spirits (including vodka) should only be consumed in the dining car. While we certainly want all our Intrepid travellers to have a great holiday it's important that you show due respect for your fellow group members, and keep in mind that many of your local companions use the train as a means of transport to get home or to work. It's most appreciated if foreign travellers are respectful of this, particularly in the mornings and evenings or when other passengers are sleeping.
Alcoholism is also a serious social problem in Russia so travellers should take care not to encourage or take part in drinking to excess. Fake alcohol is common and the motives for being invited to drink with locals may not always be honest. The locals' tolerance for alcohol is likely to be much higher than your own. You may be putting yourself and other members of your group at risk by getting involved in heavy drinking while on the train. While alcohol is often available for purchase on the train, spirits (including vodka) should only be consumed in the dining car. Train security guards keep a very close eye on drunken behaviour and have the legal right to fine or have any passengers who are intoxicated removed from the train without warning.
Upon arrival in Yadrikha, transfer to Veliky Ustyug by private bus (around 50 kilometres). This small town was once well of the map, until authorities declared it the official home of Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa Claus. Also known as Father Frost, Ded Moroz is said to be 2,000 years old and once kidnapped small children, only returning them when their parents provided him with gifts. Over the years, he’s shed his negative image and is now the white-bearded, jolly gift-giving gent associated with Christmas. Home to some 30,000 people, the settlement boasts gorgeous wooden architecture and centuries-old Orthodox churches. We’ll take a walking tour around the town, then the evening is free to spend as you please.
Spend the morning enjoying some free time, perhaps visiting Father Frost’s Residence, before the drive to Kotlas (70 kilometres), where we’ll board our next overnight train (approximately 25 hours) all the way to the Yamal Peninsular on the Trans-Polar Railway.
Arrive in Labytnangi, where we’ll transfer to Salekhard via private bus and ferry (approx 2 hours). Founded in 1595 by Russian Cossacks, Salekhard was once used as a place of exile, with prisoners in Soviet camps forced to mine metal ores, construct a new railway, or polish diamonds. Check into our hotel for the night. Your evening here is free, in preparation for the journey ahead.
Land of Hope Nenets Camp
We’ve got a long day of travel ahead of us today. After breakfast, take a Trekol (a from Salekhard to Factoria Laborovaya (approximately 6-8 hours). These locally built all-terrain vehicles have tubeless tyres and are essential for the landscape here - either frozen rivers or swampy land for most of the year. The vast tundra T will give you a true sense of the isolation of this region. Located above the Article Circle, Labrovaya is a village of around 20 houses with the majority of residents settled Nenets nomads. Continue to the Land of Hope camp (approximately 1 hour), our home for the next few nights. This settlement is run by award-winning educator and author Anna Pavlovna Nerkagi and was started as a place for local Nenets children to learn more about and experience their traditional culture.
Accommodation here is in basic, multishare huts or yurts known as "chum" in the local language. There are pit toilets, and a Russian banya (bathhouse). All our meals are included during our stay here and will be simple, Russian meals as well as the chance to try raw or salted fish, and reindeer meat. Depending on the season, stoves may be used for heating and in colder months blocks of ice might need to be melted for our morning cup of tea!
Land of Hope Nenets Camp
It’s easy to see how the Yamal (sometimes translating to ‘the end of the world’ in the indigenous Nenets language) gets its name; the remote tundra, featuring low-lying shrubs, mossy pastures, snaking rivers and vast lakes, is pummelled by icy winds for most of the year, with temperatures dropping regularly to almost -50°C. Despite the freezing conditions for much of the year, the area is home to some 10,000 nomads and more than 300,000 domestic reindeer.
Today we’ll visit the Gornokhadatinsky National Reserve (approximately 25 kilometres from camp) by Trekol. Keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of the muskox; with their insulated thick hair and woolly undercoats, the mammals are true Arctic animals. Enjoy a picnic on the mountainside and then visit a small Ethnographic Museum to learn more about the inhabitants of this isolated region.
Land of Hope Nenets Camp
Depending on the weather conditions, hike or snowmobile to Horomdo Lake (7 kilometres, one way), where we’ll try our hand at fishing. We'll have some locals with us to show us their special methods and no doubt share a few tales. Then we will enjoy our catch of the day with our new Nenets friends. If the fish aren't biting, we won't go hungry though as we will pack extra supplies just in case.
Return to camp and spend the rest of the day learning more about the Nenets, such as how the nomads stay warm during the freezing winter nights or about how they construct their chums - the conical-shaped tents made from reindeer hide stretched over a skeleton of wooden poles. There will be plenty of time to get involved in camp life by helping in the kitchen, learning some traditional sewing or learning Russian or Nenets words. Keep your eye out for Sihirtia, the mystical, magical trolls that are said to inhabit the tundra and were here long before the Nenets arrived on this land.
Land of Hope Nenets Camp
Walk with the Nenets to a nearby nomad camp (approximately 3 kilometres), where we’ll enjoy a traditional lunch and meet more of the local community for a glimpse into their nomadic lifestyle. You’ll have the opportunity here to get up close to the beautiful reindeer herd, and perhaps even give reindeer sledding a go. The Nenets rely on reindeer for almost everything; the creatures provide food, warmth and transport. Walk back to camp for our last night here, before we head back to what many refer to as "the mainland". Perhaps attend the evening service at the little Orthodox chapel in camp tonight.
Drive back to the "big city" of Salekhard via Laborovaya in the Trekol vehicles (approx 6-8 hours) and check back into the hotel for the night.
This morning, take a tour of Salekhard, the only city in the world located on the Arctic Circle. See the legendary baby mammoth, known as Lyuba, in the Shemanovsky Ethnographic Museum. Other places of interest in the city include the market, Victory Park with its display of tanks from the Great Patriotic War, the wooden theatre building andthe Peter and Paul Chapel.
Outside the city there's the Gornoknyazevsk Ethnographic Complex, which after your authentic experience at the Nenets camp. might now seem a little contrived! Some travellers do find it a good place to buy local souvenirs.
Enjoy the day exploring the city and stock up on supplies before we begin our long journey to Russia's capital tomorrow.
Travel by private bus and ferry back to Labytnangi (approximately 2 hours) before our long journey to Moscow (approximately 45 hours) on the Trans-Polar Railway.