Kamchatka Natives

Native dancers. Photo by I.Kravchuk

Native dancers. Photo by I.Kravchuk

Inviting and mysterious Kamchatka with its volcanoes, geysers, coves, and rocks, and also with profound history has always attracted tourists. Originally, it was inhabited by indigenous minorities of the North. Those people might have populated entire Siberia, the northern and eastern territories, occupied by Russia. Those people were true Kamchatka “Natives.” The Asian tribes were conquered by squadrons, sent by the Russian tsar to collect yasak (a tribute paid in furs). Armed Cossacks were the first among white people who reached Kamchatka and joined it to the Empire.

Are there any aboriginal tribes left in Kamchatka? – No doubt. Do they live in compact communities? Have they preserved their distinctive cultures, traditions, and ways of life?

There are so called ethnic villages in Kamchatka in which the majority of the population belongs to three major indigenous tribes: the Itelmens, Koryaks, and the Evens. These villages are basically located in the north of Kamchatka, on the territory of the former Koryak Autonomous Area, which was joined to Kamchatka Region. Two villages – Anavgai and Esso – are situated 500 km north of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. They are connected by a gravel road, which makes them accessible by a regular bus all the year round.

Some ethnic villages can be reached only by air; others during winter time are reachable by snow road, made by snowmobiles or other vehicles in areas inaccessible in summer. These villages are Ayanka, Apuka, Achaivayam, Voyampolka, Vyvenka, Ivashka, Ilpyr, Karaga, Kovran, Lesnaya, Manily, Oklan, Pakhachy, Talovka, Tymlat, Slautoye, Sedanka, Khailino, Khairuzovo, etc. One can get there in a helicopter or by plane first to a regional center and then in a helicopter or by all terrain tractor, snowmobile or automobile if there is a road linking the village to the regional center. Before planning a journey to a remote corner of Kamchatka, one should consider the airfare which is comparable with the airfare to Moscow for the distance of only 1,000 – 1,500 km.

Should tourists visit these villages and what are they supposed to see there? If you enjoy extreme tours to the wilderness, and you don’t object to spending nights in sleeping bags, go without a bathroom, and are eager to get adrenaline, you are welcome! You will see an ordinary settlement, resembling an out-of-the-way Siberian village, with neither inns, nor restaurants, snack bars nor museums. Most probably, you’ll stay at somebody’s place or, perhaps, in the local administration office or in a school if you come there in summer when schoolchildren do not attend school.

Almost no services are offered to tourists in ethnic villages (except for Esso village).

Their residents rarely wear traditional garments, such as kukhlianka or deerskin shirt, torbasa or soft boots with fur turned outside, malakhai or fur cap with large ear-flaps, except for ethnic festivals. Life in the villages is very much alike and is notable for simplicity and even scarcity. These villages are not meant for visiting, but people who study vanishing languages and tribal cultures will enjoy them as well as intact splendid nature which will compensate the difficulties associated with their staying in the wild.

Luckier tourists can even visit a reindeer herd and see the life of natives from within. A nomad reindeer camp is accessible, as a rule, only by helicopter. In the early 1990s, there were approximately 250 thousand reindeer in Kamchatka, while at present they amount to only 30 thousand. This sharp decrease can be accounted for by the collapse of the Soviet Union and collective farms – a traditional form of farming.

Reindeer herds are kept in Ust-Khairuzovo, Anavgai, Esso, Palana, Ossora, and others. Before going there, it’s recommended to get in touch with the local administration and enquire where the herds are, whether it is possible to fly there, and take a breeder’s phone number. No fee is charged for visiting a herd but the flight is very expensive. At present, one-hour flight by Mi-8 costs 180,000 rubles.

Photo by I.Kravchuk

Photo by I.Kravchuk

Kainyran nomad camp can be of special interest to tourists. It is located 50 km from the busy city in the vicinity of Razdolnoye village. Visitors are offered a performance of the aborigines, including the jaw harp. In tchum or yaranga (portable  reindeer skin tent), visitors are treated to traditional Koryak herb tea with flat cakes. In summer – to fish soup and in winter – to reindeer soup. In summer, tourists can ride horses, while in winter – snowmobiles and dog sleds. Not far from there, there is “Ozerki” recreation base with a thermal water pool.

ESSO

This ethnic village, the center of Bystrinsky District, offers more or less good tourist services. It is known with Kamchatka residents as “miniature Switzerland”. Esso and the adjoining Anavgai are inhabited by Evens. These settlements can be reached by a regular bus within 10 hours.

This picturesque place with fresh air, crystal clear rivers and lakes, and therapeutic hot springs is located in the Sredinny Range. Both Russian and foreign tourists enjoy visiting Esso. This village has long been a popular with Kamchatka residents.

Although tourists can stay in numerous inns, some of which can be rated as “good”, still most of them prefer private guest houses.

The Evens used to be nomads; they would fish and breed reindeer. Few of them are still engaged in reindeer breeding, so if you long to visit a herd, you can get there on a horse or by helicopter. Esso offers a variety of activities related to the Evens’ traditional way of life: an ethnographic museum, a performance of an ethnic ensemble, and also a traditional ritual. A private museum, set up by Esso’s resident Ponomarev, holds a galore of interesting exhibits and offers an assortment of hand-made souvenirs. In addition, tourists can visit Menedek Even nomad camp, located near a mountain river, 28 km from the settlement, next to Anavgai village. In summer, visitors are treated to the Even-style fish soup of salmon and yukola (sun-dried fish), while in winter to Anavgai-style shurpa (reindeer strong broth with rice or vegetables). One can attend master-classes in birch-bark wickerwork, bone and wood carving, skin processing, and beading. Walking and horse riding across scenic vicinities of the nomad camp and ethnic sport competitions, such as tug-of-stick, chaut (lasso) throwing, jumping over a sled, jumping on a bear skin are also available. The camp keeps a few reindeer. It offers an excursion around the camp, exhibition and sale of ethnic souvenirs, performances of Nurgenek and Oryakan ethnic ensembles – the laureates of local, Russian, and international festivals.

“Beringia” dogsled competition is a prominent Kamchatka festival, organized in 1991. It used to start in Esso, but in 2014, it starts in Petropavlovsk. Esso is only a stop on its route. Nevertheless, lots of tourists are going to visit this village to witness this contest and enjoy staying in “miniature Switzerland”.

Kamchatka native man. Photo by I.Kravchuk

Kamchatka native man. Photo by I.Kravchuk

ALHALALAI

During n the reign of the tsar and especially in the Soviet time, all non-Russian Orthodox holidays and rituals, languages of indigenous people, and their cultures were eradicated. It happened largely due to objective causes: under the church’s influence and assimilation with the dominant Russians, but the government also took a hand in this matter. However, in the last decade, the Russian government worked out several programs to preserve cultures and languages of Russia’s minorities.

The festival with unusual name “Alhalalai” has been considered a regional holiday since 2009 and is included in all calendars for tourists. It was recreated by B. Zhirkov in 1985 as a stage version of the ancient thanksgiving ritual. Originally, it was conducted in Kovran, a small ethnic village, the Itelmens’ unofficial capital. Several years ago, the holiday moved from Kovran to Pimchakh camp, which is closer to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, as it was difficult to get to Kovran. Pimchakh camp is located in a forest alongside a creek with traditional Itelmens dwellings, yukolniks (a facility to dry fish), and altars. There are no people there for the greater part of the year. Note:  Pimchakh is not a village! No one lives there. Perhaps it is better to call it “Pimchakh camp.”

Alkhalalai is celebrated in late September, while in Kovran – in early October. Many tourists arrive in Kamchatka hoping to see this festival and get to know cultures of northern people, even though they were once lost and later recreated by ethnographic descriptions.

Alkhalalai is Kamchatka’s trademark, like the famous Beringia sled dog race.

Alkhalalai is a festival for people of various ages and interests. This fest lasts all day long, while the dance marathon continues all night. Besides rituals, the performance of ethnic ensembles to drums, master classes in “khantaichik” carving (an amulet of a semi human – semi fish creature, protecting its owner from troubles and bringing luck in fishing) and fish skin articles, children’s entertainment programs, exhibitions of local craftwork, ethnic cuisine, and a fish processing contest, etc.

Alkhalalai festival displays exhibitions of ethnic cuisine. Photo by I.Kravchuk

Alkhalalai festival displays exhibitions of ethnic cuisine. Photo by I.Kravchuk

Kamchatka Native Herbal Remedies. Photo by I.Kravchuk

Kamchatka Native Herbal Remedies. Photo by I.Kravchuk

Since ancient times, the Itelmens have been celebrating the end of summer and thanked nature for the harvest, making offerings to the fish deity Khantai. The tradition of celebrating Alhalalai includes pulling faces to scare off evil spirits and dancing. Ancient Itelmen dances with guttural singing are a key event in Alhalalai. The aborigines also conduct a purification ritual near fire. The festival includes the Itelmen marriage ceremony and the competition for the best housewife – “Miss Alhalalai 2013”.

Dancers at the etnic festival "Where kutagarnik grows". Photo by I.Kravchuk

Dancers at the etnic festival “Where kutagarnik grows”. Photo by I.Kravchuk

Although ethnographic tourism has appeared in Kamchatka only lately, it has great prospects. Here, in the world’s end, traditions, customs, and crafts of Kamchatka indigenous people revive.

If you want to complete your photo archive with unusual photos of Kamchatka Natives in smart ethnic costumes decorated with beads, performing exciting dances to drums, come to Kamchatka, to Alhalalai! Such great variety of photographic objects and an abundance of indigenous souvenirs are unlikely to be found anywhere else in Russia.

To learn more about schedules, tickets, and fares from Alaska to Kamchatka, click here.

This article was published with permission from The Kamchatka Explore Magazine. The article was written by  a well-known journalist and blogger Igor Kravchuk, who died in a tragic car accident in Kamchatka in 2014 and who is remembered for his invaluable contribution to the development of journalism in Kamchatka.

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