Travel Journal: A Night on the Taboon

This past March, Matt Lim and I organized a scouting expedition to northeast Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula for us and a couple close friends, and amazing photographers-- Karim and Robyn. While our primary goal was to feel the place out, experience authentic life on the taboon (reindeer herding areas in the middle of the tundra,) and of course take amazing photographs and aerial videography, the stories and experiences we shared together with our Russian support team were the most memorable. Check out my full Kamchatka Gallery

Reindeer bask in the sun's last light during sunset on the taboon. 

Reindeer bask in the sun's last light during sunset on the taboon. 

We were somewhere in the middle of Kamchatka's Ichinskiy District, over two hundred kilometres from the nearest road. Very few people live out here; there are next to no permanent human settlements, and the only way to get to this region is either by snowmobile or helicopter– although it was suggested by some of our Russian friends that repurposed Soviet military tanks could make the journey here as well.

It took us nearly three days to get to our destination– a taboon, or herd of reindeer, by snowmobile from the diminutive town of Esso. With only two thousand people, Esso is, unmistakably, the largest settlement in the area and many of the residents in the Ichinsky district maintain homes there for their families.

During these brisk winter months, many village men can be found out in the tundra tending to the reindeer and hunting while the women and children stay back in Esso where there are schools, electricity and some modern conveniences, including a somewhat functioning 3G mobile network. But where we were, the only way to communicate with family in Esso is by radio broadcast.

Ilya enjoys a tender moment with a couple of newborn puppies in the snow. 

Ilya enjoys a tender moment with a couple of newborn puppies in the snow. 

We travelled here with our hearty, jovial Russian support team to meet up with their family members on the taboon. After spending our first night bunkered down on the floor of a local woodsman’s sauna house and our second night in a full-of-character, yet hardly charming, and quite dilapidated everyman’s cabin (complete with wall posters from the mid-1990s and body parts from deer, minks, and arctic hares scattered about), we finally reached the taboon. This taboon is one of two that are managed by Ilya, one of our Russian expedition leaders, along with his family, and it is the smaller one at that with six hundred reindeer.

During Russia’s period of Soviet rule, all individuals were forced into collectives within a planned economy. This included the reindeer herders; their animals were owned by the State and distributed accordingly. The local Even people, distant relatives of Manchurians with their own roots in the Sakha Republic in Siberia, were forced to speak Russian and settle into permanent communities. While much of their language was lost over the decades, many Evens are now regaining their traditional semi-nomadic way of life on the taboons.

Yvgeniy coming out of the yurt in the morning. 

Yvgeniy coming out of the yurt in the morning. 

In the early hours of the morning, we met Yvgeniy in the yurt– a large nomadic tent made of sticks, felt, reindeer pelts, all wrapped by a tarp with a wood burning stove and chimney in the middle. He greeted our Russian team with hugs and immediately asked if they had cigarettes, which of course they did. The ground of the yurt was padded with twigs, so when you sit down your butt does not directly touch the cold earth and you are able to keep more of your body heat.

Yvgeniy grabbed a ladle from a large pot cooking on the stove and motioned for Roman, our stocky, half-Russian, half-Even, highly animated expedition leader, to bring over some bowls. Breakfast was a delicious reindeer pilaf, with chunks of reindeer meat cooked in rice with spices and some reindeer soup on the side. “Yesterday this reindeer was walking, today we are eating it.” Roman commented as he sliced up the tongue on a cutting board, handing each of us a chunk.

Cutting reindeer tongue along side some reindeer stew. 

Cutting reindeer tongue along side some reindeer stew. 

It was delicious. Roman looked at me: “Do you know what it is?” I gestured to my tongue and he nodded. Roman did not speak any English and my ability to comprehend Russian was improving, but I still could only understand simple questions.

This was my fifth trip to Russia, but my first time in Kamchatka and most certainly my first time living on the taboon. After using some bread to wipe away (and eat) the reindeer fat that had congealed around the corners of my mouth, we cleaned our bowls in the snow and set out on the snowmobiles to cover the last ten or so kilometres to the herd.

Ilya watches over the reindeer herd. 

Ilya watches over the reindeer herd. 

Ilya, a man of few words but extremely animated expressions, took the scouting role on his snowmobile, carefully looking at the reindeer tracks and droppings in the snow to locate where the herd had moved. We followed behind his lead on our snowmobiles.

While the reindeer are not fully wild, they are by no means domesticated. They work their way through the frozen tundra, digging into the snow to munch on shrubs. When we first approached the herd they became very skittish, and would run away as soon as we moved towards them. After a few hours slowly embedding ourselves within the herd, they got used to our presence and we were able to walk around without scaring them off. Robyn and Matt were even able to coax a curious female close enough to caress her face. 

Russian reindeer of central Kamchatka. 

Russian reindeer of central Kamchatka. 

Local reindeer herders typically check up on the herd a couple times a day; collecting antlers that fall off (they naturally fall off and both male and female reindeer grow antlers) and making sure no predators are nearby.

Much to our hosts’ bemusement, we spent hours with the herd, photographing the reindeer and observing their behaviour. Karim and I used up eight quadcopter batteries filming the heard from the skies above. While we spent time with the herd, our team laid out a couple of reindeer pelts on top of their snowmobiles and napped under the sunny winter skies. We did not head back to the yurt until after the sun had come down.

Yvgeniy prepares bowls of food while Ilya eats in the background inside the yurt.

Yvgeniy prepares bowls of food while Ilya eats in the background inside the yurt.

It was dark when we returned to the camp, where Yvgeniy and Roman (the two of them had stayed back, to the jealousy of the others who did not realize we would spend eight hours with the reindeer) had prepared more food for dinner– reindeer stew. Everyone put on their headlamps and prepared their beds for the night– reindeer pelts layered over twigs with blankets on top. All nine of us picked spots along the parameter the yurt, with our feet all pointed towards the stove in the middle.

Bowls were distributed to everyone filled to the top with piping hot reindeer stew. Generous pieces of reindeer meat on-the-bone in a soothing broth was a welcomed treat. Reindeer fat coated the roof of my mouth and I spent the next ten minutes after finishing up trying to lick it off. After a few cups of vodka and a full stomach, I fell asleep to the sounds of happy chatter of Russian storytelling and the feeling of Yvgeniy’s cat walking around my legs.