A Whale Of A Trip

Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Travel Writer

While my relatives were improvising with leftover turkey, I spent the recent holiday obsessed by a remote outpost of the Russian Federation: Chukotka.

Chukotka is the easternmost peninsula in Asia, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska (this is the part of Russia Sarah Palin might have seen from her window). The vast, frigid territory is larger than Texas but has only about 50,000 residents. And amazingly, those locals are trying to persuade outsiders to come visit — despite a lack of transportation, a brutal climate, and a location not too far from the North Pole.

I had never heard of Chukotka until I read an article about the Russian-Jewish oil oligarch Roman Abramovich, who served as governor of the region — in between maintaining the world’s most expensive yacht collection, spearheading Russian-Jewish community initiatives, hanging with Putin, investing in art and overseeing London’s premier Chelsea soccer team.

What was a nice Jewish boy doing in a remote, violently stormy, treeless tundra where summer temperatures are in the 40s, winter is a 10-month blizzard, and there are hardly any roads?

On this last point, it turns out, Abramovich doesn’t need roads to get here. He has a very fine airplane collection, thank you. And, as it turns out, business is what most likely lured the tycoon to Chukotka: the region is rich with oil, gas, and all kinds of mining.

Whatever he extracted from it, literally or figuratively, Abramovich is on record as having invested vast personal wealth in the impoverished and once-neglected region, raising living standards and restoring infrastructure. Perhaps as a result, the Chukchi are now hoping to attract tourism to this challenging terrain, whose very oddness and remoteness are its attractions.

For while it may be austere, Chukotka is certainly dramatic to look at. Huge mountains and vast glaciers give way to icy lakes and plains that seem to stretch forever; along the rocky coastline, craggy promontories rise hundreds of feet above the steel-gray sea. Villages of wooden huts, many splintering with rot, and cities of grim Socialist blocs stand testament to the region’s changing profile.

Chukotka was not unknown to my husband, Oggi, who grew up in the Eastern Bloc. He enlightened me about a genre I was previously unacquainted with: Chukchi jokes, gentle fun at the expense of the native Chukchi people, whose historical isolation from the modern world is a favorite theme among wisecracking Slavs. (Here’s one that’s frequently cited: A Chukcha comes into a shop and asks, “Do you have color TVs?” “Yes, we do.” “Give me a green one.”)

What’s no joke is the climate, which ranges from bearable (for bears) to epically awful. Chukotka is among the northernmost settlements on Earth — so far north that no trees grow, only moss and lichen.

In summer, when the snow melts, Chukotka is covered with swamps, because the permafrost ( a soil layer that remains frozen throughout the year) can’t absorb moisture. In winter, arctic winds sweep off the Siberian Sea, and the region — submerged in perpetual night — becomes a howling, snow-pelted wasteland for weeks at a time.

That’s why the Chukotka tourism site advises those seeking winter diversion to visit in March, when the sun finally comes out and the snow shimmers. With few roads, sealskin-wrapped locals rely on snowmobiles or dogsleds to plow their way across frozen rivers.

The Chukchi, who have their own language, are far from the only inhabitants; along with Eskimos and other tribes, there are many ethnic Russians who settled during Soviet times. (When he lived here, Roman Abramovich may well have been the entire Chukotka Jewish community.)

Chukotkans now see their unique indigenous culture as a selling point for tourists — and perhaps America has roots in these ancient tribes, whose ancestors traipsed across the Strait. A number of tour companies offer visits to Chukchi villages, along with excursions on reindeer, seal hunts, rafting, dog sledding, hot springs and sea cruises.

Whatever the itinerary, even the most independent traveler will inevitably be more reliant here. You’ll need special government permission, on top of the Russian visa, to enter this “closed” territory; once inside, you’ll need tour operators to organize flights and boat trips. The easiest way to reach Chukotka from the U.S. is via Alaska on Bering Air, which flies between Nome and Provideniya, a (relatively) lively port town with hotels, restaurants and an ethnologic museum.

There isn’t much nightlife in a place with so much night to work with, but the adventurous will find plenty to see. Beyond the tented villages, there are Whale Bone Alley, a sculpture garden of gleaming-white relics; Wrangel Island, an eerily beautiful outpost with abundant wildlife; and ancient Eskimo settlements unearthed near Cape Dezhnev.

Chukotka may seem lost in time, but as residents will remind you, they are actually ahead of the rest of us — by nearly a full day, given their extreme easterly position. As the tourism website says: “We are from future.” 

Sledding across Chukotka, top. Above, whale bones on the tundra.

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