Unveiling Salekhard

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A herd of deer, pride of the family: Taken care by the men of the tribe, they are carefully watched at night to make sure none is lost (Image © Sergey Anisimov)

The soul of Russia

Text Aleksey Anisimov
Photos by Sergey Anisimov

It is not well known, I imagine, but Salekhard is officially stated to be the only city on Earth that lies within a polar circle. Why, we even have a monument endorsing this fact. Interestingly, this very spot, located at Stella, has been a favourite hangout of mine over the years. Amidst its glorious spaciousness, I will sit in the evenings and enjoy stunning sunsets that embrace the exceptional view of the tundra.

A symbol of the region’s natural gas resources, Salekhard’s Fakel (“Torch”) Bridge, located on Knunantca Street 10 (ул. Кнунянца 10) over the river Shaytanka, also offers spectacular panoramic views. Elevators take visitors to the highest point on the bridge where a two-storey restaurant is suspended 60 metres above the river. It’s an unusual vantage point to experience one of the highlights of Salekhard culture – the local cuisine.

The Stella 66th Parallel divides the city into two parts, making Salekhard the only city in the world located within the Arctic Circle – the monument marking the exact location of the Arctic Circle (Image © Sergey Anisimov)

Salekhard citizens are very proud of their cultural traditions. This is especially true of the indigenous people of the north that live on the tundra. Those who have made Salekhard home over the decades have learned their traditions; we eat the traditional food and some of the descendants of Salekhard settlers even speak the traditional language of the Nenets people, despite being daily speakers of Russian.

Art and design have flourished over the decades, as the people of Salekhard mature socially, becoming more open-minded and accepting. The city itself reflects this transformation, with buildings painted in myriad hues, a colourful backdrop to everyday life. International architects have set their sights on Salekhard and have already built several modern buildings. Very often these days, you can find large photographic banners on buildings across the city taken by accomplished national photographers.

Reindeer Herder’s Day is a holiday commemorating its reindeer herders: On this day, the nomads come to the city to take part in competitions and showcase the culture of its people (Image © Sergey Anisimov)

When it comes to appreciating the arts, singing and woodcraft are very popular, particularly among Salekhard’s schoolchildren – their miniature handcrafted wooden reindeer and muskoxen statues are delightful. Artistic expression has also found form in yurts, the region’s traditional tent-like dwellings, which are painted in national colours.

When I need inspiration, I go to the banks of the Ob river, one of Asia’s great rivers. Bordering the cities of Salekhard and Labitnangi, the Ob flows north and west across western Siberia in a twisting diagonal from its source in the Altai Mountains to its outlet through the Gulf of Ob into the Kara Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. The river is a major transportation artery, crossing territory in the heart of Russia that is extraordinarily varied in its physical environment and population. There is a small forest I go to where you can enjoy swimming, picnicking, and fishing – ending the day with a sunset that fills your heart and soul.

Despite the foreign influences, we still prefer our national fare, which you can find only if you visit Salekhard and the greater Yamal region. We eat a lot of reindeer meat, which is very healthy but rather expensive. We are very proud of this animal here in Yamal; it is a major part of our lives – we eat its meat, we make clothes from its skin, and we use it as a form of transport.

Stroganina, a favourite dish among the traditional indigenous northern peoples: Prepared from frozen fish, it is cut into chips and served raw with sauce (Image © Sergey Anisimov)

But we do have alternatives, of course. Fish is also very popular. We particularly love the muksun (Coregonus muksun), especially for stroganina, essentially frozen slices of raw fish dipped in salt. Reindeer breeders prefer it dipped in reindeer blood!

In the vicinity of Salekhard, one of my favourite places is the village of Gornoknyazevsk, which is situated on the right bank of the Ob river. It is home to an open-air ethnographic museum that was built in 2001 on the ancestral lands of Ivan Tayshin, a local prince. This unique museum has a mission to preserve and develop the cultural heritage of the indigenous northern minorities. Making sense of the traditional tents and the free-roaming wild deer are the hostesses in national dress, taking visitors on an ancient journey through the Yamal region.

Another sentimental favourite is Aksarka, a town and harbour on the southeastern shore of the lower reaches of the Ob river. Fifty-five kilometres east of Salekhard, it was founded between 1930 and 1932 by immigrants from the Southern and Central Urals. There is a bus service to and from Salekhard.

To date, the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District has the largest herd of reindeer in the world – at over 700,000. At the same time, the population of people in the region is a little more than half a million (Image © Sergey Anisimov)

Late March to early April is when this area really comes to life, as all the reindeer breeders get together for the annual Reindeer Herders’ Day. It’s a time for people from around the region to enjoy traditional food and music – and some friendly competition.

I must say, it is a far cry from how things used to be like way back when. In those days, communities kept to themselves, and people didn’t go out much, preferring to stay at home with their families. Besides, there were few places around Salekhard where people could spend their leisure time, anyway.

One of the streets within the city centre with administrative and residential buildings, as well as several cultural and entertainment centres (Image © Sergey Anisimov)

These days, however, Salekhard’s young people have an abundance of cinemas, concerts, cafés and bars to choose from, while the Ice Palace caters to the city’s many fans of ice-skating. In wintertime, which lasts for eight months of the year, people take this passion outside, quite literally – a step outside one’s house and it’s skate city!

The people of Salekhard continue to cherish their customs and traditions; they are our pride and joy. Our food, our arts, our way of life – these traditions mean everything to us. And as we try to protect this heritage for future generations, we are proud to share it with the world.

For more stunning stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 112.

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