Even-minded adventures

Pat Smith inside the bride’s tent. Recreation of a traditional wedding. Anavgay village, a cultural village for 640 mostly Even people. Near Esso village, Kamchatka, Russia. Note that, in the pictures, the “bride and groom” are from Travel Directors group – Ian Marks and Pat Smith.
Picture: Stephen Scourfield The West Australian
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Traditional ways are preserved on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula 

For the indigenous Even people, earliest inhabitants of Far East Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, the tree represents the full life of the universe.

Its roots are in the past, connected to ancestors. The trunk is the present, clear for all to see. The branches and leaves connect people to the future.

And the Even people’s pole ladders represent this, too.

As strips of cloth are tied to the end of a thin larch pole, most precious wishes are made.

It is then hoisted up, the other end is stuck in the ground, so that the pole stands, pointing to the sky, cloth kaleidoscopic against blue, hopes fluttering before the universe and its gods.

The indigenous Even people are the earliest habits of the Kamchatka peninsula, long before Russians came and claimed it as part of their country 300 years ago.

They were the only people to ride reindeer, using dogs to haul sleds.

They still live from hunting, fishing and reindeer herding.

A community, now of 640, have lived at Anavgay village since 2004. It was established in a traditionally important spot next to a river which runs with salmon; fish returning each year to spawn.

Near the river, there is a working fish trap — a 2m long, slatted “crate”. Fencing is placed in the river, acting like cattle mustering “wings”, funnelling the fish into an underwater fenced yard and then the fish trap. Its small entrance has sharp, angled prongs pointing inwards. Fish can swim in, but not back out.

Near it is a carved wooden knife for skinning fish.

There are red salmon drying on larch rails — looking so similar to the fabric strips tied to their poles. The Even people have to dry a lot of fish for themselves and their essential dogs to survive the long, cold winter. They release the dogs to fend for themselves in summer, when they are not needed to pull sleds, and catch them again by putting out food when it becomes scarce.

The village is near the small and remote town of Esso, a full day’s drive through larch, five species of birch, poplar and junipers up a sometimes bitumen, often gravel road from Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka’s main town. And I’ve flown here from Perth via Singapore, Seoul and Vladivostok with Singapore Airlines and Aeroflot’s codeshare airline Aurora.

Far East Russia is remote.

I have joined a Travel Directors group. As we arrive, the forest is immediately important and imposing. A small fire burns, and green juniper branches are put on this, creating smoke, to cleanse and purify us.

Then our hosts conduct a full wedding ceremony, from matchmaker to arrows being fired from carved bows, to the tug-of-war “fight” between the two wedding parties at the end. The group’s Pat Smith and Ian Marks prove good sports as “bride and groom”.

When married, a woman’s hair is re-groomed from two to one plaits, to show her new status.

After a lunch of reindeer or red salmon soup, there are performances by Nurgenek cultural dance group, which started in 1972. Its wood grouse dance is very like an indigenous Australian emu dance.

And, as I watch a group of women dance, I am taken back to a line of women dancing in Lambom village on New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, grass headdresses rather than beads dangling over their faces. I am reminded of the fish trap dance in Molot village on PNG’s nearby Duke of York Island.

And then there is throat singing, connecting the Even to indigenous peoples from Mongolia to Greenland.

The Even’s yurts here are based on a tripod covered with 50 to 80 reindeer pelts. Further south, the Even used fish skins. A yurt about 8m across would be home to two families, one in either half.

Outside one is propped a sled, the tight curve of its runners are made from greenwood bent round a tree trunk, strapped and left to dry and set for many days.

Reindeers would carry the yurt as Even people followed their herds — not haul sleds.

Indeed, until about 250 years ago, Even only rode their reindeer. They learnt sled use from the Koryak people, who also live here on the peninsula.

They made lassos by stitching soft reindeer hide into rope — 12m to 14m long in summer and 14m to 18m long for winter, when snow makes it more difficult to get as close.

They say they are the only people known to have ridden reindeer.

Carvings tie to culture

Marina Voronova’s wood carvings dominate the lobby and lounge of the Paramushir Tur hotel in Esso.

“I want to meet the person who did those,” Tony Evans said when he first saw them. Tony conceived, researched and is leading this tour.

And so it is that the Travel Directors group also not only meets Marina, but spends the evening having dinner in her home and workshop, and hearing her speak about her work and beliefs, through guide and interpreter Alla Zaryshnyak.

For Marina’s work is reflective of Kamchatka indigenous culture. There is walrus tusk engraving, of which, she says: “You must be in good spirits when you do it.”

There is a barbed fish spear. There are calendars — holes in wooden pieces which could be marked off with pegs. There is a wind caller which spins the air; small but reminiscent of an Australian bull roarer. There’s a child’s pair of fish skin boots, adult reindeer hide boots and a beaded and embroidered mat made by several generations of women in the same family.

And, of course, there are Marina’s carvings in wood and stone of bears, fish, and indigenous motifs.

It all ties to culture. Marina speaks about the main creator god, the raven.

In the great flood there was just one tree left standing, with the raven Kyg-ujkynek-u perched on it. He flew to the god of the Sun, Tyjkytyj, to ask how to make the Earth, which he did with the help of the duck Galgapel who dived and brought up soil. Birds spread the light and warmth from a volcano which appeared as part of the land’s creation.

Marina shows a photograph of a woman shaman who taught her a lot.

And she is keen for us to see a dangle of mascots, which would be passed down through a family.

The most important of the bunch of wooden pieces tied together with a hide thong is the reindeer god. If a herd went missing, this would be placed where they were last seen.

If they did not reappear within a reasonable time, the reindeer god’s head would be cut off, as he hadn’t done his job.

Fact File

Travel Directors visit Vladivostok, spend several days in Petropavlovsk and visit the Valley of the Geysers, and then fly out by helicopter to stay at Lake Dvukhyurtochnoye Camp for two nights during a 19-day tour called Kamchatka: Nature’s Tour de Force. It starts in Seoul in South Korea, and visits the Demilitarised Zone at Panmunjom. The fully-inclusive tour is from $17,500, with tours in June and July 2019, and numbers limited to 18. For more information, see here 


Stephen Scourfield was in Russia as a guest of Travel Directors. They have not seen or approved this story.


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