How to explore the tundra: routes and ideas

December 1, 2019

A trip to the tundra will definitely make for an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience. We have compiled a list of accessible and interesting places to visit in Russia, where you can explore the real tundra. Let’s get started, or as the Russians say — Poekhali!

Tundra permafrost underlies Russia’s entire northern coast. The Kola Peninsula in the Murmansk Region is the easiest place to reach. The tundra stretches further east through Naryan-Mar, Salekhard, the Yamal Peninsula, Norilsk, Dikson and on to Kolyma — these vast areas have largely been left untouched and are the most unspoiled. In the regions around the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, tundra permafrost covers coastal areas, rolling hills and mountains, and some volcanoes in Magadan Region and the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The best ways to see the tundra are hiking, horse riding or off-road. River sports enthusiasts can go rafting or whitewater canoeing on the Pechora, Ob, Yenisei, Lena, Kolyma or on their calmer tributaries; these tours are often combined with fishing trips. Snowmobile tours or reindeer sledding trips can be organized in winter. You can go skiing on the mountain slopes, and there is even snowkiting for the real thrill-seekers.

There is something appealing about the tundra’s vast emptiness, its endless uninhabited expanses, covered with colorful mosses, lichens, wild flowers and small shrubs, where wild animals and birds stand out against the uniform landscape. The tundra is still inhabited by the indigenous peoples of the North. If you are looking for an alternative way to spend a vacation, there are trips you can go on to visit the Pomors, Nenets, Sami and other indigenous ethnic groups living in northern arctic Russia.

The Kola Peninsula

In the Khibiny Mountains and on the Kola Peninsula in Murmansk Region, you can go hiking or on an off-road adventure. The Kola Peninsula is almost completely flat, with little variation in elevation, so you do not need to be super fit to go on a hike there.

Adventurous tourists even arrive on bikes that are a little worse for wear, but they are confident because they do not need to worry about the terrain.

But Khibiny is mountainous and fairly rocky in some places; you need to be prepared for a serious adventure before you arrive there.

You can rent a Jeep on the Kola Peninsula and explore Russia’s mysterious ancient labyrinths (Babylons) by the White Sea, along with other immensely powerful places.

Check out Cape Korabl if you want to find your own amethyst. On the way there, you will also pass through the well-preserved settlements of Kandalaksha, Umba, Kashkarantsy, Kuzomen and Varzuga, where you can learn about Pomor folklore, crafts and traditions. Skilled Sami reindeer herders live in the village of Lovozero.

There is a seemingly bottomless lake in the Khibiny Mountains, Lake Imandra, the Aku-Aku Ravine and other places of natural gems with names that are difficult to pronounce: the Southern Chorgorr and Northern Rischorr Passes, Mount Takhtarvumchorr and Mount Poachvumchorr, the Chasnayok and Poachyok Rivers, the Maliy and Bolshoy Vudjavr Lakes, and the Seidjavr and Pingkyaring Lakes.

The town of Monchegorsk is a good starting point for a hike in the Khibiny Mountains.

Kolyma

The best way to experience Russia’s extreme northeast is by going on an expensive, but really exciting off-road expedition from Yakutsk to Magadan.

You will be able to stop and visit unique and remote places along the Kolyma Highway. You have to take the ferry to cross the Lena River and ford across many rivers. You will be able to visit the GULAG History Museum in Teply Klyuch and the site of the former Dneprovsky Gulag, and will see a monument with a sign welcoming you to the village of Oymyakon “Polyus Kholoda”, or “the Pole of Cold” in English. You can also visit Siberian Santa at the “Residence of Chyshaan — Lord of the Cold”, an igloo and ice tunnel complex filled with ice sculptures and giant crystals on the walls and ceiling. There is another place you can visit on this trip which is like no other — abandoned mining ghost town of Kadykchan. The city of Yakutsk and the large town Magadan are also very interesting places to visit and learn about the history and culture of Russia’s northern regions.

This is a real extreme tour. It takes a minimum of eight days to travel the full length of the Kolyma Highway. The quality of the road varies greatly with the weather. On rainy days, some areas may be cut off by overflowing rivers or some roads may become so muddy that they are impassable. An ideally passable roadway can only be guaranteed in winter, but temperatures can drop to -60 degrees Celsius.

Prices for tours along the Kolyma Highway start at 100 thousand rubles per person and can cost as much as 300 thousand, depending on the level of comfort that you want to receive along the way. There are very few roadside hotels, camp sites, cafés and restaurants, you often have to pitch a tent for the night, and bring enough food with you in the car. KAMAZ truck tours are almost the most expensive, which are really quite comfortable to spend the night in at truck stops along the way.

The Nenets Autonomous Okrug

The Nenets Autonomous Okrug is where you will see what life is really like in the Arctic Circle, you will learn how the Nenets reindeer herders live, and spend the night in a traditional chum (tent) in the Nelmin-Nos settlement. The Pechora River is a popular place to fish for pike, perch and grayling. In summer and autumn you can collect wild mushrooms, berries and herbs. The main natural attraction is the rocky eroded outline of the Timan Ridge.

If you are planning a hike in the tundra, do make sure you get vaccinated against tick-borne encephalitis in advance.

The best starting point for hiking trails is Naryan-Mar. You can fly there from Moscow, St. Petersburg and Arkhangelsk, and in the warmer months you can also fly there from Kirov and Syktyvkar.

Yamal Peninsula

Visit the Yamal Peninsula and immerse yourself in the culture of the ethnic groups native to arctic Russia — the Nenets, Khanty and Mansi. Places that are worth a visit include the Natural-Ethnographic Complex in Gornoknyazevsk at the Land of Hope Nenets Camp, and the ancient Sikhirtya Nomads Camp. You can learn how to make and use a lasso for catching deer and participate in traditional games there — sledge jumping, throwing axes and stick tug of war. You can also meet real reindeer and learn how to harness them.

Hiking and rafting are also popular activities on the Yamal Peninsula’s calm rivers that meander through the tundra.

The starting point for all routes is the town of Salekhard, the administrative center of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.

The Taymyr Peninsula

The almost uninhabited Taimyr Peninsula is the northernmost part of the Eurasian continent. The main attractions are the Putorana Plateau and Lama Lake, nominated to be made a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. You can reach them by boat from Norilsk on the rivers Norilka and Talaya. After a hike on the Putorana Plateau, visit the waterfalls of Yuzhniy Neyralakh and then take a walk along the Vitaminka River.

You can also sail along the Yenisei River in a boat, and visit the villages of Ust-Port, Karaul and Nosok — these villages played a major role in developing this wild region in the Far North during the Soviet period.

Dudinka is one of the coldest settlements on the planet. It is home to the Taymyr Regional Museum, Russia’s northernmost public museum.

At the mouth of the Yenisei at the Brekhovskiye Lakes, there is a protected area with a tremendous amount of bird life. In the warmer months you can spot white-tailed eagles, peregrine falcons, tundra swans, red-breasted geese and other rare birds.

Travel along the Taymyr Peninsula, starting from Norilsk. There are flights to Norilsk Alykel Airport from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg and a number of other cities. There are local regional flights to Khatanga, Dikson and Igarka.

The Kamchatka Peninsula

Kamchatka’s mountainous tundra landscape has a special charm. There are forests in the lowlands. High mountains and volcanoes — a kingdom of lava and stone. In the valleys between them there are colorful mosses, dwarf shrubs and green Siberian dwarf pines. The easiest way to access and admire the Kamchatka tundra is to hike up the mountain passes on foot or drive there in an SUV; the closest trails to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky start at the foot of the Avachinsky and Vilyuchinsky volcanoes.

In order to take in the vast tundra in all its splendor, book a helicopter trip over the picture-postcard Valley of Geysers, fly over the puffs of smoke emitted by volcanoes bubbling with lava and sulfur around the Uzon volcanic caldera, or hover over the kingdom of the Kamchatka brown bear on Kurile Lake. Helicopter tours last about an hour, when you will see meandering cobalt-blue rivers, volcanoes and their craters, and you will see the colors of the tundra, which change from bright green to fiery red with the seasons. When the weather is good you will easily be able to spot bears from the helicopter. Helicopter tours in Kamchatka cost about 40 thousand rubles.

Make sure you are prepared for the outdoors. You will be spending the night at turbazy (tourist camps) and at camping sites. The only hotels in the region are in the towns and some villages.

Other ways to explore the tundra

  • Tourists with Schengen visas who like travelling off the beaten track can visit the unique Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean, which Russia shares with Norway. Barentsburg is a Russian town on Svalbard, but it is almost impossible to get there without passing through Norwegian territory.
  • The Yaylas — the high Crimean Mountains — are a prime example of an Alpine tundra region. At a high elevation where the shrubland ends, there are amazing mosses, growing out of rocky and gravelly soils, as well as lichens and many unique plants and flowers.
  • Do you want to learn more about the culture of the ethnic groups living in the Far North without making the epic journey? Just off the route M8 or the Yaroslavl Highway, 50 kilometers from Moscow, you can visit the ethnographic park “Kochevnik” (Nomad). The owners have built chums (tents) and yurts there. You can try traditional dishes and teas from different ethnic groups in arctic Russia, and there are also shamanic rituals performed there. Yaks, sled dogs, deer and even camels are kept on the territory, and you can try some archery and learn to harness deer. On August 9 each year, the Nomad Park hosts a colorful celebration for the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.   (Based on a research into Russian sources)

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