SOE: Warm Chukchi Hospitality at Lavrentiya

10 August, 2017

Despite short, choppy seas; a lowering sky and rain; we followed in the wake of great explorers like Timothy Perevalov, James Cook, Sarychev and Billings and made our way across Lavrentiya Bay to visit the Chukchi Region’s administrative centre of Lavrentiya. Once on shore, Grisha led us to a small plaza dominated by a tall, monkey-like stone sculpture, and a circle of painted timbers. The sculpture, Grisha explained, is a mythical figure, shared by cultures on both sides of the Bering Strait, and called “Belikan” in the east, and “Pelikan” in Chukotka. Pelikan celebrates what is good in people and is said to have special powers. If you rub its round belly and make a wish, it might just be granted. And so many a soggy hand reached out for a rub, with hopeful eyes turned to the sky. By the time we’d walked the 10 metres or so to the circle of painted timbers, the rain had stopped. The timbers, Grisha explained, were a Chukchi calendar, one plank per month conceived and produced by a children’s group run by local artist, Valerie who had come welcome us. To honour the importance of reindeer to Chukchi life, each month focussed on an aspect of the animal’s breeding cycle.

The weather remained dry as we visited Lenin’s bust then split into two groups. One setting off for the museum, the other enjoying a feast of local foods prepared by the villagers. Gray-whale steak, pickled blubber, whale sausage, dried salmon, red caviar, fresh battered salmon, donut-like fried bread with a berry syrup, and a rainbow of tundra berries, from crow, blue, cloud and more. No-one was shy about filling their plates, much to the delight of the locals. Nearby in the local hall, artist Sasha displayed some of his lovely work, from landscapes to street and harbour scenes, with a number of them snapped up by lucky expeditioners.

In the museum, Elizaveta, who grew up in the now abandoned village of Naukan on Cape Dezhnev, gave a fascinating account of Chukchi culture (well-translated by Tania), from the importance of reindeer, walrus and whales, to the practical aspects of life in such an extreme environment. One of the many highlights was the ultra-lightweight, waterproof anorak made from the skin of walrus intestines, and the light kayaks that were once paddled across Bering Strait in storm conditions.

We finished our visit with a lovely performance of Chukchi song and dance in the school hall, courtesy of the local dance group, White Sail. The dancers ranged in age from about two to elderly, but the standard was consistently delightful. The Walrus dance was a beauty. What a great morning.

After lunch, Grisha gave a fascinating talk about gray whales and the research he’s done on a very special population, once thought extinct, off Sakhalin Island. After a short break, Chris gave an evocative talk about the ghost village of Naukan and the history of Cape Dezhnev. He’d not long finished when we approached the Cape. Although strong winds and a sweeping swell meant no landing was possible, Captain took the ship in very close so we could see just off the port side, the things Chris had just been speaking about. On the starboard side and just ahead, a mesmerising parade of auklets, murres, shearwaters and even common eiders in glowing evening light kepts us entertained as we completed our passage through Bering Strait.



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