Feature: Indigenous Groups in the Far East

Russia's rich cultural melting pot can seem utterly invisible if you only visit the main cities along the Trans-Siberian Railway. For a radically different perspective, it's worth getting off the beaten path, and learning a bit about the Far East's indigenous groups. A few starting points include the following:

Sakha Republic

Inhabiting a vast India-sized republic, the once-marginalised Sakha are today among the nation's most successful indigenous groups. Sakha (also known as Yakuts) have rich folk customs, including an oral storytelling tradition of great epic poems (some over 20,000 verses long), unique foods (like raw frozen fish, reindeer meat and fermented mare's milk) and a love for the khomus (mouth harp). Yakutsk is the gateway to it all, though if you want to arrange a visit to a shaman or experience traditional life, you'll have to travel well beyond the city.

Kamchatka

The peninsula is home to a number of different groups, including the Even, the Itelmeni and the Koryak. Home to a mix of all three groups, the village of Esso is the best place to learn about the region's cultural diversity, particularly at the excellent Ethnographic Museum. Nomadic Even communities of reindeer herders inhabit hard-to-reach northern regions, though you can join the annual solstice celebration in Anavgay (near Esso) each June. Another Kamchatka event worth planning a trip around is the 1000km-long Beringia dog-sledding race, held in March each year.

Amur River Valley

Numbering around 12,000, the Nanai live on both the Russian and Chinese side of the Amur River. Like many other Far Eastern peoples, the Nanai have a deep respect for nature, and believe the spirit world inhabits most of the physical world around them. The most accessible community to visit is the village of Verkhnyaya Ekon near Komsomolsk-na-Amure.

Feature: Life in a Soviet Experiment

‘How can anyone live here?’ is the nagging question from many outsiders who can’t fathom enduring life at –50°C in winter. Another one, some argue, is ‘Should anyone be living here?’

The Soviet experiment – of (forcibly) relocating millions to develop the Far East and Siberia – has yielded a bizarre network of disconnected cities across one of the world’s most forbidding regions. Russia gets colder as you move east, yet population density never falters. During the Soviet era, populations of cities such as Yakutsk and Khabarovsk rose 1000%; Komsomolsk, meanwhile, grew from an empty riverside meadow into an industrial city of more than a quarter million.

That’d be impressive if productivity and expenses were on par with European Russia. But during winters that can stretch over half a year, productivity suffers and expenses go way up, requiring bail-out subsidies.

Siberian Curse, by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, is a fascinating look at Russia’s ‘temperature per capita’. It suggests that much of Russia is simply too cold and that over-populated areas in the Far East burden the national economy.

If you stop off at purpose-built towns along the Baikal-Amur Mainline (Baikalo-Amurskaya Magistral; BAM), such as Novy Urgal, or make it further north to Magadan (which has lost over a third of its population since the Soviet Union fell), it’s tempting to surmise that the whole region is in decline. The truth is far more chequered. Busy Vladivostok saw a R600-billion makeover in preparation for the high-profile Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2012, and Sakhalin Island is running wild in oil revenue. Even remote Yakutsk is seeing a surge in population, due largely to income from diamonds and gold in the area, so it would be premature to dismiss the Russian Far East as a region without a bright future.