The Adventure Begins

We have started our journey along the Trans-Siberian Railroad to visit the Nenets on the Yamal Peninsula, Lake Baikal, the Kazakhs in the Mongolian Highlands, Central Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and China. You can follow along on our blog for photos and reflections and our Garmin GPS for our current whereabouts and live “tweets”.

This is not an organised tour. It is an expedition to an extremely remote area, accompanied by a fixer / interpreter, to immerse yourself in the lives and culture of some of the most traditional nomadic people on the planet. Thus, please be prepared for high levels of physical discomfort and the occasional need for flexibility and last minute changes in plan…

Ed Vallance, Yamal Peninsula Expedition Organizer & Guide

That quote is the departing “reminder” at the end of our packing list and information packet for our trip to join a Nenets migration on the Yamal Peninsula in far northern Siberia.

It then continues with additional warnings such as, “the only word I feel comfortable using to describe this journey, is ‘harrowing’,” and, “there is zero infrastructure, the weather is freezing, and the transport on sledges is bumpy and cramped…” “Freezing” is a term used loosely depending on where you are, so we had to look up what it meant in northern Siberia in late winter, although suggestions of -100C/-148F boots, a -40C/-40F sleeping bag, and “the absolute warmest jacket in the world” gave us an idea that it would make our honeymoon to Antarctica seem balmy.

You’re probably thinking to yourself why would anyone voluntarily submit oneself to that. You’re not alone, we were wondering the same thing! Believe it or not, we do have reasons and they do go beyond the oft-noted fact that we’re a little bit crazy. It’s all because of how both of those warnings ended. The first one finished, “…it’ll all be worth it for the chance to experience this incredible, other-worldly land.” And the second one ended, “…but the people and place are among the most amazing anywhere in the world!”

In a time when most of the world is connected at the click of a button, finding travel experiences that challenge us to reach outside our comfort zone and broaden our perspective are hard to find, and this journey is sure to be one. A large part of why we travel is for personal (and relationship!) growth, and to remind ourselves that while we’re stressed about the minutia of our day-to-day lives, someone else is worried about survival, or living life at a completely different and otherworldly pace. It’s also about finding connection with people who on the surface we seem to have nothing in common with – despite a fairly frigid first-impression, for example, we ended our recent train ride grooving to blaring Russian pop music (somewhere in between Michael Jackson and Eminem) in the dining car with our Provodniks (female carriage attendants, which live up to their reputation as seemingly strict, but deeply caring, “train moms”). Most importantly, it is about expanding our ideas of what’s possible and realizing just how adaptable we really are when we get outside of our daily routines – although recently, we’ve noticed an emerging theme in our travels of limited shower availability, and are wondering if that’s also a (subconscious) draw! For us, life has always been about exploring the edges and experiencing as much as possible, as fully as possible – about fitting as much Life into life as we can.

After a solid two weeks of preparation (you don’t want to be unprepared for this trip), we are off! We don’t really know what to expect, but for us that is half the fun. It will take us four days to reach the Nenets – two days on an overnight train to Labytnangi, one day driving up the frozen River Orb to Yar Sale in an amphibious vehicle (this is the only way to access the village, by boat in summer, by driving on the ice in winter, or hovercraft in-between – that is, when the ice isn’t melting or freezing, which shuts the area off from the outside world completely), and finally one more day in wooden box sledges attached to the back of a snowmobile – and then we will spend six days immersing ourselves in their way of life. Today we arrived in Labytnangi after two (hot!) days on the train and we’ve gotten firsthand confirmation that Antarctica was definitely balmy. We were greeted with temperatures of -29C/-20F and it will likely only be getting colder as we head north towards the Nenets tomorrow morning.

The day before we left, we bought a Garmin inReach as a gift to our families. They’re always supportive of our wild adventures and we figured this would allow us to stay in touch and give them some peace of mind. So now, as a side benefit, you can follow our journey and text us on our satellite phone from that same link. We will also post pictures and stories of our stay with the Nenets when we get back to Moscow in a couple of weeks to start our journey east on the Trans-Siberian Railway, towards Mongolia, China, possibly Tibet and Bhutan… and beyond.

Blog Comments

Loved reading this first entry and being able to follow where you are! Thanks for sharing your adventures with us! Xoxo

You two are an inspiration to loving and living life to the max. You do way more than dance in the rain. You create your own weather! May this journey show not only you but everyone you encounter and touch how to look past differences, gain understanding, embrace acceptance, and reach out to each other. You are our ambassadors to a more loving and connected planet. Go for it. And have a blast for all of us! Huge love, Alison & Richard

I cannot envy what I could never do but I can love and admire and marvel at you both! Thank you for sharing your journey so eloquently! Love!

Thank you for sharing your incredible adventures. I’m so excited for this blog!

I wonder how much of the personal and relationship growth we gain is from travel vs simply being disconnected … I pondered this a lot last year on our three month trip. Anyway, I am 100% in agreement that this is such an incredible to way to grow both individually and together. I love the photos and can’t wait to see more. Stay warm ..!!

Go Jonathan and Kelly! I think it is as much fun for all of us as for you 2! ‘Cannot wait to hear about your week with the lovely Nenets and now much we all can learn and grow right along with you!

Hi Kelly and Jon, I am so happy for you. I have been to Russia four times and loved the people so much I learned Russian. I went to China seven times and had amazing experiences. Mandarin is a bit more difficult to learn ;-)) Happy trails!

Kelly and Jon: Your travels remind me of the summer of 1976, when I was a student at Leningrad State University. I traveled to Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia, and between Leningrad and Moscow, but never made it to the far reaches of Siberia. It’d still love to do the Trans-Siberian. Not sure about visiting the Nenets because I think David would want to walk!! x

An adventure beyond what i likely will ever experience so I’ll live this one vicariously. Bon voyage.

Koo chit J and K! The train looks comfy inside but the landscape looks a bit challenging. SO agree with the opportunity to be with and understand how a group can live together with so little, care for each other so much, truly value what they have, and find real enjoyment and fulfillment without all the white noise we all call home. Be safe.

Stay safe, warm, and positive! Enjoy the journey! xoxo

I got my popcorn and am standing by (the crackling fire) waiting for more! Love you guys!

Saw recent notes about the railroad. So amazing all those people died building. Are railroads abandoned? Looks like there may be a character limit on your entries?

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