I zipped my jacket trying to stave off the chill in the air blowing off the Bering Sea. It was a dismal gray day. I sat on a plastic chair on the beach next to rusty scrap metal, yet in front of me was a plate of food placed carefully on the impeccable white lace tablecloth.
I sat alone enjoying my beach feast of whale blubber, tongue, and intestine and suddenly a large baby was thrust upon my lap looking at me smiling with a bottle in hand. People were rapidly taking pictures trying to get the baby and me to smile. I dutifully smiled and cooed at the baby while posing for pictures.
A bad/weird dream you ask?
No…it’s just another day in my traveling life.
Layrentiya Russia – A Forgotten Village
Even though I was on an expedition cruise across the top of the world where few humans have gone before, that didn’t mean we had no human contact. As we made our way through the Bering Strait towards Wrangel Island, we anchored at Layrentiya, one of the only villages on the coast of the Chukotka region of the Russian Far East.
The lace tablecloths and plastic tables were Layrentiya’s way of saying “Welcome, we are glad you stopped here. We are putting out our very best for you!”
Layrentiya is a small village of 1,300 people representing 30% of the whole district’s population. They get 150 visitors a year when the Spirit of Enderby ship stops to do a cultural tour of the village. And when visitors arrive, the locals put on quite a show.
We had been learning all about the wildlife and birdlife in the Chukotka region during our expedition cruise, and now it was time to learn something about the culture and people of the region.
Cut Off From the rest of Russia
Layrentiya is not a ‘traditional’ village – it’s a town built by the Soviets in 1928. Eskimos, Chukchis, and Russians live intermixed here. The locals are rather cut off from the rest of Russia and the region. The village has two dirt roads that lead through it, but the town is not actually connected to anywhere via road. All supplies come in on shipping containers. Strangely, it’s actually easier to get around in the winter when the rivers, lakes and sea become a super highway for snow mobiles.
I was eager to learn what it was like to live in the Russian Far East; a typically brutal, dismal environment. From the moment I landed ashore and saw the 3 plastic tables set up with their lace clothes blowing in the wind and the little wooden stage with banner, I knew this was going to be a spectacular day.
What it’s like to Live in the Russian Far East
Russian Far East Landscape
The town was long and simple with two dirt roads, a hospital, bar, police station, school, government building, and church. As we walk down the dirt roads that make up the town there’s no hiding that the village is rough looking.
Rusted containers were everywhere as that’s how all of their supplies get delivered and the containers seldom get picked up. The buildings were all made of metal and bars were on all the windows. The building that weren’t made of metal were abandoned and falling apart due to the harsh environment.
It really was bleak – but at the same time the town did it’s best to dress up the bleakness with color and life.
I immediately noticed that all of the apartment buildings had windows with lace curtains and plants hanging in the windows. Their summers are really short, so I thought it was touching how they used every bit of sunlight they could to grow plants for the short season.
Fascinated with remote cultures like me? Read what it’s like to live in the Canadian Arctic on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Food – Be Prepared to Eat Whale Blubber
I chew and chew and chew – eating whale is like a full contact sport – you work up a sweat. But I was determined to try everything they provided.
Whale and fish were their traditional food in the Russian Far East. And of course they eat all parts of the animal leaving nothing to waste. I ate whale blubber, tongue, and intestine and lord knows what else. I pretty much eat anything they put in front of me.
They had the whale prepared a number of different ways – smoked and pickled were my favorites – but all were surprisingly good – yes, even the intestine. I also had salmon with onion that tasted like sushi. They also had fresh cloudberries (they resembled blackberries) in a tart fruit salad and lichen from the tundra that had been pickled.
It was all surprisingly good – and chewy, but after some long winters, I think I might crave some crunchy Doritos.
Layrentiya Cultural Museum
Yes, this little town had a museum filled to the brim with artifacts and historical representation of what life was like years ago for the Chukchi’s and Eskimos. An elder in the village led us through this fascinating museum filled with taxidermy and taught us all about the hunting techniques of the Eskimos and the Reindeer herders (Chukchi).
You are unable to grow crops in this part of the world, so the two livelihoods were reindeer herding or marine hunting. Eskimos were really the fishermen and marine mammal hunters and were more settled than the nomadic reindeer hunters.
Russian Traditions and Dance
From their dress to their dancing, it was a day of learning about cultural traditions. It was so nice to see that the traditions were still being passed to the kids of the village via the families.
They all wore traditional warm boots and colorful headgear and smocks.
Before each dance they would explain the tradition through our translators. With names like I Clean Mushrooms, Man Who Eats Too Much (my favorite!), Under The Sails, Reindeer Hunters, and Sea Bandits, you could tell that the tradition of story telling has lived on through the generations.
Families Ties and Remote Life
You could tell that the family ties were strong in this town – there were many kids running around playing and many sets of young parents. And of course in a town this size everyone helped each other.
The people of Lavrentiya Russia were eager to show us what they had to offer and that’s what I loved about them. They were also eager to capture our reactions as people swarmed around us asking for photos on their cell phones.
As I walked around this town of rusted out containers it baffled me how people lived here, but they did, and they seemed like anyone else – happy families, laughing kids, and hearty people who took pride in their heritage.
I’m always looking for places not affected by tourism on this globe. There are plenty of these places, yet they are hard to get to, much like Lavrentiya.
Travel days like these, when I get the privilege of seeing such a rare part of the world, are absolutely precious to me. In fact, this day was probably my favorite day on the whole cruise – chewy whale blubber, babies, and all.
By Claudia January 27, 2016 - 12:49 pm
I must say, this place looks totally not inviting yet… so interesting and unique that I actually would like to visit one day! Though I would have a bit of an issue as there is no way on earth I would ever eat whale or intestines!!
By Tom Bartel January 28, 2016 - 11:55 am
Lovely piece, Sherry. You made me want to go to a place I’d never heard of, or if I had, would want to go. You’re a hell of a writer.
By Sherry January 28, 2016 - 5:11 pm
Thanks Tom…do you like the taste of whale? 🙂
By Tricia @ The Adventure List January 29, 2016 - 10:11 am
I didn’t realize you stopped here on your Alaskan trip. How fascinating! Very similar to northern Alaskan villages. You are a brave woman to eat the local cuisine. I’m such a picky eater I don’t think they could pay be to try it.
Wonderful story about the village.
By Sherry January 29, 2016 - 12:07 pm
Yes – before Alaska I went to Russia for an Arctic Cruise – just amazing!
By Leigh | Campfires & Concierges January 31, 2016 - 2:11 pm
There is something so sweet about those tables set with lace tablecloths!
Did they mention why most of the windows have bars on them? Seems curious for such an isolated town where I’m sure everyone knows everyone else.
By Sherry January 31, 2016 - 3:32 pm
Well – normally in that part of the world the bars are for deterring polar bears – I’m not sure if that’s exactly the reason though in the village – but it’s the best explanation I have!
By Izy berry February 10, 2016 - 7:10 pm
They had a different kind of life
By Julie McCarthy March 20, 2016 - 3:17 am
What a great journey … have always wanted to wash up in the Russian Far East … something so oddly beguiling about the combination of the cold, the sea, and the fortitude of the folks who inhabit it.
By Malcolm Schreiber August 10, 2018 - 6:58 am
Sherry, by now this trip is a distant memory for you, but I’m so happy you took the time to jot it down and offer it to others. I’m looking into going to Chukotka myself at some point, and finding your bog has excited me no end. I, too, love to travel and also love to go to places that people have never heard of. Who needs to see Venice when it has been the subject of so much art, photography, movies and more? I feel as though I’ve been there, though I haven’t. Much more interesting are the places that leave people scratching their heads and wondering where on Earth you’ve just been.
By Sherry August 13, 2018 - 4:18 am
Malcolm – thanks for your kind words and I”m glad you enjoyed the article! I hope you make it to Chukotka – it’s a fascinating, seldom visited area!! I want to go back!
By Dorota August 21, 2019 - 7:46 am
So interesting to visit such places complately off the beaten path! I have a few Russian friends so I had an opportunity to visit small places too. I love the country, despite the fact it is far from ideal. I somehow feel like home in Russia 🙂 Thanks for showing me this place!