Ust Nukzhe is unreachable by car for half of the year because the locals managed to block the construction of a bridge from Yuktali. Traffic can only drive there when the river freezes over. While it's got a host of problems, the locals have retained their traditions and have an escape valve in the form of the taiga.
I spent a full week in Ust Nukzhe before finally getting to the taiga, but I only started to get the Yevenks once I was in the wilderness. The idea that someone would choose to live in such an unbelievably difficult and dangerous environment without even the most basic luxuries, especially when they had other options, had previously seemed unfathomable to me. But once I was out there, the taiga started making sense. The contrast is undeniable -- Yevenks in the 600-person village are soft and pasty, while in the taiga they are by necessity in great condition.
It's easy enough to point to ways in which the Russians have screwed over the Yevenks. Alcoholism, tuberculosis, environmental damage and unemployment weren't issues before the Russians arrived. But the Yevenks generally don't frame the argument like that. For them, the decision to live in the wild is based more on their love for the taiga than a rejection of Russian values.
In order to get to our campground, we drove some two hours and 50 km from Ust Nukzhe and then traveled 12 km on reindeer. The closest building with electricity was a maintenance shed on the railroad tracks, some 30 km away. There were no cell phones, radios or light pollution.
Our convoy from the village consisted of two Soviet jeeps, one dog and seven people -- the brothers Anatoly and Slava Abramov with whom I'd be staying, two drivers, two joy riders and me. Most of us had been drinking since the morning and we continued along the way. Yevenks have a weakness for booze.
The road, if you can even call it that, is only passable in the winter and so infrequently traveled that, when returning to civilization a week later, I could see every place the jeeps had drunkenly swerved off the road; no other vehicles had passed through in the interim. There was a far greater diversity of animal tracks alongside it.
We stopped at a roadside tent that served as a transfer station on our journey into the taiga and emptied out the provisions we were bringing with -- a sack of flour, pasta, candies, bread, tea and other essentials.
I got my first glimpse at the type of dwelling I'd be spending the next week in. Thankfully I was completely drunk, or I might have gotten cold feet. The square 3x3 meter tents are handmade from a greenish surplus army material that provides absolutely no insulation. A small metal furnace with an exhaust pipe that sticks out over the entrance provides the only heat.
Reindeer pelts line the perimeter of the structure and provide a place to sit and sleep. The floor is the forest bed and by burrowing with your index finger you can reach the frozen earth. Here the temperature can drop to -60 Celsius.
It takes about fifteen minutes for the furnace to warm up the tent and it needs to be fed regularly. Even then it is far from comfortable. When sitting facing the furnace, your front half bakes while your spine freezes. There is no happy medium.
It was well into the evening and we had long since finished the last three bottles of vodka by the time a four-reindeer sleigh arrived to pull us into another world.
Four Yevenks, Anatoly, Slava, their nephew Vanya and Slava's son Stas, lived in the camp I stayed at. Actually, Anatoly slept in a log cabin about 20 minutes away that was so small that I couldn't stand up straight in it.
Anatoly is less than a year away from his 60th birthday, making him a veritable elder, and he built a string of three cabins once his hemorrhoids made the nomad lifestyle too trying. But he hadn't gotten complacent in his old age; he was still in remarkable shape and would walk for up to five hours a day through waist-deep snow hunting sables. I went out with him one day to check his traps and the only thing keeping me from taking more breaks was the knowledge that he's a grandfather. Later on he told me that he had picked an easy route along a trail for me.