Analysis and Commentary
Alexander Petrichenko: Unknown Yamal expeditions can keep uncovering new things all the time
© RIA Novosti. Evgeny Biyatov

Alexander Petrichenko: Unknown Yamal expeditions can keep uncovering new things all the time

The 2016 Unknown Yamal expedition ended on July 15, with its participants sailing about 1,800 kilometers via the rivers of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area. Expedition chief Alexander Petrichenko discussed the route, a visit to the “Deadly Railway” and an encounter with a biker in the taiga in this arctic.ru interview.

Mr. Petrichenko, what were the goals of expedition members?

First of all, we planned to cross the extremely remote Chortovy Ozyora (Devil Lakes) vicinity. This section of the route was about 90 kilometers long. Second, we planned to reach Verkhne-Tazovsky reserve. After that, we had to visit Krasnoselkup and to see Construction Project 503, or the Trans-Arctic Mainline that was to have linked Inta in the Komi Autonomous Republic with Salekhard and Igarka on the Yenisei River. The latter is also known as the "Deadly Railway" or "Stalin's Railway." We also wanted to visit the site of the Mangazeya ghost town dating to the late 16th and mid-17th centuries. Those were our key destinations. And we also wanted to visit the famous Nado-Mara nomad camp.

How long did the expedition last, and how many people set out?

The expedition lasted over two weeks, from June 30 through July 15. The six of us sailed a Kazanka speedboat and two PVC dinghies, with two people per vessel.

Did you cover the whole route, and did you face any unexpected situations?

We accomplished most of our objectives. Of course, we faced some problems because our route of almost 2,000 kilometers passed through the wilderness. When we planned this expedition, we listed all potential assistants at local nomad camps and towns, and we also contacted people who could be of any help.

Could you tell us about your route?

We set out from Novy Urengoi and drove toward the Chortovy Ozyora (Devil Lakes) near the town of Purpe. From there, we planned to cover 100 kilometers through local oil and gas fields. Once there, we faced our first problems because these oil and gas fields are off limits to visitors, and we had to obtain passes for our team and boats. But the managers of these companies were understanding and resolved all issues in no time at all… After that, four of us rode in a KAMAZ truck along rundown, winding concrete roads. Our trip lasted about 15 hours because there were checkpoints everywhere. This was our first problem.

They say the mosquitos there are quite a nuisance.

We no longer pay any attention to mosquitos. It's the last thing on our minds. We were ready to set sail on the morning of July 1.

According to your plans, you were supposed to visit the geographical center of mainland Russia. Where is this located, and is it marked somehow?

In 1906, Dmitry Mendeleyev calculated the coordinates of mainland Russia's center. Naturally, that location was perceived as the center of the Russian Empire, with consideration of all the territories under its control at that time. In the 1960s, a group of enthusiasts decided to install a monument there. That monument is located in the upper reaches of the Taz River, somewhere between the towns of Tolka and Ratta, with the town of Kikkiakki in the middle. To be more exact, it is located 125 kilometers upstream from the town of Tolka.

We divided into two groups. The first group included professional photographers who were supposed to visit the Verkhne-Tazovsky reserve, for the most part. They were to spend several days there, to take pictures and shoot video. The reserve's managers provided us with accommodation and guides.

Our boat crews decided not to steer toward the reserve because they could not carry a lot of fuel and because it is impossible to find any surplus fuel in the taiga. We planned to reach the center of mainland Russia and to sail down the Taz River toward Krasnoselkup, Construction Project 503, Mangazeya and Nado-Mar. Fortunately, we communicated with the first group, escorted by guides, who informed us of the bad sailing conditions. Their boats hit some rocks in shallow waters and damaged their propeller screws. That was a major problem. Therefore we decided not to take our chances, we chose a different route and reached the town of Krasnoselkup. Once there, we visited a local museum, took a guided tour of the town, refueled and moved on.

You also planned to visit Construction Project 503, also called the "Deadly Railway." Could you say a few words about it?

We left Krasnoselkup for the town of Sedelnikovo, where this Construction Project 503 was launched. After World War II, there were plans to build a railway that would link Salekhard with Igarka. That railway's Salekhard-Nadym section is known as Construction Project 501. Sedelnikovo boasts the most well-preserved railway sections, former corrective labor camps, two steam locomotives and railcars. We found some tracks manufactured in 1875 at the Demidov industrialist clan's factories, and we studied that place.

Did you plan to monitor the environment at Verkhne-Tazovsky state nature reserve, and did your expedition accomplish this task?

I guess so because our boys who are good photographers and fishing enthusiasts checked local bodies of water for fish. They even caught some taimen fish, a rare salmon variety, kissed and released them. The reserve's managers asked us to film a logjam on a river section using a quad-copter. These logjams are very dangerous because they prevent fish from reaching their spawning grounds. We filmed that section, and our video helped the managers to find the best way to clear it. We spotted forest fires, called the reserve's managers on the satellite phone and told them about the fires. Naturally, we inspected the shores and took water samples. All the water is very clean there because there are no production facilities in the vicinity.

Whom did you meet with during this expedition?

Representatives of the Russian Geographical Society, including Vitaly Gnutikov, welcomed us in Krasnoselkup. Mr. Gnutikov is a biker, artist, sculptor and a very interesting person. Participants in a motorcycle rally, scheduled to begin July 29, are to reach Yamburg. Mr. Gnutikov has built an obelisk that was to be installed in Yamburg. But it's very hard to transport the obelisk through the wild taiga. After we showed up, it was decided to hire a barge and to deliver the dismantled obelisk aboard it. We were supposed to meet the barge in the town of Gazsale, the end destination, to load the obelisk onto a truck and deliver it to Yamburg. Everything proceeded smoothly as planned. The obelisk is now in Novy Urengoi, it will be delivered to Yamburg several days later and installed in the run-up to the motorcycle race.

How often do your expeditions take place?

I have been organizing these expeditions since 1998. In previous years, we studied the southern sector of the Gulf of Ob, almost reached the Ural Mountains via the Shchuchya River and visited islands of Nizhneobsky reserve. We also sailed Tazovskaya Gulf, set out from Mangazeya and reached the Yenisei and Nizhnyaya Tunguska rivers. The expedition is now branded as Unknown Yamal, and we plan to study new remote places in the Yamal Peninsula so that we can keep uncovering new things.