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Coronavirus crackdown fails to snare NSW couple after 'extraordinary' journey to Arctic Russia

Emma Siossian and Cameron Marshall, Sunday March 22, 2020 - 08:17 EDT
ABC licensed image
Finding reindeer herds was one part of the adventure through Arctic Russia. - ABC licensed

They're 66 and 82, but that didn't stop Wendy Morrison and Alan Smith travelling to a place not a single foreign tourist had been before.

At least, that's what the certificate presented to them by the people who live there says.

The New South Wales couple recently journeyed into the very far north of Arctic Russia, through remote and isolated townships, mixing with reindeer herders and other Indigenous locals, making it safely back to Australia right before the world went into a travel lockdown.

It was as different as a place could be from their home in sunny Crowdy Head on the NSW Mid North Coast.

"We had an extraordinary adventure in Russia, possibly even topping even some of our more bizarre travel escapades, and at our ages of 66 and 82 years we have had just a few," Ms Morrison said.

"We began in Yakutia, and its capital is Yakutsk, which is the coldest inhabited city in the world. It's in northern Arctic Siberia.

"From there we travelled 3,000 kilometres by ice road, which is literally driving along the frozen Lena and Anabar rivers, and winter roads.



"We went all the way to Yuryung-Khaya, on the Laptev Sea of the Russian Arctic Ocean, the last settlement in all of northern Russia, in what is known as extreme Arctic Russia. It's the furthest north we have ventured."

A village of reindeer herders



Ms Morrison described Yuryung-Khaya as a "dangerous" but immensely beautiful place.

"This village of only 1,200 people is populated exclusively by ethnic Dolgans, who are all reindeer herders," she said





"There are only 7,000 Dolgans in existence. We were very fortunate to live with a Dolgan family in Yuryung-Khaya, as well as ethnic Yakut families in other towns.

"One day we spent seven hours in a transport tank on the tundra.

"Our journey was through a heavy snowstorm and whiteout in search of two local reindeer herds — which we eventually found.

"The most extreme temperature they have ever experienced is -71.2 degrees Celsius.

"Most of the time when we travelled there the temperatures were from a balmy -20 to -50C… there were blizzards and whiteouts and glorious days.

"The thing you have to be so careful of is you can be sitting in a car feeling comfortable, and then you can be bogged in the ice in a blizzard, and as soon as your car stops you haven't got much time before it can be fatal.

"So, it is an extremely dangerous place to go, but the beauty of it and the fascination was well worth every minute of it."





Huge fanfare for 'first foreign visitors'



Ms Morrison and Mr Smith travelled with a guide on what was the company's first tourist journey into the Yuryung-Khaya region.

As a result, when they arrived in some remote towns, they were greeted with a huge reception — and even received "first tourist" certificates.

"When we arrived at Aykhal, in the Yakutia Republic just about on the Arctic Circle, to our absolute astonishment we were told we were the first foreign visitors," she said.



"There were also other towns to the north and en route, where we were the first foreign tourists.

"The reception in Aykhal was, however, a real surprise to us... it was a great privilege to be introduced and welcomed into the lives of people who live in such a remote and environmentally harsh, yet stunningly beautiful region.

"Our travel agent Edward, in Moscow, is married into an ethnic Yakut family, and it was his wife's family in Aykhal who first knew of our impending arrival.

"The reception included visits to the local school and museum as well as a huge traditional welcome from the local ethnic Yakut Women's Group.

"We were given a formal shaman blessing.





"We were also showered with original art, photography and handicraft gifts from the friendly and welcoming local people...it was all totally unexpected and really quite overwhelming!"

Tourism a possible future industry for remote region



Ms Morrison said Aykhal was hoping to attract more tourists in the future.

"Aykhal, like many towns in the region has to date, has been totally dependent upon diamond mining for its existence," she said.

"The local government is now seriously looking to future planning to ensure the existence of the town after the mining project is exhausted. An obvious industry is tourism.

"The impressive Mayor and local government staff were intensely interested in our views as their first tourist guests."





How do you pack for -70C?





Ms Morrison said packing for the extreme cold of Arctic Russia was difficult.

"We were well-warned about the seriousness of the cold in this region. It is no joke. At temperatures plummeting to a staggering -70C, inappropriate or insufficiently
warm, insulating clothing can be lethal," she said.

"We bought a lot of gear such as snow boots that insulated down to minus 40 C, ultra-warm jackets, thermals, hats (Russian ushankas) and balaclavas, gloves and mittens.

"Even so, it was impossible to be fully prepared for every occasion and on a couple of trips, Alan suffered from mild frostbite.

"Even strangers would stop in the streets and zip us up, or pull our hats on of if they thought we were not properly rugged up for the conditions."

What about coronavirus?

Ms Morrison and Mr Smith travelled home to Australia just before the Government's mandatory self-isolation requirements kicked in, but decided to self-isolate anyway as a precaution.

They stopped in Tokyo, Japan, on their way to Russia and said it was eerily quiet.

"We had less than 20 people in the entire hotel, the streets are really bare, there's hardly anyone around, everyone is wearing masks, you can't see if they are laughing or smiling or frowning," Ms Morrison said.

"When we stayed in extreme Arctic Russia, we were very lucky we still had the internet and could see ABC News.

"People up there knew about the toilet roll syndrome in Australia, which they thought was a bit on the amusing side."

Where to next?



As for future trips to remote parts of Russia, they haven't been ruled out.

"I would go back tomorrow," Ms Morrison said.

"We both love this part of the world. Alan, however, says that six trips to Russia in five years is excessive! He wants to go to Somaliland... we will see."


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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