Chukotka Autonomous Okrug

Authentic Chukotka: Journey to the settlement of marine hunters

Whale meat, ethnographic relics and an inaccessible lake

22.01.2024 /// A journey through Chukotka is an adventure in its own right. Whether you're sailing on the sea, traversing the summer tundra in an all-terrain vehicle or flying through the clouds in a helicopter, you must be ready for unexpected challenges. However, upon reaching your destination, all the efforts are rewarded manifold. One such destination is the coastal Meynypilgyno settlement, inhabited by welcoming marine hunters.

Meynypilgyno is a traditional Chukchi settlement 246 km from Anadyr, its name derived from the Chukchi word 'meynypilgyn' meaning 'large estuary.' The settlement is situated at the mouth of the Mayna River, close to the Bering Sea coast.

It lies on a broad coastal spit between the large lakes Pekulneisky and Vaamochka. Meynypilgyno is home to about 500 people, 98% of whom are indigenous Northerners, primarily Chukchi. The settlement is notable for its preservation of traditional lifestyle, with locals primarily engaged in fishing and marine hunting. Meynypilgyno is also renowned for its artistic group — the national ensemble Druzhba.

Every year, the settlement hosts a Whale Day festival for marine hunters.

This event celebrates tradition and gastronomy. On the eve of the festival, marine hunters strive to catch a sea giant, which they ceremonially butcher and consume the following day. Local residents gather for a tasting and to replenish their supplies, bringing their own provisions to trade and share nature's bounty with neighbours and festival guests. A tourist who manages to reach the Meynypilgyno settlement has a unique opportunity to sample whale meat on this day. While Russian laws prohibit its purchase, you can certainly enjoy it courtesy of the hospitable hosts. The festivities also include dancing, singing and rituals, with locals donning authentic traditional festive attire.

To acquaint yourself with the history and lifestyle of the indigenous people, you can visit the local Museum of Culture and Life. Established in 1991 on a community basis at the National School of Arts in Meynypilgyno, the museum is a treasure trove of local culture. The museum may be small, but it impresses with the authenticity of its exhibits. The museum's founders have compiled a comprehensive ethnographic description of the Chukchi people, including aspects of their reindeer herding culture. Here you can see photographs of local reindeer herders, a yaranga (traditional tent), ancient utensils, snowshoes, a shaman's malahai (fur hat), ritual boards for making fire, amulets, scrapers for processing hides, smoking pipes and many other elements of Chukchi life.

Meynypilgyno serves as a starting point for numerous tourist routes into the heart of Chukotka. Located at the northern foothills of the Meynypilgynsky ridge of the Koryak Upland is Lake Maynits — a large high-altitude lake of tectonic origin, arguably one of the most beautiful in Chukotka. The lake is divided by a strait into two parts — Big and Small Maynits. Together with the surrounding area of 6,000 ha, the lake is part of the South Chukotka Federal Wildlife Refuge and falls within the Anadyro-Kolymsky Basin District.

The lake, with a depth of 120 m and an area of 60 sq km, gets its name from the Chukchi word 'Maynygytgyn,' which simply means 'big lake.' The surrounding hills rise up to 1,000 m in height. In winter, the lake is not as picturesque as in summer, as snow blankets its entire perimeter.

The local waters are just perfect for fishing. It is a large spawning spot for sockeye salmon. The area is also home to Siberian salmon, humpback salmon, char, malma, broad whitefish, whitefish, round whitefish, Kamchatka grayling, pike, thin-tailed burbot, miller's thumb, river minnow and nine-spined stickleback. The Nygchekveem River that flows into the lake and the Gytgyveem River that flows out are also recognised as spawning grounds. The active migration of sockeye salmon begins in the second half of July and continues until the last week of August. The presence of sockeye salmon and dwarf pine attracts a large population of brown bears to its surroundings.

Oceanic alder forests, combined with cedar and dwarf birch, grow on the coastal slopes that descend to the lake. Around 200 species of vascular plants, including some protected species, have been identified in the vicinity of the lake.

The perfect travelling season here is late August–early September.

You can get here on a guided tour. Angling is available both from the shore and on boats. Assuming you have got the proper gear, underwater hunting is also on offer. The overnight accommodations are on campsites.

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