Chukotka, Russia – Far east & far out

When people talk about ‘traveling to the ends of the Earth’, they often apply it to journeys that just feel arduous or long. Even getting away for a weekend break, when the roads are rubbish or the trains erratic, can feel like traveling to the ends of the Earth. It isn’t, though. A trip to Chukotka, on the other hand – now that really is.
Chukotka is a huge region, dominating the Russian Far East, and pretty much the definition of remote. It’s closer to the USA than to Moscow and so distant that the majority of Russians know little about it. Only 50,000 people live here, in a place the size of France and England combined. The rest is just wilderness, with few roads and scant infrastructure, where brown bears, reindeer and Arctic foxes roam against a backdrop of tundra and icy rivers.
Trips to Chukotka are never a budget option and are generally classed as expeditions or experiences rather than standard vacations. You need deep pockets and a willingness to travel long and far, but your reward is the chance to explore a wilderness where few travelers venture.
Abundant wildlife, wild coastlines and tiny islands await, but there’s evidence of the region’s human history, too. Hunters’ huts, mining towns and deserted polar research stations are evidence of recent activity, and then there are bizarre ancient sites, such as Whale Bone Alley on Yttygran Island, which dates back to the 14th century. Here, whale skulls, bones and stones are arranged in an alley formation, and vast whale meat storage pits have been discovered, in a site thought to be a whale butchery-cum-sacred meeting place. Kind of like a church, town hall and supermarket meat counter, all in one.
How to get to Chukotka

How to get to Chukotka

Joining a small ship cruise is the way to see Chukotka; this is not exactly fly-drive territory. This vast wilderness has just a few isolated settlements and no real infrastructure, but an expedition ship allows you to access its islands, tiny ports and wild coastline, often via a RIB. Ice prevents any form of shipping for about half the year here and small ship cruises tend to take place in high summer, July and August, when temperatures are at their highest (around 8-20°C) and conditions pleasant, and in September when bears, reindeer and mountain sheep are busy filling up on food before the winter arrives. Even in the summer, weather conditions can vary hugely and cruise itineraries and landings will always be subject to them.
Chukotka has always been hard to reach. During the Cold War it was a ‘frontier zone’ thanks to its proximity to the USA. Foreigners were forbidden access, and Russians had to request special permission. These rules were lifted following Perestroika in the early 1990s, but due to the collapse of the state subsidised transport system, a shrinking local population, the high cost of travel in the region and a lack of funding to replace ageing aircraft and ships, Chukotka is less accessible than ever.
This easterly part of Russia is separated from Alaska by the whippet-thin Bering Strait, so although expedition cruises set sail from the Chukotka coast, they typically involve flying into the region from Alaska, landing at the remote port town of Anadyr, from where cruises can head south towards Kamchatka or north towards Wrangel Island.
Small cruise ships typically hold no more than 100 passengers, and which are compact enough to access small ports. There will be a team of naturalists and biologists on board to offer lectures and presentations on the wildlife of the wild Chukotka landscape you’re cruising round.
What to see in Chukotka

What to see in Chukotka

Chukotka cruises follow the coast of Russia’s most easterly region, with Zodiac excursions taking you close to or onto the islands that pepper the shore, as well as the mainland itself. Cameras at the ready because the landscapes, birdlife and wildlife are all impressive, but this isn’t purely a wildlife watching vacation. Other highlights include Konergino, a small reindeer herders’ village on Kresta Bay, where you can meet herders and learn about their life, Whale Bone Alley and the Gil’mimyl Hot Springs on Yttygran Island, and the impressive bird cliffs of Kolyuchin Island, where puffins, gulls and guillemots nest in huge numbers.
From Cape Dezhnev, Eurasia’s most easterly point, you can see Alaska, just 82km away. In nearby Uelen, meet the Chukchi people and learn about Chukchi and Inuit art by visiting a traditional bone carving workshop. You’ll also pass through the narrow Bering Strait, where only 2.3 nautical miles separate the USA from Russia. Pass the two Diomede Islands, nicknamed ‘Tomorrow Island’ and ‘Yesterday Isle’ because they straddle the International Date Line, and land on the Chukotka coast to explore the wildlife that inhabits this vast tundra.
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The people of Chukotka

The people of Chukotka

Chukotka or, to give it its full name, Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, is administered by the Far Eastern Federal District of Russia. Despite its long winters and extreme remoteness, Chukotka is home to a small population, but its people are spread very thinly – Chukotka is the least densely populated okrug in Russia. Just over half of its residents are Russian, but another quarter are indigenous Chukchis, with small numbers of Yupik, Even and Yukaghir people, too.
This region has always been fiercely independent. The indigenous people here have lived largely nomadic lifestyles, suited to the harsh conditions and extreme weather. Chukotka has remained mostly outside the control of the Russian Empire throughout its history and as a result, American, British and Norwegian hunters, traders and later, gold prospectors were all drawn here from the 1820s onwards. As the Cossacks invaded from the west, this was the last region they managed to take over; they were resisted by the Chukchi until the late 1800s.
Under the Soviet regime and Stalin’s policy of collectivisation, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, indigenous people were resettled on collective farms, which was hugely damaging to their nomadic traditions. During the Second World War, mining developed here and tin production became Chukotka’s economic base. Some cruises stop at Egvekinot, a small town on the shores of Kresta Bay built by Gulag prisoners in 1946 as a port to supply the rich Lul’tin mining complex 200km inland.
Chukotka’s proximity to the USA during the Cold War meant the area was heavily militarised; at times troops outnumbered civilians. Without their nomadic lifestyle to sustain them, the Chukotkans became dependant on the state, and when this lifeline dried up following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s it had disastrous consequences for local people.
Step forward an unlikely hero in the form of former manager of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich. He was elected as Governor of Chukotka in 2000 and invested billions of roubles, including his own money, into the economy by developing its infrastructure, schools and housing. He also recognised the incredible wealth of this region and today Chukotka is a valued part of the Russian Federation – though climate change still threatens its fragile fauna and flora.
Visiting Chukotka today is not only hugely enjoyable and fascinating, it helps bring much needed tourist revenue to this remote region. Expeditions to Chukotka typically focus on the extraordinary landscapes, birdlife and wildlife, but also the indigenous people living here today. Meeting local people, learning about their deep connection with this seemingly harsh land and the sea, and hearing the stories of their life is one of the most fascinating parts of any visit to Chukotka. If you come in early July you can also take in the annual Beringia Regatta and Festival – a unique opportunity to experience Chukotka traditions and celebrations.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Harald Deischinger] [Wilderness: NOAA PMEL] [Chukotka: NOAA PMEL] [Sea Eagle: Gbreton - Heritage Expedition] [Chukotka by boat: NOAA PMEL] [Road: U.S. Consulate Vladivostok] [Bow of ship: U.S. Consulate Vladivostok] [Birdlife: NJRuss - Heritage expeditions] [Satellite image of Bering Strait; Cape Dezhnyov is on the left.: NASA - Public domain] [Children: U.S. Consulate Vladivostok] [Egvekinot: U.S. Consulate Vladivostok] [Chukchi family portrait: Unknown] [Chukotka ruin: Doctor Digger Shrew] [Egvekinot: U.S. Consulate Vladivostok] [Chukotki people: Presidential Press and Information Office] [Women: U.S. Consulate Vladivostok]