While trying to beat the heat, I often think of what far-off cold places I’d like to go before the world turns to desert. North Asia is high on my list for sheer obscurity. Even the designation “North Asia” sounds like something that never gets said. I think that my first awareness of North Asia as a place came with playing Risk (aka La Conquête du Monde) when my conquering cavalry rode triumphantly into Yakutsk, Irkutsk, and Kamchatka. It’s expensive to fly there, they almost all love throat-singing, the curiously named Jew’s Harp and occasionally stumble across frozen mega-fauna. Beyond that, I know more about the member Planets of the Federation than the little-known nations of North Asia… (in Ying Yang Twins voice) at least til now.
(If interested, there are similar entries about Caucasia, Eastern Europe, and South Asia.)
The Altay (also known as Altai or Altayans ) people are a nomadic Turkic people who’ve settled in the Altai Republic (and neighboring Altai Krai).
According to the website waytorussia.net:
Alexey respects Altay people, but he thinks that they are quite weak. Actually, it is true — a lot of people at Altay, especially men, are alcoholics. When the Cossacks were exploring this region a few hundred years ago, they brought with them the “fire water” — vodka — and local people got addicted to it. They don’t have any immunity against alcohol, so they become drunk very fast. Often, there are problems related to it, like bullying and trying to get money from travelers. However, it’s not something too common. However, generally, Altay people are very kind and sincere. They have a great respect for older generations and for their culture.
The Altay came into contact with Russia in the 1700s. At that time they were a nomadic people who lived primarily through hunting & trapping and tending to sheep, cattle and goats. While many Altay have adopted Orthodox Christianity, some practice Ak Jang (or Burkhanism). The name means “White Faith,” which refers to both its emphasis on the Upper World and its use of horse milk alcohol as an offering instead of animal sacrifice.
Bashkirs live in the Republic of Bashkortostan. Their earliest mention in writing comes from Arab writer Ahmad ibn Fadlān ibn al-Abbās ibn Rašīd ibn Hammād, who described the nomads as warlike and idolatrous. According to him, they worshiped phallic idols. They also raised cattle and practiced bee-keeping. Now they are mostly Sunni Muslim. After being ruled by Russia since 1921, they declared their sovereignty in 1990 and became a member of UNPO in 1996. They like braids.
Buryats live in the Buryat Republic. They’re nomadic and their earliest literary mention of them comes in the Mongolian (Secret History of the Mongolians, 1240). Originally Shamanic, most are now Buddhist or Orthodox Christian. The French actor, Valéry Inkijinoff (star of Storm Over Asia) was Russian-Buryat, as is Irina Pantaeva (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation) (pictured above).
The majority of Chukchi live in Chukotka. Their name comes from the Chukchi word Chauchu, which means “rich in reindeer.” Coastal Chukchi also hunt sea mammals who sometimes are referred to as Anqallyt which means “sea people.” Their religion is animistic within a dualistic cosmology. Traditionally, Chukchi travelers would have “partner families,” which is a polite way of saying that Chukchi were swingers of sorts, with women giving birth sometimes to partner family’s patriarchs.
Most Dolgans live in Taymyria, on the Arctic Coast. Their homes are tiny, wooden structures called baloks. They mostly subsist on reindeer and salted fish. The temperature gets down to 71 below zero- Celsius!
The People of Evenkia have several self-designations, including Evenk, Orochen (inhabitant of the river Oro) or Orochon (rearers of reindeer). They are the most populous North Asian people and they live in China as well as their homeland.
The Republic of Khakassia is home to the Khakas. Previously, the land was home to the Kyrgyz but most migrated to Kyrgyzstan after being crushed by the Mongol Horde. Khakas regard themselves as descendants of the few Kyrgyz who stayed behind and number only about 65,000. Their principle industries are mining and timber harvesting.
Nenetsia is situated in the far north, along the Arctic Ocean. The Nenets live in tundra and taiga and they have been the focus of several films, including 7 Songs From the Tundra, and Jumalan morsian.
They found a really well preserved mammoth there a few years ago (see above).
The Sakha Republic is an enormous nation in North Asia and home to the Sakha people. Due to it’s size, the lifestyles of the people vary depending on where they live. In the northern tundra, occupations include breeding yak, breeding reindeer, hunting and fishing. In the southern taiga, people raise horses and cattle. Originally, the Sakha homelands were centered in Olkhon, an island on Lake Baikal. They migrated north in the 1100s. Russians began arriving in the 1600s. Tygyn, a Sakha king, entered a pact with Russia, granting them land in exchange for military cooperation in crushing their North Asian neighbors. When gold was discovered in their new home, Russians came in search of wealth, resulting in conflict between the two peoples. The Russians got the upper hand and Stalin killed thousands of Sakha.
Interested in traveling to Sakah, but unwilling to eat meat unless absolutely necessary? I’m pleased to report that there is a restaurant which offers vegetarian food and alcohol in the capital of Yakutsk.
Fyodor Okhlopkov became a famed sniper in the red army.
Mountainous, forested and foggy Sakhalin is a large island north of Japan and home to the indigenous Ainu (in the south), Nivkhs (in the north) and Ul’ta (in the middle). In 1616, the Chinese sent 400 troops who later returned, reporting there was no threat posed by the inhabitants. In 1679, Japan sent people there with plans to colonize that never went anywhere. In 1857, Russia established a penal colony there. All three occupiers have made claims on Sakhalin, often at the same time. There is a sizable number of Koreans who were brought there as slaves by the Japanese.
The Ainu were the aborigines of Japan, before being limited to Hokkaido and southern Sakhalin. Traditionally they made their clothing from the inner fibers of tree bark. Their traditional appearance is strikingly different from most of their neighbors, with their fondness for earrings, massive beards, and mouth tattoos.
The Nivkhs traditionally fished, hunted and raised dogs. They moved to the island when it was still connected by a land bridge. When the waters rose, they were cut off from the mainland. Dr. Chuner Mikhailovich Taksami is a well-known Nikvh advocate for rights and recognition.
The Ul’ta are known to their neighbors as Oroks. The name seems to come from their term “oro” meaning “domestic reindeer.”
Tyva Republic (or Tuva) is located in the dead center of Asia, but for political reasons is still identified with North Asia. The people were known as the Uriankhai (“Forest People”) to the Mongolians. For thousands of years, they herded reindeer, yaks, goats, sheep, camels, and cattle. The Chinese wrote of a people they referred to as the Dubo in 200 A.D. who were probably Tuvans (or Tuvinians, as they’re also known). In the 6th century, the Altaic Göktürks established a large empire over the silk road and conquered the pastoral Tuvans. In the 8th Century, the Uyghurs took over and built fortresses which still survive. In 840, the Uyghurs were run out by the Kyrgyz. In 1207, Oirat prince Kuduku-Beki led the Mongols into the region.
Out of the Tuvan people, Genghis Khan took the teenage Subutai, who became a general and his primary strategist. Today he is best remembered for decimating the Polish and Hungarian armies within two days of one another. Later the Oirats took over and made the Tuvans subjects of Dzungar.
Today, the Tuvans practice a blend of Tengriism (a Shamanic Turkic religion) and Tibetan Buddhism. When Paul Pena, an American, made the documentary Genghis Blues about his travels to Tuva, the Tuvan people suddenly became well known on the world music scene for their throat singing. Although throat-singing is widespread across North Asia and the far North of North America, for most, throat singing is synonymous with Tuva.
So there you have it, a glimpse into one of the most obscure necks of the woods. Turns out it doesn’t all look cold, all of the time. Anyway, if you’re still curious about North Asia and want to learn about other nations, look-up:
Aleuts, Besermyans, Alyutors, Chuvans, Enets, Eskimo, Itelmens, Kamchadals, Kereks, Koryaks, Nganasan
(Central North Asia)
Chulyms, Evens, Kets, Khants, Mansi, Nağaybäk, Selkups, Teleuts
(Eastern North Asia)
Ainu, Nanais, Negidals, Nivks, Orochs, Oroks, Tazs, Udege, Ulchs, Yukaghir
(Southern North Asia)
Kumadins, Chelkans, Shorians, Soyots, Telengits, Tofalars, Tubalars,
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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