Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Viktor and Nikolai

This past weekend, Australian Tim Cope finished his long journey on the trail of Genghis Khan - from Mongolia to Hungary by horse. It was by far not his first adventure.

In June 2001, Tim and his three friends Colin, Remy and Ben rowed a boat down the Yenisey river, from lake Baikal to the Kara Sea, over the course of four months. Just 20 km from the end of their journey, they stayed for two days with the families of Viktor and Nikolai, Nenets reindeer herders and hunters living on a small island in the Yenisey gulf.



Nikolai, his mother and a doggie

Viktor, his son, and their neighbour Nikolai in the icy wind.

"Nikolai moves forward through the swampy stand of grass and dwarf birch with the prowess and elegance of an experienced hunter", Tim writes.

At the end of the journey, Tim and his companions arranged for Nikolai and his family to meet them in the gulf to help them get a lift back south. Here, Nikolai is holding the Australian flag, mounted on one of the oars, ready to take pictures at the finishing point of the journey, where the Yenisey river meets the ocean.

More about the Yenisey journey!


Anonymous said...


Here's a question. Modern medicine urges us to follow a balanced, nutritious diet, rich in fruits and vegetables and go easy on meat and fat. Failure to do so, we are told, will result in excessive cholesterol and thus bad things happening to our cardiovascular system.

But how do these Nenets and all other tribes that live above the Arctic Circle survive? Their diet is almost all meat. No fruits and vegetables grow in tundra. These guys should have died out long ago. I understand if they have a noticeably shorter life expectancy. But we never hear of these folks suffering from an epidemic of heart attacks. Or high blood pressure. What gives?

Tinet said...

Food is like fuel. You can adjust your food to fit the needs of your engine. If you look at the lifestyle of these guys, they do physical work all day, running around after their reindeer and hunting and cooking and carrying water and making things with their hands. They are like big, strong, highly efficient engines that need a lot of heavy fuel. Whereas far too many modern Western people spend most of their awake hours sitting on their ass in front of a computer - I know I do these days, sadly (even though I compensate that a bit by working out every day) ... Anyway, I'm more like a smaller, finer and slower engine that needs less and lighter fuel.

"Modern medicine" thus urges people to eat in a way that corresponds with their lifestyle - how they use their bodies. If you don't burn off all that fat and protein, it will just collect in your body.

If these Nenets guys would live like I do but eat like they are used to, they would probably get ill. If I would live like them, I would have to eat considerably more and heavier stuff so I would not get ill.
When I've had jobs where I did heavy physical labour every day, I've needed to eat a lot more than when I've done office work. Makes sense, doesn't it? And eating very fatty and protein-rich foods like meat is a more efficient way to take in this kind of nutrition (and the only possible way for people in the polar regions if they don't want to rely on imported foods).

Of course, meat is an efficient way of *eating*, not *producing* (at least when it comes to farming), because you need multiple amounts of resources to produce the same amount of calories in meat compared to vegetable foods - but that's another story ...

ainur said...

This hasn't much relevance to the Nenets way of life, but it's interesting how food affects your physique as well as your culture. Traditional Japanese food is described as very healthy, which it certainly is, but due to imported Western meat-eating habits (meat-eating was uncommon in Japan as late as in the Meiji period, because of Buddhism) as well as better living conditions, the medium height of Japanese men has grown more than 10 cm in the post-war period. However, the women haven't grown correspondingly (only 5 cm), probably because meat-eating is seen as "macho" behaviour. Even the consumption of udon noodle soup (typical heavy worker's food, which may or may not contain meat) has been typically "manly", not something a woman would do at a public restaurant.

(I went to udon places a few times with Juho, and they were mostly packed with blue- and white-collar male workers on their lunch break. But we saw a few other couples and even a lonely woman, which inspired Juho to tell me about udon and gender... Udon bars are usually very simple and functional places, you pay for your hot bowl, slurp the contents and buzz off.)

I've also noticed that Japanese men seem to view eating a lot of heavy and fatty food as a proof of male power, a bit like binge drinking in other cultures...

Tinet said...

Great Teacher Onizuka regularly goes on food binges.

But it's certainly not only Japanese men ... At our Hebrew class, we gender conscious students had a good laugh at one scene in the textbook where a couple went to a restaurant, and the woman ordered something like a salad, and then the man said "I don't want salad. I'm having a steak!"

ainur said...

Yes, you're certainly right about steaks being "manly" in many other cultures, too. But Japanese people generally don't abhor salads or vegetarian food the way that many Europeans do ("that's rabbit food!" etc silliness). Even in our generation, there are many guys who have to be persuaded to have a meat-free dinner at least once a week (always the woman controlling the man's feeding habits, how 1800's is that?!).

Remember Ai-Ren? It was full of food and cooking and eating, even though it was a psychological sci-fi drama. Food was symbolic for love, growing up, taking responsibility, enjoying life, mourning, accepting death... In comparison, I don't remember any food references in Tarkovsky's Solaris (except some drinking, perhaps). Still, so much in our lives revolves around food and metabolism.

I have followed some debates among African-Americans about "soul food". The African-American kitchen is the result of generations of poverty, making do with what you've got, and the need for energy-rich food for hard workers. Today, chitterlings, innards, pig's feet, fried chicken and starchy food is not very good for your heart. In the old days, you were likely to die of other causes long before your arteries were clogged. Still, soul food is a part of AA traditions (just listen to classic blues, I doubt there's any other musical genre so full of food references), so there's a need to reform it and develop healthier versions.

I wonder what kind of food folklore the Nenets have?

Anonymous said...

Hey, hey, we are getting way off topic here :)

Let's get back to the fact that Nikolay et al seem to be defying all the medical science.

I'm not an expert but isn't it the case that the human body doesn't absorb cholesterol (beyond the minuscule amount it needs)? That's why people with high cholesterol levels are prescribed blood thinning medication and not lots of exercise. If that's true, then the cholesterol issue is indeed puzzling. Of course, the protein and fat get burned up by folks living nomadic lifestyle. But cholesterol, cholesterol, that's where the mystery lies.

Beyond cholesterol, don't we also need the full range of vitamins and minerals? And these Nenets guys are not getting them if they are not eating fruits and vegetables. Yet, they don't seem to be affected: their eyesight is probably perfect, all other body organs are equally in a good shape. One can probably say their bodies age faster due to the harsh lifestyle and lack of minerals and vitamins. But still they age healthily. All that runs counter to what the doctor will tell you.

Tinet said...

Anonymous: Yeah, cholesterol! It seems there are many common misconceptions about it. On they write a lot about cholesterol. Maybe that can help you further ...

Cholesterol is apparently something that the body really needs to build and maintain cell membranes and regulate membrane fluidity over a wider range of temperatures. Both too low and too high levels of it can be dangerous. Cholesterol not only comes from food intake, but it's also manufactured within the body (by the liver). When intake is low, manufacturing becomes higher, and vice versa.

As for vitamins and minerals, there is plenty of them in meat. :o) See here, for instance.

I don't think these people defy any medical science. As I said before, their nutrition seems to fit their lifestyle, no matter what aspect I look at.

bubu said...

Mutta onhan tundralla marjoja: mustikoita, vadelmiakin, lakkoja, karpaloita ja puolukoita. Niitä kerätään ja säilötään (voidaan jopa pakastaa). Ja sieniä! Teetä keitetään kaikenmaailman kasveista?

ainur said...

Anonymous, do you have some kind of ulterior motive? One might say that your first question was off-topic already, since this isn't a health/nutrition blog... And none of us is a nutritional expert.

As Bubu said, there are plenty of berries on the tundra, which can be preserved in various ways. And it is well-known what vitamin and antioxidant bombs berries are. Mushrooms and herbs can also be dried and consumed around the year.

So what's your "beef" with modern medicine? You want us to tell you it's okay to leave the veggies to the rabbits? Besides, what the doctor will tell you depends on your doctor and what YOU choose to tell the doctor about yourself. They are only human... and science isn't monolithic.

^_^ All in good humour, of course!