In the vast region of Siberia there is no shortage of places that are extremely difficult to access even for local people, never mind tourists. A place which takes the number one spot of inaccessibility and isolation is one you’ve probably never heard of: Tofalaria!
Situated around 370 miles from the Siberian city of Irkutsk, Tofalaria is nestled in the Sayan mountains and is home to around 700 inhabitants. Comprising three small settlements, it is the only place in Russia (and on earth) that is populated by the indigenous Tofa people. Around them is a seemingly never ending array of enormous mountains and sweeping Siberian Taiga. To go for a stroll around here is life threatening as wild bears make up a large part of the wildlife population that is thriving due to the lack of people.
The Tofa People:
The Tofa are an ethnically Turkic people. Tofa speak the language of Tofalar, a moribund Turkic language spoken by an estimated 90 or so people.
Prior to 1917 when revolution swept across Russia, the Tofa were nomadic people that roamed the taiga breeding reindeers and hunting for food. Alas, like countless other isolated ethnic groups across the mighty empire of the USSR, the Soviets soon found them. The nomadic lifestyle of the Tofa was halted, their reindeer nationalized and their language as well as their ancient nomadic and shamastic traditions abolished.
Today, the Tofa are trying to regain their old ways and returning to their natural skill of breeding reindeer and hunting to survive in this isolated land of natural beauty. The Tofa see the wilderness as their true friend and key to survival. During the Soviet Union, members of the Communist party would be sent from the cities and planted in the villages of Tofalaria to ensure that Tofa language wasn’t being used in accordance with the new laws. To combat this, the Tofa would venture out on the unforgiving taiga where the communist activists from the city would be too intimidated to follow. There they would look after their reindeer and engage with each other in Tofalar as well as maintain their prohibited ancient traditions.
Today, life in Tofalaria is generally poor. It’s impossible to import fruit due to the sky high costs of helicopter delivery, meat is largely unavailable in the few shops there as locals are mostly all efficient hunters. There is no mobile service – only a public payphone and internet is scarcely available.
How to Get to Tofalaria?
The nearest city to Tofalaria is Irkutsk which is over 370 miles away. Due to being covered with over 8,000 square miles of unforgiving Siberian taiga, trains and buses are out of the question. There are only two options to enter Tofalaria.
The first is via an extreme off road vehicle, but this must be a trusty vehicle that can handle the terrain as if you encounter problems or trash the car, you’re bear food!
The other option is a military helicopter which flies 3-4 times a month if the weather conditions allow it to fly. Only 20 people are allowed on board, usually crammed in amongst supplies being flown into the area and tickets are almost impossible to obtain as understandably, the local Tofa get priority.
The incredible photos of Tofalaria in this post were originally featured on RussiaTrek.org.