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Celebrations and Festival
The holidays of Kamchatka's native peoples take root in traditional lifestyle activities - fishing, seafaring, hunting, and reindeer herding. The deep foundation of these holidays is the people's need to celebrate mother nature's life giving powers, as well as life's many lessons, and nature's way of reclaiming all living things. Holidays are also about expressing gratitude for the ocean and the tundra that have sustained life here for generations.
It is widely believed that the first humans came to Kamchatka 15,000 years ago. Ancient hunter tribes that populated Alaska, the ancestors of American Indians, moved there through Kamchatka and Chukotka. As early as 10-11,000 years ago Kamchatka was home to a culture whose descendants today are the Eskimos, the Aleuts, and the Itelmen. Kamchatka's aboriginal peoples also include the Koryaks, Evens, as well as the Kamchadals who are the descendents of the first Russian migrants assimilated with the local tribes.
While the entire population of the peninsula is about 350,000, the number of aboriginal people is very small, fewer than 5,000. For the most part, Kamchatka's population is composed of Russians and Ukrainians, who live mostly in the few cities and towns on the peninsula. The vast territory of the region, especially in the North, remains unpopulated.
Despite being small in number, Kamchatka's aboriginal people successfully preserve their traditional way of life and culture. They live in utter harmony with their environment, know all the species of plant and animal life, and wisely use the resources that nature offers.
The traditional trades of Kamchatka's natives have always been reindeer herding and crafts. Kamchatka's master craftsmen are famous for the exquisite bone-carvings, leather and fur handiwork, as well as very imaginative embroidery and designs that decorate traditional clothing and household objects.
Ethnographic tourism is well developed in Kamchatka; an integral part of any lour is a visit to an Itelmen village or an Even camp where travelers can meet the aboriginal people.
Itelmen (meaning "people who live here") have their main celebration, called Alkhal-alai, in November. The celebration, also referred to as "forgiver of sins" or "the holiday of the whale," goes on for many days. It begins with the mystical cleansing of each dwelling with the help of aromatic incense. This is done by the family's elders. Also, the first several days of the celebration require limiting the diet to vegetables and fish. This is done in remembrance of ancient history and of the time before "people who live here" learned how to hunt.
During one of the holiday nights, at midnight, one of the women comes into a yurt with a figure representation of a whale on her back. The whale is made of sweet grasses, fish and seal meat. The woman has to crawl around the hearth. Two men follow her; they represent "ravens" pecking at the "whale." The ceremony ends with the community dance and people shouting "olkhalalai"!
Also during the Foil, after the herds return from their summer grazing grounds, the nomadic Koryak people celebrate "Reindeer Day." After winter solstice the herders organize a celebration of the "Return of the Sun," a holiday with reindeer races, traditional wrestling, races with sticks, harnessing moving targets competitions, and icy pole climbing events.
The beginning of December is the coastal Koryaks' time to celebrate seals with a holiday called Khoiolo. It is a holiday of thanksgiving for nature's generous gifts. Talkushka, a dish prepared according to an ancient recipe that calls for a mixture of dried and softened salmon caviar, seal fat, berries and roots, is offered to the guests. Just one or two spoonfuls will get you through a good three hours of non-stop dancing. One of the secret ingredients is shiksha - a tundra-grown berry that acts like a tonic. Boiled deer meat and strong tundra tea are also served. Then the sounds of the tambourine invite everyone to join in a dance of thanksgiving.
Ritual ceremonies with dances that imitate the movements of animals, like seals, bears, deer, and ravens, celebrate successful bear or ram hunts. These ceremonies are usually followed by games, wrestling matches, reindeer or dog-sleigh races.
There are also some colorful contemporary holidays. Every August Petropavlovsk celebrates a Day of the Aborigines. The city organizes an exhibition of the work created by native craftsmen: wood and bone carvings, crafts made with furs, bead embroidery, and leather. Locals and guests can have a taste of oukho, a traditional fish soup made with red fish. The celebration also includes a festival called "Gold Springs": dozens of folk groups from all over Kamchatka get to participate. A dance party called ethno-discotheque, concludes the festivities.
An intriguing children's festival called "Salmon's Guardians" presents the work of environmental interest groups and expeditions.
Kamchatka's well-attended sports festivals are also worth mentioning. The most popular of them are dog-sleigh races "Beringia" and "Kamchadal" that usually take place in March. February is the month for cross-country and mountain-skiing events. And April is the month when the famous "Avachinsky Marathon" takes place.
Fans of the extreme come to the festival of mountain bikers. The two categories of competition include down-slope biking and a race across a picturesque but treacherous terrain.