Journey to Oymyakon - The Pole of Cold in Yakutia, Russia (Part I - Yakutsk City)

Journey to Oymyakon - The Pole of Cold in Yakutia, Russia (Part I - Yakutsk City)

adventure travel & photography

Destinations: Pakistan ◦◦ India ◦◦Turkey ◦◦ Egypt ◦◦ Bulgaria ◦◦ Mongolia ◦◦ Bangladesh ◦◦ Jordan ◦◦ Russia ◦◦ Turkmenistan ◦◦ Iran ◦◦ Kazakhstan ◦◦ Japan ◦◦ Hong Kong ◦◦ Greece ◦◦ Ukraine ◦◦ Syria ◦◦ Morocco ◦◦ Italy ◦◦ Mauritania ◦◦ Oman ◦◦ Algeria ◦◦ Faroe Islands ◦◦ Indonesia ◦◦ Uzbekistan ◦◦ Ghana ◦◦ Togo

The plane landed at a high speed at the Yakutsk airport, the capital of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). It touched down firmly on the icy runway, creating clouds of snow mixed with steam. The entire surroundings were covered in snow. People started to appear on the runway, bundled up like mummies. The flight attendant announced that the temperature in the city was minus 41 degrees. I gazed out the window as the plane slowly taxied on the runway, trying to imagine that kind of cold. I wondered if there was an air bridge or if we would have to walk or take a shuttle to the terminal. The first encounter with the low temperatures came during the transition to the air bridge... and yes, it immediately became clear what we were about to face the Yakutsk cold!

We spent a few more minutes outside, from the terminal to the bus, and then from the bus to the outer door of the hotel. It became evident that the difference between "outside" and "inside" was significant. Inside, the temperature was maintained at around 25 - 30 degrees, while "outside" the temperature ranged from minus 25 to minus 45 degrees. The lowest temperature we experienced was in Oymyakon in the evening upon our arrival - minus 48 to around minus 49 degrees, and the highest was somewhere along the way, around minus 25 degrees.

The hotel, located in a large residential building in the center of Yakutsk, was clean and warm. The receptionists were friendly, although they seemed to be slow in pressing the button to open the front door in almost 80% of cases. There was one time when we were a little concerned because no one opened the door for us for nearly 10 minutes, and it was really cold outside. However, everything else about the hotel was great.

Yakutsk is black and white

Yakutsk, the capital of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), holds the title for being the coldest city in the world. In January, the average temperature hovers around minus 40 degrees. Situated on the Lena River, it is the easternmost of the three powerful Siberian rivers and the second most voluminous after the Yenisei. Initially, the city was a small wooden fortress constructed in 1632 by Russian Cossacks who were exploring Siberia. Presently, Yakutsk has transformed into a bustling city with a population exceeding 270,000 people. The urban landscape comprises a blend of modern high-rise buildings, Soviet-era blocks, and traditional wooden houses. The city is built on permafrost, necessitating most structures to be supported by specialized concrete pillars to prevent the heat from thawing the frozen ground below. During winter, Yakutsk is often enveloped in fog, as the warm air emitted by houses, people, and vehicles remains trapped near the ground. This unique atmosphere lends the city a somewhat mystical appearance, attracting photographers and adventure-seekers alike.

Yakutsk in winter

We changed into warmer clothes, prepared ourselves, and began a tour of the city. Our first stop was a dog breeding center, where we had the opportunity to ride in a dog sled. While the dogs themselves were fine, the attraction felt more geared towards tourists. Riding the dog sled was somewhat exciting, but there are other destinations in the world where this activity is better organized.

Museum of Music and Folklore of the Peoples of Yakutia

Next, we visited the Museum of Music and Folklore of the Peoples of Yakutia. A young woman dressed in traditional attire shared information about Yakut culture, customs, and history. It was evident that the museum is a family endeavor, with all the items collected by family members. We also had the opportunity to listen to an older lady who demonstrated shamanic and other traditional practices. As a parting gift, she gave each of us a lucky charm, accompanied by a shy smile and words of gratitude for our attention.

During my travels in this region, I often receive inquiries about shamans and shamanism. However, it is important to note that shamanism is a fading tradition, and finding a genuine shaman or witnessing a real shamanic ceremony is nearly impossible. Even if there are shamans who still practice, they tend to be elusive and uninterested in engaging with tourists. Tour guides, even if they have knowledge about shamans, usually avoid discussing this topic tactfully.

Kingdom of Eternal Frost

We visited the "Kingdom of Eternal Frost" (Царство ве́чной мерзлоты́), which consists of underground galleries filled with ice figures. The temperature inside remains a constant minus 6 degrees Celsius throughout the year, providing a relatively pleasant environment compared to the outside temperature of minus 30 degrees Celsius. The ice figures were truly stunning and displayed remarkable craftsmanship. Among the attractions were an ice slide, ice throne, and ice bed. It was interesting to learn that the art of creating ice figures is not a traditional activity in Yakutia. The technique was introduced to the local Yakut people by Japanese visitors, and since then, Yakut artists have honed their skills in this art form, even winning international competitions. Nowadays, these beautiful ice figures can be found throughout the city, including in front of panel buildings, creating a unique atmosphere that combines the coldness of the surroundings with the fantastical allure of the ice sculptures.

The Fish Market in Yakutsk

The Yakutsk Fish market is unique in that it operates in extremely cold temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius. Despite the harsh conditions, the market thrives, selling a range of products including fish, meat, forest fruits, and other items that are unrecognizable to the unfamiliar eye. All of these items are naturally frozen due to the frigid temperatures, making it a market unlike any other in the world.

The surreal feeling of the place comes from the contrast between the bustling market activity and the frozen landscape. Yet, this is the reality for the people of Yakutsk, who have adapted to their environment and turned it into an advantage.

We spent some time observing and taking pictures of the peculiar fish, frozen in the exact moment they were taken out of the water. They almost resembled sculptures created by an eccentric artist with a frozen brain. At one point, we noticed two locals cutting a large fish with a saw. When they saw me taking pictures, they smiled and waved. I had read that vendors generally dislike being photographed, but make an exception for foreigners. So, I spoke to them in English to let them know that I'm a foreigner. We didn't stay for more than 15 minutes as even though we were well-dressed, our brains started to freeze. We quickly returned to the bus. Throughout the experience, I couldn't help but wonder how an elderly woman, approximately 70 years old, could withstand the cold and sell those frozen fish.

The Beautiful Old House with an Interesting History

Our bus took us to the shores of the frozen Lena River, where we could see the port. We made a stop at an old house that gave no hint of what lay inside. The 130 years old wooden house had vibrant colors, reminiscent of the houses from the 18th and 19th centuries. However, upon entering, we were greeted with a spacious, modern beauty studio. The owner, a well-maintained middle-aged woman dressed in a knee-length dress, warmly welcomed us. She proceeded to guide us through the rooms, sharing the story of the building.

This old house, once owned by the warden of the prison in Yakutsk, now serves a new purpose, catering to women who aspire to enhance their beauty. It rivals any luxurious beauty salon in Bulgaria in terms of appearance and ambiance. It seemed that in this city, unique combinations were vying for attention with their extravagance. It became apparent that before the current owners acquired the house, a student discovered a significant amount of gold in the attic. He received 25% of its value as a reward. One can only speculate about the events that unfolded within the walls of the house while it was under the ownership of the prison warden.

The Old Yakutsk

As darkness fell, we ventured through the old section of Yakutsk, where ancient, colorful wooden houses still stand. I returned to this area later on my own. Despite the twilight, I managed to explore the entire neighborhood and capture images of some of the iconic old houses. Many of them are already in a state of disrepair, teetering on the brink of collapse. However, some are well-maintained, clearly looked after by their owners. Amidst these structures, towering new buildings are slowly emerging. The juxtaposition of these modern blocks against the backdrop of smoking chimneys from heating plants seemed surreal to me. The clash of the new and old, in frigid temperatures of minus 40 degrees, was precisely what I sought amidst the desolate streets of Old Yakutsk. As darkness enveloped the city, street lamps illuminated the way, and residents hurriedly moved through the frozen fog. I thoroughly enjoyed everything I witnessed today.

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