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Published: March 2nd 2017
Theresa's Frosty Face
"I was missing my goggles". They would not have made the trip in my backpack.
One of the challenges of hiking in the extremes.
"You know it's cold outside when you go outside and it's cold"
A seven hour overnight flight and a six hour time difference from Moscow is the Far Eastern city of Yakutsk, in Russia’s Sakha Republic. Yakutsk (Якyтcк) is a city of quarter of a million people, and is the coldest city in the world, regularly dipping below minus 50ºC in the winter (occasionally below minus 60ºC). It was, however, a relatively mild minus 37ºC or so for most of the time we were there.
The cold felt very comfortable actually, due to the fact that we were prepared for it and there was no wind (unlike a brutal arctic northwesterly back home in Churchill). We were bundled up in many layers of down and fleece, we donned mighty mittens, clumsy boots and thick woolly hats. All the locals wear fur, so we certainly stood out in our sporty, Canadian winter attire.
We both really enjoyed Yakutsk and its remarkable obscureness. All the buildings are on stilts (as they are back home) so that they don’t get swallowed by the permafrost. There is also an endless flow of heat and hot water from the gargantuan, Soviet-era boiler systems that heat the city - we had our windows open all night
The Lena Pillars
UNESCO World Heritage site on the Lena River.
to regulate the temperature in our room.
Everything in the city functions as normal in the extreme cold - the buses run, the kids go to school and folks go about their daily business. It is quite remarkable that a city of this size can sustain itself in this remote and frozen region.
Our highlight of the city was the open-air fish market. Many vendors braved the cold with their crates of frozen fish and berries. No freezers required! The vendors really wanted to chat with us. They tried their hardest to piece together a conversation with us. Two random travellers from afar also piecing together broken Russian words.
The bleak majesty of Russia’s northern countryside became apparent a few minutes outside of the city on our drive to the Lena Pillars. A stark, cold loneliness sprawled in the form of taiga forest. We loved being in the trees. The forests in these parts are mighty similar to our own in Canada. At times, we saw no difference to our home country, until we passed a few small villages with Yakut horses...
Our Sakha driver and guide, George, spoke a little bit of English and we
Walking the Lena
An hour to hike across the 3.5 km wide frozen river
made small talk as we bounced along the road. We discussed education and the local Sakha customs. George also shared with us some traditional Sakha foods, reindeer meat and some Yakutian tea (infusion of oranges and mountain herbs).
“We don’t talk about politics here. We are too far from the capital and too busy trying to survive.” (Something rang true to that statement as we reflected upon our life in Canada's north.)
Getting to the Lena Pillars was a task in itself! Two hours of driving on an icy, pot-holed gravel road, followed by another two hours on an ice road (Zimnik). Near the small outpost of Sinsk, George parked the vehicle. We then hiked for a full hour across the frozen Lena River in temperatures close to minus forty degrees Celsius. The Pillars were surrounded by undulating taiga forest. It was a great day of hiking. The taiga forest embraced us as we enjoyed the vast landscapes. "Just keep moving" was our mantra, in order to stay warm.
Back in Yakutsk, we met up with Katrina (Екaтpинa). She invited us to her home for brunch and we chatted about life in the north and how captivating,
and yet utterly inhospitable it can be. She also played the Khumus for us, the Yakutian mouth harp. A peculiar, yet beautiful sound.
In a bizarre set of circumstances, we also found out that we have a mutual friend: Niki… Dave works with Niki in Antarctica… Theresa knows Niki from an Antarctic expedition... Katrina met Niki at an International Polar Year event in Norway. The world is indeed a small place… Sometimes… Unless you’re trying to get from one place to another in the world’s biggest country! One thing worth noting about Russians, is that they have a very skewed interpretation of the term 'nearby'.
One of the main strategies for surviving a winter in Russia is being able to turn any situation into an advantage... Russian Proverb.
No northern adventure would be fully complete without a flight delay. And without any notice, our perfectly timed flight got cancelled due to an ‘airline decision’. Instead of a three-hour flight in the early afternoon, it had been moved to depart at 0340 hrs, or as we like to say, “stupid o’clock”.
The airline was very good to us. They booked us a hotel room, gave us meal coupons, and they even covered the taxi fares. When we say meal coupons, we really meant that the hotel staff kept coming
The spruces and tamaracks
to our room with more and more food. We think we had about eight meals that day. All massive portions that could feed an army! Did we really look that pathetic as if we hadn't eaten for days?
Our flight did eventually depart at stupid o’clock, and we flew to another frozen part of the country…
Дэвид и Тереса (David and Theresa)
The Sakha Republic of Russia is the world’s largest sub-national jurisdiction (about the size of India) and has the coldest winters in the northern hemisphere. An official winter low of minus 67.7ºC has been recorded (many reports of even colder temperatures have been recorded, but have not been officially approved). Curiously though, this part of Russia can get summer highs of over 40ºC, making it the only region in the world to endure such dramatic, seasonal extremes, with over 100ºC of difference! Winter, however, is the preferred time to travel here as there are no mosquitoes!
"One thing about the cold: it brings out the statistician in everyone." Paul Theroux
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