You don’t need a sat nav to drive to Oymyakon. From Yakutsk you cross the Lena River and simply follow the M56 almost all of the way before taking a left at Tomtor for the final few kilometres. The journey takes two days of hard driving; two days of glistening landscapes, frozen rivers and untouched snow; two days of endless forest and breathtaking beauty; two days to penetrate the heart of Siberia and reach the coldest inhabited place on Earth.
The beauty surprised me. Siberia isn’t known for its pleasant appearance. It’s always billed as a place of exile and hardship, a land of suffering. But for hour after hour, the wintry wonderland was bathed in a crisp, clean sunshine, presenting a continuous panorama of conifer trees wreathed in silence and snow.
As we left the flat plain of the mighty Lena, the road began to twist and turn, leading us into untouched hills and on towards the Verkhoyansk Mountains. Beneath their snow-clad peaks, the slopes became steeper and the valleys deeper.
Down in a valley, before a narrow wooden bridge, we stopped to pay our respects to the spirit of a hot spring beside the road. It was immediately obvious in the snowscape – a spot where the bank was shrouded in heavy mist.
Seeing running water seep from a land that was otherwise frozen in suspended animation, I could easily understand the pagan origins of the ritual we were observing. Trees emerged from the strange haze as ghostly silhouettes, their branches festooned with strips of rag tied by respectful passers-by. Others had left messages, cigarettes, an empty vodka bottle.Despite the magical ambience of the Siberian wilderness, its reputation for hardship hit me every time I climbed out of the vehicle.
A tingling feeling in my nostrils signified the instantaneous freezing of the hairs in my nose. Within less than a minute, the skin all over my face began to feel as if it were burning. If I wasn’t wearing my two sets of gloves, I rapidly lost the feeling in my fingertips. I learned very quickly not to draw too deep a breath because the shock of the cold air in my lungs invariably set me off on an extended bout of coughing.
LAND OF WOE
Siberia in winter is the embodiment of beauty and the beast. The fairytale vistas are deceptive, Nature playing a femme fatale to lure you into a world barely fit for human habitation. This is a place of such searing cold that it bites through multiple layers of clothing as if they aren’t there. Hence Siberia’s reputation as a land of woe, which is, of course, historically justified.
The highway that we were following, the M56, has another name. Russians have dubbed it ‘the road built on bones’ because it was constructed by inmates of Stalin’s gulags, who froze to death and couldn’t be buried in the rock-hard ground, so their skeletons were used as ballast for the road.
Construction started in the 1920s on the Pacific coast at Magadan and moved slowly inland. The road stretches for more than 1,200 kilometres and they say that every metre cost a human life.
It was the discovery of gold in this part of Siberia – the Sakha Republic or Yakutia – that inspired the building of the road. Before that, there were just the trees and a few nomadic reindeer herders.
Oymyakon, the world’s coldest town, probably originated as a seasonal settlement where herders spent the summer on the banks of the Indigirka River. They were encouraged to stay put when collectivisation was introduced during the 1930s. Today, it’s a quiet little town of about 550 inhabitants, with its own power station, a school, two shops and a small hospital. There are no hotels, but a local family had agreed to put me up.
As soon as I arrived, I wanted to know the temperature. My host, a stocky woman named Tamara, showed me the thermometer on the wall of her wooden home. She bent to examine it. ‘Forty five,’ she announced. I peered over her shoulder. The liquid inside the instrument’s thin tube was at –45°C.
‘You don’t say “minus” here?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘it’s obvious.’ I couldn’t argue with that. Forty five wasn’t particularly cold, Tamara informed me later that evening over a supper of home-made horse ravioli. ‘We don’t think it’s cold until it hits 50,’ she said. ‘They close the school at 56.’ Even that was still some way off Oymyakon’s ultimate low-point of –71.2°C, recorded during a Russian expedition to the then little-known mountains of Yakutia during the 1920s.
A number of factors combine to explain Oymyakon’s record low temperatures, which it experiences despite being outside the Arctic Circle and just 740 metres above sea level. Of course, Siberia is cold in winter, but eastern Siberia is particularly so. This is because it has the highest degree of continentality of any place on Earth, and thus lacks the moderating effect of the oceans on air temperature.
The generally low winter temperatures are lower still at Oymyakon thanks to the local topography. The town sits in the Indigirka valley, below the general level of the Oymyakon Plateau, which, in turn, is enclosed on all sides by mountains up to 2,000 metres in height.
As the cold air sinks, it accumulates in the valley. There’s little wind to disturb it because of the high-pressure system that dominates Siberia in winter. Oymyakon’s average temperature in January is –50.1°C. Lower temperatures have been recorded in Antarctica, but there are no permanent inhabitants there.
I asked Tamara what was the lowest temperature she remembered. It had hit 68 once when she was a little girl, she told me, but had never been as cold since. When I suggested that it must be difficult living here in winter she shrugged philosophically and said that there are difficulties in anyone’s life. ‘But if I had a choice to live anywhere in the world, it would be here,’ she added.
A HARD LIFE
Difficult or not, day-to-day life in Oymyakon presents certain challenges during the long winters. There are few modern household conveniences. Water is hacked out of the nearby river as great chunks of ice and dragged home on a sledge. The giant ice cubes are stacked outdoors and carried into the house one at a time to melt when needed.
The lack of running water also means no showers or baths, or indeed flushing toilets. Each house has its own outdoor thunderbox – a wooden shed over a hole in the ground. Since 2008, the town’s school has enjoyed the luxury of indoor toilets. It’s one of the small number of civic buildings in the centre of town that are linked to the power station.
The station provides winter heating in the form of hot water, but many houses lie outside its range and hence rely on their own wood-burning stove. Fuel is plentiful enough in the surrounding forest, but someone still has to venture out to cut the wood. Everybody in Oymyakon owns good boots, a hat made of animal fur and fur-lined mittens.
The boots are usually made from reindeer hide, which is light but keeps your feet very warm – the individual hairs are hollow, like a thin tube with air inside. Since air is a poor conductor of heat, the fur makes excellent winter footwear. Felt soles give added insulation. Hats come in a variety of furs, including fox, raccoon, sable and mink.
Other items I take for granted in my mid-latitude existence behave differently in Oymyakon’s sub-zero temperatures. Batteries lose their power very quickly, and touching anything metal with bare hands is distinctly hazardous: moisture on your skin freezes on contact with the metal and pulling away leaves a layer of skin behind. Even Tamara’s thermometer was specially designed for extremely low temperatures.
The mercury in standard thermometers freezes at –38.5°C, so thermometers used in very cold regions are filled with spirit, which allows them to remain functional down to –110°C in the case of ethanol.
Oymyakon’s two shops – one government-run, the other private – keep a decent stock of basic foods in tins and packets, but locals also have DIY options, including hunting, trapping, ice-fishing, reindeer-breeding and horse-breeding.
Indeed, being self-sufficient runs in the blood in Siberia. Most of Oymyakon’s inhabitants are employed by the state, but their salaries don’t always turn up on time each month, so it’s wise to maintain alternative options for sustenance.
The Oymyakon diet relies heavily on meat for its protein, a primary source of energy in the prolonged winter. I visited Tamara’s cousin Alexei, who keeps horses on the edge of town. Yakut horses are hardy beasts, left to forage for themselves through the harshest months. They are well adapted to life in the freezer: short legs and small bodies giving them a low ratio of surface area to volume, which helps
to preserve heat. Indeed, their stature mirrors that of the people I met in Yakutia – small and compact.
Alexei has to round up the horses every couple of months to scrape away the ice that builds up on their backs. De-icing the horses is one of his more onerous winter jobs. The round-up typically lasts all day and his prominent cheeks were red and raw from frostbite by the end of it. Unsurprisingly, given the weather, everyone eats heartily in Oymyakon. Alexei joined us for dinner that evening.
We tucked into a thick horse soup and huge piles of horse meatballs, all washed down with Tamara’s cloudberry cordial. I asked Alexei about his frostbite. He shrugged and said it wasn’t painful, and would heal by spring.Spring was the best season here, Tamara and Alexei agreed. The snow melts, the river flows once more and the forest is full of wildflowers.
‘But it is short,’ Tamara added. I mentioned that I had read that Oymyakon can be uncomfortably hot in summer. Alexei nodded. Much of the forest becomes boggy, he told me, so mosquitoes are a constant presence. Tamara smiled uneasily. ‘And nobody likes the mosquitoes,’ she said.
This story was published in the August 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine