Notes from the pole of cold
Oymyakon valley, Russia
By Maxim Shemetov
One loses all bearings when faced with the shroud of white that obscures all things mid January in the Siberian city of Yakutsk. Only the traffic lights and gas pipelines overhanging the roads help you to find your way. Wrapped in frosty fog the city life seems frozen in a sleepy half-light. It is -48 C (-54 degrees Fahrenheit) outside.
Before venturing out, I put on two layers of thermal underwear, trousers, two-sweaters, pants winterized up to my waist, and huge low-temperature boots. I pull close the hood of my down jacket and fasten it so that only my eyes are exposed. Lastly, I slip on two pairs of gloves and head for the entrance hall – the airlock. Now only the ice-bound door separates me from the cold. There is Space outside and I feel like an astronaut.
However I do not have enough time to freeze today – the minibus is waiting for me at the corner and I pile in with my gear. Our routes lies along a Stalin-era road that is officially called “Kolyma Federal Highway”. Locals call it “the road on bones” after the thousands of Gulag prisoners who built it in the middle of the 20th century perished. The sights that it passes by are “terra incognita” even for the most of locals. As we travel further and further northeast towards the snowy foothills from the provincial capital of Yakustk, the signs of life appear less and less frequent. Down the road, one can travel over 200 kms (124 miles) without seeing a homestead. The cell phone coverage cuts out when we arrive at Handyga. Fifty kilometers (31 miles) later we load up on tanks of fuel at the petrol station that is the last human outpost at the edge of the vast and mountainous taiga. Only the occasional UAZ minibuses (bukhanka – bread loaf as it is called there and trucks break the monotony of the endless, empty road.
After two days on the road, we finally arrive in the Oymyakon valley – the Pole of the Cold. This is the coldest known place in the Northern hemisphere. Thermometers registered a record chill of -67.7 degrees Celsius (-88 degrees Fahrenheit) in 1933 – shortly after weather monitoring began here in the end of the 1920s.
And yet, here are schools, a post office, a bank, even an airport runway (albeit open only in the summer) – all the trappings of a civilized life in the valley’s center at Tomtor. I could not help asking local people how they carried on a normal semblance of life in such extreme conditions. What I heard as a response was an anecdote from Sergey Zverev, a smiling villager in his 40s. Class was cancelled once when he was a school boy because the air temperatures had dropped to -65C (-85F). To celebrate he and his classmates got together to play football on the icy streets. Did I need any better answer?
In truth, when temperatures dropped to -55 a few days after my arrival, I stopped noticing the cold. With no wind chill and the air sapped of moisture, a day like that here is comparable to Moscow at -25 degrees Celsius. I even stripped down to a fleece jacket to chop firewood outside for a half an hour.
Hard to say what is the main aspect here: the great people who could survive and settle down under severe and constant natural pressure or the breathtaking vibe itself. Yakutian urban style is far different from those in Russian big cities. Here where people dwell side by side with unimaginable living circumstances everything seems real and tougher. When you grab a knife, it cuts frozen meat like butter. If you notice a car, I bet it would be an off-road vehicle. When it is freezing, it is freezing much harder (as you would assume). But the vibe is not made by nature – people create it; pensive, tough and willing to help a stranger.
Will I come back? Oh yeah.