Yakutsk: Journey to the coldest city on earth

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Think our winter's been a bit grim? Try visiting Yakutsk – the Russian city where 'a bit nippy' means minus 50C, and a quick dash to the corner shop could end in frostbite. Shaun Walker enjoys amini-break in deepest Siberia

At minus 5C, the cold is quite refreshing and a light hat and scarf are all that's required to keep warm. At minus 20C, the moisture in your nostrils freezes, and the cold air starts making it difficult not to cough. At minus 35C, the air will cold enough to numb exposed skin quickly, making frostbite a constant hazard. And at minus 45C, even wearing glasses gets tricky: the metal sticks to your cheeks and will tear off chunks of flesh when you decide to remove them.

I know this because I've just arrived in Yakutsk, a place where friendly locals warn you against wearing spectacles outdoors. Yakutsk is a remote city in Eastern Siberia (population 200,000) famous for two things: appearing in the classic board game Risk, and the fact that it can, convincingly, claim to be the coldest city on earth. In January, the most freezing month, average "highs" are around minus 40C; today the temperature is hovering around minus 43C, leaving the city engulfed in an oppressive blanket of freezing fog that restricts visibility to 10 metres. Fur-clad locals scurry through a central square adorned with an icy Christmas tree (left over from the New Year holidays) and a statue of a strident Lenin, with one arm aloft and pointing forward, thoroughly unfazed by the cold.

A couple of weeks ago, Yakutsk hit the headlines after a series of burst pipes caused Artyk and Markha, two nearby villages, to lose their heating for several days. The temperatures then were minus 50C. Television footage of the ensuing "big freeze" showed groups of people huddled in swathes of blankets gathering round makeshift wood-fired stoves to keep warm. It looked like fun – of a sort. So I decided to come to Yakutsk for myself to find out how people manage to survive, and go about something resembling daily life, in the world's coldest place.

I soon discover that, in local parlance, temperatures in the minus 40Cs are described as "cold but not very cold" (I'd been told about the "exceptionally warm" November last year, when the temperature didn't drop below a cosy minus 25C). In Moscow, which has been my home town for four years, it's only hit minus 30C once, in early 2006, and the mercury rarely gets lower than anything a good, solid winter coat won't protect you from. So, before venturing outdoors in Yakutsk for the first time, I have decided to don a suitcase's worth of clothes to protect me against the cold.

Starting from the feet and working up, I'm wearing: a pair of cotton socks, with a pair of thermal socks over them; a pair of ankle-high Gore-Tex boots; a set of thermal long-johns; a pair of jeans; a thermal undershirt (a present from a worried family member); a long-sleeved T-shirt; a tight-fitting cashmere jumper; a fleece; a padded winter coat with hood; a thin pair of woollen gloves (so that when I take the outer pair off to take photographs I won't expose naked flesh); a pair of gloves made of wool and Thinsulate; a wool scarf; and a woolly football hat.

Lumbering from my hotel room like the Michelin Man, and already breaking into a sweat due to the hotel's industrial heating system, I decide that I'm ready to face everything Yakutsk has to throw at me. I stride purposefully out of the hotel door and... well... it really isn't that bad. The small oblong of my face that is naked to the elements definitely registers the cold air, but on the whole, it feels fine; pleasant, even. As long as you're dressed right, I think, this isn't too bad.

Within a few minutes, however, the icy weather begins to assert itself forcefully. The first place to suffer is the exposed skin on my face, which begins to sting, and then experience shooting pains, before going numb, which is apparently dangerous, because it means blood flow to the skin has stopped. Then the cold penetrates the double layer of gloves and sets to work on chilling my fingers.

The woolly hat and padded hood are no match for minus 43C either, and my ears begin to sting. Next to succumb are the legs. Finally, I find myself with severe pain all across my body and have to return indoors. I look at my watch. I have been outside for 13 minutes.

****

Russia is abundant in regions that can claim to be very big, very remote and very cold, but Yakutsk takes the (frozen) biscuit. It's extreme, even by Siberian standards. Yakutia, the region of which it is the capital, covers more than a million square miles, but it is home to fewer than one million people. It boasts very few large towns, and is divided into administrative units the size of Britain, with individual regional centres that are little more than villages.

Locals claim that there are enough lakes and rivers in the region for each inhabitant to have one of each. They are fond of boasting that the region contains every element in the periodic table. According to local legend, the god of creation had been flying around the world to distribute riches and natural resources, but when he got to Yakutia he got so cold that his hands went numb and he dropped everything.

Yakutsk's remoteness is also extraordinary. It is six time zones away from Moscow, and two centuries ago it would have taken more than three months to travel between the two. Now, it takes just six hours in a ropey Tupolev plane, but tickets start at £500 return, a huge sum in a country where the average wage is £250 per month. There is no railway to Yakutsk. The other options are a 1,000-mile boat ride up the Lena river during the few months of the year when it isn't frozen, or the "Road of Bones".

The road, built by Gulag inmates, many of whom died in the process, travels 1,200 miles to Magadan on the Pacific. It is only fully traversable in winter, when the rivers freeze over (Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman tried, unsuccessfully, to cross it during more temperate months in the motorbike documentary Long Way Round). It is mostly used by truckers bringing supplies to remote villages. They don't turn off their engines for the duration of the two-week drive, and usually set out in pairs: breaking down on the little-used road would mean almost certain death.

In Yakutsk itself, most of the cars are second-hand Japanese imports; apparently, they handle the cold better than Ladas and other traditional Russian vehicles. Still, local people habitually leave the engines running if they have to stop off for half an hour, and some leave them on all day while at work to stop them conking out and to make driving bearably warm. The overworked exhausts add to the fog that clings to the city.

The region was first conquered by the Russians in the 1630s, and Yakutsk was set up as a small administrative centre. The native Yakuts, a Turkic tribe with Asiatic features who speak a language full of throaty, mooing vowels, were largely engaged in reindeer herding. They acquiesced to Russian rule without much of a fight. Even today, Yakuts make up about 40 per cent of the local population, and most are still fluent in their language, though industrialisation and collectivisation during the Soviet years mean that few still keep a nomadic lifestyle.

Until the Russian Revolution of 1917, Yakutsk remained an insignificant provincial outpost. In the 19th century it was used, like many Siberian towns, as an open prison for political dissidents. Along with its mysterious allure and vast natural resources, the prison connotations have always lent Siberia a reputation as a grim and miserable place, not just among foreigners but also among Russians. As an 1825 poem has it: "Fearing the winters/ Endless and icy/ Nobody will visit/ This wretched country/ This vast prison house for exiles." Even today, telling my Moscow friends that I was heading to Yakutsk brought stares of incredulity, as though I'd told them I was going to the Moon.

Anton Chekhov, on his journey through Siberia in 1890, painted a grim picture of the life of the prisoners held there. "They have lost whatever warmth they once had," wrote Chekhov about a group of men he encountered in Western Siberia. "The only things that remain in life for them [are] vodka, sluts, more sluts, more vodka... They are no longer human beings but wild beasts."

But for many of Siberia's political exiles – includingLenin and Stalin – their time there was little more than an extended reading holiday, albeit a chilly one. "At the time, people thought it was amazingly cruel to keep people in exile like that," says Vladimir Fyodorov, the editor of Gazeta Yakutia, the main regional newspaper. "But of course, after the horrors of Stalinism and the Gulag, it all seemed very humane."

A thoughtful, bearded ethnic Russian, Fyodorov runs the newspaper from offices in central Yakutsk that, like every building in the city, are very well heated. The paper was first set up just before the February Revolution of 1917 by political dissidents. It has changed name nine times in the subsequent 90 years, in reflection of the differing political winds.

The region is rich in gold and diamonds, which is what lay behind the Soviets' decision to turn Yakutsk into a major regional centre, first using the Gulag labour system, and later with the resettlement of thousands of volunteers seeking adventure, higher salaries and the chance to build socialism on ice. The corporate giant Alrosa, which owns Russia's diamond monopoly, is based in the region and accounts for 20 per cent of the world's supply of rough diamonds.

In time, Yakutsk was transformed into a real city with hotels, cinemas, an opera house, universities, a pizza delivery service, and even a zoo. As I'm about to learn, the inhuman temperatures and the winter fog cover are just part of daily life for its hardy residents.

****

Both Moscow and Yakutsk are currently in the midst of cold, snowy winters. For Britons, who are wont to label any temperature the wrong side of zero "Siberian", the difference between cold and even colder might seem intangible. But the 40C difference in temperature between the two snow-clad cities is as great as that between the coldest winter day in Britain and a sunny July scorcher in the south of Spain.

Despite the fact that the locals are stoically going about their business, and children are playing in the snow on the central square and laughing merrily, I realise that I'll need a warm taxi to continue my exploration. The 13 minutes I have spent outside left me out of breath, swearing and aching all over, my face so red it looks like I've just returned from a week on the Costa del Sol. I collapse on the bed in the hotel room to thaw myself, and it takes half an hour for my body to feel normal again. The most unpleasant part comes after 15 minutes, when my legs, returning to normal body temperature, have an unpleasantly warm cramp radiating from within and a dull, itchy feeling all over.

Locals are a little more adept at dealing with their meteorological short straw. "Yakutsk has the credit of being the coldest place upon the face of the earth," noted Henry Lansdell, a British traveller who stopped off here on his way across Siberia in the late 19th century. "So accustomed, however, do the natives become to the cold, that with the thermometer at unheard-of degrees below freezing point, the Yakut women, with bare arms, stand in the open-air markets, chattering and joking as pleasantly as if in genial spring."

These days there aren't any bare arms around, but the locals know how to cope. The marketplace is still full of hardy souls hawking frozen fish, pork and horse hearts. "Of course it's cold, but you get used to it," says Nina, a Yakut woman who spends eight hours every day standing at her stall in the fish market. "Human beings can get used to anything," she says. I ask if standing outside in such temperatures every day caused her any health problems. She looks confused: "Why would it cause any health problems? I'm fine."

Remarkably, a study carried out by British and Russian doctors in the late 1990s found that, while in Britain the number of people reporting illnesses goes up during the winter months, in Yakutsk it doesn't. The study concluded that this was because people didn't go outdoors in winter unless it was absolutely necessary, and if they did, they dressed properly.

But there's still a level of endurance that is hard to comprehend. Workers continue working on building sites up to minus 50C (below this the metal becomes too brittle to work with), and children go to school unless it's below minus 55C (although the kindergarten gets the day off if it hits minus 50C).

Almost without exception, the women wear fur from head to toe, much of it locally produced. In such a climate, ethics count for little. "I saw on the television that in Europe you have these lunatics who say it's not nice to wear fur because they love animals," says Natasha, a Yakutsk resident, who's sporting a coat made of rabbit and a fetching hat of arctic fox, with a fox tail hanging from each side and tied in a knot at the end to look like plaits. "They should come and live in Siberia for a couple of months and then see if they are still so worried about the animals. You need to wear fur here to survive. Nothing else keeps you warm."

A decent fur coat can cost anything from several hundred to several thousand pounds, but it's seen as a good investment, and something to be used year after year. Also popular are local versions of valenki, the fur boots that are common across Russia. Here they are made with reindeer hide, and the women's version features colourful sequined patterning.

In these conditions, traditional Yakut food always made use of whatever it could. "At a wedding," wrote Lansdell in the 19th century, "the favourite dish served up by the bride to her future lord is a boiled horse's head, with horse-flesh sausages." Day-to-day culinary life was even less appetising: "They make a sort of porridge or bread of the under bark of the spruce, fir and larch, which they cut in small pieces, mixing it with milk or dried fish."

Things are a little tastier nowadays, although horse still features prominently on restaurant menus. Being a Yakutian horse doesn't seem like much fun – you are reared in miserably cold temperatures until you're old enough to be slaughtered and turned into "thin slices of baby horse steak" or "slices of raw horse liver with spices".

Other delicacies include marinated reindeer meat and semi-frozen slices of raw river fish – a sort of Yakutian sushi. The latter is exquisitely tasty and makes for a good zakuska – a snack to nibble on after downing a shot of vodka. And after a few shots of vodka, the slices of baby horse don't taste too bad either.

****

I ask Vasily Illarionov, the head of the Yakut Language and Culture Department at the local university, what role the weather played in folklore. "Yakuts have always had a tremendous respect for the world around them and for nature, because they know how powerful it can be," he says. "But cold itself doesn't play a huge part in our traditions. Anyway, it's nice cold we have here because we don't have wind. When it gets down to minus 40C I like to walk to work. I like our weather, but I don't think I could live somewhere windy."

"For us, the winter is like the working week and the summer is like the weekend," says Bolot Bochkarev, a local blogger and former journalist. But the summers sound even worse than the winters – short and sticky, with two or three weeks when the temperature hits 30C or 35C. None of the buildings is equipped with air conditioning, and the air is filled with midges and mosquitoes in swarms of biblical proportions. One (possibly apocryphal) tale tells of reindeer dying because they were unable to breathe, so thick were the clouds of insects.

The short summer is also a time when gargantuan efforts are made to ensure that the region is ready for the onset of winter. The Lena river, more than 10 miles wide at Yakutsk, is not bridged anywhere for hundreds of miles, so villages on the other side have to be stocked up for the months when the river isn't navigable but the ice hasn't thickened enough for a road to be built across it. Heating pipes are examined and repaired – if they fail, as they did in Artyk and Markha just before New Year, those stuck without warmth risk death. The whole region suffers harsh winters. A few hundred miles down the "Road of Bones" is Oimyakon, known as "The Pole of Cold". It was here that the lowest ever temperature in an inhabited place was recorded – minus 71.2C.

"During the Cold War, we used to joke that if the West wanted to destroy Yakutsk, there'd be no need to hit us with a nuclear bomb," says Fyodorov, the newspaper editor. "It would be enough just to turn off the heating for a few hours."

The conditions are also a nightmare for building. Yakutsk is the largest city in the world built on permafrost – soil that remains permanently frozen year round. Permafrost covers 15 per cent of the earth's land mass, and 65 per cent of Russia's, says Mark Shats, a researcher at Yakutsk's Permafrost Institute. "But other countries try to avoid building cities on permafrost," the scientist says.

At a depth of four metres below the ground, the temperature is minus 8C all year round, whether the ground temperature is minus 35C or plus 35C. "Temperatures above ground change by the hour," Shats adds, taking me on a tour of the underground research laboratory the institute set up to investigate the frozen soil. "But down here temperature changes can only be observed over hundreds of thousands of years."

In the bunker, where ice crystals have formed on the ceiling in perfect geometric squares, it quickly becomes apparent why it's so difficult to build on permafrost. The soil, which is a combination of sand and ice, is as hard as concrete. But at the edges, where the ice has had a chance to melt, all that's left is powdery sand. If a building is erected in these conditions, the warmth that emanates from the building melts the ice and destroys the stability of the foundations.

For this reason, every single building in Yakutsk is built on underground stilts, varying in depth depending on the size of the building. For a small cottage, Shats says, the stilts should be six to eight metres deep, while for buildings such as power stations, they can reach down as far as 25 metres into the earth.

Some Western academics have said that the very existence of places like Yakutsk, built in terrain that simply isn't meant for human habitation, is absurd. "If you compare Siberia with Alaska and parts of Northern Canada, where there are also natural resources, you can see it's vastly overpopulated," says Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution. In 2003, Gaddy co-authored a book called The Siberian Curse arguing that Russia's huge territory was in fact a weakness and not something to be proud of. "The system is staggering in its inefficiency. With all the oil wealth that Russia has, they can theoretically make any place liveable," he adds. "The question is what you could do if that money was used more wisely."

The book's authors estimated that emergency fuel deliveries to Siberian towns alone cost about £350m per year, and say it would be more efficient to fly people in to extract the oil, gas, nickel, gold and diamonds in Siberia rather than have fully functioning cities in such conditions. If the Soviet Union had worked according to the market (rather than grand ideologies, they say) cities such as Yakutsk would never have appeared. Gaddy accuses today's Russia, which has launched a series of programmes to maintain and rejuvenate Siberian cities, of suffering from a "crazy 19th-century ideology that you don't really possess land unless you have people there".

But most Yakutsk residents don't plan on going anywhere soon – and don't much want to, either. For the ethnic Yakuts, it has been their home for centuries, and those who came seeking cash and adventure in Soviet times have put down roots. "Of course it's difficult to live here," says Fyodorov of Gazeta Yakutia. "But the people here were born here. It's our homeland. What can you do about it?"

I get a last blast of Yakutsk air at the airport, where we have to walk to the plane and are then forced to wait for 10 minutes on the tarmac before we are allowed to board. As we taxi down the icy runway in preparation for take-off, the pilot announces that the current temperature in Moscow is minus 4C. The burly Siberian sitting next to me whoops with delight and takes another swig from the bottle of whisky he'ss brought on board. "We're flying into tropical heat!"



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