Yakutia (home to the Yakut people), or, officially, Sakha (home to the Sakha people) is very proud of its humungous dimensions, liking to compare itself with assorted European countries, a favorite for some reason being France: on Wikipedia (in Russian, at least) it says Yakutia is ‘five times as large as France’. (Why France? Why not Spain, Turkey or Ukraine?) There are plenty of other comparisons kicking about the Internet too, like the one approximately equating Yakutia with the Mediterranean and Black Seas together.
Anyway, whichever way you look at it – or measure it – there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that what we’ve got here is one titanic territory. Indeed, turns out it’s the largest subnational entity in the world in terms of land area – stretching across three time zones!
But I think to do the place some justice it needs to be compared with other massive things, not much smaller ones. So, here we go…
With a territory of around three million square kilometers (but a population of just under a million; that is, three square kilometers per person), what other ginormous territory can it be compared with?
First off – Australia. Yakutia is only two and a half times smaller than the whole of Oz, while having 20 times less population. But that makes sense, for down under they don’t have to suffer the intense Yakutian winters. Then again, Australia is nothing but desert… that must be why the population there is only 20 times larger and not more (and lives all along the coast).
Next up: Canada. Yakutia is just three times smaller than this country together with all its islands. However, most of Canada is much further south – thus, 35 times as many folks live there.
Next: China. This country is also three times bigger than Yakutia, whereas the population… hmmm, best not get into that. China not the best example to take…
On per capita income – Yakutia is somewhere near Thailand, Cuba and Peru (individually), while it comes four times less than Australia and Canada, and a little more than China.
Yakutia can boast not only a massive territory; it also rocks in terms of diamonds, is real cool on the permafrost front, and is extreme to the extreme on wintery cold – particularly in Oymyakon. There’s also the Kolyma Highway (the one Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman rode along on their round-the-world motorcycle trip in 2004), the Lena River, and – last and most – the Lena Pillars – which were where we were headed. Here are the pics:
Like many tourists who come here, I wondered where the name Lena (both for the river and the pillars) comes from. The shortened/friendly form of the Russian female name Elena… that just doesn’t fit… Turns out it stems from an old Even word – ‘Elyu-En’ – which means ‘big river’. Perfect title. For this is truly a very BIG river.
It’s possible to climb to the top of the pillars, which is what we did, of course. It’s not that far – about 200 meters up (and they stretch three kilometers across) :
We soon found out that there are similar Lena-like stone formations (though not as high) along some of the smaller rivers that flow into the Lena (we checked out the Sinyaya and Buotama rivers) :
Unexpectedly, the weather while we were there was warm, not a drop of rain fell, and there were hardly any mosquitos or flies. Not what I’d come to expect deep in the Russian wilds. Another surprise was the shortage of fish in the rivers. Quite a change from last week’s fish-rammed Alaskan rivers not all that far away…
All in all – this is a truly beautiful corner of the planet offering some stunning sights. There is just one but, though: You need to take a helicopter to get there really (from Yakutsk), as the pillars and cliffs on the smaller rivers you won’t get to see on a boat. And of course helicopters aren’t all that well-known for being cheap means of transport…
Next on our itinery was a visit to the Permafrost Kingdom. This was something quite unique – I hadn’t seen anything quite like it. The entrance to it doesn’t like much, but once you walk in it’s a whole different matter altogether. Basically it’s some kind of museum made up of a network of tunnels dug out of permafrost, and the lighting in there… well, I’ll let the pictures do the talking…
At the entrance you put on special silver thermal cloaks and warm boots; however it’s not all that cold in there, relatively speaking, with the temperature in the tunnels being a constant -7 degrees centigrade all year round (here in winter folks come to warm themselves:).
All sorts of different exhibits are on show in the tunnels – strange sculptures, ice cabinets, a big chunk of frozen milk, plus a stuffed mammoth that was dug up locally (not the very biggest, they say, but a bigger one wouldn’t have fit in, and at least this one was almost fully intact.
The ice hand in the below photo represents the descending supremacy of members of a traditional Yakutian family. The first finger – that’s the man/husband/father. Next: reindeer!! Then: woman/wife/mother (number three, but in the center). Next up: the daughter (since a future dowry depends on her). And last and least – the poor little son.
At the end, near the exit – much like on a distillery tour – the local tipple is served, rather – was served by moi (in ice tumblers, of course), together with deep-frozen (naturally) pieces of fish. Perfect ending!
Btw, tours are smoothly and professionally organized by Planet Yakutia. Yes, I guess that is a shamless advertisement!
And now a few words about Yakutsk, Yakutia’s capital.
Like in the rest of Yakutia, the climate here is fairly extreme, with the winters getting very cold and the summers very hot. It can get down to -60 degrees centigrade in January, and up to +40 in July. Accordingly, everything is industrially insulated, while all the buildings are covered with air conditioner units for the summer. The latter don’t come cheap either – much like everything else here they’re significantly more expensive in Yakutia than elsewhere in Russia… Well, besides gold and diamonds, that is.
Yakutsk, like the rest of Yakutia (and also 65% of Russia) – sits on top of permafrost. Regular building foundations here simply don’t cut the mustard – or ice. In a couple of years the buildings atop would be warped so much they’d be render useless – and dangerous. Therefore all buildings (every single one) stand on top of piles – kind of stilts.
If there’s a bit of money in a household these stilts get covered up somehow all nice and neat. For households with few rubles to rub together (simultaneously with hands being rubbed together no doubt) there’s a plentiful supply of… wind – blowing about between the ground floor of the house and the ground proper. Brrr.
In the center of the city almost all the water and sewage pipes are hidden away somewhere, while in the suburbs they go overground. This causes the locals to characterize Yakutsk in a rather unique way: ‘Yakutsk – the city with its intestines hanging out’.
So, Yakutsk and surroundings – totally a must-see. As mentioned, locally, it’s best to go by helicopter to take in most of the sights properly, but you can still do the Lena Pillars by boat to get up close to – and have enough time to meditate while staring at – these incredible stone formations. Plus there’s the permafrost and the harsh spirit of the North in general. Plus… yeah – I want to one day get to Oymyakon (700km as the crow flies, about a thousand by road). I’ve just gotta do that road trip… And I need to see this place in the deepest winter – to give REAL frost a try!… Anyway, you get the picture – there’s plenty to do here.
The rest of the photos are here.
That’s all for today folks. Now must get on with prep for the celebrations – today it’s the official opening of our new office. Cheers!