Picking up again where we last left off – we finally made it to the a legendary Pole of Cold of the northern hemisphere – Oymyakon. I’d heard about it many times down the years as the world’s coldest settlement, and now – finally – I was to get myself there. Hurray! And now, after having been there, since I liked it so much – I want to go back already!…
Oymyakon. So, what gives. Remote? Check. Tiny? Check. Forgotten in the sands snows of time, run-down, and down-at-the-heel? No! The place is very much ‘alive’, with around 400–500 folks living there; the log cabins they live in are really rather decent; there’s centralized heating (as in – piped water arrives at each cabin already piping hot; not as in heated individually per cottage); there’s a stable supply of electricity; there’s satellite TV and there’s internet! Oh yes – and it’s very cold. The coldest ever officially recorded temperature was a little under -65°C. Incidentally – the hottest it’s ever been was almost +35°C! Woah: that’s a temperature range of more than 100 degrees centigrade!
I wrote above that Oymyakon is a Pole of Cold, not the Pole of Cold. I had to write that as there’s another contender for the coldest settlement in the northern hemisphere – the town of Verkhoyansk, which isn’t all that far away, relatively (what’s a thousand kilometers between rivals?:). Sure, we’d have liked to have checked out this challenger, but it is 800 kilometers from the highway, whereas Oymyakon is a mere 190 and the backroad to it is a real good one.
// Btw: about those 190 kilometers: I started to doubt their accuracy. From Tomtor to Oymyakon it’s 40km for sure, I remember that. But from the highway to Tomtor I’m certain our odometers read just 120; however, Yandex Maps gives 150km (meanwhile, Google Maps tells you not to take the (excellent) road we took, instead sending you in a huge circle round the other way – a journey of almost 800km!). So, what, the road was so hypnotic that the distance in kilometers was magically transformed into miles?!
Anyway, once in Oymyakon, it was time to start snapping. So my long-time, almost constant travel companions DZ and Petrovich and I did just that – started snapping. And the results aren’t bad at all ->
Oymyakon at night – our first pics upon arrival:
And here’s the cottage we stayed in:
Before going any further with my tales from the Cold Pole side, let me first tell you about the owner of the place we stayed at. Her name is Tamara Egorovna, and she’s a lot more besides merely someone who rents her place out Airbnb-style. It turned out she was the one who came up with the idea of and implemented the whole Oymyakon-as-an-adventure-tourist-destination – it’s down to her that thousands of tourists have already been here. She’s also a local history expert, the author of several books on Yakutia, and an owner of the local museum. And in 2018 she won the All-Russia Businesswoman of the Year Competition! In her 30s, you might guess? Actually, she’s 72! ->
Meanwhile outside, the mercury creeps lower and lower – down toward minus 55. What did that mean for us? Walkies time, of course: when in Rome – do as the Romans do; when in Oymyakon – experience cold like you’ve never felt cold before!
So we donned our Michelin Man suits and out we ventured. And almost straight away we ran into photo-kit trouble! I’ll tell you about this trouble a bit later, but here let me just say that I’ve no night photos I can show you. Our gear simply froze! Like other things round here ->
We started to freeze too ->
I say Michelin Man as that’s who we looked like with all our thermals and tops and coats on. Yep, multi-layering (and multi-lathering – see the last two points) is the way to go in Oymyakon:
- Upper body: base layer thermal top, mid-layer top, fleece, thick outer coat
- Lower body: thermal leggings, outer thermal pants
- Head: Two buffs, hat (who knew?!), plus coat hood
- Feet: thermal socks (maybe two pairs), polar-expedition-ready boots
- Hands: one pair of (quite thin) inner gloves (touchscreen-operable advisable) + one pair of outer (thick) mittens (which [mittens] can be whipped off briefly to, for example, take a photo (quickly, before the camera dies!); optional: a mid-layer pair of gloves
- Exposed skin on face: special protective cream
- Lips: special protective lip balm
More details – here:
// Oops. I forgot to mention gloves and mittens in the video (though some are in the background). At least I didn’t forget to wear them out ).
Despite our careful sartorial selections suitable for the outside temperatures, after a short while we still started to feel chilly. You can kind of feel the cold seeping through all your garments, sucking the warmth out of you. Then your brain seems to start to slow down and you’ve less inclination to move at all. I’ve read about things like this in books about Arctic heroes; now I’d felt it for myself. And let’s remember: the difference between -20 and -50 – is the same as the difference between -20 and +10!
We walked for a bit, then we started to stiffen and feel weird… time to head back! Meanwhile the mercury had traveled still further south! ->
Apparently that night it got as cold as -62°C, but we slept through it. The coldest we experienced for ourselves was -58°C – during a pit-stop around 100km from Oymyakon.
Here’s our… ’boutique hotel’ again, this time by day. Looks nice and new; mercifully, it’s nice and warm too:
Though warm, our digs in Oymyakon… well – the (unheated) WC was in the back yard, and it wasn’t lit at night! Also: no shower, no bath! Crucial thing though – the warmth. + a bonus: dinner was scrumptious!
The view out the window into the yard:
You know me – I love contrasts. Well how about this for a contrast: picturesque undulating Yakutian-permafrostian forested hills, together with… twin outside toilet?! ->
Oh my goodness. Check out the morning thermometer reading! ->
Accordingly, time for some physical activity!
Others can’t quite believe the cold – or how fast the frost appears on their faces! ->
Ah yes: cameras…
We’d consulted experienced folks in-the-know about photography in extremely cold temperatures before we left for our expedition. The rules were quite straightforward: (i) Keep your batteries warm; (ii) Don’t take kit from the cold into a warm building: the lenses will steam up and possibly crack from too much moisture; (iii) Warm a camera up steadily, for example by placing it in a backpack that was also out in the cold; (iv) Make sure a camera doesn’t get covered in hoarfrost – if it does it could be curtains for the camera. All good advice. But when the temperature goes below fifty, none of it applies!
When it’s that cold the batteries give out in around 15–20 minutes, and that’s it: no more photos. And I think that might be why there aren’t all that many photos or videos of Oymyakon to be found on the internet! And forget about your smartphones: their batteries shut down within minutes at -10!
Quite what you can do if you want to take decent photos for longer than 15 minutes I do not know. Maybe take three or four cameras, leave them all in a heated car – or an insulated or heated camera bag – and then use one after the other? Probably.
A couple more pics, then it’s time for… Oymyakon attractions!…
The main Oymyakon attraction: filling a cup with boiling water, and then quickly releasing said water in a fan-like motion over your head to observe it instantly freeze! ->
Check this out – again with the use of boiling (not for long!) water. Pour it into some instant noodles, drive your plastic fork in nice and deep, pull the fork up slowly: the noodles stand erect in a column before you’ve time to add your sachet of spices!
Little did we know the Invisible Man was with us on this trip! ‘Bon appetit!’ ->
Another trick we were told of: instead of using a hammer to knock a nail into some wood – using… a banana! Alas, we didn’t have any nails with us. Or bananas. Must remember to pack some next time )…
Indeed, at -50 and below, many things conduct themselves differently. Fruit turns into blobs of concrete; metal becomes brittle; synthetic garments become stiff and make crunching sounds if disturbed (snow underfoot similarly makes scrunching sounds – the colder the louder!). And it’s all a bit disorienting.
But green bears appeared to conduct themselves in habitual fashion: frolicking and hooliganning – no matter how cold!…
And here’s a certain hero madman named AE, who insisted on…
…Well, let’s face it, there aren’t many folks on this planet can say they’ve chilled at the Pole of Cold… in shorts ). He is now one of the very few. Respect.
Onward we drive on an arm of the river Indigirka ->
And to some ice-free well springs ->
Yep – the water shoots up, and – you guessed it – freezes just like the instant noodles! Btw: the name Oymyakon means unfrozen water in the Even language.
You know me: wherever there’s water… Yep – I’m in it, no matter how cold…
For a mere 5000 rubles (~US$70), you can order a heated tent in which you can get changed into your swimming costume, take a dip, and then rush back to to warm up and get dressed again:
All very civilized: there’s even a neat step down to the water cut into the ice ->
Here we go!…
Woah. Just a shame it was so shallow ->
A few ladies also took part! ->
Gen-X of course couldn’t do without their smartphones ).
There was one curious difference to this spot of sub-zero bathing compared to the norm: typically (say, in European Russia, Finland (after a sauna)), it’s the water that’s brutally cold; the air – not so much. Here: the air was -55°C, while the water was +4°C: completely back-to-front! First time I’ve seen such a thing! Still – a 60-degree difference, no matter which of the two is the freezing one, is not to be sniffed at ).
Btw: the locals told us how the winter air temperatures over the last 10-or-so years have on average gone up. Indeed, the internet confirms: by a full four percent.
And that, folks, I do believe, is it from the Pole of Cold called Oymyakon.
PS: I should add a few words about… the Yakutian horse! It’s a native, stocky breed, and smaller than the horses you’re accustomed to seeing. But the main thing: it’s covered in, not short hair, but thick fur. Well, of course; how else would it survive?
Timid. Not fond of strangers:
In an old mine in the village of Tomtor, 40km from Oymyakon, there’s the ‘Museum of Cold’ – the ice residence of Hyskhaan, the Yakut Custodian of Cold, or so the legend goes. Must-visit. I’ll tell you about it in the next post…
And a psychedelic pic in closing…
…And of course the next installment of dashcam viewing – only an hour-and-a-half this time – from Oymyakon to Tomtor:
0:00:00 – Taking a dip in the Indigirka
0:05:00 – The heated changing room tent
0:05:30 – Off we go!
0:09:30 – Passing through Oymyakon
0:13:30 – Billboard to the left!
0:26:30 – Left turn to the horses at Bereg-Yurdya, and then 30+km along the road as night falls…
All the pics from the Magadan–Moscow road trip are here.