Wednesday, December 9, 2009


As we Chicagoans endure our first major snowstorm of the winter with plunging temperatures, we are thankful we don't live in Yakutsk, located in Siberia, Russia, 6 time zones East of Moscow, and 4 degrees South of the Arctic Circle. Yakutsk is generally considered to be the coldest city in the world. This city of 200,000 is populated mainly by Yakuts, an Asiatic tribe who may be related to the Native Americans. The Yakuts scoff at the notion of global warming.

It is certainly cold there, but Yakutsk is a hotbed of natural resources. It is the capital city of the Sakha Republic, the world's second largest producer and exporter of diamonds. This sparsely populated republic is four times the size of Texas. In addition to gems, the region produces 30 tons of gold each year, as well as oil and gas. With that kind of prosperity, the city attracts businessmen of all stripes to its 11 hotels, some of which offer "armored" rooms, a tribute to its "Wild West"--or is it "East" (?) attitudes. Mafia guys, legitimate businessmen and tourists mingle in the fine restaurants. To display the wealth of Siberia, Yakutsk is home to 15 museums, ranging from spectacular jewelry at the "Treasures of Yakutia" to the "Permafrost Institute" which operates tours into its underground research chamber. The city also has a university, an opera house and a zoo.

This area is considered the "Pole of Cold" where the temperature dips routinely to -80F (the record is -90F). Because of that distinction, they actually run tours (for masochists, presumably) to experience the Siberian winter. I'm not sure who would pay to go on such a tour, but my best guess is German tourists--based on my experience in Death Valley, the world's hot spot. Examples of the tours offered include "New Year Expedition in the Pole of Cold", December 28-January 4. Route: Yakutsk, Khandyga, Oimyakon, Yuchugey, Khandyga, Yakutsk. Another is the "Pole of Cold Motor Rally" in March, in which cars travel 250-920 km. daily for 15 days. We would call it the Iditarod for motor vehicles. Don't leave home without jumper cables.

If you take your Winter Break in Yakutsk, rather than, say, Cancun, you can expect the average high temperature to be about -40C, which just happens to be -40F also. Most locals wear fur coats and fur hats, locally produced. Their fur lined boots are made from reindeer hide. PETA people are not welcomed in Yakutsk. The locals know not to expose bare skin because frostbite occurs quickly which can cause one to lose fingers or toes, or even worse. There's no wimp factor in Yakutsk. You won't see guys wearing Bermudas on the street in winter.

Construction workers stop working when it drops below -58F, not because the cold gets to them, but because metal becomes too brittle to work with. Children are kept home from school if it dips below -67F, although kindergartners get the day off at -58F.

One would think that people would catch pneumonia or other diseases because of the cold, but that's not the case. Studies in Britain and the U.S. found that people get sick in the winter because they stay indoors. The people in Yakutsk go outdoors in all weather, dressed properly. Yakutsk doesn't have much wind, so the extreme weather is actually bearable.

The Yakutsk dinner table usually features horse steaks. In Yakutsk, horses and reindeer are raised for their meat. The locals also eat raw fish, caught in the nearby Lena River. The meals are downed with shots of vodka. If those choices don't work, one CAN have a pizza delivered.

The locals drive mostly Japanese cars which seem to function better in the cold than Russian cars. Their gas mileage isn't great because drivers rarely shut off the engines in the winter--to keep the car warm and because of the difficulty in restarting them in extreme cold. Workers keep the engines running all day, while at work. The exhaust fumes from all the vehicles contribute to a pall of air pollution cast over the city.

The city is not served by any railroad. To get there, you can take a 6 hour flight from Moscow on a rickety Tupolev plane, or you can drive 1200 miles on the "Road of Bones" from Magadan on the Pacific Ocean. The road is fully open only in winter when the rivers freeze over. The road got its name from the unfortunate Gulag inmates who built it and often died in the process. It is mostly used by truckers who deliver supplies to remote villages. They don't dare shut off their engines during the 2 week drive.

I suppose if we want to consider building a colony on the moon, we can learn some lessons from the hardy folks in Yakutsk. But I'm not booking my Christmas vacation in Yakutsk anytime soon.




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