Flying into Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha republic and the coldest city in the world, feels like flying to the end of the Earth.
A pale brown, desolate expanse with the contours of a crumpled paper bag covers the western approach to the city, fingers of white filling its crevasses even in May. Rusty tankers sit packed together in a canal off the nearly 5-kilometer-wide channel of the still-frozen Lena River, awaiting the short spring and the month-long thaw, when the unbridged river is impassable
To inquire about someone’s age in Yakut, a Turkic tongue that is the second official language of the republic, you ask how many springtimes they’ve seen. That’s because living through a winter here is no mean feat: Yakutsk has an average January temperature of minus 39 degrees Celsius, and the lowest temperature ever recorded here was minus 64 degrees Celsius (minus 83 degrees Fahrenheit). The world’s coldest permanently inhabited place is either Oimyakon or Verkhoyansk, both villages in the Sakha republic that vie for the title of “Pole of Cold,” each with record lows of minus 68 degrees Celsius (minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit).
Summers are short and hot, with many mosquitoes.
A giant skeleton at the Mammoth Museum.
“This is a place that changes people for the better, because they have to demonstrate good qualities to survive,” said Lena Sidorova, a local historian and deputy editor of the historical and cultural journal Ilin.
The end-of-the-Earth impressions continue in the city itself. Yakutsk is the largest city built on permafrost — the permafrost zone encompasses all of Sakha — and many buildings are built atop concrete pilings that often jut out of the ground as if awaiting a flood. In warm months, the many dirt parking lots and roads turn to muddy morasses, and most locals navigate the epic puddles and mud patches in SUVs. At the local market, vendors sell bear fat to cure various ills.
This is not the end of the world, however, as Yakutsk is just the start of the Sakha republic, which would be the eighth-largest country in the world if it were an independent state. It includes natural wonders such as the Lena Pillars, a rock formation, and man-made ones like the 525-meter-deep diamond-mining pit in Mirny. Since its founding, Yakutsk has served as a basing point for Russian and foreign explorers such as Yerofei Khabarov, after whom the Far East city of Khabarovsk is named.
An ice carving in progress at Chochur Muran.
The first people came to the area of Yakutsk at the end of the last glacial period, including nomadic peoples such as the Evenks, Yukhagir and Chukchi. The Yakuts later settled and began raising livestock, becoming the most populous group in the area
Groups of Russian Cossacks first reached the Lena in the 1620s. At that time, the main economic activity in Siberia was the trade in “soft gold,” or fur. Yenisei Cossack leader Pyotr Beketov was sent to establish a Russian presence on the Lena, which he did by building a fort 70 kilometers south of present-day Yakutsk in 1632. This date is considered the founding of the city, although the fort was only moved to Yakutsk’s current location in 1643.
As early as 1641, the Russian tsardom was already collecting a fur tribute here, and the permanent Russian population increased along with the fur trade. The area was gradually incorporated into Muscovy without much large-scale conflict.
Today, Yakuts make up 46 percent and Russians 41 percent of the 949,280 people living in the republic.
In the 18th century, the city became a center of Russian Orthodoxy in Siberia. Travelers described Yakutsk as a small city with many churches, and the first stone building in here was the still-standing Spassky Monastery built in 1664.
But the shamanistic healing practices and beliefs of the region’s indigenous peoples — “shaman” is an Evenk word — live on. Sakha and the Altai region are the two places in the world where shamanism has been best preserved, and some residents still go to shamans for healing or communication with the spirit world, Sidorova said.
A yurtlike balagan, decorated traditionally.
Sakha’s shamanistic roots can be seen at Ysyakh, the Yakut new year’s celebration on the summer solstice, when tens of thousands of people gather on the fields of Yus Khastyn outside the capital. Participants traditionally feed the earth spirits with kumys, or fermented mare’s milk, sing songs, compete in horse races and traditional wrestling, take part in khorovod circle dances, and greet the sunrise at 3 a.m. with outstretched arms to absorb the sun’s energy for the coming year.
During Soviet times, Yakutsk served as a transfer point in the gulag system. This continued the city’s long history as a place of political and criminal exile: As early as the 17th century, rebellious Cossacks and victims of political intrigues were sent to the area. Gulag prisoners built the M56 Kolyma Highway from Magadan to Yakutsk that is now often called “The Road of Bones” and is a popular route for adventure motorcyclists. The majority of foreign travelers who come to Yakutsk arrive on Kolyma Highway trips, according to local blogger Bolot Bochkaryov, who answers travelers’ questions in English on his blog, AskYakutia.com.
A local man playing the khomus, or jaw harp.
In World War II, Yakutsk was part of the route by which the United States supplied lend-lease aid to the Soviet Union. More than 8,000 American military airplanes were flown from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Krasnoyarsk with stops in Uelkal and Yakutsk.
After the war, the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic became a source of natural resources, and the discovery of diamond-containing kimberlite rock here in 1954 marked the start of Soviet diamond mining. By the 1970s, almost all the country’s diamonds and antimony as well as a large percentage of its gold, mica and tin were mined here. Coal and natural gas are also extracted in Sakha.
Although most raw diamonds and gold are mined elsewhere in the republic, which holds some of the largest open pit mines in the world, Yakutsk has long been a center of jewelry production. Jewelry companies such as Zoloto Yakutii, the Yakut Diamond Company and EPL Diamond are based in the city, along with the Indian-run Choron Diamond. Alrosa, the largest diamond supplier in the world, is based in Mirny in the west of the republic but has a representative office in Yakutsk. In August, Yakutsk will hold its first-ever “Diamond Week,” a festival celebrating the diamond industry, with reduced prices on local jewelry.
What to do if you have two hours
If your time in Yakutsk is limited, head straight to the Old City of reconstructed historic buildings along Ammosova and Kirova streets, just south of Lenin Square in the city center. A wooden tower of the 17th-century stockade stood on Ulitsa Kirova until a decade ago, when it was damaged by arson. A replica now stands in its place, and several other reconstructions dot the area, including the Preobrazhenskaya Church just down the street, the original incarnation of which was built in 1845.
Continue toward Ulitsa Chernyshevskogo, where you’ll find an eternal flame memorial to fallen soldiers and a monument to Beketov. The distant view of the Lena River across the huge floodplain is the best you’ll find in the city.
Also on Ulitsa Chernyshevskogo is Archy Diete, colloquially known as “Dom Archy,” a spiritual center that holds traditional games and dances on the weekends. You can also arrange to undergo obryady, cleansing rituals performed by a folk healer.
Finish your stroll at State Repository of Treasures of the Sakha Republic (12 Ulitsa Kirova, +7 (4112) 48-22-07; sakha.gov.ru/node/44727), located in the large glass Komdragmetall building on Ulitsa Kirova next to the Tyghyn Derkhan hotel. Here you’ll see some famous local diamonds, as well as a variety of other precious stones.
An alternate option is the People of the World Khomus Museum and Center (33 Ulitsa Kirova; +7 (4112) 42-86-75; ilkhomus.com) at the other end of Ulitsa Kirova. The khomus, or jaw harp, is a celebrated instrument in Yakutsk and is played by many locals, some of whom ascribe spiritual qualities to it.
The city has hosted several international jaw-harp conventions, and each summer it holds a contest for women ages 16 to 25 to select the most talented and beautiful jaw-harp player (the women dress in highly decorative folk costumes). The museum has jaw harps from many countries and eras of history, including an oversized jaw harp that must be stuck into the ground to be sounded.
What to do if you have two days
If you have more time in Yakutsk, head to the Chochur Muran Ethnographic Complex (7th kilometer Vilyuisky Trakt, 5, +7 (924) 661-61-00; arctic-travel.ru) just outside the city. Start with the complex’s Tsarstvo Vechnoi Merzloty (“Permafrost Kingdom”), which basically amounts to a long horizontal tunnel dug into the side of a hill.
As you walk along the wood-planked passage cloaked in a thick silver-colored poncho for warmth, surrounded by earthen walls covered in ice crystals, you’ll truly see — and feel — the Siberian permafrost up close. Hundreds of intricate ice sculptures, entrants in a republic-wide contest, decorate the tunnel and its side-caverns. Ask the staff for a chance to try a shot of vodka — from a shot glass made of ice.
Once your fingers have gone numb, go around the small lake to the rest of the complex. In the wintertime, snowmobile and dogsled rides are often on offer, while in the summer, you can enjoy the antics of the many animals on the property, including ducks, goats, short Yakut ponies and striking Siberian huskies. The complex also features such far-northern sights as a decorated yurtlike balagan and a huge Polar Airlines Mi-8 helicopter. The ornate, wooden main building houses an excellent restaurant that is popular with locals and tourists alike.
With a little more time, you can see the Lena Pillars, a set of rock formations on the Lena River that rise to 300 meters in height. From June until mid-September, boats based in Yakutsk take visitors on three-day river cruises to the Lena Pillars Nature Park, which the UNESCO World Heritage Committee recently added to its list of areas of special natural importance.
What to do with the kids
The woolly mammoths of the Mammoth Museum and the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography (48 Ulitsa Kulakovskogo, +7 (4112) 36-16-47 and +7 (4112) 49-68-41; museum.sakha.ru), both located in the North Eastern Federal University, are sure to pique children’s interest. A giant mammoth skeleton greets visitors to the archaeology museum, which also holds exhibits about the various peoples of Yakutia and how they survived in an unforgiving climate, while a cryogenically preserved mammoth head and other discoveries await those who make it up to the Mammoth Museum on the fifth floor.
As the longstanding fine-arts center of Eastern Siberia, Yakutsk has produced a number of well-known performers over the years, including the bass singer Ivan Stepanov. The city holds a number of theaters, including the Sakha Republic State Theater of Opera and Ballet (46/1 Prospekt Lenina; +7 4112-35-49-02; opera-balet.ykt.ru) and the State Academic Russian Drama Theater in the name of A. S. Pushkin (23 Prospekt Lenina; +7 4112-42-46-91; gardt.ykt.ru).
For a louder atmosphere, go to Cafe Harley (21 Ulitsa Fyodora Popova; +7 924-860-88-81), where live bands play every weekend. The restaurant-bar Dikaya Utka (20 Ulitsa Chernyshevskogo; +7 4112-26-36-13; restoran.sakha.ru), located in the Old City, also offers live music and dancing.
Finally, Yakutsk’s one-stop shop for all things nightlife is Club Evropa (47 Prospekt Lenina; +7 4112-40-04-00; evropaklub.ru), a five-floor behemoth that holds a dance club, sports bar, bowling alley, karaoke club and gentlemen’s club.
Where to eat
Yakut food may seem bland to those from warmer climates, but it has its own rustic charm. Traditional dishes often feature dairy products and raw fish, with an occasional dose of horse or reindeer meat. The pride of the Yakut kitchen is strogаninа, thinly striped strips of frozen fish dipped in salt and pepper, a treat that goes perfectly with a shot of ice-chilled vodka.
A good stop for quality Yakutian food in the city center is Mamont, or Mammoth (38 Ulitsa Ordzhonikidze; +7 4112-40-21-11), although not all dishes are always available. Be sure to try the buttery mannaya kasha with horse meat, kerchik (cream with berries), potatoes with caviar, and the Yakut soup made of cow intestines, which doesn’t taste half bad as long as you can stomach its strong odor. Dinner for one without alcohol costs about 1,500 rubles ($45).
The restaurant at Tygyn Darkhan (See contact information in Where to stay), the jewel of the city’s hotel scene, also features good Yakut food, as does the restaurant at Chochur Morgan (See contact information in What to do if you have two days).
Where to stay
No international hotels operate in Yakutsk, and the level of quality even in the city’s toniest hotels is less than in Moscow. Despite its five stars and recent renovations, local top dog Tygyn Darkhan (9 Ulitsa Ammosova; +7 (4112) 43-51-09; tygyn.ru) will likely leave international customers underwhelmed, with small rooms and chintzy fixtures. Nonetheless, the hotel is classier than most Soviet holdovers, and the staff is relatively friendly. A single costs 4,950 rubles per night.
The two other main hotels in the city center are the Lena (8 Prospekt Lenina, +7 (4112) 42-48-92; lena-hotel.ru) and Polyarnaya Zvezda (24 Prospekt Lenina; +7 (4112) 34-12-15; alrosa-hotels.ru), which is owned by Alrosa, although the company is reportedly looking to sell off its chain of hotels.
Almost anywhere, locals like to gripe about the roads, but Yakutsk residents truly have reason to complain. Outside the city center, the roads start to hump and buckle like roller-coaster tracks. Almost anyone would be glad to discuss the trickiness of building on permafrost — or rant about the need for more road funding.
How to get there
Some Western readers may remember conquering Yakutsk in the classic board game Risk, but getting an army here would have been supremely difficult. The railroad has not yet reached Yakutsk, although it is being built. The only road leading to and from the city is the M56 highway, a dirt track that regularly makes lists of the world’s “worst,” “most dangerous” and “insane” roads. Be aware that during the spring and fall, when the river is thawing and freezing, you cannot reach the city from the highway, which is on the opposite bank.
Thus, unless you’re an adventure traveler such as Ewan McGregor in the motorcycle documentary “Long Way Round,” flying remains the only way into the city. The airlines Yakutia, Transaero and S7 offer regular connections to Yakutsk from Moscow. The 4,900-kilometer flight takes six-and-a-half hours, and tickets start at about 10,000 rubles if you buy in advance.
By: Alec Luhn The Moscow Times