Like Cold Weather? Try Yakutsk Russia:The World’s Largest City on Permafrost


A statue of Pyotr Beketov, a Yenisei Cossack leader credited with founding Yakutsk in 1632.

A statue of Pyotr Beketov, a Yenisei Cossack leader credited with founding  Yakutsk in 1632.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Nightlife

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.

Conversation starters

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

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2 thoughts on “Like Cold Weather? Try Yakutsk Russia:The World’s Largest City on Permafrost

  1. 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 ).

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