Verkhoyansk: Home in the Freezer

The Pole of Cold

I have been writing a lot about the extreme cold in my home region, in Yakutia. It’s there that you’ll find Oymyakon, commonly known as the coldest permanently inhabited place on earth. Verkhoyansk, a little over 600 kilometers to the north-west, is another village battling for the title of being the ‘coldest place on earth’. This is the place I would like to write about in this post. So… What is the coldest place on earth? Well, it’s about details – both places are unbelievably cold and a true once in a life time experience for travelers looking for the extreme. Records show that the lowest temperature ever recorded in Verkhoyansk was a jaw dropping low −67.6 °C in 1892, beaten by a whisker by rival Oymyakon in 1933 when the mercury plummeted to 67.7 °C. Only Antarctica has recorded lower temperatures than the Siberian duo, but crucially – at least for those of us who thrive on meteorological statistics – no one lives there all the time. If you are planning to experience either Oymyakon or Verkhoyansk in winter you may join of our travel groups. We are currently creating groups for the upcoming winter season. You can find out more on it in our Oymyakon post.

Home in the freezer

Have you ever experienced the cold? I don’t mean the kind that makes your fingertips numb and turns your nose a fetching shade of red. Neither do I mean the kind that’s sent packing with a few thermal undergarments and a pair of fur-lined boots. I mean real cold, the kind that permeates your skin and freezes your bones to such an extent that you think you’ll never warm up again. Spare a thought for the residents of Yakutia, a region that covers almost a fifth of Russia. We know what real cold feels like.

According to the 2010 census, some 1,300 of what surely are the hardiest souls on the planet call Verkhoyansk home year-round. Life’s not quite as tough for the village’s 21st century residents, or for those adventurous travelers who make the journey to find out what Verkhoyansk is like. But nevertheless, it still takes a special type of person who can cope with the physical and mental challenges that a place like Verkhoyansk throws at them.

Verkhoyansk in Siberia

How extreme is extreme?

Making a life here isn’t simple. Building a house requires specialist construction, as conventional foundations are useless on permafrost. Not only is digging down impossible when the ground is frozen, once the short-lived annual thaw sets in the hard surface turns to mush. Instead, piles are driven down deep into the bedrock and homes are perched on stilts, as if expecting a flood which never comes. In summer, the place is marooned, the melting ice creating an inaccessible swamp for miles, making overland transport an impossibility. In winter, vehicles are a lifeline, engines left running to ensure they don’t freeze.

Water was, until recently, a pipe dream. In the absence of drinkable running water, blocks of ice are cut from the river and melted on demand. There are few showers, baths or flush toilets – in place of the latter, some use a wooden shed over a hole in the ground. Fuel comes from the trees of the taiga, but it can take seven truckloads to heat a modest house in winter, a large chunk of people’s incomes. Clothing is crucial, but residents don’t turn to modern day technology when furs from reindeer, fox, raccoon and mink do a better job. Air’s a poor conductor of heat and reindeer hair is hollow, making it especially suitable for footwear.

It’s not all bleak, however. Verkhoyansk has a 3G antenna, bringing social media to the lives of the village’s younger residents. The speed’s fast enough for teens to download video games and ease the boredom of living in such a remote location. Nevertheless, many of them will leave as soon as they are old enough. The village’s population has halved in the past fifteen years.

A place with a past

You can be forgiven for wondering what brought people to such an inhospitable region in the first place. Cossack founded an ostrog, or fort, here in the 17th century. These days, Yakutia has a significant mining industry, though the ground around Verkhoyansk is too cold to mine. Instead, it makes its money from reindeer breeding and horses. The ethnic Evenki have the monopoly on the former, while the Yakuts take care of all things equine.

The harsh conditions made this an irresistible place to send undesirables. Exiles were first shipped out here in the 19th century. One of them, Polish writer Waclaw Sieroszewski, fell foul of the authorities for subversive comments made about Russia’s Imperial regime. He wrote several works based on his experiences in Verkhoyansk, including 12 lat w kraju Jakutów (12 years in the Yakut country), which provided hitherto unknown information about how the ethnic Yakut people lived. Bolshevik revolutionaries such as Viktor Nogin and Ivan Babushkin also found themselves in Verkhoyansk. After the latter’s arrest in Saint Petersburg in 1903, he was deported to Siberia but freed in an amnesty two years later. Lenin praised him as a hero of the working classes when he was shot for smuggling weapons a year after his release.

20th century history hasn’t been kind either. The Soviets themselves weren’t shy of sending political opponents to Verkhoyansk, Stalin especially so. As a result, the place is considered part of what’s called “Stalin’s Death Ring”. This chilling past adds another level of wonder to nature’s seasonal spectacle.

Borealis in Yakutia

A must-see for intrepid travelers

These days, a trip to Verkhoyansk is voluntary, with “Pole of Cold” tourism an increasingly lucrative business. The intrepid can test their mettle in Verkhoyansk’s extreme winters. Winter obliges with some crazy stunts of its own. Boil a kettle of water here, visitors are urged, and throw the hot liquid up into the frigid air. When they do, it’s a party trick that sees the boiling water vaporize instantly into a fog, a story to recount to wide-eyed folks back home. You can’t write with a Biro as the ink freezes, nor can you wear metal glasses as they’d stick to your nose. Batteries run down faster than in temperate climes, annihilating mobile phones and cameras.

Verkhoyansk Tour Packages

Getting there, as you’d expect, takes some effort. Flights depart regularly from Moscow to Yakutsk Airport, some four hundred miles away. Batagay’s tiny airport’s closer, connected by air to from Yakutsk to shave a considerable distance off the commute by frozen road. Pack as many high-tech layers as you can, using a specialist company to follow their kit list. We highly recommend to book a tour package combining different services like housing and transport in the cold. If you are interested in travelling Verkhoyansk we will be happy to assist in organizing your journey. Just leave as a comment or mail. No doubt, Verkhoyansk is a unique place – a trip to the icy wastes of Verkhoyansk in winter is a must for adventurous travelers wishing to see Siberia at its most raw and compelling. As mentioned above, you may also join one of our groups going to Oymyakon.

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