The first week I was here, various local colleagues took turns walking us newly arrived international teachers around different parts of the city centre to start getting us acquainted with what is located where. They took us to the town square, to various restaurants, to the Chinese Market (where you can get cheap knockoff clothes and shoes that are perfectly good if you’re not too concerned with durability beyond a season), to the farmer’s market (where fresh fruit, vegetables and meat are on sale for good prices), to a large forested park in the middle of the city, and to various other places that should come in handy while we’re here. Over those first three days, I walked a total of 26 km.
These same various colleagues also took us to see the main Yakutsk attractions. First up was the khomus (pronounced ‘ha-moos’ with that same rough ‘h’ I told you about before) museum on Wednesday. That’s the local name for what’s also called a jaw harp. The colleague who took us to that one was the daughter of the director of the museum. When we got there, her dad invited us for a chat in his office, where he told us about the khomus and their museum’s collection. She acted as translator then museum guide as we walked through the displays, catching a demonstration of four khomus from different countries, done by her cousin for a group of children. I can objectively say that of the instruments I heard, the Yakutian khomus was the most beautiful.
Afterwards, we went to the Kingdom of Permafrost. I wasn’t at all sure what to expect but what I got was a really fun experience. I’ve mentioned before that Yakutsk is built on a foundation of permafrost; the soil and rock beneath the city down to several hundred meters remain below freezing year-round. The Kingdom of Permafrost is basically a series of caves and tunnels that were dug during the last world war to store food and weapons for the military. Today, the naturally ice-encrusted tunnels remain and now serve as a museum of sorts, and ice sculptures have been added, I suppose to improve make the attraction more interesting.
We paid our entry fee and were given weird-looking lined silver robes to wear over our clothes for warmth. I was wearing a thermal top, a fleece sweater and a rain jacket (it was rainy earlier in the day and we had been walking around the city centre) over which I put my silver robe. We were also given fleece-lined boots to wear, along with helmets. I didn’t appreciate any of this unattractive attire until we got inside.
Guys, it’s a natural freezer down there. We went through a door from the entrance office into an anteroom then through another door which lead us into the tunnels. As soon as we entered there, I felt the dramatic change in temperature. Outside it was in the low sixties Fahrenheit. Inside the Kingdom of Permafrost it was 20⁰F, or around -7⁰C. The ceilings, walls and floors were lined with ice from the cold. In case I wasn’t clear, let me re-state: they don’t put the ice there and keep the place temperature controlled for effect. It’s all just the natural temperature and ice that occurs underground in this far northern region of the continent.
They have several clever ice sculpture displays all throughout the tunnels: a mammoth, a cave lion, figures from Yakutia legends, thrones, a sled, a chess set with pieces, and much more. But my very favourite was the ice slide. It’s pretty simple: you climb up a ramp and ensure that your weird silver robe is wrapped around you properly then you slide down the ice slide. I screamed and laughed all the way down the gentle slope, because who goes down an ice slide silently, no matter how gentle it is? It was so fun that I went twice. It took us about forty-five minutes to make our way through the entire Kingdom and when we were done I was quite pleased with our visit.
On Friday, we went to the Mammoth Museum. It’s a short ten minute walk from where I work and is housed in a branch of the local university. I must admit, it’s mighty impressive. We started by watching a video of an excavation of a mammoth from about four years ago, and what was even more impressive was that the archaeologist who was giving us the tour of the museum was on that dig! He was right there on the video! To get to the dig site, they had to use snowmobiles and go three days into the wilderness. Then they spent three days digging up the mammoth, which was encased in ice and permafrost, and was therefore pretty well persevered (including some of its blood, flesh and hair!).
After the video, we took a turn around the small but very well curated museum, the crowning glory of which is a reconstructed fake mammoth, built from the skeleton of a mammoth they found years ago and which is displayed in another section of the university.
Those aren’t all the attractions that Yakutsk or Yakutia have to showcase but those are the ones I saw around town as soon as I got here. If the rest is anywhere near as well done as these three are, then they should be quite impressive, I think.