So, how did your new year start? I hope you started 2019 in the way you intend to continue. And if you didn’t, we’re only a few days in so it’s not too late for you to turn that around. Meanwhile, I’ve got quite a bit to tell you about the start to my own 2019.
For over a year now, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of visiting a place in Yakutia called Oymyakon. It’s also known as the Pole of Cold because it’s been officially deemed as the coldest inhabited place on Earth by the Russian government. Another place called Verkhoyansk still argues that the title should be theirs but it isn’t; the title belongs to Oymyakon, which holds the record low temperature of -71.2°C.
Last February, I started making inquiries about going there in the winter but couldn’t find any winter excursions there. People thought I was crazy but I didn’t – and still don’t – see the point of going to the coldest inhabited place on Earth when it isn’t cold. Anyway, I put that dream to the back of my mind and figured that it would happen when the time was right. This winter was the right time. The company that I usually go hiking and camping with was organising a five-day trip to Oymyakon. I heard about it in October and I immediately signed up to go, of course. The itinerary went something like this:
- Leave Yakutsk on 30 December and drive to Oymyakon
- Arrive in Oymyakon on 31 December
- Spend 31 December to 2 January in Oymyakon at a homestay, doing various things and participating in various events
- Leave Oymyakon on 2 January and make a few stops along the way
- Spend the night of 2 January in Khandyga
- Complete our journey back to Yakutsk on 3 January
A few people here were a little concerned about me making the journey. Travel in this gigantic Yakutia isn’t always easy. When people visit their family villages they travel for hours and hours by car over unpaved roads, stopping every few hours at roadside cafes and petrol stations to refuel body and vehicle, and to answer nature’s call in outside pit toilets or just on the side of the road. These journeys can be difficult on the body. Last summer I made the trip to Churapcha in five hours and the trip to Amga in about the same time The journey to Oymyakon would be far more taxing than that.
The village of Oymyakon is located eighteen hours away from Yakutsk by car in the winter. I say ‘in the winter’ because of the fact that the two rivers that we would need to cross (the Lena River and the Aldan River) freeze during the winter so we drive across them, which is much faster than having to wait for a car ferry. In fact, I timed our crossing of the Lena on the way back and it took us about seventeen minutes to cross on the ice road. Compare that to the usual one-hour car ferry ride, not counting the time spent waiting around for the ferry to fill up and get underway. I’m sure that driving to Oymyakon in the summer takes longer.
We started our journey on December 30 at about 10 am and we arrived in Oymyakon at 4 am on December 31. Taking into account the fact that Oymyakon is one hour ahead of Yakutsk, our trip took seventeen hours. We stopped to eat about three times during those seventeen hours, and we stopped a couple more times than that to refuel the van and to pee on the side of the road in the dark. Yup. To pee on the side of the road. This was my first time using the bathroom literally beside another woman without a stall divider between us but it was pitch black and we all needed to pee and this is normal in Yakutia when travelling so I didn’t think on it too much.
For our three days in Oymyakon, we stayed at a homestay run by Vasileva Tamara Yegorovna. This woman is amazing. She almost singlehandedly won the fight to have Oymyakon named the Pole of Cold. In true Yakutian style and with an almost dry and practical attitude, she kept us warm and our bellies so full that I know I put on weight (by our third day there the snap on my ski pants kept popping open if I stretched too much).
For most of our time there, the temperature hovered around -55 °C. That sounds unbearable but, honestly, when you’re properly dressed it really isn’t. I didn’t even have to layer up that much. Most of the time, I had on a t-shirt, a fleece hoodie and my coat, with a nice warm scarf to protect my neck and mouth. I also wore fleece tights, wool thigh-high socks, wool ankle socks and my ski pants, and, of course, my reindeer fur boots. I was so thankful for those boots! My feet still got cold but it would have been much worse if I didn’t have those boots.
So what did we do on this five-day trip of a lifetime? Well, I hung out with Chyskhaan, the Lord of Cold himself, who gave each us a certificate signed by the mayor of Oymyakon saying that we’d been there.
We visited both local town halls (on different sides of the village), did a little performance that our group had devised, and handed out toys and other gifts to the children.
We made silly videos of noodles freezing outside then we threw water in the air and watched it freeze.
We went dancing at the local club, which was actually the town hall transformed into a disco. Chyskhaan shed his costume and joined us on the dance floor. He seems like a really nice guy; he doesn’t speak English and my Russian is still pretty terrible so I couldn’t chat with him as I would have liked.
We also rang in the new year twice – first on Oymyakon time then on Yakutsk time.
And Tamara Yegorovna waltzed me around the dance floor at one of the village celebrations then around her kitchen later that night.
When we left Oymykon on January 2, I did so knowing that I had thoroughly squeezed the juice out of our two full days there. I also knew it was my favourite New Year celebration so far in my life. This was for a couple of reasons. First, I was living a dream. Second, I felt thoroughly surrounded by the love and welcome of the people I was with. Third, there was a simplicity to our celebration that resonated with me. I’m not particularly into fancy so a noisy supper at home followed by popping champagne in the town square followed by more supper and gift exchanges followed by setting off fireworks in the other town square followed by dancing in the town hall turned disco until the wee hours was a perfect celebration for me. Fourth, I had no internet service there and it was wonderful to not be distracted from the beauty of each moment that I was living.
But holidays don’t last forever and before we could grow tired of being in Oymyakon, it was time to leave. At about 9 am on Janury 2 we piled into the van and started our two-day journey back to Yakutsk, which included planned stops along the way. Our first stop was in the village of Tomtor, where we visited a really nice (if tiny) museum, where a lot of history about Oymyakon Ulus was shared with us.
Then the museum manager hopped into our van with us and guided us a few minutes away to the local permafrost kingdom, which is a series of tunnels excavated into a hillside. There was super thick frost growing out of the tunnel walls and there were different antechambers housing ice sculptures. We hung out there for about an hour before we set off again.
Once we left Tomtor, we headed off to do something that I’m still processing days later. A local reindeer herder took us for a ride on reindeer-drawn sleds across a snow-covered field and into the nearby forest. It. Was. AMAZING!
I thought we had stopped on the side of the road to admire the sunlight shining down into a beautiful snow-covered valley but it turned out that we were waiting for the reindeer guy to show up. So imagine my delight when I heard jingling and Kolya, our driver, gave a shout and pointed off into the distance. Nothing could have looked more idyllic in that moment than to watch a team of reindeer trotting towards us across that snow-covered field.
Also, I’m here to tell you that reindeer pant like puppies after they’ve drawn two women on a sled across a field and into the forest, with their tongues hanging out of the side of their mouths and everything. It’s kinda cute.
Once we bid the reindeer guy farewell, we continued on our way, stopping once or twice in beautiful spots to take photos, and also making our usual refueling, food and toilet stops. We arrived in Khandyga at around 8:30 pm and we spent the night bedded down in the dormitory of the Geology department of the university. Showers were available there and, having not showered since we left Yakutsk on the previous Sunday (most houses in villages don’t have inside bathrooms and showering outside in sub-zero temperatures isn’t a thing), we all jumped at the chance to freshen up a bit.
We also had decent internet service in Khandyga so I let my sister and friends in Yakutsk know that I was fine and on the way back. The next morning, on January 3, we started the final leg of our journey at about 9 am. We had our usual stops and crossed both rivers by the ice roads then we were back in Yakutsk. I stepped into my flat at 4:30 pm.
As we headed home, I contemplated the previous few days and decided that this was my second favourite trip in my life, behind my Tanzanian safari where God healed my heart (it’s near impossible to beat that) and ahead of my Alaskan cruise. My trek up and down Mount Kilimanjaro isn’t on this list because it’s on a list all its own.
What made this trip so wonderful that I would rate it that highly? The journey was difficult and the accommodations weren’t particularly modern. I used outside toilets – not in private but usually with another woman squatting beside me – in the extreme cold for five days straight and, in that time, only showered once near the end of the journey. How could this trip be anywhere near the top of my list?
I’m not sure that I can adequately explain but it has everything to do with the people and beauty of Yakutia. Its vast, unspoiled, raw beauty pulls at me every time. The once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I have here continue to boggle my mind; that I, a simple girl from a small and inconsequential island in the middle of the Caribbean should be here having those very experiences makes me weep with joy almost every time. Added to that, the grace and warm embrace of Tamara Yegorovna and the twelve other members of our group who are from Yakutia caused me to fall even more in love with this place than I already was. They didn’t treat me like a visitor; they embraced me as family and I never once felt like I was on the outside looking in, despite our language barrier.
This trip rebirthed in me a gratitude and happiness that I’m here. It also reestablished the peace that comes with knowing that, despite the fact that I’m fairly sure this isn’t my forever home, I’m still exactly where God wants me to be at this time and in this season of my life. What greater blessing is there?
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.Psalm 23:5b
I started this post by expressing my hope that you started your year as you mean to continue it. As for me, I started my year by living a dream and I mean to continue it in exactly that way.