Expedition, Nature, Siberia

A treatise on a journey Verkhoyansk, the coldest town on earth

Verkhoyansk: an anthology of snow laden dreams
(as seen on a documentary on National Geographic in 2002)

 
Siberia, the coldest plain in the world – a world of dreams, fantasies and coldness that gives a tourist an essence of the glorious days of yesteryears and the very Darwinian concept of existential struggle. Starting from the base of ALTAI MOUNTAINS, KAZAKHSTAN, it spans over the ARCTIC CIRCLE, and its width almost same as Asian Russia; from the URAL MOUNTAINS, it spreads over to the KAMCHATKA ISLANDS on the northern Pacific. This land is so enormous in size that it can alone accommodate the entire Europe, USA with some spaces still left. An area over a colossal five million square miles, it has always been an integral part of Russia – in its history, culture, socio-economic behaviour and other facets as well. Siberia is still bearing the heritages, from middle age tribal cultures to the Czar monarchy in twentieth century. For time and again, SIBERIA has been a land of prosperity, the western region giving birth to the most advanced stream of humankind, the Aryans. Though having an extremely adverse weather, not at all conducive for survival of human beings, this plain may seem like a stolid patch of an endless ennui, but underneath it flows the warm, stimulating spirit of its people and places, reminiscent of the past glories. Geographically most of its area is formed by the central plateau region outlined by Yenizei River in the west to Lena in the east. In this region across the banks of Lena, far over the Arctic Circle, on the northern side of the central mountains, is situated the town VERKHOYANSK, the coldest known city in this world, an overall temperature recording well below –50oC and a lowest recorded temperature ever in a city of –71.8oC. An American traveller, who had grown an attraction towards Russian language and their culture set to visit Verkhoyansk alone.

The journey begins at Moscow, the beacon of Russian architecture and its conservative Czarist reigns, from where he will set for the Trans-Baikal region, the town of IRKUTSK. Standing at the shore of LAKE BAIKAL this town bears the memories of the communist reigns of the twentieth century. It is an architectured city, and quite a large one, with most of its residents descended from Mongol predecessors. LAKE BAIKAL, world’s largest sweet water lake, is about an hour away from the centre of the Irkutsk. In the winter times, when the venture is made, it is covered with about a feet of ice. This Baikal Lake makes a huge contribution to the people living near the lake; they flourish with the aid of this lake, as it is the source of their income, food and every means of life. This lake has so much impact on every aspect of Russia that in the Russian universities a subject called BAIKALOLOGHY is introduced concerning Baikal history, science, its lives etc. The temperature around Baikal is –20 to -30oC in winter. The chilly weather permeates even the warm winter gears, but the local residents are accustomed with the wintry bites of cold. The people residing near Baikal often go to the lake for fishing by spears. They just break the ice layer and when a fish passes by, it is pierced by the javelin-like spear. However, the size is not much to boast about. The journey of IRKUTSK is over and now the destination is several hundred miles farther, on the verge of ARCTIC CIRCLE, to the town of YAKUTSK, the path will be traversed over railroads, the historical TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY.

The TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY is a self-evident part of RUSSIA, an epoch making phenomenon that happened to the country years ago, world’s longest railway and one of the few things that would strike everyone’s mind whenever thinking of RUSSIA. This Railway, starting from the cities of Manchurian Provinces extends of the order of thousands of kilometres before terminating in the shores of Pacific Ocean. Everyday this train transports thousands of people to one part of the plain to the other parts. The journey passes through types of landscapes of mountainous southern area, then the central plateau region passing through which the train enters the icy terrains, where no sign of plantation or else will be seen, from cacophonous cityscapes to the most desolated ice-filled terrain, the contrast is exceptionally striking, panoramic views are inexplicable. One day later the train reaches the much-awaited end, YAKUTSK. At the average temperature around the –20oC mark, life is not very comfortable here. Its residents, predominantly descendants from their Mongol, Yakuti and Tartar ancestors although learnt over the years to cope with this cold bites of winter. The population amounting little over than 10,000, they mostly earn breads by factories situated there and some at the outskirts of the city. The areas around Yakutsk bear a long past, of Russian religion and culture. During 1991 when the communist government fell on Moscow, the Lenin statue was beheaded; the head of the Lenin was borrowed by the Yakutsk city officials from the government and kept in front of the town hall there. Up to there, the voyage was a cosy one, the chill was still infiltrate inside the skin, although minuscule. Moreover, the travellers will not encounter any kind of obstacles up to this point, except the cold. Now the time of those luxurious rides are gone and they have to start anew to confront many impedances.

From Yakutsk they will travel by heavy-duty trucks, first to the town of ULAN UDE; this ride that should take about a nights journey, takes 2-3 days sometimes due to the bad roads there. Eventually there are no such roads there and the traveller was well aware of that, so he took resort to a local professor at the University of Yakutsk. This professor came from herdsmen of ULAN UDE, when the Russian collective farming policy had been employed throughout the Russia; the low profile people were shown the light of education, appointed to the fast growing schools, given proper education and then were made to hold some office according to their qualifications. Likewise, this professor was a teacher of sociology; he agreed to the proposal of this American because this will provide an opportunity to meet his people in ULAN UDE. The journey to ULAN UDE was a very worrying one. It took double the actual time required to reach there; their truck’s tyre got stuck into the mud of a river, it was the truck where they kept all their gears, foods etc.; so they had to wait for a second truck to arrive from Yakutsk, to pull the first truck from the mud. ULAN UDE is a very small town and as it lies very close to the Arctic Circle; weather gets much cooler than the earlier places. This town, as all other Russian counterparts thrived during the reign of communists, factories opened, several school and colleges were made, people’s lives were lifted from the misery of the Czarist periods to a new altitude, a new freedom. During advent of that epoch a lot of new townships were built and people came there from the countryside for education, job and were enlightened by a dream of classless world, moved the heaven and earth to materialise the dream. But with the fall of USSR came the disaster so sudden that nobody was able to catch-up; funds dried up, with a shattered dream people return to their native places, made these townships some barren places where very few people stayed, who cut all their roots while moving to these areas at earlier times and therefore have nowhere to go now.

At the outskirts of the town, about few miles further lies a REINDEER FARM. The number of factories in ULAN UDE is almost nil, and thus most of the few educated people are teachers in the city schools or do some petty jobs. Most of the residents of this town moved to the areas surrounding it, to their native places, where most of them raise families by the occupation of their ancestors, REINDEER FARMING. On the eve of the day the traveller reached ULAN UDE, they went to a reindeer farm that falls on the way of the VERKHOYANSK. From a few hundred yards away from their house lies the wide snow-covered area, where they keep their beasts. A few trained dogs are placed near the boundary to deter any of the reindeers to escape from the farm. Trees become very rare in these regions, but the farm is located in the vicinity of a place full of trees. A family keeps normally over 50-60 reindeers, which provides them food, garments from their skin, and money by selling their skins as well. In this polar region filled with a snowy surrounding, people have to come way down the road, to Ulan Ude to procure food for the reindeer and for themselves as well. From this point onwards the team have to cross the Verkhoyansk Mountains, an eerie piece of land where the whole area is clouded with mist and sunlight cannot be seen even at midday throughout the year, a place filled with big trees. At the base of the mountains, from where the band of trees start, the Arctic Circle is supposed to be crossed and after scaling these mountainous slopes, starts the final part of the journey, the ultimate test for endurance. The town Verkhoyansk is not very far off, but the path is full of obstacles; now they have to make their rest part of the voyage by dog-pulled sledges. The temperature dropping exponentially, and even with full gears on, it is very hard to stop the shiver within. About a hundred miles from the mountain, the travel has come to its final halt, the town of VERKHOYANSK, world’s coldest city.

Reasonably, the population of this town is not very much, just a few thousands. When the winter unfurls its vicious tooth and claw, mercury swooping down to about –50oC, supply of food and clothes are cut short; it is barely a conducive condition for human beings. Their main sources of income are farming and in the main town some small office jobs, teaching etc. People around there are always clad in heavy furry clothes made of animal skins. In this city was recorded a lowest temperature of –67.5oC in the year of 1975. That awesome figure brought the town a repute of being the coldest ever city having a handsome, however small, amount of human dwelling. However, people living less than a miles away from the centre of the VERKHOYANSK, claims that a place in their proximity recorded a lowest temperature of –71.8oC. That made a few controversies concerning whether to declare the latter place the coldest one, but presumably, the assertion was a fake one, as there was no physical evidence to substantiate the fact. However, the local people were firm in their statement and made a statue at the place where they claim to have recorded that lowest temperature; the statue is known by ‘pole of cold’ to the local people.

Over the Arctic Circle near Polar Regions, where the sunlight, even in summer, seems like a distant gloomy lamp lurking just over the horizon, the spine-chilling cold is evident; but the spirit of people around there, their warmth, livelihood that keeps them going on and survive this extreme hostilities of nature; that is the true essence of Siberia.
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