>>>Where cold comes from
Photo: © Amos Chapple

Where cold comes from

In eastern Siberia, thermometers normally hover at around -50°C. It is a white steppe, where towns like Oymyakon, the coldest in the world, somehow manage to survive.

egend says winter comes from the hands of Chys Khan, the master of the cold. It is passed from his hands to those of Father Christmas, who is responsible for distributing it throughout the rest of Europe. Both have a white beard, but Chys Khan is wrapped up even warmer. He ‘lives’ in the coldest inhabited region on the planet, in the Sakha Republic, Siberia. Although several towns contend for this honour, the -71.2 °C recorded at Oymyakon back in 1924 place it first on the world thermometer (or last, depending on how you look at it). It is located 750m above sea level, in a valley. This causes the air coming from the mountains to get ‘stuck’ there and make it even colder.

Here in Oymyakon, the average winter temperature hovers between -42°C and -50°C, with winter lasting nine long months. The toughest months are December and January, when there is light for just three hours a day. That is when school gets cancelled and the children stay at home. But only when the thermometers—which contain alcohol because the mercury freezes—drop below -52°C. Vladimir Putin was warned before visiting the region: cars have to be double glazed. Ignoring this recommendation meant he got no further than a few metres from the airport before he had to give up.

Fish freeze as soon as they are caught.

Small, furry and wise

Yakutia horses (or yakutos) survive outside because of their thick, abundant hair. They stand no more than a metre-and-a-half tall, but have developed an excellent ability to find plants under the snow to nourish themselves whatever the weather.

New Zealand photographer Amos Chapple, who captured the extreme cold with his camera, describes what it’s like to take a trip to this rarely-visited part of the world.

“Occasionally my saliva would freeze into needles that would prick my lips.” Chapple had serious problems getting his camera to work properly in these temperatures. Inhabitants of Oymyakon get a break in July and August, with warm days of about 20 °C, sometimes peaking at 30 °C.


Inhabitants of this region melt enormous blocks of ice to get water to drink.
Photo: © Amos Chapple

If you still want to brave it, be sure to pack provisions, with extra petrol and some notion of mechanics. And avoid turning off the engine when you stop, because petrol freezes below -45 °C.

Scientists study Yakutia horses because they adapt to the cold so quickly.

The town has no hotel, but its inhabitants (numbering less than a thousand) are welcoming, and some will give shelter to visitors. They hunt and fish their own food, and many work breeding horses. They are also farmers, although this activity is limited to just a few weeks of the year. It is the same with the cows, which give milk only in summer. The milk is frozen for the rest of the year.

During the cold months, fires are kept continually lit. And the folk here don’t enjoy many amenities: there is no running water because the pipes would freeze and burst, and the bathrooms are outside, protected by wooden huts. These are the consequences of living in the place where cold comes from. However, the inhabitants of Oymyakon are proud of this claim, and there is a commemorative sign at the village entrance. Every adventurer that manages to get here is listed in a document that certifies they have visited the coldest town in the world. Adapt or die, as Darwin would say.

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