Fancying the whiteness of the snow every once in a while is something we have all lusted for in the magical conjuring of what it appears as in the aesthetics but having to deal with the tiring vision of a frigid landscape for most of the year is not a proposition all of us would be excited by. And yet, that’s the reality of life for people in many parts of the year cold enough to boast of sub zero temperatures as their average. Surprisingly though, it isn’t just the extreme enough continent of Antarctica that plays host to such distinction in its well explored crisp and white coldness. Instead, the coldest inhabited place on earth happens to be a Russian jaunt, the small rural town of Oymyakon that continually braves temperatures cold enough to induce freezing bouts in their very mentions.
In Russia’s province of Siberia, Oymyakon exists in a vibe of its own. But to the world this coldest of all liveable places on earth is indeed mesmerising in its forever freezing essence. With less than a 1000 residents making up this tiny indeed hamlet, nestled indeed in picturesque remoteness, this Russian wonderland though is no place existing since antiquity and therefore perhaps not harbouring of any legend that would endow more mystery upon this mystic already place in being. Instead, the settlement came to embrace traces of human life roughly a century back sometime during the World War. Located near the historic Road of Bones, the naming of Oymyakon is at least as intriguing as the intensity of the climatic conditions that characterise it. Taking after the namesake river in identity, Oymyakon might be a derivation from the word kheium which means, rather ironically though, an unfrozen patch of water. That might be perplexing indeed, given how the landscape of the village is anything but unfrigid! This perhaps makes the second explanation pertaining to its etymology more logical. It perhaps is the word heyum, of which kheium might even be a misspelling that lends itself instead to the place in its meaning that tends to refer to a frozen lake.
Regardless of whether that is the assertion of what Oymyakon intended to be when it probably emerged as a settlement where winter herders would water their reindeer at a thermal spring, the present day span of it is indeed the closest to what one could veritably make out of place that is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to its immediate city. And that explains the reason why this coldest of all permanently inhabited places of earth rests in this particularly chilling description of it. Characterised by an extreme subarctic climate, Oymyakon has continually resided in sub zero temperatures all through its experience of spring and autumn even when summers and oddly enough, winters as well are comparatively less mired in the plays of snow and chills. So monumental in dips are the readings of temperature in Oymyakon that the town even has a monument commemorating its furthest ever dip in recorded reading. Standing at an unbearably cold -71.2 °C had been a particularly chilly January day in 1924 even as the 6th of February occurring in the more than recent enough year of 2018 recorded almost as staggering figures of extremity at some clocking in of a -67 °C. This though isn’t anything very surprising for a region accustomed to average temperatures that hover anywhere around a more than globally chilling mark of -50 degrees. No wonder Oymyakon children are given respite from attending school only when the reading dips below the ‘decent’ -55 °C mark. That itself is another surprise, the very existence of schools in a remote location as unimaginable as this. But besides its steeping in the extremities of cold that makes life indeed difficult and different in this part of the world, Oymyakon still has access to education and other public facilities including a bank and a post office and even an airport runway.
Despite however such residing in ordinariness, as might be perceived from the basic infrastructure that governs life here as well, it is inevitable however that certain facets of existence in Oymyakon is distinctive indeed in its very nature and essence of being. As a land that is permanently frozen the year round, the landscape does not support vegetation of any kind. This means that not only the environment is deprived of its bursts of green but the humans here are as deprived of their dose of leafy greens and veggies. It instead is meat and alcohol and tea that dictates the diet of the people residing here. But so cold is Oymyakon that even a bottle of vodka can indeed freeze if it is left there out in the open, subject to the chilling fury of nature. Forget vodka, even boiling water is no heated enough luxury here, freezing in just about a minute. But it still is these exact spells of extremity that which makes Oymyakon the coveted touristry destination that it is today. From making ice crystals of your own by simply spraying some hot water into the atmosphere to experiencing such temperatures that literally shatters thermometers in its jolt of chill, Oymyakon is an experience that need to be lived if you indeed want to feel the thrill of what life can occur in its most extreme renditions.
For a land so distinctive in every dimension of being, the cuisine in this extreme part of the world is also as diversive as it can be. Frozen meats are what helps Oymyakonians sustain themselves, with regional specialties being such interesting dishings as ice cubes of horse blood with macaroni or another of raw, long sliced frozen fish or even raw and frozen horse liver. The choice of beverages are also as offbeat- deer milk and a variety of Russian ‘tea’ or Ruski chai, which in fact refers to the shots of vodka that people here need to down religiously to keep themselves warm and indoors.
With a miserly 3 hours of sun received on an average during the winter days that make therefore even the idea of a full 24 hour day a farce, Oymyakon sounds as extreme as it indeed is. But as delightful an aspect of the climate here is the summer days that can span a rather remarkable 21 hours that also can be pleasantly warm but also as unpleasantly wet. The cold though permeates still entire existences here, never failing to make its impact felt upon the human body, though in interesting still assertions. From saliva that freezes into needle like awarenesses of prickliness to your eyelashes offering a canvas for the snow to paint its own frosty patterns on or even wearing glasses tending to stick to the face when outdoors, every minute of survival braving the brutal chill of what is very well the coldest place on earth, perfectly livable still, is no less than an adventure in itself.
But Oymyakon offers also other avenues of exploring the adventurous facet of life, in such activities as reindeer hunts or ice fishing or even allowing the cultural option of taking a dip in its hot spring in of course conditions of sub zero temperatures. Such adventurous assertion of these activities though can be even experienced in a certain specific festival. Every year during a time that marks the end of the dreary winter days, albeit though only for snow to still cover up the entire expanse of the scape, Oymyakon plays host to the Cold Pole Festival. As one of the places considered the Northern Pole of Cold, it is the village of Tomtor in the forever freezing valley where the pagan spirit of Chyskhaan, the Yakutian Lord of Frost ushers in the frenzy of the festival every March. Traditional customs and costumes, indigenous music and dance, native cuisines and the warmth sustained by the Oymyakon masses in their hospitality despite being natives of a climate battered by the cold characterise the expression of the festival that takes place as an annual rally from the city of Yakutsk to Tomtor. An annual rendezvous since 2001, the International Pole of Cold Festival definitely has added another element to explore for tourists to this land of frigid cold, sparking therefore a new lease of life in the tourism sector there. This, despite the many challenges posed to everyday life and living in this certain region of earth where indoor plumbing freezes means most resthouses have to be plumbing free outhouses and where cars need to be always kept running so that they do not freeze in time.
But even graver a challenge in Oymyakon turns out to be one that pervades even the mere mortal miseries of life. Burying the dead is also no less a pursuit that residents have to chase to ensure that resting in peace of the soul is a duty duly taken care of. The always snow covered ground makes digging of graves never a single day affair with bonfires need to be lit and the coals pushed to expand the digging scope until the pit is large enough for the coffin to be lowered into. In death therefore as well, as much as in life, it is the cold that continues to characterise Oymyakon in essence. But it also is the extreme such uniqueness of this place that lends it a beauty of its own. Surreal snowscapes of pristine immaculateness that are mesmerising to such measures that make jaws drop and the senses struggle to take in the allure of a land frozen in time, very literally indeed, mark Oymyakon all year round in its physicality. Because in the coldest place on earth, the chills might be offsetting but the charm of it is one that cannot but only capture one and all with its impeccable display of being no less than a divine dwelling.