Why Is Yakutsk, One of the Coldest Cities on Earth, the Next Hot Destination?

Why Is Yakutsk, One of the Coldest Cities on Earth, the Next Hot Destination?

The Sakha Republic, aka Yakutia, is located in northeast Russia, with more than 40% of it sitting above the Arctic Circle. The region consists of almost 2 million square miles of taiga and tundra running 1,600 miles south from the Arctic Ocean.

Yakutsk, its capital, is one of the coldest big cities on earth – so cold it’s entirely built on permafrost. Most of its buildings are on pylons or stilts, made of wood or concrete, so they won’t melt the permafrost. It came into being in 1632, when the Yenesei Cossacks built a stockade here on the great Lena River.

The indigenous Yakut people had granted the Cossacks territory for a settlement, and they used their fort as a place to deal in furs, transporting them on the Lena. The city began to grow when gold and other minerals were discovered in the 1880s.

Greetings from Yakutia Photo: Max Sjöblom

A Yakut elder
Photo: Max Sjöblom

How Cold and How Warm Does Yakutia Get?

Between November and March, the temperature in Yakutsk never gets above freezing, and in January, average highs are around -42.7° Fahrenheit. Local people wear fur coats with hoods that stretch beyond their noses so they can breathe air warmed by their bodies.

Summers are sunny and warm (the average July temperature is nearly 70° Fahrenheit, though temps of 100° are not unheard of), and feature nearly 24/7 daylight. Vegetables grow huge in the gardens and the greenhouses, and the fishing is great in the rivers.

Winter fashion on display at a Yakutsk fish market Photo: Yakutia Travel

Winter fashion on display at a Yakutsk frozen fish market

Why Should You Visit Yakutsk, Capital of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia)?

Lisa Peterson, MIR Private Journeys Specialist, traveled to this land of extremes on a summer trip to Yakutsk. She knew it would be a lark, but it also turned out to be seriously cool. On her nine-day tour of this remote region she got to:

  • Admire dazzling ice sculptures in the middle of summer, as she explored a cave dug into a permanently frozen hill.
  • See and touch a real wooly mammoth tusk in a Museum of Mammoths.
  • Watch as craftspeople cut and polished precious local diamonds, forced up from the depths of the earth by ancient volcanic explosions.
  • Visit a 500-million-year old geological landscape featuring 650-foot-tall pillars gouged out by the action of shattering ice.
  • Enjoy a home-cooked meal, including slivers of raw frozen fish, with a family of indigenous Yakut people.

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A First-hand Look

Lisa sat down to tell us all about one of her new favorite destinations, and why we should all go to Yakutia before the rest of the world discovers its remote and quirky qualities. 

What makes Yakutsk so wild and wacky? Here’s Lisa’s input:

Yakutsk, An Unknown Capital City

Yakutsk is one of the most remote big cities in the world. Only one road connects it to the rest of the highway system, and you have to cross the Lena River to get to it. Getting to Federal Highway A360, the Lena-Yakutsk Highway, requires either a ferry or a trip across the winter ice-road. (At certain times, as the ice breaks up into floating ice-flows, it’s impossible to cross except by hovercraft or helicopter.) The road remained unpaved until 2014. Even in excellent frozen conditions, it can take 12 hours or so to drive its 747 miles.

“I was surprised to see that Yakutsk is such a large, vibrant city. I hadn’t known what to expect; there’s very little written about it in guidebooks. It’s not glamorous, but it’s really interesting. It only gets about 2,000 visitors a year.

I saw displays of beautiful reindeer hide boots decorated with embroidery and applique. Apparently it’s fashionable to wear traditional Sakha winter clothing, even in the city, so there are lots of fur shops.

I visited in the summer, and everyone takes advantage of the warm weather and long evenings to promenade in the streets. They pick various wild berries all summer. I drank bright red lingonberry juice at every meal.”

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Museum of Mammoths

Periodically, mammoth bones – sometimes whole carcasses – are discovered sticking up out of the tundra, swept there by floods or perhaps buried in avalanches. A few of them still have food in their mouths. You can see some of their remains, and learn about their lives and deaths at Yakutsk’s Museum of Mammoths.

The director of the museum led our tour. He also leads excavations all around Yakutia, so he discovered a number of the exhibits himself, and told a story about each display. I learned more than I ever thought I would know about mammoths.”

The knowledgeable guide at the Mammoth Museum

Knowledgeable guide at the Mammoth Museum

Lena Pillars

About a half day’s journey south of Yakutsk along the Lena River, the spectacular Lena Pillars Nature Park spreads over three million acres of subarctic plateau cut through by rivers, with areas of deep permafrost, tundra, taiga, dunes and rocky bird habitat. The park’s most celebrated feature is the Lena Pillars, fantastic limestone columns up to 650 feet high towering over the river. Their spires and crenellated parapets were included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2012.

“This was a fun day. We drove a couple of hours on dirt roads to a boat landing, and on the way passed through little indigenous villages that looked like they were from the 1700s. At the boat dock, there was a small herd of wild horses just hanging out on the shore. Our little boat sped off for the pillars, which were so much bigger than I had imagined. It looked like there were miles of them, and our boat seemed tiny up against them.

We got out at the nature park and hiked around a bit. There were a few people here, fishing, or swimming, but I didn’t see more than 12 or so at the park. There were four people in our group, and we were the only foreign travelers around, or so it seemed.

On the boat ride back, the captain stopped at an ancient petroglyph site, and we got out to examine them.”

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Kingdom of Permafrost

The Kingdom of Permafrost takes you deep into the mountain through chilly halls and chambers of permafrost lined with stalactites of frost and fantastic ice sculptures. The King of the North presides in one hall, and in another you can toast Winter with chilled vodka served in shot glasses made of ice.

“You enter the side of the mountain, into a cave that was formerly used for cold storage. I peeked behind a curtain and saw a mammoth carcass! Beautiful ice sculptures were everywhere; they change them every year.

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Chochur Muron Ethnographic Complex

The Chochur Muron Ethnographic Complex includes replicas of a wooden Cossack fort and a yurt-like Yakut balagan. Fitted with authentic furnishings, artifacts and decorations, the dwellings demonstrate what life in a harsh climate was like. Also on the grounds are Siberian huskies, flocks of ducks and geese on the small lake, reindeer and shaggy Yakut ponies, which are available for horseback rides. The central log building holds a great restaurant serving local Siberian specialties.

“The restaurant was in a gorgeous Cossack farmhouse. The food was really good – I had reindeer tongue with wild berries. Delicious fresh lingonberry juice was on every table. I never saw it in stores.”

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Diamond Factory

The Sakha Republic is estimated to produce 26% of the world’s raw diamonds. Lisa visited the factory of one of Yakutsk’s largest producers of finished gems, the EPL Diamond Company. Here diamonds are cut, polished and made into jewelry that is sold through EPL’s chain of retail stores.

“I really don’t have much interest in jewelry – I’m allergic to metals – but this was the best factory tour ever. They showed us the whole process, from rough diamonds to finished pieces. There was very little security that I could see – they put the diamonds into folded sheets of paper and stapled them closed.

All the equipment was state-of-the-art, but the craftspeople preferred the human approach. They looked for flaws in the diamonds by painting them with white-out.”

A closer look at a Sakha diamond Photo: Lisa Peterson

A closer look at a Sakha diamond
Photo: Lisa Peterson

Meal in a Yakut Family Home

Lisa had a delightful lunch with a village family – father, mother and two kids living on a small farm up a dirt road.

“They were super friendly, and the food was delicious. Everything was homegrown, and there were fish that came from the nearby river. We had a kind of dessert made with wild lingonberries and cream.

They raised their own ducks and chickens, and had won an award for having the best farm in their village. There were dozens of cucumbers in the greenhouse; they gave me so many that back in town I became known as ‘The Cucumber Queen of Yakutsk,’ because I had to give so many of them away.”

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Khomus Museum of the World’s People

Another intriguing museum in Yakutsk is the Khomus Museum of the World’s People. Unfortunately, Lisa was unable to fit this into her itinerary, but encourages you to do so.

The khomus, also known as the Jew’s harp or mouth harp, may have been the first musical instrument ever created, with specimens dating from the Stone Age. The Khomus Museum of the World’s People in Yakutsk exhibits more than 350 of the portable instruments from all over the world. At different times in various parts of the world, people have made khomus from bamboo, wood and ivory, as well as metal.

The museum honors one of Yakutsk’s shining moments­ – the time in 2011 when 1,344 fans gathered in the National Circus building to successfully challenge the Guinness World Record for simultaneous khomus-playing. You can see ­– and hear – the phenomenal record-breaking event here.

“For a ubiquitous, low-tech instrument, it’s not that easy to play. If you hit it wrong, you can cut your lip!”

Pole of Cold

If you travel northeast by vehicle for two days (575 miles from Yakutsk) along the Kolyma Highway (aka “Road of Bones”), you’ll find the town of Oymyakon, one of the coldest inhabited places on earth, and the home of the northern hemisphere’s “Pole of Cold.” The coldest temperature measured here was -89.9° Fahrenheit.

“Sadly, I was unable to make the two-day trip to see it for myself, but I recommend it to anyone who has more time to explore the area.”

Travel to Yakutsk with MIR
Dapparai village in Yakutia Photo: Max Sjöblom

Greetings from Dapparai village in Yakutia
Photo: Max Sjöblom

“I would encourage you to visit and see for yourself this strange and fascinating northern corner of the Russian Federation, land of 3-billion-year-old diamonds, the 500-million-year old Lena Pillars, 40,000-year-old mammoths, and 20,000-year-old permafrost. Do it before it loses its remote and quirky qualities to development and expanding tourism.

MIR is your Siberia/ Russian Far North travel expert – with more than 30 years of travel experience to Russia and affiliate offices in Ulan Ude and Irkutsk (both in Siberia), as well as in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

You can join a small group tour – Remote Russia: Yakutia & Kamchatka – and visit both Yakutia, the challenging northern frontier known for mammoths and diamonds, and the wild Kamchatka Peninsula, uneasily perched on the Pacific Ring of Fire.

You can also book a custom private journey to Yakutia, based on your interests and schedule. MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates, and pace.

MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

Chat with a MIR destination specialist about travel to remote Russia by phone (1-800-424-7289) or email today.

(Top Photo: Yakut women in traditional finery. Photo: Max Sjöblom)

PUBLISHED: March 4, 2019

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