Winter in Siberia

The World

At 23 degrees Fahrenheit, the cold is quite refreshing and a light hat and scarf is all that’s required to keep warm. At minus-four degrees, the moisture in your nostrils freezes and the cold air starts making it difficult not to cough. And at minus-49 degrees, even wearing glasses gets tricky. The metal sticks to your cheeks and it’ll tear off chunks of flesh when you decide to remove them. I found this out when I arrived in Yakutsk, a place where the friendly locals warn you against wearing spectacles outdoors. A couple of weeks ago, Yakutsk was in the headlines after a series of burst pipes caused two nearby villages to lose their heating for several days. The temperatures then were minus-58 degrees. Television footage of the ensuing big freeze showed groups of people huddling in swaths of blankets gathered around makeshift fire stoves to keep warm. In a strange way it almost looked like fun so I decided to go to Yakutsk myself and find out how people manage to survive and go about something resembling daily life in the world’s coldest place. Before venturing outdoors in Yakutsk for the first time, I decided to don practically a whole suitcase to protect me from the cold. I decided I was ready to face everything that Yakutsk had to throw at me, so I strode purposely out of the hotel doors and well, it actually wasn’t that bad to start out with. It was only a few minutes before the cold weather started to assert itself forcefully. The first place to suffer was the exposed skin on my face, not surprisingly, which started to sting and then experienced these kind of shooting pains before going numb. Then the cold penetrated through the double layer of my gloves and set to work on my fingers. Finally I found myself with severe pain all across my body and I had to return indoors. I looked at my watch and I had been outside for 13 minutes. Of course it’s difficult to live here, said one native, but the people here were born here, it’s our homeland, what can you do about it? I got a last blast of Yakutsk air at the airport where we had to walk in the plane and then were forced to wait about 10 minutes on the tarmac before we were allowed to board. As we taxied down the icy runway in preparation for takeoff, the pilot announced the current temperature in Moscow was plus-24 degrees. The burly Siberian sitting next to me whooped with delight and took another swig from the bottle of whisky he took on board. We’re flying into tropical heat, he said.

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