Winter in the World's Coldest City

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A fish vendor drinking berry juice at the local market in Yakutsk. Life is pretty good!

As Memorial Day Weekend kicks off the summer in the United States, what better time than to look back on a winter spent in the world’s coldest city? Yakutsk, the capital of Russia’s Sakha Republic, may or may not be Arctic. I asked a few residents and its designation seemed to be up for debate. The cold, however, is undeniable. The mercury drops to -60° in winter, but while I was there in February, the unusually warm temperatures of -35° and sometimes even -25° made people announce that spring was already here. But no one was taking off their fur hat.

I was told that Yakutsk is so cold because the mountains surrounding the city trap all the frigid air. Situated in the middle of Russia’s largest republic smack dab in the center of the Russian Far East, Yakutsk is one of the world’s most remote cities and has no permanent connection to the outside world. There’s a thoroughly modern airport with international flights to places like China and South Korea, but no bridge to the Russian railroad and highway systems that terminate on the other side of the massive Lena River. Effectively, Yakutsk is a city of 300,000 people that, despite being in the middle of nowhere by most standards still appears vibrantly cosmopolitan in many ways. Yakutsk feels like it’s straddling two continents, Asia and Europe. Some people have narrow green eyes and red hair, while others look more typically Asian. Yet nearly everyone speaks Russian, and many are also practicing Orthodox Christians. More than half of Yakutsk’s cars are imported from Japan and thus have their steering wheel on the right side, but the cars drive on the right side. Buses, however, are always made in Russia and have their steering wheels on the left side – “for safety,” as one person told me.

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A Yakut woman (Yakutka) demonstrating a traditional ceremony at a national restaurant outside Yakutsk.

Yakutsk also feels like a city that is straddling time, for the its built environment fuses its traditional heritage, Soviet past, and Asian-oriented future. Walking north along the main boulevard, there’s a green wooden building sinking into the permafrost with an old poster advertising an emergency number in Soviet times on its side. A few meters away stands a billboard for medical tourism in South Korea. Farther up the boulevard sits a huge concrete monument, likely built in Soviet times, featuring the horse-hitching posts emblematic of the region. North of that lies the Chinese market. The vendors, most of whom come from the northeast Chinese city of Harbin, used to sell their wares outdoors until Chinese money funded the construction of a permanent building. They may not have been as hardy as the locals, who still continue to sell their frozen fish, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables out of doors in winter. At the indoor Chinese market, all sorts of goods made in China are for sale including medicinal products, knock-off traditional Yakut boots (onti), and souvenirs like teacups and plates decorated with Yakut horses.

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A billboard for a Korean medical center next to wooden buildings sinking into the permafrost. Dial “01” for a Soviet emergency.

So what is day to day life like in winter the world’s coldest city?

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Waiting for the bus in platform heels. Who cares if the sidewalks are icy? A low, transparent fog is common in Yakutsk on winter mornings.
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Waiting for the bus into the city at an old Soviet bus stop on the outskirts of Yakutsk.
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Walking around the city is faster in winter because you can take shortcuts across all of the frozen rivers. Think of them as pedestrian ice roads.
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An orthodox church and a whale skeleton (despite Yakutsk being extremely landlocked). Welcome to Russia’s North!
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There is a lot of construction in Yakutsk, a city whose population has grown in recent years even as many other cities in eastern Russian have shrunk.
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Kids playing on top of a giant snow pile on the sidewalk.
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Winter cold doesn’t prevent street food or night life, because you can get shawarma 24 hours a day at this walk-up stall on the main street, Prospekt Lenin.
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Or you might fancy Korean food at this restaurant at the Chinese market. The Korean mixed rice dish, bibimbap, is very popular in Yakutsk and is made more familiar by being called “Корейский плов” (Korean plov, after the Russian/Uzbek rish dish).
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A Korean sauna next to the Chinese market.
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A building financed and designed by a Chinese company in central Yakutsk.
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You can also buy milk in frozen disks. No plastic jugs necessary. One disk was equivalent to about one dollar. Take home a fish taller than you for dinner while you’re at it.
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More fish than people are standing in this photo.
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You can also buy fish lying down on top of a Japanese SUV if you are so “inclined.”
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Although this man was not taking up the poster’s suggestion of eating ice cream, I saw a surprisingly large number of children walking around Yakutsk eating ice cream. One person said it was “because the weather was getting warmer.” On a related note, Finns and Icelanders also consume huge amounts of ice cream, so perhaps there’s a correlation between cold temperatures and cold food consumption.
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Lenin still watches over the main plaza with outstretched arms, while children romp down an ice slide erected for five months out of the year across the street.
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A big open area where cows used to graze that is now surrounded by tall apartment buildings.
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Traditional, low-slung wooden buildings in a neighborhood adjoining the more modern, Soviet part of Yakutsk.
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Dormitories at the North-Eastern Federal University of Yakutsk decorated with murals saying “Victory! 70 Years,” commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II.
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Heating pipes are pretty much everywhere. They can’t be buried underground because they’d melt the permafrost.
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Winter sunrise in Yakutsk with the temperature hovering just over -40. The cold is so extreme that it makes the steam plumes from all of the heating facilities turn horizontal in the sky.
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One way to keep warm at home: Have a pet chow-chow.

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