The city of Verkhoyansk lies motionless under a dome of arctic air. From the roofs of houses, columns of smoke rise in straight, vertical lines into a clear, frosty sky. It's 6 a.m. The temperature is minus 49.5 degrees Celsius (minus 57.1 degrees Fahrenheit).
Varvara Kirillina, a 74-year-old from Yakutsk, trudges through the soot-covered snow near the city's coal-fired power plant. A retired teacher and museum director, she is the cheerful impetus behind a new project called "Tourism at the Earth's Cold Pole." Kirillina has what foreigners are looking for in eastern Siberia: the Taiga region in her blood, the history of her native city in her head and a warm house with indoor plumbing. Put together, those seemingly innocuous factors practically make her a celebrity in Verkhoyansk.
Wearing a mink coat, beaver skin gloves and silk scarf, her carefully plucked eyebrows highlighting her parchment-colored face, she walks from the security gate to the power plant's boiler building. The indoor temperature in surrounding houses had plunged dramatically overnight, prompting Kirillina to check up on the soot-covered boy whose job it is to shovel coal into the plant's furnaces, which generate heat for the city's central heating system. The boy, it turns out, had fallen asleep on his cot.
If he'd slept one or two hours longer, Verkhoyansk's heating systems would have frozen up -- at almost minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit), at night, in the coldest city on the globe.
Worlds away from Russia
The lowest temperature ever recorded in Verkhoyansk is documented on a black granite plaque at the weather station built by German-born Siberia expert Alexander Bunge: minus 67.8 degrees Celsius (minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit), measured by a meteorologist exiled to Verkhoyansk on January 15, 1885. A stylized concrete wooly mammoth head stands at the other end of the city, commemorating Verkhoyansk as the site of the Arctic Cold Pole.
Founded by Cossacks in 1638 as a fort on the upper Jana River, Verkhoyansk is the oldest city above the Arctic Circle. At its northern latitude of 67 degrees and 32 minutes, it remains plunged in 24-hour Arctic darkness until mid-January. In the days of the Soviet Union, 2,500 people braved the ice and darkness in this extreme northern outpost. Today Verkhoyansk counts all of 1,360 inhabitants.
Verkhoyansk now holds the distinction of being the smallest city in the world's largest country. The rest of Russia seems worlds away. Moscow is 4,700 kilometers (2,921 miles) to the west -- and even Yakutsk, the capital of the remote, eastern Siberian republic of Yakutia (or Sakha), is 625 kilometers (388 miles) to the south. Former Soviet Premier Alexey Kosygin once suggested banning Gulag chronicler Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Verkhoyansk, "because no foreign correspondent will ever go there."
When approached from the air, the city appears as a few scattered lights in a giant basin -- like light bulbs in a freezer -- formed by the surrounding Verkhoyansk Mountains. Lenin was long dead by the time the civil war between the Bolsheviks and the Czarists came to an end here in the north. But the spirit of Lenin's mantra, "Communism is Soviet power plus electricity," is still evident in this dimly lit city north of the Arctic Circle.
Verkhoyansk is a memorial to human hubris and mankind's capacity for suffering, a splinter of civilization stuck in the frozen Taiga, all that remains of a grandiose belief in progress. In the summer, when the ice in the region's rivers and marshes has melted, there is no land access to Verkhoyansk. In the winter, the city can be reached by the "Simnik," a rudimentary track that follows the course of the frozen Jana River. It takes truck drivers eight days traveling along the "Simnik" to bring food and fuel to Verkhoyansk from Yakutsk.
Living among remnants of the Gulag
When they run low on supplies, Verkhoyansk's inhabitants make do with whatever nature throws their way, eating smoked reindeer tongue and frozen reindeer foal fat, berry juice, mushrooms and Siberian white salmon hacked into strips.
Varvara Kirillina is one of those who are content with what Verkhoyansk has to offer, just as her ancestors were. Whenever she adds wood to her stove, she throws a spoonful of butter into the flames to appease the fire god. When visitors arrive, she furtively strokes their clothing with a white horsehair whisk, a Yakutian shamanistic ritual meant to ward off evil spirits.
In November, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally promised Kirillina an award for her life's work -- for fighting to preserve the cultural heritage of people living near the Arctic Circle, and for collecting the sediments of 10,000 years of local history for her museum: the bones of mammoths, the tools of nomadic reindeer herders and the tin bowls used by those banned to the 23 nearby internment camps, part of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's Gulag system.
But now the people of Verkhoyansk are thinking about the future. For €29 a night, tourists are welcomed to the Cold Pole -- a package that includes room, full board and even the chance to get to know a local family. The only problem is that while Verkhoyansk may have a memorial and a hotel named the "Cold Pole," city officials never bothered to trademark the name, and are thus having difficulty attracting tourists.
Whenever Yakutian Vice President Alexander Akimov visits Verkhoyansk, he says that "everyone on the planet knows about" the 1884 record low temperature. But things look a little different back at the region's government headquarters in Yakutsk. The millions of rubles the government had earmarked for the "Cold Pole" tourism project have already been sent elsewhere -- to Oymyakon, a village not far from the Kolyma road Stalin had prisoners build through Yakutia to the Okhotsk Sea. Unlike Verkhoyansk, Oymyakon is accessible to tourists by road. Besides, the Yakutian president and his minister of tourism both have a personal interest in Oymyakon.
The president, a former head of the Alrosa diamond company, was born in a village halfway between Yakutsk and Oymyakon. Tourists, who have been booking car rallies to the "Cold Pole of the Earth" for the last few years, are sent to his native village, which provides food, accommodation and a chance to visit the local Gulag Museum.
The Yakutian tourism minister, for his part, wants to see Oymyakon stage "Cold Pole" festivals lasting several days, with reindeer sleigh rides and folklore performances -- all because he was born there. That, at least, is what the mayor of Verkhoyansk alleges, and he is considering taken "legal steps" to settle the dispute over the cold pole once and for all. He even has a report prepared by Russia's highest-ranking weatherman to support his own claim.
"Free-thinking businessmen at the Ministry of Tourism" simply dreamed up Oymyakon's claim to being the world's cold pole, writes the Yakutsk Week, a local paper. Critics say that Oymyakon's supposed record cold temperature of minus 71.2 degrees Celsius (minus 96 degrees Fahrenheit) is based on an estimated value that was generously rounded downward. The one good thing about the cold war between the two towns on the Arctic Circle, say tourism planners, is that no one disputes that the coldest inhabited place on earth is definitely in Yakutia, Russia's largest autonomous republic -- and the republic could use an additional source of income.
The fact that a region like Yakutia needs hard currency is as true as it is astonishing. About a million people live in the vast region -- some eight times the size of Germany. And it sits on top of Russia's most immense natural resources.
Local legend has it that when God created the Earth, he dispatched an angel carrying a sack filled with riches. When the angel flew over Yakutia, his fingers became numb and he dropped everything. Ninety-nine percent of Russia's diamonds are mined in the region, and its soil holds vast reserves of gold, coal, natural gas and tin.
The people who live there, though, derive little benefit from the natural treasure -- Czarist and Soviet-style feudalism is still alive and well. The czars demanded "yasak" -- a tribute in the form of pelts -- from the original inhabitants. The Soviets helped themselves to Yakutia's raw materials, but at least they offered electricity, free education and low-cost air travel to the people of the Taiga in return. The current rulers at the Kremlin tend to favor the Czarist over the Soviet approach to handling the people's wealth.
President Putin has just launched the central government's takeover of the majority of shares in the Yakutian Alrosa Corporation, which, with annual production valued at $2.5 billion, is the world's second-largest diamond producer, after South Africa's diamond giant De Beers. Aside from a handful of wealthy Yakutians, state companies controlled by the Kremlin derive the lion's share of profits from the mining of other natural resources in the region.
The people who live north of the Arctic Circle have suffered more than others as a result of post-Soviet upheavals. If an agricultural collective shuts its doors, the next one isn't likely to be closer than a several-hour's drive away. Finding work elsewhere means extremely high transportation costs. After all, a flight to Yakutsk costs the equivalent of a month's salary, and two tanks of gasoline consume a week's wages.
Polar Lights guaranteed
"In the villages, everyone is dreaming of tourism these days," says Vyatcheslav Ipatyev, adding that the competition for extreme and eco-tourists is well underway. Ipatyev is a gaunt, bespectacled Russian who wrote his dissertation on the "Development of Tourism in the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR)." Now he's trying to convince foreigners to venture out of Yakutsk into the more far-flung reaches of the republic.
Instead of arguing with those who insist that Oymyakon is the world's cold pole, Ipatyev offers them nine-day adventure rallies complete with a cold pole certificate. He has a similar document prepared for those who prefer Verkhoyansk. The Verkhoyansk package even includes a hunt for mammoth bones along the banks of the Adycha River -- lunch included -- and a trip to the shore of the Arctic Ocean with a guaranteed sighting of the Polar Lights. "They don't even offer that in Alaska," says Ipatyev.
But even Ipatyev is at a loss when two German vegetarians in their sixties, traveling to the region in February, ask whether "meat-free meals" will be served on their Yakutian domestic flight to the tiny town of Ust-Nera. "Unfortunately," he tells them, "there will be nothing on your flight, not even a cup of tea."
With an average of 0.9 tourists a year since the demise of the Soviet Union, Verkhoyansk is the Cinderella among Yakutian vacation spots. Forgotten in a post-Soviet no-man's land, north of abandoned gold mines and the dilapidated barracks of the Gulag camps, the city is desperate for a connection to the modern world. But despite its remoteness, it can offer tourists one very important thing: true, unadulterated Russian reality, or what the Anglophiles in Moscow might call "rashin ikstreem."
The reality in modern-day Verkhoyansk means retirees spending a third of their pensions on firewood, despite already receiving a subsidy for about the same amount from the local government. Drinking water from the Jana River is delivered by tractor in the form of blocks of ice -- in return for cash payment. Local inhabitants are more than likely to sew their own indispensable "Untys," or boots made of reindeer fur, which can cost up to €500 in a retail shop. Old thermal clothing, free during Soviet days, is worn as long as possible.
With January temperatures corresponding to the average annual temperature on Mars, no one can stay outside for more than 15 minutes. The only way to prevent death from exposure is to wear the pelts and skins of animals that live above the Arctic Circle -- and to keep moving. Wood fires in roadside huts and car engines kept running throughout the day provide respite to anyone forced to spend time outdoors.
"Nature gives and takes"
When the streets of Verkhoyansk come alive shortly before noon sunrise, it looks as if a small group of astronauts wearing thick spacesuits were about to embark on an exploration of a remote planet hostile to human life -- against a background of thick water pipes installed above-ground because of the frozen earth.
Undaunted by the elements, truck drivers constantly drive down to the Jana River, from which they pump 180,000 liters of water a day for the city's heating system. No one seems to have considered installing a pipe from the river to the heating plant. Also undaunted, two men work 24-hour shifts keeping a fire going at the hole in the ice where the city gets its water, so that the pump site doesn't freeze over. Children walk to school in the morning, and those in the upper grades are permitted to stay home if temperatures drop below minus 55 degrees Celsius (minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit). The city's elderly complain about global warming -- in their day schoolchildren weren't kept home unless it was below minus 57 degrees Celsius (minus 71 degrees Fahrenheit). The schoolchildren, for their part, complain because the cut-off temperature elsewhere in Yakutia is only minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit).
Those who choose to stay in Verkhoyansk after finishing school usually eke out a living as hunters, wood gatherers or trappers, much as their ancestors did. Sable furs provide some income, as does caring for sled dogs and trapping Arctic hares -- used to make the filling for Pelmeni, a Siberian pastry.
"Nature gives and takes," say the men of Verkhoyansk.
His ancestors' survival techniques and their respect for nature likewise live on in Konstantin Slepsov, majestically riding at the head of his herd, one man and 80 animals forming tiny dots on the vast, snow-covered, frozen surface of Lake Omolon. Konstantin is the senior member of a family of the Ewenk people, which has bred and herded reindeer for centuries. He's a tough-looking man with the face of an American Indian, snow-white hair and alert eyes.
No gloves, no problem
Tourists could very well be paying Konstantin a visit in the future -- if they're willing to endure a six-hour car ride from Verkhoyansk toward the Arctic Ocean that is. It's a rugged track considered barely passable, even by Russian standards. Or they can book a helicopter at $1,500 an hour, like the man from UNESCO currently developing his "School on Wheels" project, which will provide education to the children of nomadic herders in a structure pulled across the Taiga by reindeer.
Framed by the dim polar light coating the sky above the Arctic Ocean like some milk-colored rainbow, and by the frozen cigarettes and other modern-day offerings dangling from the branches of shamans' ceremonial trees, Konstantin begins to tell his story. It's a tale of life at the foot of the Teryach-Tach Mountains, of living in yurts in the Taiga, and of the cunning of Ewenk women. If they are kidnapped, he says, they tear bunches of hair from the reindeer on which they are riding, laying a trail for pursuers.
The Taiga preserves trails, just as it preserves the people living in it. Konstantin, son of a nomad, dressed in calf-length elk skin boots and a red fox cap, can only smile at the thought of the current dispute over the world's cold pole, over tourists and over minus 67.8 degrees Celsius in Verkhoyansk.
Konstantin has his own thermometer, one without numbers. At temperatures warmer than minus 65 degrees Celsius (minus 85 degrees Fahrenheit), he says, he can go hunting for wild sheep in these mountains without wearing gloves.
There have been plenty of days, he adds, when bare-handed hunting has been out of the question.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan