Visiting Yakutia, home of the coldest city on Earth in Russia’s far north
By Matteo Preabianca
Yakutia or, as natives call it, the Sakha Republic. It is the largest federal republic in Russia. There was some upheaval in favor of independence, but it is a region rich in mineral resources. Say no more.
In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Yakutia was recognized in Moscow as the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation.
Yakutia is historically part of Russian Siberia, but since the formation of the Far Eastern Federal District in 2000, it is administratively part of the Russian Far East.
Flying to Yakutia
I flew from Khabarovsk, a city along the Amur river almost opposite China, to the capital city of Yakutsk.
Two and half hours later, where in the last part of the journey I already could see the difference between one of the coldest cities in the planet during wintertime (I was there during summer, and it was quite hot) and the Southern Siberian cities.
Urban centers are very rare here and nature takes advantage of that. Even here, there is a vast river, the Lenina.
Natives and Russians
The percentage of ethnic Russians here in Yakutia is about 54%, so it is normal to bump into native Yakuts on a daily basis. From my hotel room, I can see exactly where the city ends and where the Tundra(?) starts.
Just a few kilometers afterward. Besides the usual Lenin Square with the statue of the Leader and the small historical center with its wooden houses, the city does not offer that much.
But I am here to visit three places: two museums and a laboratory.
Three worthwhile museums in Yakutsk
The Museum of Khomus, the first place I visited, is a big tribute to this tiny instrument called the khomus.
This instrument is not longer than five centimeters and it is played by placing it between the teeth and lips. It makes a low metallic sound.
I don’t know why Yakuts emphasize that this instrument is their national instrument because I remember something similar in Sicily, Italy. Locals usually play it combining some animal sounds, above all wolves and horses. Nonetheless, the museum is very interesting
There are thousands of khomus in different shapes, colors and materials. At the entrance, a big khomus welcomes me with a sentence in English:
Khomus is a great musical instrument. The violin seems to be the great instrument too, but it can only make one sound. But the khomus is able to reproduce a human speech.
In the last room, there are similar instruments from all over the world. Including my country. I was right. Every year there is a competition where Yakut musicians compete with foreign ones. The employee encouraged me to try to play it. I placed it in my mouth. I could only produce a weak sound, but it was better than nothing.
The museum director, happy to have a foreign visitor, tells me to wait for a few minutes. He comes back with a khomus in his mouth. He gives me a ten-minute performance. It was a true privilege to listen to.
The Mammoth Museum in Yukutia
The second museum is the Mammoth Museum. The Sakha Republic is one of the few places which mammoths seem to like a lot. Scientists keep finding some of their bones every now and then.
Recently they even found an almost intact body with some blood inside.
Korean and Russian scientists are working together in a very ambitious experiment: bringing back mammoth to life. Anyway, in this museum, one can admire a complete mammoth skeleton. The rest of the museum is full of archeologic findings such as bones, fragments but not that much in the way of English-language explanation.
A very cold lab
However, the highlight of my trip is the Underground Laboratory of Cryogenics. There are not many labs like this for a simple reason: it needs to be in a freezing place and one which is not too remote. And Yakutsk is one such suitable place. Cryogenics is the study of the reactions of certain materials at extremely low temperatures.
I arranged an appointment with a university professor to visit it. We started to go downstairs to the lab.
In spite of the high temperature outside, I had to wear a polar jacket. The temperature started to get chilly already. In the first room, there was the femur of a mammoth.
The professor suggested that I hug it, like a baby in order to feel how heavy and long it is. The more we descended the stairs to enter the following room, the lower the temperature got. I saw ice in beautiful shapes all around me.
A thermometer warned that the temperature is -9 degree Celsius. This is the perfect temperature for permafrost. Indeed there is permanent ice here.
The professor told me that during the winter, his colleagues and he are very happy to work here because it is not minus 50 like outside.
During the visit, I saw several different machines for studying specimens and preserving some fossils.
Pollinating in the Corner
In a small corner, there is a bee that was attempting to pollinate a flower. It failed because it froze to death in front of me. Before leaving the lab, the Professor asked me if I would like to pose for a picture. “Sure!” I replied.
But his favorite background is a Christmas tree. “It is always there because it is always Christmas here,” says the professor, while he snapped the photo.
Much more to see
I had been there for only three days but, if you have time, there are plenty of museums and sites to visit, including Yakut music venues.
During my trip, there were almost no nights of darkness, only one hour from 1 am to 2 am. That gave me the opportunity to stroll around the city, seeing how lively, but quiet, it is at night.
Matteo Preabianca has been traveling for more than 10 years living in several countries, including Italy, UK, Switzerland, Russia, India, USA, Australia, Mali, Mexico, and now, China, where he works as a University Lecturer.