Yakutia: The Coldest Inhabited Place on Earth

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Northern lights in Yakutia. Photo credit: Nina Sleptsova
Northern lights in Yakutia. Photo credit: Nina Sleptsova

Yakutian traveler & photographer shares about Siberian life.

By Maida Besic

Siberia was originally home to hunter-gatherer and reindeer herding peoples. It’s been part of Russia since the 17th century, it is the northernmost part of Asia comprising nine percent of the entire world’s dry landmass, Russia wouldn’t be considered the largest country in the world without it.

Despire the freezing temperatures Yakutians are very warm and friendly people.
Despite the freezing temperatures, Yakutians are very warm and friendly people.

The name comes from the Tatar language, a Turkic-speaking people in west-central Russia, which means sleeping land.

It’s divided into two federal districts which are further separated into jurisdictions similar to states in the U.S.

After Russia’s initial conquest the Sakha population dropped by 70% which caused Russia’s expansion to the north and east displacing indigenous people, but they still inhabit the region.

23 Million Souls

It is rich in oil, gas, and other mineral resources, forests, and freshwater. Twenty-three million people live across Siberia. It very much has its own identity — socially, economically, culturally, and even politically.

Syuzanne Sedalisheva, a traveler turned photographer shares her photos depicting the cultural heritage of the Yakutian people. After traveling she returned home with a new appreciation of her roots.

She showcases traditional dress and lifestyle to provide an insight into the past through her photography while also venturing into modern fashion.

She was born in a small Yakutian village of 700 people, Kharabalakh in The Republic of Sakha known as Yakutia, the expectations of women in the village are similar to many other parts of the world.

Women are to finish school, get married and lead a homemaking life which appeals to many, but Syuzanne always felt different. She had her own ideas about life.

 

Her grandmother and mother nurtured this quality in her. Her grandmother never received an education so would playfully dream with her and say, ”if I was you I would be a journalist or a teacher…”

She didn’t feel pressured to lead a traditional life. Her family trusted her to pursue her own way and gave her the freedom to do so.

Many of the villages in Yakutia are small and dependent on men to survive. They are at times the sole breadwinners. With frigid winter temperatures below 60 degrees Celsius they take care of the manual work; tend livestock, chop firewood, retrieve drinking water, and herd reindeer. They have an integral role in family and social life.
Many of the villages in Yakutia are small and dependent on men to survive. They are at times the sole breadwinners. They take care of the manual work; tend livestock, chop firewood, retrieve drinking water, and herd reindeer. They have an integral role in family and social life.

She credits her mother and grandmother for the strength, support, and freedom she now has. The freedoms they didn’t experience. Yakutians rarely leave the region yet alone for a woman to travel on her own.

Venturing out into the World

For Syuzanne to leave her small village and venture out to the world for an education and travel is a big feat.

Life in Yakutia is completely different from that in Moscow and other places in the world. With winter temperatures below 60 degrees Celsius, most things are frozen.

If you walked outside for just ten minutes your eyelashes would freeze, even the fur on the hat would start to form icicles.

The homes and buildings are built on stilts so the heat doesn’t melt the permafrost below. Daily life is more expensive because everything must be imported.

She recalls as a child fruits like mandarins, oranges, and bananas were luxuries so they only had them on special occasions.

During the 90s people struggled economically and didn’t have access to other types of food, just meat.

It’s too cold to grow anything so people rely on what can survive such temperatures; meat and fish.

Traditionally, until the 19th century the houses would be split in half with cows on one side of the home and people on the other. The cows would generate heat to warm up the house.

Things are better now, but she still appreciates and savors fruit when she eats it.

Winter forest in Yakutia Photo Credit: Nina Sleptsova
Winter forest in Yakutia Photo Credit: Nina Sleptsova

Becoming a photographer while traveling

clothing
Clothing functioned not only to protect the body but to also protect the soul. Women’s clothing was usually intricately decorated. Jewelry and detailed embroidery fend of evil spirits and offer protection.

Travel changed her. “I was a simple Yaktuian girl from the countryside with extremely long hair which is typical in the village.”

She didn’t speak Russian or English until she became an adult and moved away. There was a certain naivete about the world. Leaving Yakutia changed her worldview and increased her self belief.

Four years ago she moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan, the former capital and cultural hub, where she learned to speak English by socializing with travelers and backpackers.

She volunteered at a hostel and worked on their social media. She started to take photos of the guests, telling their story through her photographs, “Pictures, for me, are story telling.”

Photography has allowed her to form new friendships while traveling. She once took a picture of a couple in Kyrgyzstan after chatting with them briefly.

Later she printed out the photo to bring it back to them as a surprise and they hosted her for a night in their home as a guest.

Russian Elle cover
Syuzanne’s photograph was featured on Russia’s Elle magazine celebrating Yakutian women and their traditional attire.

Soon she started getting paid opportunities by people that came across her photos.

Her friends encouraged her even when she didn’t realize her own potential.

A Yakutian friend, now in the US, had a DSLR Nikon camera she wasn’t using and sent it to her. She started learning how to use it to develop her skills.

Once she saw the response to her work she was able to call herself a photographer. Syuzanne never imagined she’d have her photograph on the front cover of Russia’s Elle magazine.

She received the call for Russian Elle while picking strawberries with her mother. She then hitchhiked to the city to collaborate on the photoshoot to showcase her Yakutian culture.

Most of the people in the village were very supportive of her and her work, there were a few that weren’t for one reason or another, but for the most part they were proud of her and initially didn’t realize it was a local woman who took the photo. “Come on, it’s me!,” she told them.

spirituality
There is a type of spirituality in Yakutia, people believe in the spirit of nature, sun, and water. They want to live in harmony with it. For example, before starting a hike she’d offer some food to nature before going on the trail as an offering. “Spirit is everywhere and should be respected.”

Yakutian women are never on the covers of magazines in Moscow so it was a special moment for her and the community which further encouraged her art and exploration.

In the future she hopes to share more of her culture, people, and fashion through her photography in different parts of the world.

Experience Yakutia

It wasn’t until leaving her home that Syuzanne realized how fascinated others were by her region as she was flooded with questions about it.

It gave her a new appreciation for her roots to see it through another’s curiosity.

She also didn’t anticipate that her travels would lead her back home to celebrate her culture and share it with the world.

Combining contemporary fashion with her traditional roots, her documentary style photography captures the essence of her culture and the person.

Yakutia is where she feels in harmony with herself; receiving the power and support of the land.

Yakutian spirituality is complex and rooted in the environment. They believe all natural elements have a spirit and there are a number of gods and people that can communicate with the spirit world.

Although the Russian Orthodox Church is also present in the region many Yakutians still retain and practice their cultural and spiritual traditions.

When visiting she advises one to be respectful toward nature and suggests a few experiences for those that plan to visit.

Now working for the Yakutia region’s social media department, she advises one to be respectful toward nature and suggests a few experiences for those that plan to visit.

Siberian horsemen
In Siberia Syzanne would do photoshoots for hours with frozen hands, face, and body, but didn’t mind. Did a photoshoot -60C. Hands were frozen, but didn’t complain. “You have a goal, you should do that.”

Ysyakh Summer Festival

Ysyakh is a summer festival  that takes place during the last weekend in June. It’s a traditional Yakut summer solstice festival which includes the revival and renewal of nature, fertility, and the beginning of a new year.

It includes rituals, ceremonies, folk dancing, horse racing, music singing, national cuisine, and competition in traditional sports.

A fire is made for the spirits and thousands of people attend. It’s celebrated in a special place on the longest day of the year. People wear their traditional dress and thank the spirits for watching over them.

COLD
Yakutian clothes were made to keep warm and insulated from the freezing temperatures.

It affirms life and the continuation of it with humanity. The tie between nature and Yakutian culture is signified by the three day celebration of conversing with the natural world.

Sakhawood

There is a vibrant film industry that’s been gaining international recognition in recent years for its unique storytelling style specific to the region, people, and tales that are told.

They are low budget productions and everyone from the director to actors helps out with tasks like carrying equipment to washing dishes to gathering costumes from charity shops.

Most of the directors do not have any special education or training. It’s not their main source of income but their creativity and ingenuity have even outdone larger productions.

They often say, “It’s not about money, it’s about making art.” The actors are often from the village and amateur or theater actors.

They create seven to ten feature films per year from romantic comedies to fairy tales that are based on local legends and beliefs.

Their traditional culture was banned during the Soviet times so now they are bringing it back to the forefront and experimenting with genres which is why the unique films are gaining much national and international attention.

Trans-Siberian Rail

frost
It gets so cold even the fur on the clothes starts to form icicles.

One popular travel attraction is the Trans-Siberian rail which was started in 1891 and completed in 1905.

Connecting Western Russia to the Russian Far East, it’s the longest railway line in the world starting in Moscow with rails to Mongolia, China, and North Korea, with talks to extend it to Japan as well.

Riding on it you can stop along the way through different towns and villages, socialize with the passengers, and have a truly breathtaking and memorable experience across Russia.

To travel from Moscow to Beijing takes about six nights on board the train and costs about $637.

Mammoth Museum

Initiated by the first Yakut paleontologist Petr Alekseyevich Lazarev in 1991 it is a scientific and cultural institution studying the mammoth, mammoth fauna, and the natural environment of the ice age.

75% of the world’s known mammoth graves with preserved soft tissue are found in Yakutia. The mammoth became extinct around 4,000 years ago.  Entry price for adults is $6.00 and $5.00 for kids (4-17).

Yakutsk is the world’s coldest major city with roughly 330,000 people. Regular winter averages dip below -35C (-31F) with a record low of -65C.

reindeer
Reindeer herding in Yakutia. Photo credit: Nina Sleptsova
Yakutians love patterns and colors, not only to appeal to the eye, but to fend off evil spirits.
Yakutians love patterns and colors, not only to appeal to the eye, but to fend off evil spirits.

It’s seven hours by plane from Moscow and is the largest city built on continuous permafrost, ground that continuously remains below 0C (32F) for two or more years.

Many of the houses are built on concrete piles as a result. Summers are short, but sunny, warm, and sometimes hot with the maximum temperature of 30 C plus (86F). The seasonal temperature difference is the greatest in the world.

Permafrost Kingdom

Located about 10 km from the city the main attraction is an ice cave in the heart of the mountain.

Permafrost affects all aspects of life in Yakutia so you can get to see it up close with the temperature ranging from -7 C in summer to – 20 C in winter.

Open to the public and illuminated by different colors you can see ice sculptures of local gods and cultural traditions.

There were also musical instruments, other characters like Santa Claus, a wooly mammoth, and even food.

It’s a quirky exhibition showcasing the beauty and creativity of the region. There’s even a bar so you can enjoy a shot of vodka and frozen fish.

During summer the permafrost kingdom is still below 0 C. Entry fee is $7.60 with an additional fee of $3.08 to take photographs.

Lena Pillars
Lena Pillars Photo credit: Nina Sleptsova

Lena Pillars

A UNESCO World Natural Heritage site Lena Pillars are natural rock formations along the Lena River reaching two hundred meters formed by the wide ranging temperatures of over 40 C in summer to -60 C in winter.

yakutian woman
“To survive there you must be very strong,” says Syuzanne. In particular, she notes the strength of the women. She sees them as heros. They tend to the livestock four times a day in degrees below 40C.

The unique pillars are one of a kind in the world and of historical and scientific significance to our earth’s formation. The thawing and freezing of the crevices formed the pillars in isolation.

You can hike up to the top and you will notice food offerings along the path as many Yakutians provide offerings to nature as part of their spiritual practice and beliefs.

The best offering is their pancakes, an odd number of them are placed in a circle symbolizing the sun.

It’s about three and a half hours from the city. Depending on when you visit you may drive partly on the frozen river Lena or during the summer months you can take a river cruise to admire its stunning beauty. Entry to the park is about $5.00.

Yakutia is indeed a stunning place with the people not just surviving but thriving in a region that would be deemed inhabitable by many.

Their culture, traditions, art, and spirituality have been shaped by the landscape and climate.

It’s one that seeks to be in harmony with nature and has managed to make it appealing to live in a place where even your eyelashes freeze after being outside briefly. It’s a region worth visiting and celebrating.

Syuzanne hopes to foster an interest in her tradition, culture, and fashion through her photography. To keep up with her work you can visit her Instagram portfolio or visit the region where she runs the region’s social media outreach at https://visit-yakutia.com to plan a trip.

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Freelance educator, writer, and yin yoga teacher Maida Besic was born in former Yugoslavia, raised in the U.S., and currently in Tbilisi, Georgia. Since 2016 she has been nomadic, exploring the world slowly while working remotely. Visit her teaching page (https://yinwithmaida.carrd.co/).