Visiting Verkhoyansk, Siberia
Published: June 2009
By Marcel Theroux
In Verkhoyansk, Siberia, your breath makes a sound like wind chimes, frozen pony liver is a favorite meal, and 40 below is relatively pleasant. Novelist Marcel Theroux pulls on his reindeer boots and heads north
When I finally got to the coldest town on earth, the first person I met had a frozen fish tucked into one of his felt boots. He was swaying slightly in the headlights of our truck, which had broken down 200 yards short of our final destination.
"Hey," he said, "have you got a bottle for me?" His vodka-breath rose up in clouds of ice crystals. It was then that I noticed the fish. He pulled it out of his boot and gave me a welcoming wave with it. "Pokushaite!" he cried-"Have something to eat!" The fish was a foot and a half long and as solid as an iron bar.
It was past midnight. By local standards, we were enjoying balmy February weather-just a few degrees shy of 40 below, Fahrenheit.
Verkhoyansk, in the republic of Sakha, northeastern Siberia, has the dubious distinction of being the coldest inhabited place on the planet. It's not considered chilly here until the thermometer has dipped to about 60 below. And the record, set in 1892 and celebrated on the town's most famous landmark-a monument called the Pole of Cold-is minus 90 degrees.
I'd come to Russia with a cameraman, a soundman, and a television director to make a program for the Discovery Channel about traveling through Siberia in winter. Three weeks earlier we had flown from Moscow to the Siberian city of Irkutsk. We'd filmed on Lake Baikal and in the Buddhist republic of Buryatia before flying north to Yakutsk, where we began our journey to Verkhoyansk. For 10 days we would travel by truck and reindeer sleigh through unmarked snowfields and along frozen rivers, spending nights with reindeer herders in isolated winter cabins.
Siberians are fond of telling you that there's no road, just a direction, and on the way to Verkhoyansk this was often literally true. The truck drivers had to read the pattern of the snowdrifts to see where we could safely drive. We often got stuck-hence the need for two vehicles. One night both of them sank and froze fast in the thin ice of the river Nyura. Eight of us spent a sleepless night in the back of one truck, jostling for positions farthest from the wood-burning stove that was welded to the floor. Inside we were sweating and restless. Outside it was 50 below.
As we made our way into Russia's northern regions, the temperature dropped further and the fur hats grew bigger and bigger. When I'd arrived in Moscow, the local men were wearing small hats perched on top of their heads; the earflaps seemed purely decorative-throughout Russia it's considered effeminate for a man to put his flaps down if the temperature is above minus 20. By the time I reached Yakutsk, a city built entirely on permafrost, women and men alike wore giant fox-fur bonnets that reminded me of the most outlandish 1970's Afros. Finally, in the villages around Verkhoyansk, I saw people whose faces bore the physical scars-burns around the mouth and cheeks-of a lifetime of intense cold.
The man with the fish had ruby cheeks and the genial glow of a benign drunk. Seeing him made me think of the taxi driver in Moscow who had advised me to drink a glass of vodka every hour or so when I reached Sakha, "whenever you start feeling ill." When I tried to explain that alcohol gives an illusory feeling of warmth and actually speeds up heat loss, he looked at me as though I'd suggested we lower our earflaps.
I politely refused the man's offer of food. Thin slices of raw frozen fish-stroganina-are tasty dipped in salt, but I wasn't sure how long this one had been tucked into his boot. The last thing I wanted was extra visits to a dark and drafty Siberian outhouse.
But the fish-man didn't give up easily. Our guide, Anatoly, had mischievously told him we were carrying cases of neat alcohol in the truck: spirt, the tipple of Russia's poorest. The fish-man offered to put two of us up in his house. I told him we already had a place to stay. He shook my hand several times and disappeared into the darkness.
Imagine the set of a spaghetti western erected in the Arctic Circle, and you have some idea of what Verkhoyansk looks like. Cossacks founded the village in 1638 as they moved east in search of fur pelts; parts of it retain the ramshackle charm of a frontier town. Low wooden buildings line the streets, which seem all the wider because there are no cars: some 2,000 people live here, but the only vehicles I saw were ours. Most of our time in Verkhoyansk was spent trying to scrape together enough petrol to get us to the airport.
Until the 1980's, Verkhoyansk was a tin- and gold-mining center, but today its residents survive through their own resourcefulness. Our hosts, for one, kept cows, and a frozen haunch of moose was stashed beneath their porch.
People in Sakha eat a lot of frozen food. Frozen raw fish, frozen raw reindeer meat, frozen patties of whipped cream and blueberries, and frozen patties of raw pony liver are all regional specialties. Milk is sold at the market in frozen chunks, and in smaller villages the winter water supply is stacked by each house in huge frozen blocks like outsize pieces of pale-blue Turkish delight.
Frozen pony-liver patties turned up on our breakfast table the first morning. Curious, but too squeamish to try it myself, I told Nigel the cameraman that it was whipped cream and strawberries. As soon as he bit into one, he spat it out like a hot coal and swore at me. I asked what it tasted like. "Blood," he said, with a murderous look in his eye.
Local people told me that at minus 60 and below, a dense fog settles in the streets, and pedestrians leave recognizable outlines bored into the mist behind them. A drunkard's tunnel will meander and then end abruptly over a prone body. At minus 72, the vapor in your breath freezes instantly and makes a tinkling sound called "the whisper of angels."
In fact, the temperature never fell past 60 below during the month I was in Siberia. People here agree with experts on climate change: every year the winters are getting warmer. School is canceled whenever the temperature slips into the negative sixties; this used to happen for weeks at a time, but now only a few school days are missed each year. Even so, I learned to distinguish different levels of extreme cold as we traveled northward.
My nose was one reliable gauge: at zero degrees, it crackled when I breathed as the hair in my nostrils froze; 20 degrees colder, and it would stream and then freeze. At minus 40, an apple froze solid in my hand when I paused too long between bites. Plastic becomes rock-hard within seconds. The soundman's wire cables froze into absurd shapes. The resin grips on my Extremities mittens became sharp and rigid like plastic hatchets. When I retreated indoors, Edward Scissorhands turned into Mr. Magoo as a thick layer of ice formed on my glasses. I would stumble around blindly in the dim lamplight, trying not to trip over discarded footwear or collide with the woodstove. It took me a week to realize that the sore on the bridge of my nose was a frost burn caused by the metal frame of my spectacles.
One compensation for the intense cold is a landscape as beautiful as any I've ever seen. The countryside around Verkhoyansk is wooded, not at all bleak. During the day, the low sun painted everything with golden light and long blue shadows. The trees, trimmed with ice, became elaborate glass sculptures. When the wind blew, the air sparkled with snow crystals. It was too cold for anything to smell of much-even the outhouses. And the snow itself acted as an acoustic blanket, throwing every sound into sharp relief: the squeaking of boots or hooves, the bells on a reindeer's harness, the soft crump of snow thrown aside by a shovel. Just below the Arctic Circle, I saw the northern lights for the first time: luminous green gauze curtains blowing around in outer space.
The Russian word for Siberia, Sibir, comes from Mongolian Altai and means "sleeping land." The woods and rivers and mountains did seem to be in suspended animation. I was reminded of the impenetrable forest around Sleeping Beauty's castle, where everything is frozen at the moment she pricks her finger: the waves sculpted into the rivers, the autumn berries iced onto the bushes, a skinned wolf carcass frozen into an unspeakable shape outside a reindeer herder's hut.
Anatoly, our anthropologist guide, was himself born into a family of Even reindeer herders. The Even were nomads until they were collectivized by the Soviets in the 1920's and 1930's and moved into villages. They live hard lives, ignored by the regional and national governments, which are far more interested in the land beneath them (Sakha holds diamond reserves as vast as South Africa's).
Anatoly bears an open grudge against the European civilization that has so disrupted the Even's traditional life. He enjoyed subjecting me to funny and unsettling lectures about my personal responsibility for the destruction of Even culture. He also liked to point out the shortcomings of our high-tech apparel. He laughed at our bulky Canadian boots. "Pure European approach!" he snorted. "Below minus forty, you will freeze. We should just take a match and set fire to them now." He warned me that if I insisted on wearing my North Face hat instead of a fur one, an archaeologist would be digging me out of the permafrost in a thousand years' time like a woolly mammoth.
On his own feet, Anatoly wore unty, made from reindeer leg fur, and hardly larger than a regular shoe. When we traveled by reindeer sleigh, I borrowed fur clothes from the herders: unty, trousers made from wolverine, snow-sheep mittens, a reindeer jacket. These were not only warmer than my other clothes but stayed quiet and flexible, and the smell of the fur seemed to put the reindeer at ease. (Nigel the cameraman, rustling around in artificial fibers and big boots, kept startling the animals, who would get all tangled up in their harnesses as they leaped to avoid him.) At the end of the day, the fur clothes were placed in a sack and left outside. Warmth and damp destroy them. Yet after a night at 40 below, they were never cold to the touch when I put them on in the morning.
While few in the West have heard of the Even, everyone knows one word of their language. Shaman is the Even term for a traditional spirit-healer. Its etymology is uncertain-it may mean "one who knows"-but the word has been internationalized, passing into various languages from Russian ethnography. During long hours in our overheated truck, Anatoly told me stories about the Even shamans, celebrated by his people as the most powerful shamans of all. According to Anatoly, not only were most Western scientific discoveries preempted by the shamans, but it was also commonplace for Even shamans to visit the moon.
Anatoly told me all this with a smile on his face, but his stories correspond to a belief in Siberia that when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he was met by an old Russian wise man called Ivanov. It would be interesting to ask Armstrong about this. In particular, I'd like to know whether Ivanov had a frozen fish in his boot.
Marcel Theroux's first novel, A Stranger in the Earth,
was published by Harcourt Brace . His second, The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes, isdue out next spring.