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.