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Visiting Verkhoyansk, Siberia

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.


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