The coldest home on Earth

With temperatures regularly near minus 50, the warmth of a Siberian village comes from its people.

February 15, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

OIMYAKON, Russia - Here in the kingdom of cold, time itself seems frozen.

Mikhail Neustroyev trudges behind a herd of 1,200 skittish reindeer crunching through a snow-glazed forest. The animals use their teeth to rip off tree bark and low-hanging branches, their frozen breath creating a lacy trail of fog.

The temperature hovers around 30 below zero here in the remote Verkhoyansk Mountain range, but the herdsman says that to him it feels like a soft spring day.

Neustroyev is hiking near Shaman Mountain, in the northeast corner of the Russian republic of Yakutia, a corner of Siberia almost the size of India. Thanks to its latitude, its elevation of more than 6,000 feet and the workings of continental climate, it is the coldest region on Earth outside the barren ice sheet of Antarctica.

Not far from Shaman Mountain, the village of Oimyakon has recorded the lowest known temperature at any permanent human settlement, minus 96.16 degrees, in January 1926. On an average winter morning, the temperature hovers near minus 50.

And in this singular place, all colors fade to blue and white, and the air seems liquid.

"I love the cold," Neustroyev says, squinting merrily at a world cloaked in snow as white as an Arctic fox. "There is little sickness in the cold. If it's cold it is clean. Water is clean. The air is clean. Summer is boring. We wait for winter to come."

Neustroyev - whose last name can be roughly translated as "he who never settled" - has hiked beneath these 6,000-foot peaks for days at a time, guarding his family's reindeer from the wolf packs that kill an average of an animal a day. He has slept on the snowy ground by a fire, wrapped only in deerskins, in temperatures below minus 40.

He belongs to the Even (EH-vhen), a semi-nomadic people numbering about 17,000, who are scattered throughout northeastern Russia. They are believed to be descendants of tribes that moved into the region thousands of years ago from Central Asia, bringing with them a language with distant roots in Turkic and Mongolian. They share these mountains with ethnic Russians and the Yakut people - comparatively recent arrivals who historically raised horses and cattle rather than reindeer.

This wilderness, resting on the world's largest shield of permafrost, seems at first like a place where change is impossible. But the native people here, in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, have long had to fight to preserve their way of life.

In the 17th century, Cossack traders arrived, using a system of extortion that included hostage-taking to ensure the payment of tribute in the form of furs. By the late 19th century, the czars were using this frozen ground as a prison for political enemies.

When the Bolsheviks arrived in the early 1920s, they set up so-called "red-tents," the camps where officials pressured the Even, the Yakut and Siberia's roughly 30 other native peoples to form collectives and abandon their nomadic culture.

Many of the tribes' shaman - the wise-men believed to be in touch with the spirits of the natural world - were arrested. Some were shot.

After suffering under Czarist and Soviet rule, the native peoples here are freer than they have been for centures. Many are also more prosperous, thanks to the jobs generated by some of the world's richest deposits of diamonds and gold.

But life remains different here.

When the temperature falls below minus 60, smoke, exhaust and human breath create a permanent noxious ground fog. Wet clothes hanging on the line snap apart like stale bread.

Digging graves in winter requires gasoline-fired heaters. Milk is delivered in frozen chunks. The teats on cows' udders are wrapped in animal pelts to keep them warm. Shaggy, sturdily built Siberian ponies - raised mostly for meat rather than as draught animals - paw through the snow, to forage on the dead summer grasses below.

"For those who work, it is of course better," than in years past, said Valentin Atlasov, the mayor of Khantyga, a Sakha village of about 350. "They all say that before, they were slaves."

According to tradition, the spirit of the Great Cold was a giant bull who lived on the Arctic Ocean, and on Jan 31 each year, one of his horns would drop off. He would shed the other a couple of weeks later in preparation for slightly warmer temperatures and, eventually, spring.

New myths now battle the ancient ones. Parents say their children are bombarded by Western commercial culture, in the form of videos, television and the Internet. Teenagers in Oimyakon drink beer and dance at the town disco every Saturday night at the old Soviet House of Culture. They spend less time becoming expert at hunting, fishing and herding.

Even the climate seems to be changing. People say the annual snow pack is thinner; the glaciers are visibly shrinking. Bears, bighorn sheep, wolves, moose and other animals are shifting their hunting and migration patterns. Spring and summer floods seem more dangerous.

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