Why do people choose to live on the Pole of Cold? What holds them in the world’s deadliest freezer? Why won’t they flee? Equipped with 12 reindeers, 6 sleds, 4 Yakut horses, 14 pairs of skies and 12 pairs of snow-shoes, one mini-van, 14 local children, 7 Yakutian artists and one Inuit elder from Greenland, we decided to go on a 2000 km journey from Yakutsk to Oymyakon and back, making as many detours along the way as we needed, to find out what the Great Cold does to people’s bodies and minds and what all of us, living across the globe, could learn from their ancient knowledge.
We wanted to find out how the cold affects different people, why some adapt better to it than others, and to learn more about the benefits of cold that make people living here centenaries, not knowing what arthritis, colitis or heart disease is.
Like always, our expedition was not about speed. We moved slowly, paying attention to detail, trying not to intrude but to find a subtle path into the lives and souls of these cold-adapted people who succeeded to thrive for thousands of years in this extreme environment.
Our team was tough and ready for the hardships of the journey. Yakutian horse is a special breed, one of the oldest in existence, that survives with an ease in the ultimate cold and drops its offspring into a deep snow at -50 C. Yakutian reindeer possess many powers and is believed to be able to fly in the Arctic sky. And Yakutian children that come from the smallest and most isolated settlements don’t cry; there is literally nothing they can’t do. Yakutian artists, like Yakutian horses, make their produces at -50C outside: they paint, sculpt, compose and sing, ice and snow always being an integral part of all their creations.
Once upon a time, during the Upper Paleolithic era, in other words, some 10,000 to 50,000 years ago, the prehistoric humans roamed here along with woolly mammoths. The wooly mammoth have gone extinct some 4,500 years ago. Their bones are still spread in the area and attract treasure hunters of all kind of walks, but it was not the wooly mammoth skeletons that the Road of Bones was not named after.
The Road of Bones in Siberia - a.k.a M56 Kolyma Highway - connects the Siberian towns of Yakutsk (approximately 4,500 km away from Moscow), and Magadan (approximately 3000 km from Anchorage, Alaska) via the ‘Pole of Cold’ in Oymyakon Valley, where the coldest temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere have been recorded. In the winter, temperatures here drop to -67°C (= -88,6 F). However, in the summer, ice turns into mud that swallows up whole tractors.
The Road of Bones, built by prisoners of the GULAG, holds a special meaning for me. One of my great-uncles lies under it. I don’t know where, because the bodies of the inmates that died on the road were never removed or buried. Bones were left to rest on the road, hence its infamous name. It is one of the world’s longest collective graves, but is not well known outside of Siberia.
On a road like this, one becomes fatalistic. Every meter of this road is a death trap. Disaster is inevitable. In the winter, carcasses of frozen trucks remind us that every meter of this land can be a death trap.
But when the snow and ice melts, the land turns into an impassable swamp and little settlements become islands.
The climate is changing. Rains come alongside droughts and forest fires. Permafrost is melting faster than ever. One truck will make a trace on the grass, while a second truck will turn the trace into a muddy path. The third vehicle will make a path impassable. Wounds inflicted upon nature do not heal quickly; it will take up to 60 years for the scars to vanish.
Back in 2014 our Cultural Expedition Avannaa travelled to Yakutia to find out how climate change affects local communities. Due to the difficult summer roads, our main modes of transportation between the settlements were a tractor and a small inflatable boat.
If I were a poet, I would write an ode to the tractor scoop. Nearly everything you can think of is delivered in the scoop – mail, groceries, and other essentials. Tractors are taxis, deliveries trucks, and ambulances in Yakutia. They run between flooded villages, back and forth, when nothing else can.
Yakutia is often referred as “a prison without bars.” For centuries, free thinkers have been sent here in political exile. One can’t escape from here - one can only try to survive. It is no surprise then that Yakutian residents have some of the best survival and adaptation skills on earth.
Life style in the freezer is quite laconic. There is no running water and no indoor toilets. Stores are half empty. To eat, one must hunt, fish, raise animals (mainly horses and cows), collect berries and mushrooms, and sew containers out of birch bark to keep all these provisions.
To drink, one must cut off ice from the pond with an axe and then transport it to the underground permafrost cellar.
To stay warm outside one must make cloths from skin, fur and horse tail.
And it’s a lengthy process.
This land teaches patience, resilience and creativity.
Centenarians whom we interviewed said that they feel privileged to enjoy clean air, pure water, and healthy food. They eat raw fish, raw baby horse meet, and frozen berries. They wash it down with kumis – fermented mare's milk.
Land is tender here. It is vulnerable, like many a Northern character you may encounter… It may look rough, but it is tender inside.
Every single person in rural Yakutia is an artist. Men, women, and children create masterpieces out of rusted ‘nothing’ – pieces of barbed wire, feathers, birch bark, horse-tail hair, and even dirt.
In the absence of tools, the people use their limitless imagination to create new things that illuminate even the darkest corners of their existence.
Life in isolation, mud, and extreme cold is hard. Yet we met so many happy people here! Praskovia Matannakova is 93. She sews with birch bark. Her memory is sharper than her needle. She remembers everything and dreams about the future. She says, “Life is hard, but people make it harder than it is. One can spend years complaining and pitying oneself and losing his time, which is the biggest asset. Don’t eat too much. Don’t hate. Work. Use your hands. Use your heart. Remember your past. Love. Share.”
And then meet Victor, Victor Markov. Once upon a time, he graduated from a big name ballet school but shunned the limelight and headed home to his remote farm, where he can't stop dancing.
Victor is 60, yet he is happier than he has ever been in his life and enjoys leaping around outside in the snow, even when the temperature falls to below -50C.
Victor lives in a small house in the village of Debdirge, in the Sakha Republic. One room contains his bed, a table, chair and a wardrobe with all of his costumes, while there are large posters of ballet dancers decorating the walls. It has no heating or running water and there is no indoor toilet, but to him it is home. His 50 chickens and 20 cows live in his barn and every morning and afternoon, no matter the weather, the cows walk to the frozen lake for a drink of water.
He says: 'It is easy to be a happy man. Everyone can be, but most choose not to. Being happy is cheap. On the contrary, happiness can't be bought. One has to move a lot, to get up early, to milk cows, to make hay, to catch fish, to cut ice, to clean the barn, and to dance.'
And referring to people who live in the cities, he added: 'They can be happy too. They just need to dance and maybe also walk up and down the stairs instead of taking an elevator.' 'When I come home I fall down onto my bed with a smile on my face,' he said. 'I wake up with the sunrise again with a smile.'
Maria Vlasievna Petrova is 90. She too took a needle at 6. She started to sew from birch bark to survive. She too went through war and hunger. She too went through loss of children. But look in her eyes: they are shining! «The «trick» is to work – never be lazy – and give to the others.» «I work and I live». She never had a «depression», she never hated nor blamed the others. She accepted and adopted. And kept loving. What was her worst life experience? The death of ther father. She was a child when he died. Everyone was gone to the front. She was all alone with her dead father in the empty house. She needed to figure out how to build a coffin and bury him in the frozen land. «That was the hardest», she says. But the hardships did not ruin her heart, they just quenched her character like steel.»
And then you must meet Julus! Julus is an orphan, of Even descent, adopted by a pan-arctic family of Yakuts, Buryats, Dolgans and Yukaghirs. He lives in a small settlement in Northern Yakutia, on the Road of Bones - on the way to the Pole of Cold. Julus' story is just one of many illustrations of what Arctic soul is! Julus is believed to have supernatural forces. He is light as a feather, it appears that he can fly with the wind, his glance is sharper than razor – therefore he can see all the invisible things, but his soul is so warm that it can melt ice in your frozen heart.
On the Road of Bones the Great Mud reminds us every single minute: how weak we are, how imperfect we are , how limited our abilities are. Here it is easier than anywhere to find an excuse. Here it’s easier than anywhere else to end up believing in nothing.
Here it is easy to give up. It is easy get depressed. It is easy to let the dangerous toxins of depression, apathy and disbelief eat away our hearts. The only way forward – is to find the energy to resist them somehow, somewhere… And where else would you find it except for within ourselves?
Every single person living here is an artist. Yakutian artists create things that may have never existed. They don’t have many tools. But one tool – their limitless imagination – compensates for the absence of all the rest. The fire of their imagination creates the light that illuminates the darkest and emptiest corners of our existence.
There is everything in this land, except for boredom. Work hard, wake up before sunrise, use your hands and mind, and share with others. Through hard work people learn to compensate for the cruelty of nature and their own shortcomings. This is a secret that we are learning on the Road of Bones.
The Road of Bones is invisible to the rest of the world. Our Cultural Expedition Avannaa will return here again. Believe me – I my life I have met more dead people living in big towns than here – on the Road of Bones. If I could rename the road, I would rename it from Road of Bones into the Road of Life.
What may be seen as misery or “extreme adventure” by some is just the norm for those that live here. People in Yakutia live in “accommodation” mode. Instead of complaining, they adapt – exactly as their ancestors did for generations.