In A Nutshell
Oymyakon, Russia has the dubious distinction of being the coldest inhabited place on Earth. Only a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, the coldest recorded temperature is -96.16 Fahrenheit (-71 Celsius). It’s too cold for fruits, vegetables, and grains, so the people who live there survive on reindeer, horsemeat, fish, and the milk from their animals. Winter temperatures average -40 Fahrenheit (-40 Celsius), and anyone foolhardy enough to go out in the cold unprotected will die from exposure in about one minute.
The Whole Bushel
Somewhere between 500 and 800 people call the frozen Siberian village of Oymyakon home. It’s hard to fathom the constant, bitter cold temperatures that this small group of people are subjected to almost every day of the year. The village is a reminder of a darker time in Russian history, as it sits in an area known as Stalin’s Death Ring, where political prisoners used to be exiled to die.
During the long winter months, nighttime lasts for about 21 hours. The town is situated just a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, but there are still some modern commodities there. They have a school, which only closes if the temperature drops below -61 Fahrenheit (-52 Celsius). The average winter temperature is -49 Fahrenheit (-45 Celsius). With those temperatures, it’s bizarre to fathom what little actually works.
Indoor plumbing is a new thing, with toilets only having been installed in the school in 2008. Technology just doesn’t work in the cold: There’s no mobile phone service, and most cars and trucks are useless. Pen ink freezes solid, batteries last for only a fraction of their life span, and pipes can freeze solid in a matter of hours—they’re only kept working by a power plant that absolutely must keep functioning 24/7. Metal sticks to any exposed skin. There are few early photographs of the area, because cameras would stop working and film would break.
And showing proper respect for the dead is next to impossible. The ground is permanently frozen, which means that digging a grave is a massive undertaking. Bonfires are lit where the grave will be dug, kept lit long enough to soften the ground enough so that the grave can be started. It’ll freeze well before the hole is dug, and another bonfire will be lit, the grave made a little deeper… over and over in a process that can take days.
And even once a grave is dug, the ground will freeze, thaw, and re-freeze, meaning that it’s in a constant state of cracking and heaving. This means that it’ll probably only be a matter of a few seasons before the coffin and the body are pushed back up above the ground. At one point, the villagers practiced a sort of Tibetan sky burial, leaving the bodies hung from trees for the wild animals, but the Russian government put an end to the practice.
It’s too cold for fruits, vegetables and grains. The only food is fish, reindeer meat, horsemeat, and the milk that comes from domesticated animals.
Bizarrely, tourism is an important source of income for the people of Oymyakon, and one of their major attractions is their swimming. And it’s not just the tourists that take it as a challenge to hop in the freezing water, but the men, women, and children of the frigid Russian village swear that it’s a way to keep from getting sick. They regularly bathe in the freezing water, and those who have done it have said that it’s not so much the cold water, but getting out into the freezing air that’s the biggest shock to a person’s body.
They’re also attracting tourists to the area with reindeer hunting, ice fishing, and baths in the hot springs . . . although we’re pretty sure the term “hot spring” might be a bit misleading.
Show Me The Proof
National Geographic: Life Is a Chilling Challenge in Subzero Siberia
BBC News: Life in extreme cold around the world
Atlas Obscura: Oymyakon
Featured photo credit: Maarten Takens