HOW TO GET TO YAKUTIA IN RUSSIA AND HOW TO GET AROUND
EFFECTS OF THE COLD ON HUMAN'S BODY AND ON THE THINGS
TAKING PICTURES IN VERY COLD WEATHER
HOW TO DRESS WHAT IT'S VERY COLD
PHOTOS FROM MY TRIP TO SIBERIA IN WINTER
Important: the information below is based on a trip carried out on January 2007 and thence it is subject to change.
The trip was organized entirely through Internet and, because of the remoteness and entry requirements, it was fully ticketed about three months before the intended travel date.
Please check the entry requirements for citizens of your country at the nearest russian embassy. Citizens from Italy needs a visa, an invitation from a tour operator and a mandatory medical insurance. Each 3 consecutive working days in the same russian city, it is required to register with the local tourist police and repeat the procedure for each new city that you visit.
I've flown from Italy to Russia by Alitalia, one way to St. Petersburg, return from Moscow. The ticket was purchased through Alitalia web site. For the flights St. Petersburg - Novosibirsk; Novosibirsk - Yakutsk; Yakutsk - Novosibirsk and Novosibirsk - Moscow, I've flown by Siberia Airlines on Tupolev TU-254 aircrafts, as this airline was the cheapest operating that route. They still didn't have electronic tickets through their web site, so I had to purchase paper tickets through a generic italian booking web site, with quite high ticketing fees. The internal flight in Yakutia (Yakutsk - Ust-Nera, operated by Yakutia Air with an Antonov AN-24 aircraft) was part of the all inclusive package to the Pole of the Cold, so I didn't had to worry about this ticket (but I don't think that it can be purchased from travel agents outside Russia).
TIP: do not book too tight flight schedules and allow some free day in the itinerary, to recover from unplanned delay. Because of extreme weather conditions, flights can be delayed by several hours (it happened to me 24 hours of delay, because of fog in Yakutsk at -43 deg. centigrade). Keep in mind that if you need to change the airport in Moscow, it may take up to 4-5 hours by public bus or trains, plus the time required for immigration formalities and new check in. Pack the most important things in the hand luggage. If your luggage will be lost or routed in another continent, you will not want to stay at -40 degrees without your preferred gloves, shoes and fill goose down suit (eventually, wear them if they take too much space or are too heavy).
To sleep in St. Petersburg, I've booked a very nice B&B in the center of the city, run by italians. Their web site is http://www.ragoburgo.it (web site available in Italian only). To move around, I've used the buses and the very efficient metro system. Moving in this way is an adventure itself and it is suggested to learn at least the cyrillic symbols, as the stations' names aren't indicated in latin characters (eventually, carry with you a map showing places and stations' names in both cyrillic and latin). The hotels in Novosibirsk are quite expensive, even for a three stars. Thence, I've slept in a nice hostel inside the Glavny train station in central Novosibirsk, where there are double rooms and they find a roommate for you. I've used public transportation even in this city and from/to the airport. In Moscow, I've slept at the Godzilla Hostel, that can be reached from any Moscow's airport with a different combination of trains, buses and metro; they have single, double, triple and multi share accommodation, as well as internet access.
Tip: in some case, you will not find street numbers clearly displayed or signs identifying doors; signs are almost always in cyrillic. It is thence suggested to carry a map in both cyrillic and latin letters and to write somewhere in cyrillic the name of the place where you are going (this is useful also to get the correct train and leave it in the correct station).
The entire trip within Yakutia was booked through TourService Centre, a tour operator based in Yakutsk, with English speaking guides, who organizes and runs many different types of trips, as well as real expeditions, in any season, to this beautiful part of the world. To see what they offer and contact them, please visit http://www.yakutiatravel.com. In my opinion, it isn't a good idea to fly to Yakutsk without any subsequent travel arrangement, but I suggest to get in touch with a tour operator and organize everything well ahead the trip. Likewise, I don't advise to rent a car and drive by your own, because the extreme conditions and the poor state of the roads require great experience.
During the entire trip, I was exposed to temperatures ranging from a few degree centigrade above zero, to -54.5. In any case, I've never experienced winds exceeding 1 or 2 meters per seconds, especially at very minus values. The followings observations are of course based on my body and my capacity to deal with cold weather, but anybody of us is different, so the things may be completely different from person to person. Generally, the temperatures up to -25 or -30 was always perfectly tolerated, as long as I was dressing properly. Strange things start to happen around -40 degrees, where a kind of "threshold" seems to exists and where things start to get more difficult suddenly. Once landed in Yakutsk at -40, I was wearing only one layer of wool, one sweater, wool pants, thin cap & gloves and an outside windproof jacket without fill down insulation. In the few seconds elapsed while descending the Tupolev's ladder before boarding the bus, I've started to feel some ice forming inside my noose, having the sensation to feel them also in the throat (like when breathing dust) giving some cough as natural reaction. At the same time, I've felt ice forming on the eyelash, making actually difficult to close and open the eyes!
|My eyes after about two consecutive hours at -50°C.|
I've then started to hear a strange noise coming from the wind jacket, like when potato chips are crushed: the wind jacket was actually frozen. Surprisingly, I didn't feel cold on my body, not before one or two minutes. At a later time during the trip, I've experienced that the body's heat is lost quite quickly at extreme temperatures, making very difficult to build that heat again, unless entering in a warm place. For this reason, it is always very important to cover the body as required, especially if it will be necessary to stay outside for a long time, far away from warm places (it is safe to go outside with lighter clothes only if you know for sure that within one or two minutes, you will stay inside a warm place again). If you go out for a walk without proper dressing and get lost in a forest, the cold will reach your bones quickly, threatening your life. Just to say an example, I was always wearing a thin glove below a much thicker one: each time that I did take a picture, I did remove the thicker glove, staying only with the thinner one (it was necessary in order to use my camera). At -52, twenty or thirty seconds was enough to loose most of the heat from my hand and, once the thicker glove was worn again, about five minutes of exercise moving the fingers were necessary to build the heat again.
If the extreme cold is difficult for people not used to it, for cars and other things outside, it's not easy as well. Owning a car in a place where the temperature holds at -40 or -50 for three or four consecutive months, is expensive and requires great care in maintenance. In many other cold places, like Canada and Svalbard, I've frequently seen the electric plugs in the parking, where the cars are connected during layover time, to keep the engine's oil at correct density. However, in Yakutia it wouldn't be enough: in fact, the cars here must be closed inside a box, or any other heated place, heated 24 hours on 24. While outside, the engine is never turned off and, in case of long layovers, one driver must remain inside and make a short trip every 10-15 minutes, to prevent mechanical parts far away from the engine, to freeze. The engine and the heat sink are covered with a blanket, to avoid heat dispersion. In case of breakdown, things become serious: to keep the car warm, it is necessary to build a tent around it and lit a fire inside; more frequently, the car is just left behind, waiting for the next spring or for some towing machine.
|A broken truck is left in the snow and will be repaired the next spring.|
Driving on snow covered roads seemed to be safe and not too much different if compared to off-road driving or driving on unpaved / gravel roads. At this low temperature, the ice crystals are always well separated, making the snow more like sand, rather than ice. Probably some difficult may be present in April, when the combined action of thawing and re-freezing, creates slippery surfaces.
To start the engines of an airplane parked outside from long time, the engines are covered with a blanket, then a truck blows hot air inside the engines for about half an hour, before the passengers are boarded.
|A truck is blowing hot air inside the engine of this Antonov AN-24 through a pipe.|
The heating system, for example inside buildings, is something critical and must work without interruptions, otherwise serious problems will arise. In fact, a building may freeze completely, making difficult to re-heat it again until the next spring doesn't come. The entrances have normally two or three doors, to reduce heat loss when someone enters or exists the building. The windows have normally triple glasses.
|A completely frozen building. In this extreme condition, it will be necessary to wait the next spring before entering the home again.|
Carrying the water is difficult as well. In the bigger towns, the water is carried inside heated and insulated pipes. The pipes cannot be placed underground because of the permafrost, thence they are left outside. In the smaller towns, no water pipes exist, but the water is stored in blocks of ice, cut from rivers or lakes daily or before the thickness of the ice becomes excessive (typically in november). Blocks of ice are assigned to families and when people need water, they load the ice on a truck and deliver it at home. In the smaller towns, toilets are outside: it isn't terrible as it seems to use a toilet at -50, just be sure to do go there "last minute" so you will do everything quickly.
|Blocks of ice cut some month before from a lake: they will ensure water supply throughout the winter.|
A last tip: do not touch anything with bare hands while outside, especially metals. I had a quite painful experience touching a door's handle at -50 without any glove...
I've used a Panasonic DMC-FZ20, an excellent digital camera with 12x optical zoom (equivalent to 35-420mm), f2.8 throughout the entire focal length, with optical stabilizer.
Up to -15 or -20 degrees centigrade I didn't had any trouble taking pictures, also the battery did perform very well (the battery life was just slightly shorter). At these temperatures, I've always carried the camera outside, or in a small pouch outside the clothes. At lower temperatures, I've preferred to not make "experiments" and carry the camera all the times below my fill-down suite (The North Face Himalayan Suite), in close contact with my body. To take pictures, it was just enough to lower the suite's front zip a little bit and pull the camera out. Normally, the camera was kept outside for about half a minute at -40 or -50 (just the shortest time necessary to take the pictures), then it was stored again below the suite, with the zip closed, for some minutes before taking pictures again. To prevent frostbite on my fingers, I was wearing a lighter glove below a much thicker one: to take a picture it was enough to remove only the outer glove and then wear it again when finished. Frankly, before leaving, I was very worried about the performance of my camera at these conditions, instead, working in this way, I didn't had any single problem with my camera and everything did work perfectly well. Probably, also the quality of my suite did allow it (see later in this page), keeping my camera very warm when it was stored inside. Amazingly, I didn't had any problem with condensation (this typically happens when you put a cold camera in a warmer / wetter place --- below the suite in my case), except for a case that I'm about to explain. I indeed had two minor inconveniences happened only once during the trip: the first was that after about two hours outside at -52, using the camera as described before, the camera was finally very cold (probably I've taken too many pictures), so the LCD display started to be very slow (but the camera was still capable to get excellent pictures). At the same time, as soon as I went inside, a lot of fog started to build on the lens and on the camera's body; it was impossible to use the camera again before about one hour (this condensation can be very dangerous as it may create short circuits inside the camera). However, this inconvenience can be easily prevented: just put the cold camera inside tightly closed plastic bag (no air exchange) when you are still outside, then go inside normally. Wait until the camera doesn't have the same temperature on the environment (it may take up to 2 hours), then open the plastic bag and extract the camera.
One of the greatest worries before leaving for this trip, was the shorter battery life in such cold. Instead, once on place, I've been surprised again, as I didn't have any particular problem with battery's life, neither when the LCD display started to respond slowly because of the cold camera's body. I've experienced only slightly battery life after hours outside. In any case, I've always carried with me a spare lithium battery to keep warm inside an inner pocket of the suite, in addition to an homemade battery back assembled with 8 AA rechargeable batteries: this battery pack is kept permanently under the suite, with a wire going outside and entering in the camera's external power supply connector.
Perhaps I've been just lucky... or my Himalayan suit did her great job keeping warm not only my body, but also my camera... or Panasonic FZ20 performs especially better in cold weather... anyway, talking with other guys, they all had troubles taking pictures in such environment (someone has experienced problems with camera's mechanical parts, someone with camera not responding anymore).
As this was a very particular trip, very far away from my home, as usual I've always carried two identical cameras with me (I own two Panasonic DMC-FZ20). I just don't want to stop taking pictures should one camera break (I indeed don't like too much electronic consumer things because they are typically very, very unreliable). I've carried with me also lots on memory cards in small size (128 or 256 megs): I don't use bigger memory cards, because if one fails I loose less pictures. I was also carrying a portable stand-alone CD recorder (no PC required) to make backup copies of the memory cards daily.
The most important cloth, which did let me to enjoy this trip in full, without feeling any cold, was the Himalayan Suit by The North Face.
|Me at -50 with the Himalayan Suit by The North face, below the symbol of cold in Oymyakon.|
The Himalayan Suit is a 800gr. fill goose down one piece suit especially developed for coldest conditions on the planet. Although it is a one piece only (this is a useful feature, as there is no loss of heat between the jacket and the pants), it can be dressed and removed in just seconds. The outside tissue is wind-stopper and also the zip is made with protection from wind and cold well in mind. Wearing the cap and closing every zip tightly, only the eyes, the fingers and the feet remain outside (however, I've noticed that it is more comfortable to leave the zip open on the face and wear a good balaclava below).
Using the Himalayan Suit, I didn't have any problem with the cold, even after several hours outside at -40 and -50. I have to say that at -20 the suit is perhaps too warm and can be used only for light hiking, but below -35 it is just perfect and has guaranteed an excellent protection to both myself and my camera. One time, after a 1 hour hike at -52, I had to open the front zip up to the stomach, as I've started to feel too warm and slightly wet. Below the suit I was wearing only two layers of wool everywhere (but I think that just one layer may be fine as well).
For the protection of the feet, I've tried the Caribou boots made by Sorel, that should be guaranteed up to -40. This is just a joke: regardless my three pairs of thick wool socks below, after 20 minutes at -35 I've started to feel very cold and wet feet. Once back inside, I've discovered that a lot of ice did grow inside the boots, between the leather and the thermal inner boot (just crazy for such expensive items). I've spoken about this problem to my guide and he purchased for me a pair of "valentine" for the equivalent cost of about Euro 10. They are about 10 millimeters thick, worn like a sock and have no sole below, however using them I had perfectly dry and warm feet, even after long hikes at -40 and -50. As they aren't waterproof, it is necessary to wipe the snow off with great care before entering any warm place.
For the hands, I did use a thin windproof glove below a much thicker one made of sealskin, filled with lots of sheep wool and without fingers. Wearing two layers of gloves is important, as it not only gives extra protection, but also protects the hands from frost when the thicker glove must be removed (for example taking pictures). Also for my hands, I didn't had problems after long exposures outside. Only occasionally I had cold hands, because of too many pictures taken (in such cases I had to move the fingers repeatedly or put the hand below my armpit to re-heat the hand again). In order to prevent the thicker glove to go on the floor when you remove it for some reason, it would be a good idea to tie it to some suit's zip.
Last, I was wearing a balaclava all the times, below the Himalayan Suite's fill goose down cap. Using the balaclava, I had much less ice formations inside my noose, but only breathing slowly and breathing only by noose. Local people normally do not wear balaclava.
For people wearing eyeglasses, do not take a trip like this without contact lenses. Wearing eyeglasses in such cold is just a nightmare, with fog and ice forming constantly on the lenses each time you breath or enter in a warmer place. I've used the contact lenses all the times outside and I didn't had any problem. I've also tried to freeze and thaw a contact lens while still inside the sealed box and I've found no damages.
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