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The Pole Of Cold

Felicity Aston

There are more than 150,000 reindeer herded in the remote Siberian republic of Sakha. But after a fortnight’s travel through the region I hadn’t seen a single animal. ‘The reindeer-breeders keep the herds well away from the road,’ said Slava, the interpreter travelling with me. ‘Because the truck drivers that use the road tend to shoot any reindeer they see for the meat.’

The reindeer-breeders are the Eveni, who are indigenous to this far north-east corner of rural Russia. They share the territory with several other indigenous peoples who also traditionally herd reindeer: the Dolgan, the Evenki and the Yukaghir. The land they share is covered in dense forest known as the taiga and the sheer scale of the region is truly mind-numbing. Entire mountain ranges with multiple peaks reaching heights of over 3,000m are lost in obscurity, dwarfed by the endless taiga that surrounds them. Roughly the size of India, the Republic of Sakha is virtually unscarred by infrastructure. A single, barely-paved road makes the 5,000km journey northwards from Lake Baikal into the heart of Sakha and then turns right to form the Kolyma Highway which eventually meets the Pacific Ocean at Magadan. There are no maps. ‘Because there is only one road and everyone already knows where it goes,’ explained Slava.

I was travelling across the region as part of a three-month overland journey in a Land Rover Defender with two companions. As a team we were the recipients of the 2013 Land Rover and Royal Geographical Society Bursary which is awarded each year to enable a journey of geographical interest. Our expedition objective was to look at differing perspectives of winter; to learn from people living at the extremes of climate. We set out from London in November, with the intention of chasing the onset of winter across Scandinavia and Siberia as far as the Pole of Cold in the Republic of Sakha – the coldest inhabited place in the world.

The Pole of Cold is actually a tiny village called Oymyakon located in one of the most isolated parts of Sakha. Wintertime temperatures annually crash below -60°C and in the 1920s an all-time low of -71.2°C was recorded. This remains the lowest temperature ever logged outside of Antarctica. Arriving in Oymyakon by mid-January we found the temperature hovering around -54°C. It was a dry cold that hit the back of the throat and instigates a sudden panic. Despite wearing specialised polar clothing, supplemented with local fur boots and mitts, less than ten minutes outside the heated Land Rover was enough to rob me of sensation in my extremities, even though I continuously worked fingers and toes furiously to keep the blood circulating. Metal was as brittle as plastic in the cold, rubber as friable as dry clay and fuel turned as solid as wax. The normally robust Defender felt dangerously fragile as it bumped violently over frozen ruts and potholes.

The sheer scale of the region is truly mind-numbing. Entire mountain ranges with multiple peaks reaching heights of over 3,000m are lost in obscurity, dwarfed by the endless taiga that surrounds them.
The-Eveni-Camp

pole-of-cold-3

The-Pole-of-Cold-expedition-Land-Rover-surrounded-by-the-Eveni-herd


The 300 or so inhabitants of Oymyakon live in typical wooden Siberian cottages that, although well-insulated from the cold, have no central heating and no running water. The ground is so solidly frozen that pipes for water or sewerage have to run above it making them almost impossible to protect against freezing. Blocks of ice cut from the river lay in piles around doorways, waiting to be taken inside to melt for water. The only bathrooms are small sheds at the end of each garden.

I felt awed by the resilience of the locals, but even more so by the local Eveni reindeer herders who, I was told, camp with their animals all through the punishing winter. Unlike the Sámi of Scandinavia, who allow their reindeer to roam freely, the Eveni keep their animals together as a herd and remain close by. They are truly nomadic, camping with the herd as it moves from summer to winter grazing. ‘The trouble with nomads is that it’s hard to know where to find them,’ commented Slava dryly as I announced my intention to visit the Eveni.

Slava is a suburban Yakut (the Yakut were late-comers to the region, migrating here in the twelfth century from Central Asia), but his wife is Yukaghir, one of the indigenous reindeer herding cultures, giving me reason to hope that he might have some idea where to begin looking for the reindeer.

We began our search at the Eveni village of Yuchugei. Only mothers with young children live in the village and, even then, only in winter time. They gave us directions to a small hut a few hours’ drive away where I astonished a young teenager who was clearly not expecting a 6ft European woman to appear in front of him that day. He gave us new directions that led ever further into the taiga, but by the time we had reached the camp (obvious from the marks of large numbers of reindeer in the snow), the herders had already gone. We could go no further into the taiga and it was with intense disappointment that we returned to the road.

The next day, as we travelled east, I was surprised to hear Slava shout, ‘Wait!’ I turned to him to see what had caught his attention. ‘I saw some tracks in the snow,’ he said. With blind faith that the faint hoof prints and sledge marks would lead somewhere, we turned off the road in pursuit. Occasionally the tracks became so indistinct that we had to get out and lead the Land Rover on foot while studying the ground in deep concentration. The tracks led into a broad valley concealed from the road by a wide band of taiga. After an hour it was beginning to feel foolish to continue, but then I caught sight of a smudge of woodsmoke rising from the far end of the valley. As we got closer I could make out a large A-frame tent set into the trees and two men stood outside, hanging back behind a dog straining at its long chain in ferocious excitement.

An-Eveni-herder-approaches-the-herd

pole-of-cold-2Snow-covers-the-valley-sides-and-taiga-of-the-Republic-of-Sakha

Approaching the tent (and carefully circumnavigating the dog) I felt suddenly embarrassed. What if our unannounced arrival was unwelcome? I needn’t have worried. The two men smiled broadly as they pulled back the canvas door of their tent and eagerly ushered us inside. A woman sitting next to a glowing iron woodstove introduced herself as Martha as she slipped fat dumplings into a pan of spitting fat. I assumed that we must have arrived at dinner time, but I later discovered that Martha had automatically begun to prepare food as soon as she saw the Land Rover appear in the valley. It is the way of the Eveni to welcome strangers in this harsh landscape. Her two companions were her husband, Nicolai, and Sergei, one of two reindeer herders that lived with them.

The tent was inviting and cosy inside. The walls were single-skin fabric, but the stove belted out enough heat that I was soon deliciously warm. We were asked to sit on reindeer skins laid over tight bundles of birch twigs. Over steaming mugs of generously sweetened tea, and rounds of dumplings straight from the pan, Nicolai explained that the reindeer they tended were owned by the State which paid them a modest wage to look after the herd. They are paid per animal so the loss of even a single reindeer is a serious matter. Perhaps this is why, when I asked Nicolai what winter meant to him, his thoughts immediately turned to wolves. ‘The wolves are a problem. We have eleven wolves in the area so every day we have to go and check the herd. It is very rare that you see a wolf with your eyes, but we see the tracks. Last year a lot of reindeer were killed – we were finding only legs and heads.’

Nicolai took me out into the taiga to see part of the herd. At first I heard only skittish movement and saw the occasional blur of rapidly retreating animals through the frost-covered trees. Nicolai began making soothing noises, sucking air through his teeth and calling out in melodic chatter, and the animals gradually allowed us to approach them. I noted powerful muscles under sleek coats of coarse fur and the graceful poise of antler-crested heads. Some of the reindeer had electronic devices on a collar around their neck. ‘GPS trackers,’ explained Nicolai. Earlier I had also spotted a satellite telephone hanging from the beam of Nicolai’s tent. At first these elements of modern technology seemed at odds with the otherwise very traditional way of life of the Eveni. But I came to appreciate that they had simply cherry-picked the technology that suited them and rejected the rest.

When Sergei left that afternoon to check on the main herd a few kilometres away, he set off on a home-made wooden sledge with runners made of slim tree trunks, pulled by a single reindeer. It didn’t look like the rudimentary sledges provided a very comfortable or quick ride but the herders travel hundreds of kilometres on them over a season. I asked Nicolai why they didn’t opt to use snowmobiles or ATVs for transport. His face was immediately obscured by a cloud of frozen breath as he laughed. ‘An engine is hard to keep running in the cold,’ he replied. ‘But a reindeer will always start in the morning.’

Photography Exhibitions:
‘Pole of Cold: What does winter mean to you?’

Reykjavik, Iceland at Arctic Trucks (Kletthalsi 3)
from Saturday 13th February 2016. Free Entry

‘Chasing Winter: A Journey through the Arctic’
The Historic Dockyard, Chatham (Kent, England)
Autumn 2016


British polar explorer Felicity Aston MBE is an author, speaker, expedition leader and former Antarctic scientist. In 2012 she became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica. It was a journey of 1744km that took 59 days to complete and which gave her a place in the book of Guinness World Records.

Chasing Winter: A Journey To The Pole Of Cold, is the book of this journey, by Felicity Aston, featuring the full story and over 190 photographs from the expedition.

Website: felicityaston.co.uk
Twitter: @felicity_aston

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