Traveller's Tales - The Art of Surviving Winter

March 12, 2019 - 9:24am

It happens to us every year, and yet, when we wake up in the morning with frost covering our windshields and the extension cords come out so we can plug in our cars, the moaning and groaning start anew. In celebration of the fact that for the first time since February 1st we are seeing positive temps, and as a comfort to remind you all that it can always be worse, I’ve decided to talk about the coldest cities in the world.

Verkhoyansk, Russia; it’s a small community located inside the Arctic Circle, home to about 1300 people and famous for holding a Guinness world record for the greatest temperature fluctuation on Earth. With absolutely frigid winter temperatures and balmy summer heat, Verkhoyansk has a temperature range of 105 degrees. Considering the rampant cold and flu season experienced in Canada with a lot smaller of a temperature fluctuation, I could only imagine what that means for the citizens in this small Russian town.

If you think Medicine Hat is cold, imagine a regular winter temperature of minus fifty, with the lowest temperature ever recorded reaching an outrageous -67.8 degrees Celsius. Put it this way; it is such a desolate place that during the Soviet era, the town served as an exile for political prisoners.  In fact, Verkhoyansk is so isolated that there is no road connecting the town to civilization. During the winter months it can be accessed by driving along the frozen Yana River, but come summer when the ice has melted, the only way in or out is by helicopter.

The next town is one that as a tourist, you can actually visit. Enter Oymyakon, Russia, with a temperature low of -71.2 degrees Celsius. It’s still quite the journey to get to the town and I’m not sure why you’d want to go freeze your butt off, but at least there is a road to travel along should you feel so inclined.

Along my own travels I have met many people who have never seen snow. The concept of 30 below is a struggle for them so I can imagine -71 is almost unbelievable. However, my favourite question that I get asked from the warm weather dwellers is whether there is much of a difference in cold after -20 or if it is basically all the same bone chilling feeling. Well, I’m sure the citizens of Oymyakon would have something to say about this. Fur hats, long coats, fire and coal are all necessary aids in managing the cold. I say “managing” because even with the proper wear, it only takes a few minutes in the cold before the pain hits you, your nostrils freeze and ice forms on your eyelashes.

So, what is it like to live in such a cold place? For one, I can imagine it wouldn’t be very pleasant. Frostbite in seconds, most cars won’t start, mercury in the thermostat freezes, food can be kept outside as it works as a natural freezer most of the year… Yet most of the citizens have lived their whole lives in the community and don’t want to leave. They have a pile of ice outside next to their wood piles which gets brought inside and melted for fresh water. They go to work and school like anyone else and don’t seem to complain too much about the 3 hours of daylight they receive in winter months.

There is a darker side to the town of Oymyakon. The road leading to the town was constructed by political prisoners during the Stalin era to link a number of prison camps. The prisoners were worked to death, underdressed and overexposed by the horrific elements. With over a million lives claimed, it’s no wonder the stretch of road was given the name, “The Road of Bones.”

As I said earlier, I can’t imagine why you would want to visit the coldest town in the world, yet somehow, if there is a record, there is a tourist industry. People flock from all over to take part in the frigid temperature-related activities like reindeer hunting, ice fishing and most bizarrely, swimming. Although the locals swear that the frigid dip is a great way to keep from getting sick, I just don’t think the pain would be worth it. I mean, I’m sorry, but I will always remember Jack in the Titanic explaining the feeling of freezing cold water and it just doesn’t sound like something I’d like to experience.

These two Russian towns have earned my respect and fascination, no doubt. To think that the mayor of Oymyakon considers -40 to be a mild winter’s day, and that hanging your washing on the line outside is a norm on laundry day gives me a whole new appreciation for a Canadian winter. But even though I can admit that winter can sometimes be beautiful and extraordinary, I just can’t bring myself to add either of these places to my own bucket list.

Emily Meyer is still relatively new to the wonderful city of Medicine Hat, having moved here in May 2016. She was born and raised in Ontario and lived in Australia for a year and a half. Emily has visited 33 countries and will share some of her experiences and advice for globetrotters of all ages.