It’s always fascinating to hear about a country from the inhabitants themselves, especially when their homeland is so different from our own. At extremes, we may as well be listening to tales from another planet; such is our inability to relate to the scenarios presented to us. There is something particularly striking, however, in stories of societies that have a lot in common with us but suddenly take a bizarre (to us) narrative twist. Everyone still drives to work but there are dragons in the street.
Here are some more Siberian winter tips and observations; from folks who have been there, related from my cosy kitchen whilst I drink hot coffee with the central heating on. I can neither confirm nor deny them, the Arctic explorer in me has yet to emerge.
I knew it, the residents of Siberia are made of sterner stuff. -20°C equates with business as usual. No problem. Around the mid -30’s they may raise an eyebrow in consternation and declare the situation “uncomfortable”. Meanwhile, at -5°C, us Brits have crashed our cars, closed the schools and shut down the railways in sheer terror.
You may have heard about Siberia’s coldest reported temperature. That was -71°C in February 2013, recorded in the northern village of Oymyakon (pop. 500, with one local shop), roughly 200 miles from the arctic circle. Even at -60° and below, life doesn’t stop there.
In from the cold
Whilst our city dwellers sell-up and retire to the country; age-related migration in Siberia happens in the opposite direction. As their health declines in later decades, Siberian country-residents may relocate to find an easier (read: “survivable”) way of life. In their case it’s a move west to the relative comfort of central Russia. Their Siberian toughness keeps them alive in situ. Once that starts to erode, the clock is ticking.
Have you ever noticed how that useful block of metal and plastic instantly switches from being a great means to get around, into a dead weight, the second it breaks down? In Siberia it’s the same only more so. A broken-down car in the middle of nowhere can quickly become your final resting place if no provisions for survival, extraction or improvised repair are made. It’s fortunate then that a sense of community spirit will likely compel a local to stop and assist someone in peril. Communities (and loners) would not have survived with an “every man for himself” ethos.
However, no one can bank on such salvation tapping on their window in the freezing cold of a Siberian night. Consider that it’s down to you. Anything else is a bonus. A colleague outside Moscow has a survival list all of her own:
“Always to carry such things as supply of water and food, lighter, knife, small axe, bandages, alcohol, metal foodware, underwear set, bright waterproof raincoat or tent, flashlight, spare charged battery for mobile phone, a mechanical compass, a paper or e-maps, rope, insect repellant, a gun or a flare gun to scare away wolves, bears, lynxes, tigers, yetis, unfriendly people etc…”
Fancy a shoot-out with yetis? Carrying some of the above equipment is one thing -assuming that it’s legal! Being competent enough to use it safely and effectively, and without making your situation worse, is something else. Time for a long talk with your travel advisor and guides.
Usually, it seems, heavy duty Russian vehicles are preferred over imports. This is because they are made by those who know what the winter is capable of, and how to deal with it. So expect heated seats, double layered and insulated windows, insulated engine, battery and fuel pipes, tyres pumped with gaseous antifreeze and generally something more robust than we are perhaps used to. Although and article on the Independent’s site begs to differ:
“In Yakutsk itself, most of the cars are second-hand Japanese imports; apparently, they handle the cold better than Ladas and other traditional Russian vehicles.”
Apparently, (and I had to do a double-take) cars are often left running all day during the harshest cold, simply because if they are turned off they will freeze solid and immobile. That’s a easily life-threatening situation out in the cold. Folk also go for a drive in pairs or small groups, for safety: there more hands available in a crisis.
And finally: the quick-fire round
The ink in your pen freezes and life is sucked out of your batteries. Wearing glasses outside can be a “problem”, because the metal can freeze to your face. Your skin may be too numb to notice, so when you remove them; you also pull away chunks of flesh. That has to hurt. Also at sub, sub zero temperatures a sudden breeze can suck degrees of heat out of exposed skin resulting in instant frostbite, so I hear (I won’t be testing this anytime soon). Stay safe.
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