You Probably Couldn’t Survive In Oymyakon, The Coldest City In The World

Published January 26, 2015
Updated July 31, 2020
Published January 26, 2015
Updated July 31, 2020

During the Soviet era, workers moved to remote and freezing areas on the promise of wealth and bonuses awarded by the government. How long would you last in Oymyakon?

coldest city gas station
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Oymyakon Forests
You Probably Couldn’t Survive In Oymyakon, The Coldest City In The World
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No matter how cold it is where you live, someone has it even worse — a lot worse. Residents of Oymyakon, Russia face frigid temperatures like no other place on Earth. Located just a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, Oymyakon — the coldest city in the world — lies nestled deep in the Russian tundra.

New Zealand photographer Amos Chapple made an expedition to the region to document the daily life of its inhabitants. Chapple found that the residents of Yakutsk, the nearest city, were surprisingly wealthy. They described the city as cosmopolitan, with affluence coming from the plentiful resources around Yakutsk — including oil, gas, and diamonds.

But are these resources worth committing to live in a place that averages winter temperatures around -58° Fahrenheit?

Everyday Life In The World's Coldest City

coldest city crossing light

Amos Chapple/SmithsonianOn a day of -63 °F, a woman covers her face with her mitten to protect it from the dangerous cold. In the background, a statue of Vladimir Lenin can be seen.

Known as "The Pole of Cold", Oymyakon is the coldest populated region on Earth, and has about 500 full-time residents. They are a mix of Indigenous people called Yakuts, and workers who arrived promised wealth by the government.

There's just one store, but there is a post office, a bank, a gas station, and even a small airport.

Oymyakon also has its own schools, and unlike elsewhere, these don't even consider closing unless the weather goes below -60 °F. Residents often leave their cars running overnight so they don't completely seize up — even so, the drive shafts sometimes freeze. Nothing a flamethrower can't fix!

There are no paved roads. In fact, there's only one road in and out. It's called the "Road of Bones", and prisoners in Stalin's labor camps started it, while gulag labor finished it in 1953. It's named for the thousands of workers who died constructing it.

Every structure in Oymyakon is built on underground stilts to counter the instability of the permafrost that runs 13 feet deep. A thermal spring remains just unfrozen enough for farmers to bring their livestock to drink.

As for humans, they drink Russki Chai, which literally translates to Russian Tea; their term for vodka.

Reindeer meat is a staple, as is fish. Sometimes chunks of frozen horse blood also find their way into meals in lieu of meat.

Just because people live here, doesn't mean they get used to it. In fact, Chapple was struck by the emptiness in the town. "The streets were just empty. I had expected that they would be accustomed to the cold and there would be everyday life happening in the streets, but instead people were very wary of the cold".

Summer does roll around, with temperatures sometimes into the 90°F range. However, the summer is very short, lasting just a couple months. Daylight varies from between 3 hours in the winter and 21 hours in the summertime.

But despite the hardships of life in Oymyakon, Soviet Russia managed to persuade workers to pack up and move to the coldest city in the world.

The Workers, Resources, And Tourism In Oymyakon, Russia

coldest city forest road

Amos Chapple/SmithsonianSnowy road to Oymyakon.

During the Soviet era, workers moved to remote and freezing areas on the promise of wealth and bonuses awarded by the government. These are the laborers who arrived to mingle with the Yakut, as well as workers who remained after the gulag system was done with them.

As you may imagine, it takes an immense amount of mental and physical stamina to work outdoors in a place like Oymyakon. Yet people do it every day. Lumberjacks, miners, and other outdoor laborers do their jobs while trying to stay as warm as humanly possible.

A Russian corporation called Alrosa has its headquarters in the region. It supplies 20 percent of the world's rough diamonds — and is world's largest producer in terms of carats.

The climate makes it impossible to grow crops of any kind, so the only kind of farming is livestock. Farmers must take extra care that their animals keep warm and have access to unfrozen water.

Surprisingly, tourism exists here in Oymyakon, the coldest city in the world — about 1,000 people a year visit the frozen tundra. Those brave adventurers who apparently want the thrill of staying in a climate that could kill a person without clothes in under one minute flat.

However, things are pretty expensive here; a tiny guest cottage rents for $500 a day.

One site touting the glory of Oymyakon proclaims, "Tourists will ride Yakut horses, drink vodka from ice cups, eat raw liver of foals, slices of frozen fish and meat served exceptionally cold, enjoy hot Russian bath and immediately after – crazy Yakut cold!"

If you were fascinated by this look inside Oymyakon, the world's coldest city, check out the Swedish hotel made out of ice and the seventeen most unbelievable places on Earth.

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly is a freelance writer, artist, and video editor that splits her time between the humid Midwest and the dusty corners of her mind.