Hitchhiking Siberia in winter: indigenous tribes

At one point, I found myself standing near a village in the unforgiving cold for hours. I was freezing.

The policemen helped me find a truck, and I was on the way to Yakutsk, the coldest city on earth.

“Цель его визитов в Россию как он сказал: ‘я хочу познать холод’.” A police officer once wrote about me. “The goal of his visits to Russia is, as he said, ‘I want to get to know cold’.” I met him in Milkovo, in Kamchatka, which is about the furthest east as you can get in Russia (or anywhere). I was hitchhiking to Esso, a tribal village mostly inhabited by “Evens”. Kamchatka is home to many traditional folks. They settled on the rough volcanic peninsula long before the Russians came. However, the Evens are severely endangered. Only a few thousand of them are left.

Looking at UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (an extremely great initiative), other tribes are even closer to extinction. The Itelmen, also living in Kamchatka, only have 100 members left who speak their native language. Other tribes nearby are critically endangered, if not already extinct. Only five speakers of the Aleut language are left, and the last remaining speaker of the Kereks died in 2005. In those forgotten languages, thousands of years of knowledge and history is stored. When those tribes and their languages go extinct, this knowledge sadly perishes with them.

Besides reindeer breeding and hunting, Evens also fish and train dogs. In Milkovo, I had the pleasure to meet a real group of Evens who still wore their traditional clothes and lived in their traditional settlements (wooden houses on poles, to prevent being snowed in). They had a perfect activity in mind: dog sledding, the most awesome thing to do when the temperature falls below -30°C.

I never reached Esso, however. Hitchhiking up north seemed harder than I had expected. At one point, I found myself standing near a village in the unforgiving cold for hours. I was freezing. I had a really hard time getting comfortable, and I tried to warm up by eating one of the muesli bars I always have with me. I cautiously sunk my teeth in the bar, which was hard as a rock due to the cold.

About two hours and just a handful of cars later (all of which would not go to Esso), I noticed I wasn’t feeling cold anymore. I would say I even felt closer to warm then cold. At that point I knew I had to get inside quickly. I walked into the village knowing that every village, no matter how small, has at least one small shop with the basic necessities (that is, alcohol and bread). Throughout Russia in winter, I always get asked if I feel cold, before I even get asked for my name. I knew that if I actually told someone that I am feeling cold, it would set off alarm bells.

I asked the old lady in the shop if I could sit there for a while to warm up, and she answered by ensuring to serve me a hot cup of tea and some cookies. About every ten minutes, a different man would come in to buy a few bottles of beer or vodka. One of them came up to me and said, “You think that Kamchatka is beautiful. Life here is very difficult,” leaving an odour of alcohol behind him. I couldn’t find any official numbers, just as I couldn’t even find the village on a map, but I would guess that about a few hundred people inhabited the hamlet. The reason I ended up there was because I spent the night before in the forest near a hot spring. Even though temperature gets as cold as minus thirty-five, the presence of volcanic hot water ensures that one will not to freeze to death. The spring is about a twenty-kilometre ride on the back of a snowmobile into the forest, which is a rough ride when you’re tied up on the sled being pulled behind it. As I already learned earlier on my winterly adventures through Russia, life on a snowmobile is much, much colder, because of the sharp wind.

Bathing in a hot spring while temperatures are as extreme as they are in Kamchatka is something I would definitely recommend to everyone. It was a crazy feeling to have my body covered with warm water, but my hair covered in ice. Every time I melted the ice on my hairs by sprinkling some of the hot water onto it, it would turn into ice again within seconds. Crazy! Bathing at night, under a sky full of stars, feeling the cold wind on my cheeks, is a memory I will never forget. It was absolutely something completely different from skiing down a volcano’s slopes in Petropavlovsk, the capital of Kamchatka. (Although I totally love skiing, especially in Russia.)

At first, my plan was to head to Chukotka after visiting Kamchatka, a region consisting of wild deep-frozen plains on the North Pole. It is extremely hard to reach, and expensive as well. I was tangled for months in a bureaucratic process with the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB) to get permission to visit the area. After I finally got it, I still could not enter, as I had a business visa, and my permit was only valid in combination with a tourist visa.

Instead I went to the Sakha Republic, or simply “Yakutia.” In winter, temperatures fall to the coldest on earth. But unlike Chukotka, Yakutia is partly accessible by road (and even by train for the first few hundred kilometres). It is an extremely big land, about five times the size of France. The republic is mostly inhabited by the Yakuts, and belongs to the Russian Federation. The Russians form the biggest minority in Yakutia, having a population of about 10 percent.

The Yakuts are divided into two basic groups, based on geography and economics. Historically, northern Yakuts are fishermen, nomadic hunters, and reindeer breeders. Yakuts living in the south typically engage in animal husbandry, focusing on cattle and horses. The local dish throughout Yakutia is stroganina, and is made of sturgeon. A sturgeon is neither a shark, nor a regular fish, though it shares similarities with both. The fish is served frozen, and I considered eating it in a fancy Yakutian restaurant to be an interesting cultural experience. Yakuts believe in a kind of Shamanism. They believe in an underworld and an upper world, and many different creatures. “Kingdom Permafrost”, located in the capital, Yakutsk, is an excellent place to gain more knowledge about the Yakutian religion.

My journey began in Khabarovsk, a large Russian city where China can be viewed from a hill. The city is located further east than China’s most eastern point. In winter, the Amur River is frozen, and it makes for a magical “walk on water”. Another distinguishing thing about the city is its park, which contains the most beautiful ice sculptures one can imagine.

When I visited the city, it was about minus thirty degrees centigrade. When I was about to meet up with two girls for some drinks, I decided not to wear my usual cold-weather clothing. Since I don’t typically find myself in extremely cold temperatures, I purchased the cheapest combination of winter clothing possible for this trip. Although it did the job, I frequently got comments like, “Oh look, that guy’s shoes are bigger than he is,” or “Why is that guy wearing purple jeans?” The only people I ever shared the same appearance with were two fishermen living in a remote village. So, instead of four or five layers of jeans and shirts, I did away with the thickest ones. And instead of wearing my extremely oversized jacket, I decided to wear my most elegant one. I had felt how the cold slowly penetrates, and I understood how true it was that cold can be a silent and ruthless killer.

It was January of 2016 when I hopped on the train bound for Tommot, which is a village where the train tracks simply end. I was going to spend a total of 45 hours in the cozy Russian sleeper train. Unlike most of the other Russian long-distance trains I’ve been on, this train was pretty empty during the whole ride. Especially after Belogorsk, when it was just me and a few others left in the carriage. How better to kill the time than drinking wine and vodka with a few miners from Northern Yakutia? I remember how I decided to go for a walk in Neryungri, where the train halted for two hours. Completely drunk, I walked into the darkness in a town I didn’t know. It was about minus twenty-five degrees centigrade at the time. When I fell down a slippery slope, I realized that if I would have been on the unlucky side of the draw, and broken my leg, I would have frozen to death before I could ever see the sunrise again.

Tommot is a mid-sized village with about 8,000 inhabitants. Usually, I try to make contact with the community living in such small places beforehand. For example, by searching for people on VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social media platform. I then simply ask if someone would be so kind as to offer me a place to sleep, as things like CouchSurfing obviously don’t work out there. Sometimes, I even use it as a way to find out how to reach extremely remote settlements, because in such countries, often there is no information to be found anywhere, not even in the native language. But to my amazement, all of this was unnecessary, since this village happened to have a very small hotel.

The next day, I set foot through the thick layers of snow (in some places I had to struggle through meters-high heaps) across the bridge to the other side of the village. I didn’t want to be seen by the officers that were, for some reason, guarding the bridge, so I decided to sneak around to avoid anyone telling me, “You can’t hitchhike here, it’s too dangerous.” After a couple more kilometres, I reached a police checkpoint. I always wonder how these men must feel, working in the freezing cold to investigate an occasional truck passing by. This checkpoint was literally situated in the middle of remote Siberian wilderness, and the weather conditions were harsh, to say the least.

I guess those guys must still be laughing about the fact that once upon a time, a young Dutch guy with oversized Valenki came up to hitchhike. Valenki was once the footwear of choice for Russians, but it had already lost its appeal by the mid-20th century. And believe me, I made many funny first impressions with Russians while wearing those. I’m putting it lightly when I say that they are are the most clumsy, boorish, and plainly stupid looking shoes I’ve ever seen. Although, they do the job, even when the temperature falls below -40.

The policemen helped me find a truck, and I was on the way to Yakutsk, the coldest city on earth. I was flabbergasted seeing not one, not two, but three trucks having trouble alongside a 400 kilometre stretch of road that took the whole day to drive down. Some even laid on their side, leaving their driver helpless in the extreme temperature. I was surprised by the fact that my Uzbek driver – who talked about how he was betraying his Russian wife by having another Uzbek wife “at home” for nearly half of the route, in broken Russian – did not even care a bit.

Part of the road was particularly interesting, since we drove over a frozen river. The Lena River is frozen more than half of the year. Since it makes for a perfect highway during this time, the Russians even placed road signs next to it. In fact, many villages are only reachable by car during this time of the year. It’s even possible to go all the way up to Tiksi by driving on the river, which is something I have always dreamed of doing. However, it’s extremely dangerous, because it’s impossible to start your engine again if it dies. Of the few who try to drive up North every year, many die a terrible death. If I didn’t contract a bad form of food poisoning a few days later, I would have at least hitched up to Oymyakon, a small settlement where temperatures once fell almost as low as minus seventy degrees centigrade. It’s certainly possible, and I will certainly do it in the future.

Winter is the perfect time to visit Yakutia. Not only because of the unimaginable beauty of a frozen city, but also because it’s the perfect place for witnessing a popular Christian Orthodox ritual. Every year in January, many dare to plunge into the icy waters to mark the New Year. And in Yakutsk, where I just achieved my new record as temperatures fell to -43 degrees centigrade, this ritual is certainly next-level. And since I didn’t dare to attempt the dive myself due to a recent illness, I now have another reason to come back to this frosty paradise.