Amazing Places

Oymyakon Is One of the Coldest Places on Earth, But People Live There

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We've all lived through a rough winter or two (or 30, if you're this Chicagoan). But the residents of Oymyakon probably think we're all wimps. That's because their average winter temperature is less than 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (46 degrees below zero Celsius). Ok, we'll stop complaining.

The Coldest Cold

Oymyakon is located deep in the heart of Siberia, and it's not a place you visit on a whim. We've already mentioned the temperature in the winter, but there's a difference between seeing the numbers and learning the effects. So here are some quick facts:

Your eyelashes freeze over. Your saliva turns into icicles in your mouth. You have to run your car 24 hours a day or the battery will die. It's pretty much impossible to dig into the ground at all, so you don't have plumbing either. If you ever do have to dig a hole in the ground, say, to perform a funeral, you have to first light a giant bonfire to soften the first few inches of soil, dig it away, then light another one, and so on. It's not for the faint of heart.

And Oymyakonians are anything but faint of heart. That's right, people actually live here all year-round. The city has a population of about 500, and they've adapted to their surroundings in some pretty unusual ways. For one thing, there's the diet. There's no such thing as fresh veggies in Oymyakon because you sure can't grow anything. Almost every meal consists only of meat, and a lot of times, that meat is uncooked and frozen. Frozen cubes of horse or reindeer blood are considered a delicacy, as is stroganina, a type of frozen fish cut into long, thin slices. But that's just for a special treat — everyday dinners consist of meat stew, emphasis on the meat.

Dark Days, Dark Past

As if the temperature wasn't enough, the seasonal sunlight is also extreme. The city gets only about three hours of sunlight per day during the winter, and 21 in the summer. Honestly, we're not sure which one is worse. Its residents are doing okay, but you'd be forgiven for thinking that it sounds like a pretty miserable place to live — you certainly wouldn't be the first to think so. Although Oymyakon was originally a waystation for traveling reindeer herders, the region grew in notoriety in the mid-20th century when it became known as "Stalin's Death Ring."

If you're going to be a totalitarian dictator, it's handy to have a massive region of your country that can kill you in under a minute. Under Stalin's regime, political dissidents were exiled to the Death Ring, which also comprises fellow coldest-place contender Verkhoyansk. It must have been pretty terrible. After all, back then, they didn't even have Instagram.

To find out more about how people have survived in the punishing conditions of Siberia, join NPR correspondent David Greene in "Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia" (free when you first sign up for Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

The (Frozen) Fish Market at Oymyakon

Written by Reuben Westmaas February 26, 2018