Polus Kholodo: The Coldest Place

“Anyone can adapt to anything,” Ivan Danielovitch Tcherov told me in a brusque, matter-of-fact tone that bordered on irritation. The thirty-six-yearold mayor of Yakutsk, in Soviet Siberia, is accustomed to dealing with foreign journalists; he knows that one subject they always return to is the cold weather. He would much rather talk about economic growth, housing units, or new schools. A native Yakut himself (the Yakuts are one of the several tribes which inhabited Siberia before the arrival of the Russians in the seventeenth century), he is abundantly proud of the modern conveniences now available to his fellow citizens. The climate, he likes to believe, is only incidental, a somewhat complicating factor to be dealt with by proper planning.

Mayor Tcherov was my first official contact on the Siberian itinerary I had set to reach Polus Kholodo, as it is called in Russian: the Pole of Cold, the coldest regularly inhabited place in the world. It was only later that I realized how aptly his laconic remark summed up the Siberian attitude. Anyone can adapt to anything, indeed. How Russian. How true.

Yakutia, the Yakut Autonomous Republic, is the biggest administrative unit in the Soviet Union except for the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic itself. An immense chunk of land which encompasses the greater part of the northeastern point of the Soviet Union above the Sea of Okhotsk, it is distinguished by an exaggerated continental climate which the Encyclopae-dia Britannica calls “the most severe of the inhabited world.” Its annual range of temperature is more than 100 degrees centigrade, most of which are below freezing.

Adapting, under these conditions, involves extraordinary prowess in engineering and human preparation. Out in the open, machine steel becomes brittle and snaps like ice. Truck tires can splay open when they hit ruts. Everyone wears either leather or felt boots, because artificial soles split and crack after ten or fifteen minutes’ exposure. Wolves are still so common in Yakutia that cubs are sometimes trapped and raised as pets. And it is surely only in Yakutia that modern man has savored mammoth flesh. (The first intact specimens were discovered there late in the seventeenth century, preserved for perhaps fifty millennia in ice crevasses colder than any deep freeze.)

The lowest natural temperature ever recorded on earth was registered in Antarctica at the Soviet scientific station Vostok on August 26,1960:-126.94° Fahrenheit. Vostok, however, is an anomaly, an observation post manned in the same occasional way as a spacecraft and standing at 11,500 feet above sea level. The coldest place where people choose to live year-round is a village of 600 souls in a mountain valley 2300 feet above sea level on the banks of the Indigirka River in northeastern Yakutia. It is named Oymyakon.

The Oymyakon meteorological station recorded a temperature of -95.8° F in January 1959. In no other country do temperatures reach this kind of extreme. By comparison, the record cold for the United States is -79.8° F (Prospect Creek Camp, Alaska), and for Canada -81° F (Snag, Yukon). The reason for this disparity is a seasonal phenomenon known as the Siberian anticyclone, a vast high-pressure system which forms in October and does not dissipate until April and which overlies virtually all of Siberia. Anticyclones bring cool, dry weather, with no winds to chase away low-lying clouds. Other smaller land masses, such as Alaska and Canada, feel the influence of the warm Atlantic cyclones. Siberia sits huge and impervious in its locker of supercold.

Withal, the Soviets consistently belittle the harshness of the Siberian climate. A large part of this attitude, of course, is due to the heavy official encouragement aimed at would-be settlers. Siberia’s well-known riches are too important to the Soviet Union’s future to be left untapped. In this sense, Mayor Tcherov was only adhering to the official line when he spoke so casually of human adaptation, but there was more to it than that. Siberians really do regard the cold as something negligible — or even as a positive friend.

Living in supercold

I left Moscow on a surprisingly balmy day in mid-January on the overnight flight to Irkutsk, an important communications hub three-quarters of the way across the country, one of the principal jumping-off points for the Great North. With me was Igor Lobanov, a young journalist and interpreter from Novosti, the official press agency, through which all foreign journalists are obliged to work in the Soviet Union.

In Irkutsk the reading was around -13° F, but the sky was clear and sunny. Another night flight—this time north to Yakutsk—would bring us closer to real cold.

It was nearly 2 A.M. when the little high-winged Aeroflot AN-24 reached Yakutsk, The temperature was -29° F. Viktor Yakovlev was there to meet us with a green Volga taxi whose exhaust pipe was pushing great plumes of white vapor into the arc-lit night. A fortyish Yakut who looks like one of Attila’s lieutenants, Viktor is the chief Novosti photographer for Yakutia. He knows every hamlet and reindeer camp in his territory and, I suppose, half the population as well. He was, I discovered, one of those rare Soviets who can make things happen right away.

The taxi itself was my first introduction to the peculiarities of the world of supercold. It creaked and thumped as it rolled over the seams in the road, its joints stiff and only reluctantly mobile in their coatings of gelid grease. A supplementary heater with a great black grillwork facing (it looked as if it had been lifted from a foundry) blew hot air between the driver and me. The windshield was double, one sheet of glass stuck over the other by a bumpy, hand-worked mass of what appeared to be child’s modeling clay around the perimeters, leaving about an inch of air space between. The double glass assured frontal visibility, but the other windows were as frosted over as a Norwegian Christmas card. Whenever the cabbie wanted to know what was going on behind him, he simply flung open the door and craned his neck. I had long been accustomed to the double windows and doors which insulate buildings in Moscow; in Yakutsk they were triple or even quadruple. When we pushed open the last door of the Hotel Lena, our arrival was announced by stately billows of white clouds as the outside air instantly condensed upon encountering the warmth inside.

The next day Mayor Tcherov — thin, sharp-faced, and self-assured— received us at the inevitable conference table common to all Soviet officialdom, in the second-floor office of his old wooden city hall, a pre-revolutionary relic soon to be superseded by a new glass and steel administration building across the way. Naturally, he was armed with an array of figures on housing, production rates, agriculture, and health care; he turned away from these subjects with reluctance when I explained that what interested me was life in the cold.

“Our main problem,” he said, “is permafrost in all its aspects, including agriculture. We have a short, very dry summer and a very contrasting range of climate—from 60 below zero in winter [-76° F] to 40 above in summer [104° F]. If the spring is cold, the crops will be bad; if autumn comes early we have to scramble to save what we can. You can see how important our summer is, because it is so short, only June, July, and August. There are only ten days in August when we can swim in the Lena.”

Permafrost, the perpetually frozen ground which covers most of Siberia and fully 43 percent of the Soviet Union, creates bedeviling complications for life in the North. Fittingly enough, it was in Yakutsk that this phenomenon was first investigated, literally in depth. In 1827 a Russian merchant, Fyodor Shargin, decided to free himself from the tyranny of fetching water from the Lena by digging a deep well. Armed with stubbornness and enough money to pay for the labor, he had the rocklike soil hacked at for ten years before giving up. By then the well was 380 feet deep and still dry. He had no way of knowing it, of course, but he had penetrated only about half of the Yakutsk permafrost layer, itself modest compared to the record negative temperature depth of 5003 feet located in a small zone of freak conditions near the Marcha River to the north of the diamond-mining town of Mirnyi.

Building and farming on permafrost is both tricky and potentially dangerous for the environment. The so-called active layer, the top four to six feet that melt in summer and refreeze in winter, plays havoc with traditional construction. Siberia is full of wooden houses tilted at mad angles and half buried in the soil, “swimming” in the active layer. All the new apartment buildings in Yakutsk stand on stilts sunk deep into the immutable lower levels, with an air space of at least one yard between the bottom of the building and the earth to prevent the warmth of the structure from melting the active layer in winter.

“Our first priority,” said Mayor Tcherov, “is to liquidate the antiquated buildings and put modern ones in their place.”

It is often shocking for the aesthetically inclined traveler to hear the scorn with which Soviet planners dismiss the beautiful old wooden architecture that still characterizes so many of their provincial cities, but it is hard to fault a family living in a cramped and drafty isba (log hut) for preferring the coziness of a modern apartment with hot running water. Aesthetics comes after comfort in Siberia.

The running water in itself is something of an exploit. Most pipes in Yakutia are placed above ground, for the simple reason that the freezing, heaving, and melting of the active layer eventually break any pipeline laid in it. Overground pipes are also easier to reach for repairs. The drawback is that they are exposed to the ambient cold air. The result of these conflicting factors is that the cold drinking water piped in from the bottom of the Lena (the river ice is fifteen to twenty feet thick on the surface) must be heated at intervals along the way to keep it from freezing. As in many Soviet cities, hot water and municipal central heating are provided by a gas-fed steam plant.

For the Soviets, the environmental dangers posed by meddling with permafrost are real enough to have provoked the founding, shortly before World War II, of the Institute of Permafrost, a branch of the Siberian division of the Academy of Sciences. Naturally, it is located in Yakutsk. What began as a small physics station now employs forty scientists and a 250-man support staff, working out of a sprawling, threestory building in a pleasant glade at the edge of town. Beneath the building, isolated by a series of insulating doors, is its main tourist attraction, a deep shaft into the heart of the permafrost which permits direct observation and experiment. A million ice crystals trapped in the alluvial sand (this is one of the former beds of the Lena River) glint under the tungsten lamps. The air is utterly still and silent—and warm! Relatively warm, that is. Just as early Russian investigators discovered in Fyodor Shargin’s famous shaft, permafrost maintains a constant temperature regardless of the local weather conditions. At a mere -24.8° F, the shaft felt temperate.

Felix Areh, the white-haired deputy director, defined the institute’s job as “learning how to be on friendly terms with permafrost,” and was quick to admit that the Soviets had committed a number of mistakes and damaged the environment through pure ignorance.

“Sometimes nothing more than a tractor grinding across the soil cover can begin to degenerate the permafrost,” he said. “When the cover is gone the ice can start melting and ravining begins. We have places in the far north where the ravines have gone beyond control because of construction work. Some of them have even damaged villages.”

“It is certain,” he added, when I asked him to comment on the controversy in America surrounding the building of the oil pipeline on the North Slope of Alaska, “that the permafrost there would be damaged by classical construction techniques, but there are special construction methods available now. I think the Americans will use them. You have a very strict law, with very heavy penalties.”

“Tuman”

Igor, Viktor, and I decided to fly the next morning to Ust-Nera. An important gold-mining camp 500 miles northeast of Yakutsk, Ust-Nera is the largest town (population 8000) and administrative capital of the Oymyakonsky Rayon, one of the thirty-three districts of Yakutia. It is also one of the coldest: the Moscow Radio winter weather reports regularly alternate between Ust-Nera, Oymyakon, and Verkhoyansk for the day’s lowest reported temperature. In fact, Ust-Nera’s lowest reading is only one degree centigrade warmer than Oymyakon’s world record. There was another reason for choosing Ust-Nera: as Viktor explained, it was accessible. Oymyakon itself was going to be more difficult. In principle, the town was closed to foreigners, but Viktor would see what he could do. Viktor had connections.

On Soviet transcontinental night flights, the traveler can distinguish the darker traces of rivers and the lights of settlements; he quickly realizes how strongly Siberian development is tied to the waterways. Rivers provide not only transport but the fresh water supply, sewage disposal, and industrial material as well. On a day flight, the vast emptiness of Siberia becomes strikingly, almost frighteningly, apparent. The soft old mountains, treeless and stark, stretch endlessly to the horizon on all sides, their blue lunar monotony broken only by scrub vegetation and an occasional stream in the valleys. No sign of human beings. From time to time grayish streaks of cloud, as linear and flat as a draftsman’s strokes with a soft pencil, run from mountain to mountain, obliterating the view into the valley between. This cloud cover, I learned later, is caused by a source of relative heat, such as an unfrozen river or a warm spring, lying in the bottom of a valley. Its moisture condenses in exactly the same way as the clouds which accompany every Siberian when he pushes open the door of a heated room. The Russians call the cloud “tuman.” In Ust-Nera it blanketed the entire town.

The Aeroflot pilot steered the little Yak down through the mountains like a fighter, and when we touched down at Ust-Nera the stewardess announced hard weather: -63.4° F. I piled on the layers of sweaters which I had discarded in the overheated plane, wrapped over it all my ridiculously citified overcoat with the leather buttons and the stylishly open-throated collar, and prepared for the worst.

In fact, the shock was less than I had expected. I had heard too much inflated rumor not to be pleasantly surprised that I could, after all, breathe the air directly without freezing my lungs. As dry as the air was, though, it still caught me at the base of the throat if I inhaled too deeply. Such coldness also makes the newcomer aware of his nose for the first time: every hair inside freezes rigid in a second. You can actually feel them bending with each intake of breath. Naturally you can see your breath, but what is more extraordinary, you can hear it as it turns to ice.

We were met on the runway by a delegation of notables led by Deputy Mayor Nicolai Petrovitch Alexeiev and Oleg Berezhnoi, a cordial, athletic type who introduced himself as a confrère, the Ust-Nera correspondent for the Yakutsk daily, Socialistichiskaya Yakutia. We crowded into two jeeps and rattled off across the Indigirka River toward town. Transportation is one of the few things that winter simplifies in Siberia: rivers and lakes turn into excellent thoroughfares. Out by the airport the sky was clear and sunny, but as we approached the city limits we entered a progressively deepening penumbra. The valley, Berezhnoi explained, is deprived of sun from mid-December until the end of January, blocked by the mountains which surround it. But worse than the lack of sun was the tuman.

Presently our driver, a cocky young Kokholznik who was enjoying a day off work ferrying the distinguished visitors around, reached over and switched on the headlights. The cold fog, created by every citizen, every dog and reindeer, every automobile, and every house, hung around us in eerie thickness. When a truck turned in front of us and we had the direct effect of its exhaust fog, visibility went down to no more than four or five feet. I am not particularly prone to claustrophobia, but I began to understand how oppressive an Ust-Nera winter could be.

“Everyone drinks a glass of vodka on January 27,” said Berezhnoi. “That’s the day the sun comes back over the hill.”

Both Ust-Nera and Oymyakon, he explained, are situated in a long valley known as the Oymyakon Hollow. The town of Oymyakon is about 95 miles distant and 300 feet higher in elevation, which may explain the marginal difference in their lowest temperatures, but the supercold phenomenon is generated in exactly the same way in both places. Like the misty valleys I had noticed from the plane, Oymyakon and UstNera generate a “hat” of rising warmer air, while the heavier cold air slides down the sides of the mountains and comes to rest at the bottom of the basin. Meteorologists call the situation “negative radiation balance”: the sun’s energy is less than the energy being radiated up from the earth. Under -49° F, Berezhnoi said, the town lives in perpetual fog. Nature always compensates for her deprivations: in June Ust-Nera and Oymyakon endure twenty-four hours of light per day.

The walk from our lodgings to lunch at the Café Svetlana was about two city blocks. Our companions were all dressed alike: chapkas, the ageless Russian fur hats with the neck and ear flaps that can be turned down and tied under the chin; fur-lined parkas; woolen pants; and batinki, the fat felt boots which are virtually the symbol of Siberia. Igor and I huddled inside our short city overcoats, trying to bury our faces inside the turned-up collars. I had the strange feeling of trying to shrink myself an inch or two, of trying to withdraw into my clothes. As I became smaller, my universe was limited to the five or so inches of space between the two wings of my collar. Even so confined, my face stung painfully.

“I wore a mask all the time the first winter I was here,” Berezhnoi had told me in the jeep on the way in from the airport, “and I had a permanent angina. When I was finally able to take off the mask, I never had any more problems.”

During lunch in the barnlike Svetlana, Berezhnoi and Nicolai Petrovitch explained that gold was first discovered in the Indigirka’s sands in 1937, when a team of geologists arrived in a hydroplane. Two years later, when the first miners arrived, the only humans they encountered were two Yakuti reindeerherding families who had pitched their nomads’ tents on the broader part of the plateau, near where the airport now stands. As in so many other Siberian towns, food is the main problem. The nearby Druzhba State Farm, they said, managed one good crop of cabbage and potatoes during the short summer, when the active layer could be ploughed and sown. In addition, the same farm raised some beef cattle, provided selfsufficiency in milk, 35 percent selfsufficiency in eggs, and 25 percent in chicken meat. From April to September, families were encouraged to grow their own pickling vegetables and tomatoes in cooperative greenhouses. The state’s policy of making Siberian life as attractive and comfortable as possible was manifested by the Orbita satellite receptor which brought in three channels of color TV, the radio-telephone system, and, naturally, the fresh produce flown in by Aeroflot freighters.

Pazhalusta” ("please, you’re welcome”), said Berezhnoi proudly when I asked him if there was any fruit in the stores just then. “Pineapple, tomatoes, grapes, pazhalusta.

Downtown Siberia

After lunch we had some time to kill before my appointment with the mayor. Since I wanted to snap some pictures, I suggested that we take a short walk around town. Our escorts gladly agreed. I can’t say now that I actually saw Ust-Nera; between the dying sun hidden over on the other side of the mountain and the ever-present tuman, it would be more correct to say that I perceived some of its forms as I walked from building to building catching moments of warmth like a diver snatching breaths of air. What I was able to make out was a settlement built around the right-angle axis of two principal streets (“downtown,” at the main intersection, the streets were concrete slabs; elsewhere, dirt), wooden, lowlying structures set back from the road, and up near the school, some of the modern, centrally-heated apartment buildings of the Yakutsk style.

I also learned how quickly frostbite can happen in the next-to-the-coldest town in the world. During the walk between the schoolhouse and the mayor’s office — no more than ten minutes, or twelve at the outside—my exposed face became the point of demonstration. Half alarmed and half amused at my evident lack of preparation, Nicolai Petrovitch hustled me inside with the information that my cheeks were the color of Druzhba State Farm milk. In fact, it was hardly surprising: compared to the ambient -63° F, a deep freeze, which usually works at around 0° F, was positively tropical. I was morfounded, transfixed by the cold.

Like Nicolai Petrovitch, Mayor Igor Alexeiev Dimitriev of Ust-Nera is also a Yakut, a jolly, round-faced forty-fouryear old with heavy black-framed glasses.

Mayor Dimitriev pointed out with pleasure that the population of greater Ust-Nera, that is, including the outlying state farms, is close to 10,000. His municipality is changing from a town to a real city, with many of the same problems a metropolis like Yakutsk has. His citizens take for granted such amenities as the concrete streets, central heating, and running water, but no such services could ever be achieved simply. Drinking water is pumped from the bottom of the Indigirka, heated along the way as it is in Yakutsk, and the boiler of the central heating station is fed by coal trucked in from Magadan, 650 miles away on the Sea of Okhotsk.

The Magadansky Trass, the dirt road which acts as Ust-Nera’s lifeline in one direction and the truck route for the semirefined gold ore in the other, is a particular point of pride in the Sovet Northeast. It is, in fact, an extension of the track to the Kolyma gold fields, notorious for the murderous Stalinist labor camps which exploited them. Magadan itself began as a camp. Was Berezhnoi being subtly ironic when he told me it had been founded by the Komsomol (Communist Youth Organization) and was now called “Paris of the North”?

Trucks, Mayor Dimitriev continued, take to the trass in groups if the temperature is below -55° C (-67° F), but the theoretically nationwide Soviet rule about all workers staying home if the temperature is -50° C (-58° F) or below is impracticable—Ust-Nera’s winter temperatures average -62° to -67° F. I was astonished to hear that the small city vehicles use no antifreeze. Since there is a regulation that their engines be kept running at all times, there is no need for antifreeze. When there is no longer any use for the vehicle, it is driven back into one of several heated garages. Only the big freight trucks which ply the trass are allowed the luxury of antifreeze. The driver of a small vehicle, presumably, would be able to get a push to a garage if his machine stopped running.

Even more basic and vexing than transportation is sewage: How, in fact, does one get rid of wastes in permafrost conditions, where septic systems are obviously impossible? The answer, of course, is the river, Siberia’s great allpurpose tool. Mayor Dimitriev drew a rough diagram of the filtration system which scrubs the sewage before it goes into the Indigirka. To arrive there it has to be pumped under pressure through pipes laid in insulated “utilidors,” special conduits where hot-water lines keep cold water and sewage lines from freezing.

A macabre thought occurred to me, spurred by memories of The Third Man and the jackhammers digging Harry Lime’s grave in the Vienna cemetery: How do they bury people?

“Build a fire,” Mayor Dimitriev answered placidly. “Build a fire overnight and dig in the morning.”

I remembered then that back in Yakutsk, Mayor Tcherov had tossed off the casual observation that bodies buried in Yakutia remained perfectly preserved, in exactly the same way as the mammoths.

“Where is the gold refined after the ore leaves here?” I asked, changing the subject.

“We don’t know,” said Mayor Dimitriev with a curt shrug.

“Well,” I continued, “how much gold do you produce a year?”

“We fulfill our plan.”

Still accompanied by Berezhnoi and Nicolai Petrovitch, I made one final call, at the Ust-Nera Polyclinic, to speak with the region’s chief doctor, Vladlen Mareny. Dr. Mareny lived up to his revolutionary name (a contraction of Vladimir Lenin) by systematically scoffing at the idea that the cold could produce any medical problems. Serious, chain-smoking, and guardedly suspicious, he began our talk by flatly stating, “There are none,” but gradually did concede that, yes, colds, anginas, grippe, and catarrh were more prevalent here than in his native Zaporozh’ye

and that, as a result, susceptibility to tuberculosis was greater. When I asked him about psychological adaptation and the great Soviet weakness for alcohol, he said: “That is not my field.”

“Is the climate a healthy one, then?” I asked.

“In any case,” he replied carefully, “it is not dangerous.”

That night, back in the VIP room of the Svetlana, we were treated to a genuine Siberian gastronomic specialty: stroganina, raw frozen fish straight, from the Indigirka. The fish freeze solid when they hit the cold air; rather than cooking them in any way, the Svetlana chef shaved long, fine slices with a razorlike knife and curled them like butterballs. The slices were served still frozen, covered with a white rime. Disappointingly, they had very little taste, but it was amusing to crunch them like candies. Ust-Nera children, Berezhnoi said, eat whole sides of stroganina like ice cream on a stick.

Behind us in the “nightclub,” “Yesterday,” the theme from Love Story, and “The Girl from Ipanema” were big favorites with the four-piece band. Couples danced circumspectly, separated by a proper distance. One of the waitresses, still in her uniform, fearlessly strode to the bandstand and sang a Russian folk tune. The atmosphere was correct, well-behaved, bourgeois. If Siberia ever resembled the wild, hellraising days of the Klondike, it must have been in the nineteenth century, before the camps and Soviet discipline came along to tame it.

“We love the climate”

The next morning Viktor announced to my immense relief that he had settled everything: we would be able to go to Oymyakon after all. But how, I wondered, had he managed to arrange for the plane? No problem, Viktor said lightly. I just asked them to divert the flight via Oymyakon.

Before driving out to the airport I satisfied a perverse curiosity and asked Berezhnoi to take me to the general hard-goods store. Sure enough, there were refrigerators for sale, the medium-sized Youyouzan for 250 rubles ($355) and the large-size Birousa for 265 rubles ($376.30). The manager, Antonia Bondreva, said sales were so brisk she could hardly keep enough in stock.

At the airport the temperature had dropped to -65° F, but Nicolai Petrovitch brought the good news that it was an unusually warm day in Oymyakon: only -54° F. (In fact, he was wrong; it was -60.8°.) Fortunately for us, he said, there was hardly any wind at this time of year and the air was extremely dry. Around springtime, when the winds came and the Ust-Nera valley acted as a funnel, it was impossible to go outside, even if the temperature was only -20° F. Naturally, the vagaries of temperature also affected air flight: the tuman settled in over the airport, Manager Viktor Fomenko told us, at -52° F and dissipated at -65° F. We were in luck: the temperature today was just right and the sky was clear.

Half an hour later we glided easily down onto the snow-covered grass at Oymyakon. The plateau was much wider here, the ring of mountains far less oppressive and claustrophobic than at Ust-Nera. As the plane came in over the end of the runway I could make out several wooden corrals, from which fences marched over the tundra toward the horizon. Oymyakon (the name is from the Evenk tribal language, but no one could tell me its meaning) had always been a gathering point for stock farmers, I knew, right from its more or less informal founding in the midseventeenth century. With the arrival of the first Russian bureaucrats two centuries later, it became the ulus, or administrative center, of the Oymyakonsky Rayon. It remained the region’s most important town until 1954, when burgeoning Ust-Nera took its place. Someone had given me the statistic that the livestock population is now 2000 head of cattle, 800 milk cows, 2700 horses, 14,000 reindeer, and 300 vixens.

The first thing we saw when we alighted from the plane was a wolf—a great, gray-furred, white-fanged, golden-eyed wolf, restlessly pacing on long legs at the end of a stout leash held by the airport dispatcher, Viktor Maslov. He was only eight months old, Maslov said, and his name was Dinka. We kept our distances and snapped pictures with medium-range telephoto lenses.

As he had done at Ust-Nera, Viktor produced a two-jeep caravan to meet us at the airfield. We shook hands with Mayor Vlasy Krivochapkine and Alexei Myesnikov, party leader of the Oymyakon State Farm, and bounced off across the frozen prairie to see the meteorological station which had actually recorded the epic -95.8° F sixteen years earlier. It was a snug little hut—wood, naturally—with its instruments housed outside in shuttered boxes resembling large bird feeders. The director was a stout, jolly blond named Iofalia Artemyova. She gave us a good example of the mountain valley supercold phenomenon by pointing out that though the ground temperature was -60.88° F that morning, the temperature registered by her weather balloon at 5000 feet had been a mere -17.86° F.

“Davai! Davai!” shouted Viktor — let’s go! I assumed it was time to get back to the plane for takeoff, but no: he only wanted to make sure we had enough time to visit the entire town. We took hasty leave of Comrade Artemyova and pointed ourselves toward the next stop, the town water supply. Viktor was definitely ignoring the reproachful glances of the notables, who wanted to show us the kindergarten and the polyclinic. Viktor knew the town water supply would be interesting to photograph because it was a smoking stream whose waters were warm enough not to freeze over. The moisture from the brook settled in hoary layers on the low-hanging tree branches along the embankment. Backlit by the weak red sun, which was already resting on the horizon, the scene had all the makings of an Intourist poster.

“Davai,” he said again, and we were off to see the grocery store, where milk was still sold by the solid seven-kilo brick—eight liters for 2.70 rubles ($3.83). The town itself, a cluster of onestory wood buildings spaced in roughly rectangular form, lacked only high false fronts to pass for a settlement on the Montana plains. The largest structure of all was the school where, since Oymyakon is almost entirely Yakuti, elementary grades are taught in the native tongue. Russian is taught, as a second language, only after ninth grade.

“Russian is like English for us,” said Mayor Krivochapkine, who proved to be even more offhand about the cold than his colleagues in Ust-Nera and Yakutsk: “It’s not at all difficult to work in the cold. We love the climate.”

He laughed heartily when I inquired whether Oymyakon followed the national norm of no school and no outside work when the temperature was -50° C and below. “Not a chance,” he said. “We’d have to stay closed for two straight months if we did.”

Almost two hours had passed since we left the plane, but Viktor assured us there was no fear of being stranded, since the airport manager was among our party. We had plenty of time, he said, to eat the lunch that had been prepared for us.

Lunch? A banquet, rather—by far the best meal I have ever enjoyed in the Soviet Union; so much better than the food at Moscow’s finest restaurants that there is not even any point of comparison. It began with cold meat hors d’oeuvres, resembling spare ribs but darker and tender—“oyagos,” Alexei Myesnikov called it: “young horse.”

“We northerners always start a meal with something cold,” he went on. “A hot course right away would be too shocking for the system.”

The horsemeat was followed by harius (fatty reindeer tongue), grilled lake fish, and finally, reindeer meat pilmenis, the Russian equivalent of ravioli. Viktor was the one who began the toasts, rising to his feet, holding his tumbler of Georgian brandy at arm’s length and composing a little speech about journalism and friendship. By now I knew enough about the Soviet Union to finish my glass with each toast rather than suffer reproach for a halfhearted participation in the generalized well-wishing.

Our banquet ended with a final sendoff speech by Mayor Krivochapkine and little frozen balls of sour cream, both plain and strawberry-flavored, which we ate with our fingers like candy. By then our technical stop at Oymyakon had lasted four hours. The airport manager glanced at his watch and decided that we had better, after all, get going.

Back in the Ilyushin, the other passengers settled in with us as if the rerouting and delay had been perfectly natural. In a way, I thought, they were: Siberia works on a different rhythm; if the weather had turned, for instance, we could well have been socked in for three or four days. And would an hour or two really make that much of a difference between Ust-Nera, Oymyakon, Khandyga, and Yakutsk?

Within twenty-four hours I was back in Irkutsk. The temperature, -22° F, felt friendly and springlike. For the first and probably last, time in my life I was able to look condescendingly on Russians who huddled and shivered in what they took to be the cold. I paid for my hubris with a week-long sore throat.

Ten days later, when I saw Igor in Moscow again, he admitted that he, too, had come down with the sore throat, but he had discovered a statistic to make it worthwhile: on the day we had been dodging the wolf at Oymyakon, the temperature at the North Pole had been only -41.8° F. The pleasure that figure gave us was childish and irrational, I agree, but neither one of us is likely to forget it.

— RUDOLPH CHELMINSKI