Friday, May 25 2018

VietNamNews

Christmas eve in the cold

Update: March, 11/2018 - 09:00
Wooden houses covered in white snow in Oymyakon City. — Photo Alex Okulovsky
Viet Nam News

There is a very remote place in Russia that is the coldest place in the world.

Bùi Thị Hồng Ngọc became the first person from Việt Nam to visit the place.

She found the weather very cold but the people warm and friendly.

Her visit was when they were celebrating Christmas Eve and there was a party mood out in the cold.

We departed from Moscow to Yakutsk, Sakha Republic in Russia, to arrive in the city located within the North polar circle of the Earth — Oymyakon. The runway was covered with thin ice although the workers clean it every hour to avoid sliding of airplanes during taking off or landing. From this city, my Russian companion and I started our once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

When we first stepped outside, it was -33 degrees Celsius. Just imagine when you open a refrigerator and cold air blows straight into your face, making you shiver. Normally the temperature of a refrigerator only reaches close to -18 degrees Celsius, so that cold in Yakutsk was double. Well, welcome to Yakutsk, the entrance of the Earth’s giant freezer refrigerator.

Yakutsk is the largest city in the world built on permafrost. The temperature remains -8oC frozen all year round at below four metres deep, while the temperatures above the ground change every minute. The condition is not favourable for constructions so each building must stand on concrete columns with a special structure to prevent ground melting.

We arrived right on December 31, when the whole city was in a festive mood. Russian people were celebrating their biggest festival — Russian Christmas Eve — which ran until January 7.

They don’t celebrate Christmas on December 24. The simple reason for this is because Russians follow Orthodox Christianity and they use the Julian Calendar, while most other countries have adopted the Gregorian calendar. Their traditional symbols for New Year’s Eve and Christmas Eve are “Ded Moroz” (Grandfather Frost) and his granddaughter, Snegurochka, instead of Santa Claus.

That night, we followed local people to the mountain next to the city, from there, we had the best scene of a bonfire in the middle of snow-covered woods, full moon and the city covered in massive fireworks shooting from 100 locations at the same time. That night the temperature went down to -37oC and it was the first time I couldn’t feel my feet even when I had equipped myself carefully from toes to teeth.

When I recall my first impression of the city, the first thing I remember is the colour white. White snow was all over the streets, covering cars, roofs, trees, fences and everything else on the ground.

In my memory, the second impression was yellow of the light cast out from the windows of wooden houses and apartments. The yellow light represents living activities, the warmth of the fire and also tells me I would be warm again after 15-20 minutes of walking outside in this weather.

There, after every 15-20 minutes of being exposed to -30oC, I had to rush immediately into a car or some room to put my hands in front of a heater.We had been planning for around half a year before the trip, because real cold, real winter, though beautiful, fun and worth experiencing, is definitely not a joke!

The 1000-km journey from Yakutsk to Oymyakon takes two days by car, without phone signal and rare chances to see a few houses of some hunters. Phone batteries drained like crazy and my iPhone died after three minutes of being exposed to the outside cold. Water turned into ice right in the bottle so we could not drink. There was just ice and snow everywhere and the eternal woods.

Adding to that, by the time we approached the coldest inhabited village on Earth, the temperature would drop fast especially at night when it could go down to -60oC and for an unprepared person, maybe one night outside in this weather is enough to use his lifetime insurance.

We both did prepare carefully for the trip, especially since I’m a girl from a tropical country. Therefore, reaching our target — Oymyakon Village in -60oC — is extremely challenging both physically and mentally.

My companion had prepared a reheater breather mask for me, which helps protect the lungs and airways from the damaging effects of extremely cold and dry air.

At -5oC, the cold seems refreshing with snow, which will be perfect for a vacation. But at -20oC, the moisture in your nostrils freezes, and breaths become heavier and it is hard to hold your cough. At -35oC, the air becomes as sharp as a knife, which makes frostbite a constant hazard, and at -45oC, metals or any frozen objects that stick to your exposed skin could tear off your flesh. I lost a piece of my tongue while tasting my frozen noodles at -54oC.

Before the trip, I intended to buy a thermometer for Oymyakon, but the best one I could find does not measure under -30oC. A special thermometer is required to measure this winter.

Not less important is a pair of Valenki, which is special ancient fleece high boots of Slavik people used for walking on dry snow when the weather is frosty.

Yakutia people prefer fur as it can keep them warm. Also, their bodies are much different from those from the South; for instance, their bodies do not require to cool themselves by the sweating mechanism so they rarely sweat, which is just simply a natural selection in their genes.

Foods here mainly contain protein because vegetables definitely cannot grow in this severe cold weather. However, local people have sufficient nutrition derived from animal milk and meat that can be easily stored in such conditions similar to that of a fridge. The Yakutsk’s fish market is definitely my favourite spot where for the first time I could see frozen fishes standing like statues.

In order to reach Oymyakon - Russian Far East, 1,000km from Yakutsk, we crossed Kolyma Highway, which is also known as the Road of Bones, constructed from 1932-53. The highway was given that name after hundreds of thousands of prisoners died while constructing it. Their bones and bodies were buried right on this permanent frost ground and integrated into the formation of the road.

Russian people welcomed me very hospitably. Even though I didn’t speak much Russian and they didn’t speak much English, their warm welcome erased all of my worries since the first days arriving in Moscow.

I remember Tamara, our host in Oymyakon, the village in the Far East with only 300 inhabitants but now the number is reducing. Tamara is responsible for welcoming people from all over the world to visit the village and also owns a homestay in this Pole of Cold.

We had a nice conversation with her about Oymyakon’s stories and I was surprised to learn that I was the first Vietnamese tourist among 56 other nationals, who have ever set foot on this coldest inhabited place on Earth.

The most interesting story was about how Yakut people deal with the corpses of the dead. They put the bodies inside a hollow stem and leave them in the forest, which is somehow similar to that of the Tibetans, whose corpses are wrapped and hung on trees so that the spirit can escape and become stars on the Milky Way.

 

However, Yakutsk people don’t really mind that because they cannot bury human bodies properly in this severe circumstance of nature. Where the top three metres of the ground tends to thaw in the summer and then freezes, people normally cannot dig deeper because of the hard ground of permafrost, and the buried subjects tend to rise to the surface after a while. It would be creepy if you buried someone three metres underground and then next year when you come back to visit him, his body would have risen up above the ground.

Tamara told me that she wanted to introduce to the world what real winter is, how cold it can be but also how beautiful it is. The place seems hard to reach but is also the liveliest place. Glimpsing into the woods, you might only see white colour and crooked branches and pine trees, but if you take a look deeper, slower, you will see the whole lively life inside.

When we went fishing with a local fisherman, we had to cross 15 minutes in the cold woods to reach the river, which had turned into ice. In order to catch fish, people have to dig holes on the ice and release nets and baits.

The fisherman was taking the nets from the icy river with his bare hands without being scared of frostbite while I went into a state of shock because of the cold. That could be the coldest hour I had ever experienced. We caught one fish and it turned into iced fish within five minutes on the ground.

The memories from this place often flash before my eyes — the images of a wooden village with white smoke rising from its house chimneys, people in fur and valenki walking on the white street, Laika sledge dogs happily welcoming new guests, and sunsets with orange-pink colour at 3pm every day.

We had a lot of fun throwing boiled water, which immediately got frozen, having our hair and eyelash covered with snow and ice under -54oC after 15 minutes of walking, underpants easily breaking after laundry, or tongue sticking to objects.

"That is the great paradox in Oymyakon," one local told me, "it seems impossible to live here but impossible to leave as well." VNS


 

 

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

We departed from Moscow to Yakutsk, Sakha Republic in Russia, to arrive in the city located within the North polar circle of the Earth — Oymyakon.

The polar circle is an imaginary line around the North Pole that is located at the line of latitude that is around 66 degrees. On the longest day of the year, the sun never sets inside this circle.

Just imagine when you open a refrigerator and cold air blows straight into your face, making you shiver.

A refrigerator is a fridge.

When you shiver, you shake from the cold.

Normally the temperature of a refrigerator only reaches close to -18 degrees Celsius, so that cold in Yakutsk was double.

The temperature is the measure of how hot or cold it is.

Yakutsk is the largest city in the world built on permafrost.

Permafrost is soil that is frozen all year around.

The condition is not favourable for constructions so each building must stand on concrete columns with a special structure to prevent ground melting.

Constructions are buildings or other things like roads and airports that are built.

Melting happens when ice turns into water.

We arrived right on December 31, when the whole city was in a festive mood. Russian people were celebrating their biggest festival — Russian Christmas Eve — which ran until January 7.

When people are in a festive mood, they are in a party mood.

The simple reason for this is because Russians follow Orthodox Christianity and they use the Julian Calendar, while most other countries have adopted the Gregorian calendar.

To adopt a different calendar means to start using it.

Their traditional symbols for New Year’s Eve and Christmas Eve are “Ded Moroz” (Grandfather Frost) and his granddaughter, Snegurochka, instead of Santa Claus.

Frost is ice that covers the grass and trees when the temperature drops to below zero.

That night, we followed local people to the mountain next to the city, from there, we had the best scene of a bonfire in the middle of snow-covered woods, full moon and the city covered in massive fireworks shooting from 100 locations at the same time.

A bonfire is a big fire that people light outside, usually for some other celebration.

There, after every 15-20 minutes of being exposed to -30oC, I had to rush immediately into a car or some room to put my hands in front of a heater.

When you are exposed you are unprotected.

The 1000-km journey from Yakutsk to Oymyakon takes two days by car, without phone signal and rare chances to see a few houses of some hunters.

Rare means not often.

Phone batteries drained like crazy and my iPhone died after three minutes of being exposed to the outside cold.

Drained means emptied.

There was just ice and snow everywhere and the eternal woods.

Eternal woods means never-ending forest.

Adding to that, by the time we approached the coldest inhabited village on Earth, the temperature would drop fast especially at night when it could go down to -60oC and for an unprepared person, maybe one night outside in this weather is enough to use his lifetime insurance.

If a village is inhabited, people live in it.

To use your lifetime insurance means to die and have reason for your relatives to claim from life insurance.

We both did prepare carefully for the trip, especially since I’m a girl from a tropical country.

Tropical countries are those in the warmer areas of the world.

Therefore, reaching our target — Oymyakon Village in -60oC — is extremely challenging both physically and mentally.

Physically means to do with the body; mentally means to do with the mind.

At -35oC, the air becomes as sharp as a knife, which makes frostbite a constant hazard, and at -45oC, metals or any frozen objects that stick to your exposed skin could tear off your flesh.

Frostbite happens when someone’s body tissues start getting damaged because it is so cold.

A constant hazard is a danger that never goes away.

Before the trip, I intended to buy a thermometer for Oymyakon, but the best one I could find does not measure under -30oC.

When you intend to do something, you mean to do it.

A thermometer is an instrument used to measure temperature.

Not less important is a pair of Valenki, which is special ancient fleece high boots of Slavik people used for walking on dry snow when the weather is frosty.

Fleece is wool from an animal like a sheep.

Also, their bodies are much different from those from the South; for instance, their bodies do not require to cool themselves by the sweating mechanism so they rarely sweat, which is just simply a natural selection in their genes.

A sweating mechanism is a way in which the body is designed to sweat.

Natural selection happens when only the fittest survive.

Genes are what make people, and plants and animals, the way they are because of what they inherit from their parents.

Foods here mainly contain protein because vegetables definitely cannot grow in this severe cold weather.

Protein is a substance in foods that makes the body grow.

However, local people have sufficient nutrition derived from animal milk and meat that can be easily stored in such conditions similar to that of a fridge.

Sufficient nutrition means enough of what is needed in food to keep the body going.

If nutrition is derived from milk and meat, that is the source of the nutrition.

 Their bones and bodies were buried right on this permanent frost ground and integrated into the formation of the road.

Integrated means mixed.

The formation of the road is what makes up the road.

Even though I didn’t speak much Russian and they didn’t speak much English, their warm welcome erased all of my worries since the first days arriving in Moscow.

Erased means got rid of.

I remember Tamara, our host in Oymyakon, the village in the Far East with only 300 inhabitants but now the number is reducing.

A host is someone who has you to stay in his, or her home.

The inhabitants of a village are the people who live there.

Reducing means going down.

We had a nice conversation with her about Oymyakon’s stories and I was surprised to learn that I was the first Vietnamese tourist among 56 other nationals, who have ever set foot on this coldest inhabited place on Earth.

A conversation is a chat.

The most interesting story was about how Yakut people deal with the corpses of the dead.

Corpses are dead bodies.

They put the bodies inside a hollow stem and leave them in the forest, which is somehow similar to that of the Tibetans, whose corpses are wrapped and hung on trees so that the spirit can escape and become stars on the Milky Way.

The Milky Way is a group of stars in the sky.

However, Yakutsk people don’t really mind that because they cannot bury human bodies properly in this severe circumstance of nature.

A severe circumstance is a strange and extreme situation.

Where the top three metres of the ground tends to thaw in the summer and then freezes, people normally cannot dig deeper because of the hard ground of permafrost, and the buried subjects tend to rise to the surface after a while.

When the ground thaws, it becomes liquid and soft as it warms up.

The memories from this place often flash before my eyes — the images of a wooden village with white smoke rising from its house chimneys, people in fur and valenki walking on the white street, Laika sledge dogs happily welcoming new guests, and sunsets with orange-pink colour at 3pm every day.

Images are pictures.

"That is the great paradox in Oymyakon," one local told me, "it seems impossible to live here but impossible to leave as well.

A paradox is something that speaks against itself.

WORKSHEET

State whether the following sentences are true, or false:

  1. People in Yakutsk eat mostly vegetables that they grow.
  2. To catch fish, Yakutsk people dig holes in the ice.
  3. It takes two days by car from Yakutsk to Oymyakon.
  4. Yakutsk is a city built on permafrost.
  5. Yakutsk is in the Sakha Republic of Russia

ANSWERS:

© Duncan Guy/Learn the News/ Viet Nam News 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. False; 2. True; 3. True; 4. True; 5. True.

 

 

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