The coldest city on Earth

When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, my family subscribed to the Washington Post, and my father read it religiously every morning, section by section (and still does). He was also always the first person up, and when I came to the kitchen table for my own breakfast, he would share certain sections with me: the Style section, which had the comics, the horoscopes, the advice columns, and what I generally considered as a teenager to be the most interesting stories; and the Metro section, which always carried on its back page the weather (and again, still does).

Every day, beneath the graphics of weather patterns across the United States and Virginia, a list appeared, in tiny letters, of the highs and lows predicted for the day all across the globe, as well as an item noting where the hottest place on Earth had been the day prior, and where the coldest. Thus I came to hear of Yakutsk, which so often bore the dubious laurels of "coldest," and it fascinated me to think of it. For whatever reason, because I had little interest in the hottest places, that place stuck in my mind over the years. I never looked it up, but I thought of it occasionally, in the way you think of fairy tales or certain stories you heard as a child. What was it like to live in such a place? Why would a person stay there, or a family, generation after generation?

Then, this morning, I came across this photo essay in National Geographic, and all that strange fascination flooded back to me. A couple of anecdotes that jumped out:

  • "Since the soil is permanently frozen, most buildings are raised on stilts. Those that aren’t are slowly sinking because the heat generated inside the buildings is melting the permafrost."
  • "Photographer Steeve Iuncker was able to photograph for for only 15 minutes at a time in the subzero temperatures before his camera froze and the film risked cracking."
  • "Locals tended to visit one another a lot, but for only a few minutes: 'They would come in, take off their first layer, drink hot tea, and have a toast with jam before bundling up again and stepping outside. It was as if their neighbors’ abodes served as relay points along their journey.'”
  • And finally, so unchangeably cold is the temperature outdoors that fish can be permanently displayed outside shops during these months, arranged like bouquets of flowers.

You can find the photo essay here.