Yakutia, also referred to as the Republic of Sakha, is the coldest inhabited part of the world. Temperatures in the -70s Centigrade have been officially measured and unofficially in the -80s, and that in areas where nomadic reindeer herders live outdoors in tents!
Despite having a territory of over 3.1 million square kilometres, the population is only 900,000. Of these, 450,000 live in the capital Yakutsk, leaving an area roughly the size of India with only 450,000 people living in it. Yakutia, in short, is one vast wilderness and a real adventure-lovers’ paradise.
Half of Yakutia’s population are ethnic Yakuts, a people whose facial features resemble those of Far East Asians but whose language is of the Turkic language family. Traditionally they were horse herders, and many people continue this way of life into the present day, particularly in Khangalas District and Verkhoyansk District. The Yakut breed of horse is short, fat, hairy and capable of spending all winter outdoors in -60 Centigrade. Herders move their animals from one pasture area to another throughout the year, generally keeping them together in one herd in winter when they need extra feeding and to have the ice scraped off their coats, and letting them roam more or less freely in summer. Sometimes they ride on horseback and sometimes they use wooden horse sledges, depending on the terrain to be covered.
There are several other indigenous groups in Yakutia too, who are traditionally reindeer herders – the Dolgans, the Evenki, the Yukaghir and the Chukchi. The Dolgans live in Anabar District, the northernmost part of mainland Yakutia, and the neighbouring Taymyr Peninsula, and have preserved a very traditional way of life. The Evenki are spread out over virtually the whole of Yakutia and although mainly remain reindeer herders they no longer migrate as much as the Dolgans, do not wear traditional clothing and have mostly forgotten their own language in favour of Yakut. The Chukchi live in only one village, Kolymskoye, not far from the border with Chukotka and the Yukaghir, sadly will probably not exist as a separate people or language by the next generation.
But Yakutia is not only great for its array of traditional indigenous cultures – it’s also one of the best places in the world for wildlife spotting. In summer brown bears can be seen throughout Yakutia, particularly in the days and weeks after the melting of ice on rivers. In the north, the Arctic Ocean islands such as Preobrazheniya (Anabar District) and the New Siberian Islands (Bulunskiy District) are pretty much the best places in Eurasia to spot polar bears, which come to feed on the large walrus rookeries that appear there in summer. Muskox, wild reindeer and birds in colonies of up to 1 million can be spotted too.
Apart from all this, Yakutia gulags, glaciers, mammoth graveyards, sinkholes, rock paintings, festivals and overland trips on frozen river surfaces should attract anyone who wants to genuinely get off the unbeaten track.
* Anabar District – extremely traditional nomadic Dolgan reindeer herders, large walrus rookeries, polar bears, well-preserved gulags, muskox, 1 million wild reindeer, a colony of 1 million birds.
* Aldan District – gold seekers and Evenki reindeer herders co-existing somehow.
* Khangalas District Yakut horse herders, Lena Pillars UNESCO site, even more beautiful Sinsk Pillars, sacred shamanic sites, ancient rock paintings.
* Verkhoyansk District Mammoth graveyards and indigenous mammoth tusk hunters, horse herders, sinkholes, gulags, kisilyakh rock pillars and more.
* New Siberian Islands – mammoth tusk hunters, polar bears and kisilyakh rock pillars
* Overland to Chukotka – possibly the world’s most hardcore overland journey – 2000km on frozen river surfaces from Magadan through some of Yakutia’s wildest and most isolated areas and into Chukotka.