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The Coldest Permanently Inhabited Place On Earth

Oymyakon, Siberia & The Road of Bones - March 2015
It had been a dream of mine for years to visit Oymyakon, Siberia. This small town of 500 people is known as the "Pole of Cold" the coldest town in the world. In 2015, I travelled there with the Angry Planet team. We started in Yakutsk where we filmed with permafrost scientists who are concerned about climate change warming the region and releasing millions of tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
 
From there we travelled along the "Road of Bones." The Kolyma highway was built by Stalin-era gulag prisoners. When prisoners died while building the road, they didn't bother with proper burials, they simply buried them into the road itself.. We even visited one of the old gulag prisons out in the middle of nowhere in the Siberian taiga forest.
 
When we arrived in Oymyakon, we discovered that they were in the middle of a heat wave. It was only -40 degrees.

Yakutsk, Siberia

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Lenin statue in Yakutsk, Siberia. This city would be the starting point for our journey to Oymyakon.
A Yakutsk selfie.
Vodka and frozen, raw fish. A delicacy in Siberia. I guess if you drink enough vodka, anything tastes good.

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A freezer at the Mammoth Museum where scientists keep the bodies of extinct animals found preserved in the permafrost. This is the tusk of a woolly mammoth.
Permafrost core samples at the Permafrost Institute. Climatologists are very worried about the melting permafrost, and the methane gas it releases. It is many times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
The Angry Planet team inside one of the subterranean tunnels at the Permafrost Institute.

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Ice crystals for everywhere in the underground permafrost tunnels.
We visited a place called Permafrost Kingdom where there was a lot of beautiful ice sculptures, but I was intrigued by the preserved woolly rhino body and the woolly mammoth head they had. I even tasted a small piece of the meat from the mammoth. That might have been a mistake because I started getting sick a couple of days afterwards.
The amazing ice crystals in the tunnels of the Permafrost Kingdom.

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The underground wonderland of the permafrost tunnels.
I don't know when this helicopter was last used, but it was pretty frozen up.
As the permafrost melts, and refreezes, some of the buildings in Yakutsk shift on their foundations and become crooked.

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A cold morning in Yakutsk, along the Lena River.
 
Reindeer Herders

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The team split up for a day and two of us headed out to spend the night with Siberian reindeer herders. My back suffered during the long, jarring ride on the reindeer sled.
Arrival at the reindeer herding camp after 3 hours of sledding.
People have been herding reindeer in this part of the world for about 1400 years.

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Getting ready to spend the night in the tent. The temperature that night dropped down to near -40.
The herd, just before sunset as temperature start to drop.
The cold isn't too bad, as long as you bundle up and keep moving.

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These nomads' lives depend on the herd, and rising temperatures in Siberia have been a problem. The snow melts then re-freezes and the reindeer have trouble grazing through the ice crust.
Having breakfast in the tent after a long, cold night.
 
The Road of Bones

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The "Road of Bones" aka the Kolyma Highway is the only road between Yakutsk and Magadan. It is a dangerous stretch of road.
The road was built by gulag prisoners that were sent to Siberia. Some were criminals, some were political prisoners. If they died, their bodies were buried into the road itself.
The view from the Road of Bones.

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Accidents are common here. Driving on this road is dangerous in good conditions. In the depths of winter, it can be a deadly place.
This was one of numerous accidents we saw. Fatigue, long distances, bad weather, poor road conditions, and impaired driving all conspire to make it one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
Distances are vast in Siberia, so we stayed in people's homes in small towns along the way.

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Travelling in groups is wise during the winter. If you break down, it could be hours before another car comes along, especially at night.
A map of the Road of Bones.
Hors

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A "restaurant" along the Road of Bones. Borsht was a common menu item.
A gas station. One of very few along the road.
A "cafe". Inside were a group of Siberian truck drivers. One of which had duct tape holding a wound on his face together. No big deal.

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Traffic grinds to a halt due to fresh snow.
Beautiful, but dangerously cold.
The wilds of Siberia along the road to Oymyakon.

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It is a somber place, especially knowing that millions of people were imprisoned in gulags, and unknown thousands of them were buried in the road.
 
Gulags

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Between 15 to 20 million people were imprisoned in Stalin's gulag system.
Inside one of the gulag buildings.
The prisons themselves didn't need to be that well built. If a prisoner escaped, they faced almost certain death in the wilderness of Siberia.

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Looking around one of the abandoned gulag buildings.
The gulag prison system was mainly in Siberia, but there were facilities across the whole Soviet Union.
A guard tower near one of the prison buildings.
 
Oymyakon

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We made it! The "Pole of Cold". Oymyakon, Siberia.
Oymyakon sits in a valley where cold air tends to pool, trapped by the surrounding mountains.
The coldest temperature measured here was -71.2 degrees Celsius, making Oymyakon the coldest inhabited permanently place in the world.

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Posing for a picture at the "Pole of Cold. We even got to meet the mayor.
Only research bases in Antarctica are colder than Oymyakon.
The town may be cold, but our reception was warm. Locals greeted us with song, dance, and traditional outfits.

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Another local, greeting us in Oymyakon.

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