Why Would You Want to Travel HERE?
Welcome… to Siberia
It’s rare that the mere name of a place evokes the sort of visceral feelings that “Siberia” is likely to conjur. For me it’s a wide ranging mix of sentiments: amazement, wonderment, fascination, a little bit of fear, and a lot of respect. Far from anywhere and sparsely populated, Siberia is the vast expanse of land that stretches across the entirety of northern Asia. The region’s spread out cities are remote on a level that you just don’t find anywhere else, and the severe cold that grips the region for half the year further solidifies the feeling of being really off the grid.
If you feel isolated, it’s because you are. Some towns are only realistically accessible by land in certain seasons, and thus are heavily dependent on aircraft for transportation and supplies. This is a carry over from the Soviet era when the idea of owning land meant somebody needed to live there. Yakutsk, the supposed cold capitol of the inhabited world in northeastern Siberia, is a prime example of that. The entire city was built on unstable permafrost, requiring large amounts of resources and architectural ingenuity. And it’s so remote a place that it’s only truly accessible by land in the dead of winter, where you’ll be driving for 14 hours from the nearest train station on hard packed ice in -40 degree temperatures or colder. Muddy road conditions quickly render the area impassable by spring, but summertime passages are possible… via boat. Don’t count on roadside assistance in the event of a breakdown, either. Yakutsk’s economy today is based on diamond and gold mining, which provides enough to support the 200,000+ hardy people who live there. That people actually live in Yakutsk is absolutely fascinating to me.
Most Siberian cities are a bit easier to access despite still being pretty remote. Omsk, in central Russia near the Kazakhstan boarder, is a major Siberian transportation hub and was set to serve as the Russian capitol had the Kremlin fell in World War II. By any measure it’s a major Siberian city, yet many would have a hard time finding it on a map. That’s a real shame; spending a night or two in a place like Omsk is as interesting as it gets for the curious traveler. It’s a working class town with few tourist attractions, but to me a glimpse into the daily lives of the people who live here IS the attraction. It’s a place where the people go about their lives as if cold didn’t exist. Facial expressions are unflinching in the most bitter of conditions, and the girls still head out for a night on the town in skirts, nylons, and high heals. Omsk’s tough citizens live an otherwise normal existence in one of the most extreme climates on the planet.
Siberia’s not always cold; summers are pleasantly mild. Although a summertime visit won’t give travelers the “full” Siberian experience, it’s still a great way to see the area without having to worry about potentially life threatening weather and all the unpleasantries that go along with it (like spending a half hour getting dressed every time you want to step outside.) And there’s plenty to see. To walk through some of Irkutsk’s backstreets is to experience a living museum. Old wooden homes are still being used, their distinct Siberian style architecture contrasting the city’s newer, more modern buildings. And Irkutsk is a relative stone’s throw from the town of Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal, where travelers can swim in some of the cleanest and clearest fresh water around. Careful, the water’s visibility is so good that looking down while swimming can actually induce vertigo.
There are a lot of stereotypes associated with Siberia, most of which aren’t terribly positive. I always try to give the benefit of the doubt, but I also realize that reputations tend to be earned. I didn’t know what to expect when I traveled to Siberia so I was mentally prepared for the worst. Turns out that mental preparation wasn’t necessary at all – I felt completely safe traveling there. The cities were clean and the people were just trying to go about their routines. The normalcy of it all is what struck me the most.
Siberia may not top anybody’s list of destinations, but I’d guess that most people who travel anywhere do it because of how it makes them feel. And if it’s that sort of travel high you’re after, few places have such an inherent ability to stir your most basic of emotions. You WILL feel something when you’re in Siberia, even if it really is just cold after all!