The coldest inhabited place on earth


Even for polar explorer Felicity Aston, a trip to the Russian village of Oymyakon was quite an adventure, writes Arusa Qureshi.

Imagine life in a place where the sun doesn’t come out for roughly half the year. Or where it’s so cold that your car fuel turns to wax when you try to start your car. Or how about living in a place where the sound of your breath freezing is as common a sound as any? When British polar explorer Felicity Aston first heard of such a place, it was curiosity that encouraged her to investigate further, with the end result being her new book, Chasing Winter – A Journey to the Pole of Cold.


Felicity Aston

It tells the story of how Felicity travelled 36,000 kilometres, from London to Oymyakon in Siberia, the coldest inhabited place in the world, to explore daily life in the extreme cold. We caught up with her to find out more.

“I know how tough really cold temperatures can be and how hard they are to survive in,” Felicity says, “so to go to a place where normal life takes place in such temperatures, I was just really fascinated by that. How do people that live in climates that regularly have this extreme weather think about winter? Because in the UK our thoughts of winter tend to be that we should go into hibernation and it’s something that we have to battle and dread a little bit. But if your temperature regularly goes to -60°C, do you dread winter or is there another perspective?”

She was accompanied on the expedition by filmmaker Manu Palomeque and Antarctic expert Gísli Jónsson, and ‘Chasing Winter’ details their expedition in a purpose-built Land Rover Defender 110, her insightful writing and stunning photography revealing all its highs and lows. In finding out what winter means to different communities that live in some of the coldest parts of the world, Felicity encounters individuals with incredible stories to share. But how does one prepare for a journey to the coldest village on earth? For Felicity, the mental preparation can be just as important as the physical preparation.

“I’ve spent the last 10-15 years doing expeditions to cold places so it’s an environment in many ways that I’m very familiar with. When you go to very cold places you have to not only be respectful of the cold but you can’t be scared of it either. I’ve seen people get into the cold and they’re paralysed by their fear and they just put on lots of layers and stay very still and of course that’s the worst thing that you can do. You have to feel comfortable enough to actually take action but you still have to be understanding of the cold because it can be fatal. People make mistakes and you can get injured.”

An ice road that runs for more than 2000km over the frozen surface of the River Lena in Siberia

An ice road that runs for more than 2000km over the frozen surface of the River Lena in Siberia

A number of times during the expedition, Felicity needed great strength and bravery against that potential paralysing fear of the cold. “Once we headed out east from Yakutsk,” she explains, “that’s when we starting getting temperatures below -50°C and that’s when we really started noticing the effects of the temperature and struggling, but more importantly, the vehicle started to feel the effects of the cold, too. We were using not just winter diesel but arctic diesel by that stage and even the arctic diesel was turning into sludge in the engine. We had this horrible day where we think we had taken on some contaminated fuel and every so often the car would just stop and as soon as we stopped, everything would get very cold very quickly and this panic would set in. It’s almost like arctic shock where your brain is telling you you’re not going to survive.

“It was a really remote road, we had probably only seen 3 or 4 vehicles all day. In that situation, you feel very vulnerable and isolated so we tried to warm up the fuel tank with a small blowtorch we had which is something the locals do to heat up the fuel and get their cars going again. The Land Rover would keep going but then 10 minutes later the same thing would happen again. It was really scary, even though we knew we’d be ok because I had all my Antarctic gear on the roof. But the cold just triggers some kind of response in you that your body is on high alert. So we were really grateful when we rolled into a small town and finally had some sense of security.”

Crossing a frozen flood in Altai, southern Siberia

Crossing a frozen flood in Altai, southern Siberia

Despite the occasional difficulty, the high points of the journey certainly eclipsed the low points. From dog-mushing to meeting Father Christmas and experiencing the Christmas industry in Finland, Felicity examines a wide variety of perspectives on winter throughout her book. But perhaps the most fascinating is hearing about her meetings with various indigenous groups and Shamans who had much to say about what winter means to them.

“We spent some time with the Sami of Norway and Finland as well. And we met one lady in particular called Ester, who was saying that a lot of people think of winter as being a dark time but she thinks of winter as being a time of colour. And when we were in the Arctic Circle region, there was a lot of colour. Of course, there was darkness but when the moon was out it was so bright in the reflection of the snow that it felt as bright as a sunny day. It was an incredible contrast and because you only get three or four hours of daylight you get this elongated sunset which results in these wonderful skyscapes with these incredible colours.”

“Meeting the Tuvan Shaman was also really interesting and when we first went to see him and asked if there was anything different about the spiritual world and the one where you perceive the world in winter time as opposed to summer, he looked at me as if the answer was just obvious. He said that winter is a time of fire because all the other elements are asleep, for example water is frozen, air is still and the earth is also frozen because of the snow. And so the only element that’s still awake in winter time is fire. But then he ended up telling me that my symbol was fire, which is the symbol of winter, and I was really pleased, because I thought if my symbol is fire then maybe that explains why I’m drawn to cold places all the time. It sort of all fitted together.

Wintertime means reindeer to the Skolt Sami of Finland and the Eveni nomads of Siberia

Wintertime means reindeer to the Skolt Sami of Finland and the Eveni nomads of Siberia

“As a polar explorer, I’m always asked why I’m drawn to the cold and Antarctica, and it’s a really difficult question to answer because to me it’s so self-evident. It’s like asking someone else why do you like chocolate? So when he said that my symbol was fire, I thought, that’s great, that answers the question! Maybe that’s the missing part of the puzzle that I’ve been searching for, that the reason I’ve been drawn to cold places and to exploring is because my element is fire.”

Her many expeditions, books and talks make it clear that exploring the cold is an innate part of Felicity’s character. And her recent MBE awarded for services to polar exploration emphasises this, reinforcing what the Tuvan Shaman revealed during their meeting.

To accompany the book, an exhibition has been put together for the Royal Geographical Society, including photographs, objects, extracts from interviews and also some recorded sounds from the trip. At the end of the exhibition, members of the public are invited to leave their responses to the question, “what does winter mean to you?” Answers so far have ranged from “red wine” to “heating bills” but Felicity says that overall, the positives outweigh the negatives. “It’s interesting seeing the whole range of answers. There are things that I hadn’t even thought about. It just shows that winter means a whole lot of things to different people.”

But what does winter mean to Felicity? Is her answer different now to before she embarked on her journey to the Pole of Cold?

The Pole of Cold monument and the centre of Oymyakon and Chyskhan

The Pole of Cold monument at Oymyakon and Chyskhan, ‘Lord Keeper of the Cold’

“No, but I definitely think I have more ways to answer the question and I certainly have a greater appreciation of winter than I had before. But when I answer the question honestly, it means the same as it did before the expedition which is adventure and excitement and I think that hasn’t changed since I was little. When it snowed in south-east England where I grew up it was a major exciting event, it meant that we went sledging, we built snowmen, we had a day off school, it meant adventure and going off exploring in the woods which looked very different than they did at any other time. So it was like going off into a whole new world to go and explore. And winter to me still means the same thing. It’s the time of year when I go out on expeditions and have adventures. And I still can’t get over this draw that I have to the winter environment. Also, in my mind everywhere is improved by a winter coat! So my journey to Oymyakon hasn’t diminished my affection for the winter season one bit.”

Buy the book ‘Chasing Winter – A Journey to the Pole of Cold’ directly from Felicity Aston at [email protected], or on Amazon.

The exhibition ‘Pole of Cold – What Does Winter Mean to You?’ is at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate, Kent, until 1 February.


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