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Novy Urengoj (Siberia): Picnic in the icebox

In Austria minus 20 degrees are something of a rarity. Minus 40 are nearly unimaginable! How does one live with such temperatures from day-to-day? – A local inspection in the winter of Siberia, in the deep freezer of our planet.

Approach to the Deep Frozen Natural Gas-City Novy Urengoj in Siberia
Picture by T. Micke

"The coldest inhabited place on earth", explains Andrej our companion proudly, "is not located on the North Pole, but in East Siberia and is called Oimjakon." – 72 Degrees below zero the special thermometers showed there in winter 1938. Only once, during a research activity in the Antarctic, lower temperatures have ever been observed.

"In winter", Andrej says, "often even the gasoline for cars has to be defrosted in Oimjakon, before it is useable. On the way to school inks inside the pen of the children freeze, and milk is not sold in liters, but in slices." Disbelievingly I look into the eyes of Andrej in order to see, if he is telling Russian fairy tales. But he does not bat an eyelid, and after re-investigating, all the details appear to be true (gasoline really congeals starting at ca. minus 60 Degrees).

Fortunately we are not in Oimjakon. We are in West Siberia in Novy Urengoi (also Nowy Urengoi or Nowi Urengoj), a different town on the edge of the Arctic Circle, about 2000 kilometers north of Novosibirsk. This morning we have only minus 35 Degrees here. The sun faints glowingly red on the horizon of a cloudless sky and Andrej has the nice idea, to make a Siberian Picnic on the Arctic Circle. When asking what a "Siberian Picnic" is, he grins and means: "Wait till you see it..."

At minus 35 Degrees one’s breath freezes on the pane of the bus. Motoring without an ice scraper becomes dangerous
Picture by T. Micke

It impossible to view much actually. The side windows of our minibus are covered with hoar frost. Not from the outside but from the inside, since the water vapor of our breath has manifested on the deep frozen windows. Only the windshield is clear, because Sergej the driver pushes it with the heater fan full power employing all electric tubes.

I pull out my credit card and scrape myself a spy hole on the side. One has to think practically...  Outside the totally flat black and white winter desert is passing by, snow dusts like fine sand over the roadway and I'm looking out for the arctic hares, white foxes and arctic chickens, which should be existing here, concerning Andrej. After one minute the pane is frozen up again.

Girl in the Elementary School of Novy Urengoj during a traditional costume presentation
Picture by T. Micke

To take away my frustration, Andrej reports of the "Russian Eskimos", who in tents made of reindeer skin abide outside in the Tundra. They're called "Nenets" and make a living of reindeer breed and fishing at the innumerable creeks of the Ob-river. "Some years ago when there was the awful record winter in Russia and everywhere people froze to death, because food supply could not be provided anymore, the Nenets were the only ones without a problem. They never made themselves dependent on gas, current and supermarkets. They are prepared for temperatures of minus 50 Degrees. Reputedly even today they drink warm reindeer blood from time to time, to feed themselves with iron and other mineral nutrients in harsh winters."

In cities like Novy Urengoj, inhabitants fight routinely against the cold and its perfidies every single day. To be able to start the old Ladas, Volgas, Moskvichs und Tavrijas before driving to work in the morning, the owners run electric cables from the living room power socket through the window to the engine hood of their cars. If the apartment is in the 8th or 10th Floor of the house, the cable is hanging above like a fishing line straight down to the street – Russian Auxiliary heating. In the evening, after nightfall, the local police is occasionally patrolling through the housing estate and cuts the cables with special nippers. – Because it is prohibited and perilous. It already happened, that children, but mainly drunkards lurching around homeward run into the cables in the darkness, fall, cannot get up anymore and freeze to death within a few hours...

Snow blower at the Arctic Circle: Streets have to be cleaned permanently, otherwise wind and snow would make them disappear.
Picture by T. Micke

In the meantime the outside thermometer of the minibus indicates minus 42 Degrees. There is little traffic on our route to the north across the deep frozen permafrost swamps of the Tundra. Mostly you can see the huge dark green Kamaz military trucks, transporting rods and building materials to the gas-support probes of the region. Even though the street is dead straight, Sergej has problems to overtake. The freezing vapor of the trucks' mighty exhaust pipes atomizes the opposite lane in such a way, that he often has to wait for flashlight signals of the truck driver.

Despite heating the windshield shrunk into tow egg-shaped ice portholes. Finally a man-high iron globe emerges at the roadside. It marks the 66. latitude of the Arctic Circle, where the sun never sets in summer and never rises in winter. Officially here the Arctic begins.

Illuminated Ice Palace on the Plaza of Novy Urengoj. Here Siberian children who are used to the chill are playing soccer.
Picture by T. Micke

Andrej rummages around and picks out a bottle of vodka. Definitely "Siberian Picnic", I should have known earlier. The thermometer now indicates minus 46 Degrees. At the thought of having to step out into the cold, in order to ceremonially cross the 66th latitude, the chance of a sip of schnapps instantly appears simpatico again.

As I open the door it literally strikes my breath. At the first moment the sudden dry cold does not seem to be unpleasant on the skin, but the lung initially rebels against the shock-frozen air and causes a tickle in one's throat, which only makes the inhale even harder.

Vodka at the Arctic Circle has to be drunken fast at these temperatures, before it freezes.
Picture by T. Micke

And then I learn: Even Vodka can freeze. What is truly impossible in my deep-freezer at home, the Siberian winter is able to manage in not even five minutes. When Andrej is finally finished with his toast and we raise the glasses with clammy fingers, a thin ice film floats on top.

After some minutes as my fingers are usable again, Andrej hands me a plate with something that looks like wood shavings. "That is Stroganina", he explains. "Deep frozen, wafer thin cut row fish. – Sort of Siberian Sushi. – A specialty of the Nenets and logically also the most simple kind, of serving fish in this hereabout. One eats it with salt and pepper and naturally best with Vodka for washing it down."

Just a real "Siberian Picnic"...

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© A report by Tobias Micke (02-03-03) – Contact