On a very cold morning at -46ºC (-51ºF) my good friend James and I were dropped off at the station near Yakutsk and were in awe upon boarding the train. The warm colored wood, the water heater, the frost on the windowsills, the outfits of the workers.. It all looked like the set of a beautiful Wes Anderson film.
The city of Yakutsk in the far northeastern corner of Russia only got linked in 2019 to the Transiberian in the south. When telling people our plans, they replied perplexed “You know you can fly right?” That’s when we realized the romanticized image of this journey was mainly held by foreigners. The distances are crazy. It’s almost the same as going from London to San Francisco and takes about seven days when going all in one go.
Our first cabinmate was a gentleman traveling for three days to see his wife and son and was the nicest person you could ever meet: he helped get us dialed into tricks of the train, and insisted we eat all his food with him. He works in Oymyakon mining gold and diamonds, where temperatures average around -40ºC to -60ºC (-76ºF) in the winter, and we later learned he had previously done sixteen years in a Siberian prison for being a ganster in the 90s. Next we had Andre, who woke us up at 10am with a bottle of vodka to share. Another local friend we made took us out to the frozen Lake Baikal from Irkutsk, and was so happy we were visiting he even brought us really thoughtful gifts. Russian hospitality amazed us every step of the way.
During the journey, we were mostly glued to the window as the frigid landscape went by under a beautiful northern midwinter sun. I couldn’t help but think about how I used to think of Mongolia as a “Last Frontier” of sorts, but there’s a whole other world just to the north that has been thriving for generations. Together with the visit to Yakutsk, this remains one of my favorite trips I have ever embarked upon.