I have Asperger Syndrome. This is a mild form of autism, often confused with high functioning autism, where social problems exist without intellectual limitations. People with AS often have only a limited set of interests, but are incredibly passionate about them. One of my earliest signs of my syndrome was an obsession with geography. Already since early childhood, when I was 5 or 6 years old, I spent hours each day locked up in my bedroom looking at the map of the world or reading travel guides. I could spend hours and hours memorising the location of very tiny towns most people never heard of in their lives. I could stare at remote little islands or isolated villages in the arctic or the desert, wondering what they’d look like in real. My books were my best, if not my only, friends during childhood. Thanks to the wonderful world of the internet I can now, until having saved the cash to realise those travel dreams, already have some better idea of what I hopefully will witness with own eyes as the web is littered with pictures of even the most obscure locations. During my hard times in youth, the desire to travel became the necessary oxygen to keep motivated. Time to put some of those dreamt-of destinations in the spotlight.
Since many years I have two travel fetishes: the Arctic, and the Middle East. The latter for its beautiful culture, its beautiful arts and architecture, and its history. The Arctic because of its sceneric beauty, and the fascination how people survive in isolated little villages where nature dictates the way of life. True, remote isolated islands are a third passion, but we’ll start off with the Arctic.
I had a fascination for many far northern little villages, towns most people never heard of, so isolated they are like worlds on their own, far away from the "crowded world". Svalbard, the very northernmost of Norway and Iceland, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Greenland and the northernmost portions of Russia were my big fascinations. Now mainly the latter three are still obsessions of mine. While the north of Scandinavia and Iceland are beautiful, they have become very touristic so the isolation you experience in the other places mentionned are not entirely present there. The "edge of the world" feeling is missing when people travel to these places in large numbers. Also, with the Atlantic warm currents, they have a relatively mild climate. The Canadian and Russian arctic is the real deal: extremely isolated villages that are often cut off from the rest of the world except by very expensive (and rare flights), places where hardly any tourist comes (partially due to the isolation and expenses of going there, partially because of the weather) … These are the truly isolated arctic towns where nature still dictates the way of life and where the outside world is often out of reach. And on top of that, these are amongst the coldest inhabited places on earth, with temperatures often dropping deep below the -30 or -40 Celsius. What more do you want? 🙂
I will pay a small picture tribute to several towns that fascinate me in series. The first episode is Tiksi.
This map roughly shows where Tiksi can be located within Russia:
The Russian Far East is already sparsely populated and hard to travel to, but this is one of the very few isolated tiny villages scattered across the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
Or on a bigger map (look and find, right below where Laptev Sea is written):
Tiksi, for what it’s worth, is the main port of the Laptev Sea. This sea is a subdivision of the Arctic Ocean and, with both the Atlantic and Pacific far away, it is one of the coldest and stormiest of all seas. Only 2 or 3 months per year (summer) it is usually not frozen and temperatures can go slightly below 0 degrees Celsius. Rarely it can get a bit warmer (a temperature of 32.7 Celsius is the record, measured in Tiksi, but needless to say this is extremely rare). The January temperatures are usually below -30 degrees Celsius, with a rare -50 Celsius possible. Mining is the most important activity here, along with navigation on the Northern Sea Route. Hunting and fishing are only done in limited frequency, as the weather is not really that much allowing such activities.
Tiksi, being the main port of this sea, is a town within Russia’s Sakha Republic, which is part of Yakutia. Sakha Republic is the world’s largest subnational governing body on earth: 3,103,200 km2 , half of the Far Eastern Federal District of Russia. This is just smaller than India to give an impression how big it is, but it has less than 1000000 people. With over 1/3 of those living in the only city of some size, Yakutsk (the coldest city on earth with -50 and lower being normal in winter), it gives you an idea how desolate the rest of this territory is and how scattered and isolated the few other villages are. Tiksi lies on the complete north coast of this territory. Tiksi has only just over 5000 citizens according to the latest census, about half the number of the last years of the existance of the Soviet Union. This outpost is connected to the outside world via Tiksi Airport (although less bureaucracy is involved to visit, compared to other Russian arctic villages such as Dikson, it is still incredibly expensive to get here).
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly formed Russia mainly modernised its big cities and cities like Moscow and St Petersburg became littered with tourists and became fairly modern cities in very rapid tempo. Remainders of the old USSR regime were removed. However, the Russian government does not seem to care as much about the very isolated outposts, who were of strategic importance during the Cold War but now are in decline (both in terms of economy and in terms of number of citizens). In these isolated outposts, no energy has been wasted on removing all Soviet propaganda or Lenin statutes. The typical concrete apartment blocks that were common during USSR times, can still be seen here, although very much in bad state. The mining infrastructure is in bad state in many of these isolated arctic towns, often you see delapidated factories and mining infrastructure and ships in total disrepair laying in the port, unlikely to be repaired into an acceptable status anytime soon. In a way, these towns are forgotten by the world, except for the few ones who are fascinated by them. People will rarely see foreigners here, bureaucracy and expenses make the towns hard to reach, but those tourists that come will be very much welcomed. Expect some depressing views of apartment blocks and mining/port infrastructure in disrepair, and hear from older locals how life was so much better under USSR regime. Well, for them it was. Since the end of the Cold War, the towns lost their strategic importance, and villages like Tiksi are in a bad state. A testimony of this can be read on tiksi.ru (you will need to understand Russian or need a translator) where it has been published that even in the extreme cold winter, some houses in Tiksi were without heating for several days.
Tiksi’s climate won’t be a tourist magnet neither: from December into February, averages are between -35 and -45, but occasional days where it drops to almost -50 Celsius are not that uncommon. Spring and autumn can be unpredictable (without the extremes of towns like Omyakon though, where differences between seasons can be about 100 degrees Celsius) but in fact Tiksi only has a relatively mild climate in summer. Until May and once past September it is maybe not extremely cold but rarely above 0 degrees Celsius. In summer, which means June into September, temperatures will vary between 2 or 3 degrees Celsius and 15 degrees Celsius, with a bit of luck you may get just below 20… if you’re lucky. July and August are also the only times when the sea is not frozen usually. Keep in mind that while these are just the degrees in Celsius, winter also comes with blizzards and storms. Needless to say: this town is extremely isolated, extremely cold, and infrastructure is in a bad state. If you ignore the latter fact, it is however an extremely interesting plunge into the life of a place cut off from the world and where nature dictates the way of life, and with some USSR architecture and propaganda not entirely removed and even clearly visable in some places.
Some useful info on planning a travel to Tiksi (this is written by an ex-resident): http://www.tiksi.ru/forum2/viewtopic.php?t=766
(there is a small English section of the forum at www.tiksi.ru, the remainder is in Russian and in Cyrillic alphabet)
I assume that by now you want to see what Tiksi looks like 😉 Here are some pictures. Hopefully I can someday update my blog with pictures I actually took myself!
Tiksi buildings… Below pictures are (c) Alex Litvintsev
Concrete blocks in Soviet style ((c) Alex Litvintsev)
View from the sea (photographer unknown, published in the photo album of tiksi.ru):
It can indeed get quite cold in Tiksi in winter …
Street in Tiksi, note the Hammer and Sickle on the wall in the distance. Why remove propaganda when few people ever visit?
The hammer and sickle in close… Note the bad state of the buildings.
Winter in Tiksi
A bit of coloured housing that contrasts the darkness
Typical Tiksi street with typical USSR-esque buildings. One man bravely goes to church despite the harsh weather.