It was already dark in Yakutsk, the capital of Yakutia, a territory of over three million km² (six Spains, one and a half Mexicos, or 10% larger than Argentina!!). The clock was only reading 4pm. On the other hand, in the summer the sun never sets in this arctic republic. Even worse was reading the outdoor temperature on a thermometer: -40ºC! Except for the Antarctic, Yakutia is the place with the lowest temperatures in the planet, situated in an area of true permafrost.
My Russian friend had warned me: take good care with the people of Yakutia! But as soon as I established a degree of friendship with these people, there in the Yakutsk airport, they warned me, "Take great care with Russians!"
Opposite the airport were two hotels. I made enquiries at the first and they told me that the rate for a single room, including a sumptuous breakfast, was three hundred roubles, a bit under ten American dollars. Astonished by the low price and determined not to be thought guilty of deception, when I showed my passport, I told the receptionist, "Look, I'm a foreigner." She didn't turn a hair and replied that if foreigners didn't stay at the hotel, she wouldn't be able to understand what I was saying. The price was just the same for everybody. Yippee! In Yakutia, the prices were the same, regardless of nationality, and I shouldn't have to seek out a geyser shed or a yurt (local type of tent) in order to sleep cheaply.
It's interesting that, because of the accent I had when speaking Russian, they took me for an Armenian and told me that millions of "us" were already there, engaged in cheap manual labour, often in diamond mining. When I got over to them the fact that I was Spanish they were gobsmacked, but when they started to revive from this they gave me the heartiest possible welcome, saying with great conviction that it was a great honour for Yakutia to be visited by a person from such a distant country, as they see Spain.
On the following days I was invited to try "kumis," a drink very popular in Kazajstan, made from the milk of mares. On one occasion an old person of the region interpreted a tune for me by means of a small instrument that they call a "khomus," a bit like a soup spoon to look at. It's placed in part of the mouth and a reed is vibrated to produce sounds very pleasing to the ear.
The local people are of Turcoman stock, related to the people of Mongolia. They practice Shamanism; I was once fortunate enough to see and talk with a shaman with a massive mop of hair and outlandish clothes in a fair for medicinal plants in Yakutsk. Their language has strong similarities with Turkish, Tartar, Kazak, and the language spoken by the people of the Republic of Tuva, some 150 million in total. Physically, they are chubby and rather squat, with pronounced cheekbones. Many of them are nomads who live with their herds of reindeer in the north of the country near the icebound Arctic Ocean, sleeping in yurts.
The women sport very bright jewels, especially necklaces. On close-up examination these can be seen to consist of any number of small diamonds; Yakutia has an astonishing number of diamond mines. The women of Yakutia show off their jewellery like Spanish girls wear silver forget-me-nots, given to them by their fiancés. Every few metres you can find jewellers with the most brilliant and remarkable stones, delicately sculpted into fantastic designs such as teardrops or dodecahedrons. The effect was multiplied by strategic positioning of mirrors and lenses in the shops almost to the point of being hypnotic, the sort of thing that would have suited Alibaba in his cave - to show off to the40 thieves. No doubt Yakutsk is a city of great wealth.
One day, while I was there, I decided to take a photo of a thermometer high up in the Telecommunications Building. It was already three in the afternoon and I needed to get back to my hotel. In the night the temperature would fall to below minus fifty centigrade! I had finished a visit to a fort built in 1632 near the River Lena by the Russian explorer, Simeon Deshnev, to the Cathedral, to the tower that remained from the old wooden fortifications, which had largely burned down and to some museums, including those of mammoths and of diamonds; in Yakutia you can buy little figurines made from Mammoth bones.
I was wearing a "shuba," or anorak, given to me by the son-in-law of my Russian friend's Godfather's eldest daughter, two pairs of trousers, leather boots, several sweaters, and a sort of Russian-peaked cap called shapka. Even so, I had to pop in to a jeweller's every 5 minutes to warm up. My eyes would freeze and (I have to tell it as it was - more's the pity!), some other delicate masculine parts of my body were freezing up as well!
Well, I took off my right glove for less than 10 seconds, just time to get my hands steady and take the photo of the thermometer now registering -39ºC. "Click" - it was done, and I reached out to put back my glove but - Heaven help us! - It seemed as though the fingers of my hand were in the process of falling off! I shot into a cinema and in its cafeteria, I pleaded for a glass of hot water, tea or coffee - of whatever would be the first available - then I was holding my hand and trying to plunge it into the glass. The two attendants, a sexy and forward pair, one smoking and the other painting her nails, told me without any interest that there were having a "pererib" or temporary pause for a quarter of an hour. I rushed into the toilet and turned on the hot tap. It took a full 10 minutes with my hand held under before I recovered feeling!
One cold day in December I flew back to Moscow and immediately changed onto a plane to my birthplace, Barcelona, in my beloved Spain. My stay in Russia had already become like a lovely Russian fairy-tale, and like all my trips, I could appreciate it much better on arriving home. I spread out my map of the world and marked in where I had travelled; near the Arctic Ocean; in the easternmost part of Asia, in two of the "forbidden" islands of the Kuriles, in the "Proliv Laperuza" to sail to Korsakov in the island of Sakhalin, and in the peninsula of Kamchatka. I felt hugely emotional. Although I was left with scarce a Euro in my pocket, and that night I had to eat a horrible mortadella sandwich that I bought in the Pakistani shop that was still open in the late hours of the night, I shouted joyfully, "My God, how very lucky I am. I have been to stupendous places and seen amazing sights that not too many human eyes have seen."