Oymyakon is known by another title ‘The Pole of Cold’. This is because in 1924 it recorded its lowest temperature (-71,2C) making it the coldest inhabited place on earth.
Initially, we were planning to make this trip in late December into January, but after a lot of research of the area we decided to move the journey until March when the days are longer and the roads are safer.
The safest time to go through the river on the ice road is from the second week of December up until the end of March. Everybody in Yakutsk told us it had been warmer than the year before, and the temperature hadn’t drop below -60C for the last 20-30 years which proves that it has some global warming issues.
George Kourounis, the host of the program “Angry Planet”, a Canadian adventurer and storm chaser, had Oymyakon on his list of the most spectacular places to visit and we were happy to organise and assist the Canadian crew in this exciting adventure (note: Alyona Pimanova worked as fixer on this trip with Dan Smith supporting from the Moscow office).
To reach Oymyakon we had to cross the river Lena, the 10th longest river in the world, then to drive 8-10 hours to Khandyga followed by another 12 hour drive to get to Oymyakon. The road is a picturesque mountain highway which spiral past the most remarkable turquoise colored rivers. It is narrow with a shear drop on one side, and when you get really high it makes the heart soar. Trucks fallen over the edge is not an uncommon sight. Normally, it is a two day drive to Oymyakon from the city of Yakutsk but our crew had to get to another village of reindeer herders first, known as Topolinoe, where there are some remains of Gulag camps on the way.
The camps are 100 kilometers away from Khandyga on the way to Oymyakon, and then another 200 km after the turn to Topolinoe (in a Northern direction away from the main road). Depending on weather conditions, the journey can take between 5 to 15 hours. The local driver will never tell you exactly how long the journey will be, as the road is very unpredictable. Lots of trucks run from Yakutsk to the North with food and construction materials as long as the road is iced, which is why it is quite a busy road. Our journey did take us the full 15 hours due to getting stuck several times on the road which is only one lane wide, and made more difficult by the snowfall the day before, as well as having to pull over to avoid trucks coming towards us.
In such unpredictable weather and road conditions it is recommended to travel with two vehicles (It is very likely you will get stuck and the second vehicle can pull the other out). Although people you meet on the road are always very willing to help you in case you need it. But when it is -40C and dropping, when you get stuck every minute of waiting seems like a life time.
We were instructed by the Federal Rescue Service in Yakutsk to check in with them by satellite phone every evening when we reached each designated location where we would stay for the night. If we didn’t call them, that would be a signal to launch a search and rescue.
There is no mobile connection on the road to Oymyakon, only when you get to the village locations. So check with local drivers if they have satellite phones or bring one with you. When you get to the location, it is also important to know that not all mobile companies work in all settlements. If you are going to buy a local sim-card, it should be of the mobile company “Beeline”. It is the only mobile company that works in settlements such as Topolinoe, Oymyakon and Uchugey.
ROAD OF BONES
(Russian Federal Highway M56, also called “Kolyma” or “Kolyma Route”) is built upon permafrost between Yakutsk and Magadan which is 2032 kilometers, 1197 km on Yakutsk territory, 835 on Magadan. When gold and platinum were discovered in the Kolyma region in 1927-1932, one of Stalin’s projects was the construction of the main mountain road through the Olchan passes. They built 80 separate Gulag camps in the Kolyma region using hundreds of thousands of prisoners over the years to build the highway. The road of bones was built almost entirely by hand in the harsh conditions and workers who died there were buried where they fell which is how the road got its name.
In Khandyga there is a museum of the Gulag Camps, but recently the owner of the museum moved to another city and the museum is no longer open. Instead there is the museum of Magadan TRASSA (road) in Teply Kluch (70 km away from Khandyga in direction to Oymyakon). Zinaida Viktorovna, the director of the museum, and Maria Mukhailovna, keep the photographs and the memoirs of many prisoners. Locals don’t like to remember or talk about the time of the Gulag, but when they do open up and talk about it it is even more horrific than you imagine.
After meeting with these ladies we continued our journey to Oymyakon. There is only one café on the way in Kubume (the so called CAFÉ) with homemade pies, borsh (Russian soup) and plov with reindeer meet. This was a beautiful surprise after many hours of bouncing around in the minivan on the bumpy road. Driving through the Olchan mountain pass was not as scary as on the way to Topolinoe, because the road has barriers to help protect vehicles falling, but even with these barriers you still come across trucks which have gone over the edge. Our driver took this part of the journey very carefully.
When we finally arrived in Oymyakon at midnight, our host Tamara Egorovna was waiting for us. The stove was warm and table was spread for dinner awaiting our arrival.
Note: Oymyakon used to be an administrative center and regional capital of the Oymyakon region (so called Ulus in Yakutia language) in the East of Yakutia. The region (ulus) consists of 7 urban type settlements, including Oymyakon, Tomtor, Ust-Nera, Uchugey. But in 1954 Ust-Nera became the administrative center and the leaders of the region moved there from Oymyakon.
Next morning it felt so much colder than in all other villages where we had stopped before, and when we checked the temperature, it showed -39C. The sun was very bright that it was impossible to stay outside without sunglasses. No wind but hard frost under the feet and very quiet. A silence which wraps itself around you.
After having been blessed by the spirit of fire (Yakut people believe in spirits and have a tradition of purification when the guests come to their ground), accompanied by the performance of their national instruments and throat singing, we visited the well-known site of the ‘Pole of cold’.
OYMYAKON OR VERHOYANSK
Tamara Egorovna, our host has been struggling for many years to fully have the title of Pole of Cold, which she is convinced should be given to Oymyakon, not to Verhoyansk (these two villages have arguing for the title for many years). Tamara has written several books with arguments proving that their village of Oymyakon deserves this title.
There is a village of reindeer herders called Uchugey which is not far from Oymyakon. Reindeer herders live there in small houses and have their pasture several kilometers away. When we came to see them, their reindeer were in pastures 8 kilometers away, so it took us an hour on a sledge pulled by reindeer to reach the pastures. It isn’t the most comfortable way to travel as it is very bumpy and the icy wind bites any exposed skin. That and you can often fall off the sledge into the deep snow, but that said it was the most amazing and memorable ride, seeing the beauty of nature and the snow glittered in the sun, as well as breathing the air which feels so clean and fresh.
The Evenki (Eveny – reindeer herders in that area) when tending their reindeer live in tents made of a simple fabric. They make a fire in the tent, put benches on the ground where you can sit or sleep. Some of the crew stayed in the tent for the night with the Evenki, but three of us returned to the village by snowmobile where we had a quiet night in a warm house.
When it is below -20C, the vehicle should be put in a warm garage for the night, which we did in all places we stayed. But in Uchugey it was not possible and our vehicle had to stay all night with its engine running so not to freeze up.
In the city of Yakutsk we stayed in a very nice hotel the ‘Polar Star’ which is in a good location and has very friendly staff and great breakfasts which are essential for film crews who spend most of the day filming outside.
In all other locations/villages there are no hotels, but homestays instead. Because of the Festival “Pole of cold” which takes place in Tomtor and Oymyakon in the middle of March (this year it was on the 22 of March) we had to book rooms months in advance.
Here is a short ‘behind the scenes’ (mostly all the funny moments and memories of this wonderful trip)
This spring we had the pleasure of working with Victoria Melody, a visual and performance artist from the UK, filming a documentary about the production of hair extensions.
When she was taking part in a beauty contest in Brighton for her project ‘Major Tom’ which premiered in 2013 she had hair extensions which made her ask questions about where the hair had come from. These questions sparked the beginning of her next theatre project that took her to India and Russia in an attempt to trace the hair used in her extensions back to the person who grew it.
We spent months researching the questions: where do Russian women sell their hair, how do hair dealers find these women, how much do they buy hair for?
We found that the majority of hair dealers are not open to speaking about their business, and even the salons who buy real hair refused to talk about this as soon as they understood we were going to make a film about this subject.
We visited a unique hair factory in Mosalsk, that produces around 1,5 tons of hair every month. Their dealer collects hair from all over Russia and brings it to the factory for processing. But again he decided to stay away from filming and didn’t want to reveal his identity. So much mystery in this hair business…
We did find one hair dealer from Volgograd who turned out to be interested in our film and agreed to show us this world of the Russian hair business. We were really surprised to discover hair harvesting events still take place. In Volgograd , for example, they take place every Friday in a shopping centre where people come and bring hair that they want to sell. One old lady brought her hair that she had been keeping for years and after having seen the advert on the bus stop “WE BUY HAIR” decided to sell it and buy a gift for her grandson, another young lady got bored of her long hair and wanted to get it cut right there for a small amount of money.
After Volgograd we travelled to a very small town of Borisoglebsk where we met a young lady who wanted to sell her waist length hair because she wanted a change. Although she was a little concerned about the outcome having had grown her hair for the past 9 years, in the end she was really pleased with her new haircut as well as with the amount of money she was paid by the hair dealer. It was lovely to share with her the excitement of this big change and follow her to the hairdresser for this film.
We ventured 120km from Moscow to Obninsk to investigate what state the Russian collective farms are in now for French-German TV. With stories that a lot of the land is being rented by Chinese farmers who are putting up hundreds of green houses and polytunnel’s to mass produce vegetables for the Russian market.
We had read an article which said that the Chinese farmers are using huge amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to bring on the crop faster and bigger than anything grown naturally. There are stories of them moving to different land each year leaving behind fields poisoned and unable to be farmed anymore, land that even weeds don’t grow on.
We found one of these Chinese run farms and they were very welcoming and showed us around. This group had worked the same plot of land for 5 years so maybe not all the stories we had read were true. We got some great film of their green houses and how they tend to the tomato plants.
Also for this story we looked at the local Russian population, most of them would have been farmers here 10 – 20 years ago, but now the young don’t seem to have the opportunity to work the land, either because there is not enough work or they don’t like the idea of this type of back breaking labour.
In the 3 days of filming we met one young Russian couple who have a small holding and are happy to still be working the land with their collection of young cows, goats and pigs. But this couple seem to be an exception and not typical in this region.
With a few months of pre-production done we had the most amazing week with Sugar Rush Productions from Beirut filming an episode of the reality TV show “Laish La”. This show has a prime time slot and is the number one show in its category on MBC seen right across the Middle East and North Africa. It has some staggering viewing figures as well as huge following on social media and we now know why.
Four very likable guys traveling the world, seeing some wonderful locations and ticking off things from their bucket list. They have slept in an igloo in Sweden, learnt kung fu with the Shao Lin monks in China and spent 3 days with traditional eagle hunters in Mongolia and many other fantastic things.
Not only do they get to do loads of cool stuff and see their own dreams come true, in each episode they change the life of a total stranger making their lifelong ambition come true, which not only makes for brilliant television but exactly the kind of thing we jumped at the chance to do.
We filmed right across Moscow, in Gorky Park, New Arbat and Nikolskaya Street as well as headed to Nizhniy Novgorod for part of this episode. We can’t wait for it to air on the 22nd April 2015 on MBC1 so we can share with you more details of our adventures with this production.
Here we need to thank not only all of the crew from Beirut for such a fantastic week, but those from our team who went above and beyond to get this filmed. From the many project’s we get involved in, this is one we will always remember, and a huge reason for that can only be talked about once it’s has been shown.
Throughout January we have been scouting different locations for a number of clients needs. One request has been to find a café setting for 4 presenters to meet and discuss their plans and this location needs to feature throughout the episode.
It has been quite the year which started in the icy north of Siberia and into the artic circle. Filming took us to a lot of new places in Russia as well as some familiar areas that we know and love. We met, interviewed and filmed a lot of very interesting people in 2014, some of who have since become good friends. We also worked with a lot of great people and continued to learn more from them all.
Our philosophy has always been that however long we have worked in the business, we always continue to develop and learn new techniques.
Through filming we have also investigated different stories in Russia which include the urban architecture of Moscow, the Red Army retreating from East Germany, Russian Road Rage and dash cams, Stalin’s rail roads and nomadic reindeer headers.
We would like to thank the following companies for their co-operation in 2014: Pilot Productions, The Service Desk Institute, Mentorn Media, Deutsche Welle TV, Hoferichter & Jacobs Film, PI&C, The British Council, Victoria Melody, Sugar Rush Productions and Cineflix.
So we are looking forward to many more adventures in Russia in 2015 with more teams from around the world coming to explore and document the ever changing and fascinating country that Russia is today.
Building up to the release of the single It’s Christmas Time by The Acoustic Reverbs on the 17th Nov 2014 we launch the music video. It has been a great pleasure to work on this project and we know this song will be a great hit as it sums up perfectly the feeling of Christmas.
Lets not forget why we all worked so hard on this song. Taylor Made Dreams support children who are very unwell and don’t have long left. If they can be helped to see a final dream come true then we should all do as much as possible to make that happen.
We had two amazing days filming for Deutsche Welle TV‘s cultural magazine show with reporter Werner Herzog about the changing architecture of Moscow. We met with Sergey Kuznetsov, Chief architect of Moscow to talk about his new projects. One of which is Zaryadie park that is going to be built in heart of Moscow.
“It’s a place for the people. It’s not a place only for the tourists, it’s a place for Muscovites. Moscow really needs good parks and this is the last remaining, very important big plot. Not only in Moscow, but I would say in one of ten most important megapolis in the world, in a historic place. It’s a good sign for Russia” – Peter Kudryavtsev
We also filmed an interview with the director of Schusev State museum of architecture and The opening of the exhibition “Urban development: Position and Opposition”, which represents the works of graduating Russian architecture students and their vision of how to create a modern city and its space.
Last week we interviewed a Russian lawyer for QLTS School who provide international lawyers with training and consultation to qualify as English solicitors. This interview will form part of a number of testimonials from lawyers in different countries to promote their services.
As part of our documentary Women in Creative Industries, we shared a day with Daxa Parmar, a visual artist who was the mentor during the British Council creative entrepreneur workshop in Moscow which all three of our contributors attended. As well as continuing to support our three creative businesswomen after the workshop she also inspired us to make the film itself.
It was a great honour to be able to film Daxa work in her studio and observe her work, to find out more about her vision and find out what inspirers her. With family life as important as her work, We spent a wonderful evening with Daxa and her daughter, sharing dinner and discussing more about how to combine being creative, making money and running a home all at the same time.
We want to thank Daxa and Molly for letting us follow them for the whole day. If you want to find out more about Daxa’s work, take a look at her website here