When God flew over Yakutia as he inspected the world he had created, so the legend goes, it was so perishingly cold that he dropped all his treasure from his frozen palms, scattering this Siberian region with untold riches of diamonds and gold.
Magnificent footsteps of Verkhoyanskiy Mountain Range. Picture: Alrosa.ru
Yet its wealth goes far beyond the breathtaking mineral resources of this mighty permafrost region, as tourists from around the world, as well as the rest of Russia, are now beginning to discover.
The capital Yakutsk maybe the coldest city in the world, and this awesome republic, the largest in the Russian Federation, may straddle the Arctic Circle, yet there is a warm welcome indeed from the hospitable locals for those who take the trouble to venture off the beaten track and come in search of the myriad travel opportunities offered here.
True, this is one of the remotest corners of the world, yet a number of factors mean that it is now becoming much more accessible, with flight connections both cheaper (especially via Moscow) and from more places (for example a new direct link from Beijing by airline S7 which opened in March 2012) and, astonishingly, an engineering triumph that connects Yakutsk to the Russian capital by rail for the first time, an unfulfilled dream of both the Tsars and Communist planners, also opening in 2013, a little-publicized fact which will suddenly make the Trans-Siberian Railway even more interesting.
Aerial view of river Lena, Yakutia. Picture: Planet Yakutia
Here, as we outline below, you'll find potential vacation experiences like nowhere else in the world, whether you're following in the footsteps of the Woolly Mammoths which once roamed these frozen lands, or making a daring trip to Oymyakon, the coldest inhabited town in the world, or taking a summer cruise on the Lena, Russia's fourth longest river, through one of the world's last great wildernesses, amongst the cleanest and greenest places on Earth.
You'll also impress your friends back home with the sheer adventurism and audacity of your holiday itinerary.
It is the right time to think of travelling here: the government of Yakutia, which administers an area that covers almost one-fifth of the entire Russian Federation, is finally clutching the moose by the antlers and actively improving infrastructure for tourists, believing that the travel industry, as much as its world famous diamonds, are the key to its future. A trip here has never been easier to accomplish.
Don't be unduly deterred, either, by the stereotypes concerning eastern Siberia.
The region - with its 'Road of Bones' - is notorious for the Gulags build by Stalin. As our guide pointed out: "This is our history, and we must never forget it, indeed it is a tour we offer for people to see the remains of the prison camps where so many people lost their lives. There are people who come here to see the place where their relatives lived out their last years. By remembering these dark events, we will prevent them returning."
And the famed cold is not all it seems, or rather to be more precise, it's more bearable than you might imagine.
For those from temperate or hot climates, this may sound absurd, yet Yakutia has very little wind and many days of sunshine through its long winters. Dress correctly, and the cold is manageable and even fun, too, in the deep of winter.
Indeed, locals who often wear fur through the winter, puzzle at how their compatriots in Moscow and St Petersburg cope with grey skies and harsh winds albeit with far less extreme temperatures. "How do they manage? I could never do that," said a Yakutsk babushka sweeping her yard clean in minus 47C.
There is compensation too: Yakutsk - where winter temperatures annually dip to minus 50C and below - enjoys summers as hot as many Mediterranean resorts. The region has an astonishing 108C range in temperature, and in July locals sun themselves on beaches beside the Lena River which in winter is frozen solid enough for them to use as a road and drive cars on.
Come here in summer, and complaining of the cold will be the last thing on your mind. It can even reach 40C, rivalling the heat in Saudi Arabia.
Yakutia - also known here as the Sakha Republic - is a treasure trove, a territory so vast that you could fit the United Kingdom into it 13 times. It is only slightly smaller than India, and if it were an independent country, it would be the eighth largest in the world. Within this vast Kingdom of Cold (and sometimes Hot) there is so much to discover. In these parts, they call it Planet Yakutia, and you can see why.
The following vacation suggestions are made with assistance from the Yakutia Travel Company, which provides excellent help to individuals, groups, and tour agents seeking to explore this mighty region. Many of these suggestions can be combined, making an unforgettable holiday:
14 REASONS TO COME TO PLANET YAKUTIA
DIAMONDS AND GOLD
Yakutia accounts for around a quarter of the world's natural diamond production and is second only to South Africa.
Treasures of Yakutia, picture: Alrosa.ru
You can see the immense man made hole in the ground in Mirny where diamonds were mined open cast until its closure.
It is so vast - 525 metres deep - that helicopters are banned from flying over it for fear of being sucked in. The process of polishing diamonds can be seen up close.
Visits to gold mines are included, and you can feel yourself to be a prospector, with the chance to take part in gold washing.
You can visit the Treasury of the Republic of Sakha in capital Yakutsk, where glittering samples of diamonds, gold and silver are on display. And visit an abundance jewellery shops where prices compare favourably with what you find back home.
THE POLE OF COLD
Send a postcard home from the coldest permanently inhabited town in the world, where the record low temperature of -67.7C was recorded in 1933.
Girl shows a bricket of fresh cow milk, frozen minutes after it was left inside the bucket. Picture: Igor Monichev
It's likely to take you three days to reach the outpost of Oymyakon from Yakutsk, and on the way you will pass the famous 'Road of the Bones' and see the extraordinary sacred mountains of Verkhoyansk.
Once there, you may stay with a local family and visit the Pole of Cold, the weather station where the coldest-ever temperature was recorded. They'll present you with a certificate to prove you've been here.
You can fish through an ice hole on the frozen Indigirka River, and see how your catch is ready frozen soon after throwing it on the ice. Warm up again being beaten with birch twigs in a traditional Russian hot steam banya.
IN SEARCH OF THE MAMMOTH
There is increasing optimism that the wonders of science will again see the extinct woolly mammoths strut their stuff in their old habitat of Yakutia, brought back from the dead.
Baby mammoth in one of city of Yakutsk museums. Picture: The Siberian Times
The reason in part is the prospect of finding useable DNA in remains preserved in the Yakutian permafrost.
Until these magnificent creatures return, however, the best way to study them is here in north eastern Siberia, and the place to start is the World Mammoth Exhibition in Yakutsk, the only one of its kind.
While many of the most famous mammoth finds have left the region, nowhere is there a better account of the history of the giant animal and its extinction, the cause of which still puzzles experts. Yet tourists are also challenged to discover the mammoth remains for themselves in the permafrost.
Special licensed tours allow visitors to take part in archeological excavations at mammoth cemeteries, digging out bones from the permafrost. They are so prolific that the organisers guarantee success. You will see too how locals use mammoth bones and tusks for making souvenirs on sale at shops in Yakutsk.
One of the most impressive features of Yakutia is the survival of so many ancient and indigenous ethnic cultures, all rich in traditions, languages and beliefs.
The smile of Yakutia - girl in traditional national headwear. Picture: Sakhasmile.ru
Among them the Yakuts, the majority population, the Evenks (hunters and reindeer breeders), Evens (nomadic reindeer breeders) Yukagirs (hunters and fishermen) and the Chukchis (reindeer herders).
You can see how Shamanism - the worship of natural forces and connection to the spirit world - still survives. You may see an Even reindeer breeders' nomadic camp.
A special treat is the Yakut festival of Ysyakh held on the summer solstice on June 21-22, a colourful feast of horse racing, wrestling, singing and dancing, and ceremonies passed down from ancient times charging participants with energy for the next year and symbolising the birth of the Universe and Man. Here too at Russkoe Ustie settlement on the upper reaches of the Indigirka River are descendents of the Old Believer Cossacks who fled from Ivan the Terrible to retain their religion and way of life.
Their language and lifestyle remain remarkably intact since the 17th century.
Due to its vastness, you know when you explore the outback of Yakutia that you can genuinely go where no man has gone before. Summer and winter the possibilities are endless.
Dragon-like top of the hill in Yakutia. Picture: Planet Yakutia
Climbing, hiking, rafting or canoeing on endless mountain rivers, snowmobile safaris, helicopter to places no human has ventured before you, explore the snowscapes on sledges pulled by reindeer or dogs, horse-riding, or camp as far from civilisation as you dare. You can go in organised groups or on your own.
Are you up to the challenge?
As the Yakutsk-based National Tourist Company says of its organised tours: 'Most are planned for strong, young-spirited people not afraid of difficulties while discovering Planet Yakutia.'
CRUISE ON THE LENA RIVER
This one is for the summer only: in the seven month winter the 4,400 kilometre Lena River is covered in ice one metre thick.
One of popular summer attractions, cruises on Lena river. Picture: Planet Yakutia
There is a choice here, the more modest being to travel from Yakutsk to the Lena Pillars Nature Reserve, where you can marvel at the natural rock sculptures appearing like colonnades, towers, arches, and even mighty cathedrals and castle battlements, soaring up as much as 300 metres from the water's edge.
Here, too, witness ancient rock engravings including ancient writings in Turkic runes. Or for the more ambitious, take the Mikhail Svetlov river cruiser on for an odyssey taking you beyond the Lena's estuary, the largest in the world and a paradise for bird-watching, to the Arctic Ocean, and as far as the port of Tiksi, where in summer you may experience the 'white nights' when the sun never sets and also the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis .
On the way, after crossing the Polar Circle you'll stop off at traditional Yakut villages like Zhigansk, founded in 1632. In all this unforgettable cruise will take two weeks travelling in relative comfort through some of the remotest territory on Earth.
CRUISE ON THE LENA RIVER FOR THE MORE DARING
This is the same trip as above as far as Tiksi but in a tiny Admiral 610 inflatable boat with an outboard motor. Instead of cabins on a comfortable cruiser, you're camping on the river shore or on islands. You fish for your lunch. On day six you cross into the Arctic Circle. This epic 15 day trip ends with a flight back to Yakutsk from Tiksi.
Like eternal sentries standing guard over Yakutia, the awesome magmatic rock pillars in the sacred Kihilekh Mountains are one of the greatest wonders of the region.
The awesome magmatic rock pillars in the sacred Kihilekh Mountains. Picture: Sakha news
Standing up to 35 metres tall, science explains their human like shapes as being created by erosion, but it is hardly surprising that these gargantuan 'stone people' - to translate from Yakut - are seen as something supernatural.
Since ancient times, locals have seen these pillars as having special powers. Shamans see them as the closest link between the Upper World of the Universe and the Middle World of Earth. Those who have lost their natural harmony with nature can climb to these structures, the size of a ten storey building, and regain their equilibrium, it is believed.
There are accounts of the blind seeing again, ailments being cured, the old losing their infirmities. Or are these giants, as some believe, evidence of a highly developed civilisation long ago with connections to space?
Yakutia has long attracted Russian and Western hunters alike, especially to the remote northern areas of pristine taiga. Local tour operators offer hunting for brown bears, moose, chubuku snow rams, reindeer and wolves.
With around one million lakes - one for each resident, countless rivers and streams, and an abundance of fish, Yakutia is perfect for the expert fisherman but also offers exciting opportunities for those less experienced, say on rafting tours where you can catch you dinner.
Yakutia is perfect for the expert fisherman but also offers exciting opportunities for those less experienced. Picture: Yuri Kokovin
Among the most popular fish are Arctic cisco, broad whitefish, maksun, white salmon, sturgeon, carp, burbot, grayling and pollan. The ultimate goal of most fishermen here is the Siberian salmon (Hucho taimen) also known as the tiger fish, which can be caught weighing up to around 30kg.
Arguably the ultimate trip for a twitcher. Organised trips are available from June to mid-August to the gigantic estuary of the Lena River, above the Arctic Circle.
You fly to Yakutsk and then switch to a propeller driven AN-24 for and three and a half hour flight over the permafrost to Tiksi. From here it is a five hour boat transfer to the Lena-Nordenscheld science station, your home for the next five days.
From here you'll be taken by boat to the remote breeding grounds for rare birds, with the possibility to camp overnight.
Yakutia is especially proud of the black crane, Ross' gull and the Siberian white crane.
You may have read Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but now you can see for yourself the scenes of one of the darkest pages of Russian history.
Thousands perished during construction of a highway that now links Yakutsk to Magadan on the Russian Pacific coast, commonly known as the Road of Bones. Picture: Sakha news
These tours take you along the Kolyma road, built on the orders of Stalin by those he sent into Siberian exile.
Untold thousands perished during construction of a highway that now links Yakutsk to Magadan on the Russian Pacific coast. For this reason it is commonly known as the Road of Bones.
It is lined with sinister remains of concentration camps and there is now a roadside wooden cross braided with barbed wire in memory of the millions of lives destroyed by Stalin. Local museums at Khandyga and Tomtor also bear witness to this cruelty.
All of Yakutia is in the permafrost zone, with buildings constructed on stilts to be safe.
Visit two intriguing places in Yakutsk. One is The Institute of Permafrost Study has the world's only underground laboratory deep in the 10,000 year old permafrost. You can admire the ancient vegetation and hear about the famous mammoth Dima.
Don't miss the Permafrost Kingdom, a separate attraction, an ice cave some 150 metres long inside a mountain, where the temperature remains constant at around minus 11C around the year, no matter how hot or cold it is outside.
See the beautiful ice crystals, try the ice slide, examine remarkable ice sculptures, including Venus de Milo, and sip a warming vodka at an ice bar, all to the sounds of Eno.
FEEL LIKE SANTA
Your chance to drive a sleigh pulled by reindeer just like Father Christmas. There's no guarantee you'll fly, but you'll never forget such an experience.
There's no guarantee you'll fly, but you'll never forget such an experience. Picture: AskYakutia.com
Beware though: in these parts Yakutia has its own bringer of seasonal happiness to children, by the name of Chyskhan, Lord of the Cold.
Or you can try riding on a sledge pulled by the blue-eyed and enchanting Yakutian Laika dog.
Believed to have been distracted by her cell phone, she mows down people as they cross the road in on Russky Island near Vladivostok.
Siberian ancestors hunted the squat short-legged horse, even though this type of animal was believed to have been wiped out 400,000 years ago.
Intriguing finds from archeological excavations in old garrison town of Tara, a key historic staging post to the east.
Pictures prove the gruesome fate of reindeer 'to meet demands for traditional medicines in China and South Korea'.
Waves on Russia's Pacific shoreline crafted old bottles, porcelain and tiles into a sparkling tourist attraction.