The coldest town on Earth

A toilet on the tundra at a petrol stop on the road to Oymyakon, Russia. (Amos Chapple)

When Amos Chapple’s friends told him about Oymyakon, they said it was the “real Russia.” It’s dark for 21 hours per day — and, during winter, temperatures average minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit. Located only a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, it is reportedly the coldest town on Earth, earning its namesake in 1933 when it plummeted to minus 90.

“The level of energy it took just to be outside was a shock,” Chapple, a photographer from New Zealand, told The Washington Post. Chapple withstood the cold and traveled to the remote village to document life there.

Getting to Oymyakon is not easy; the closest major city is more than 500 miles away. After Chapple took a seven-hour flight from Moscow, he took a shared van that would only take him part of the way — to a little petrol station, where could hitch a ride. After spending two days in a small shack at the station eating reindeer soup and sharing a bed with a dog, he finally made it to Oymyakon, but the challenges didn’t end there.

“After the first couple of days I was physically wrecked just from strolling around the streets for a few hours” he said. “… Then there were little things that surprised me all the time. Sometimes my saliva would freeze into little needles that would prick my lips, a cold beer would steam like soup when taken outside, and taking a pee was a steamy spectacle.”

What was surprising to Chapple: daily life for the 500 permanent inhabitants of Oymyakon. To deal with the cold, residents leave their cars running, and most people live off of eating meat because crops wont grow in the frozen ground. The bathrooms are largely outdoors for risk of frozen pipes.

“The streets were just empty,” Chapple told Smithsonian Magazine. “I had expected that they would be accustomed to the cold and there would be everyday life happening in the streets, but instead people were very wary of the cold.”

Chapple had a hard time photographing in Oymyakon. Not only were there technical challenges, such as his camera freezing up, but he told Wired it was hard to talk with people because they didn’t want to be in the cold for long — and dashed indoors. “It felt extremely desolate,” he told Smithsonian magazine. “It wasn’t, but everything was happening indoors, and I wasn’t welcome indoors.”

Despite the cold people and the cold weather, Chapple continued the project. When asked why he wanted to photograph the village, Chapple said he did it for the headline: “The coldest place on Earth.”