Exotic Cities, Part One: Oymyakon, Siberia
March 11, 2009
The lush city of Oymyakon, the “Garden of Siberia,” welcomes the traveler like a ripe concubine parting her legs for the conquering hero returning from his epic journey to lands unknown, raping, killing, and looting. Take her, traveler, for she is all yours! Do with her as you wish! She will never complain, nor will her beauty fade!
Ivan the Terrible planted his flag on her velvety flank in 1582. She was fought over by the Cossacks and Koryaks. She was celebrated in literature by the great Maxim Gorky. And the Swedish explorer Baron Nils Nordenskjold had to be dragged away forcibly from her by his men to return home.
Today, Oymyakon is a happy and peaceful city, enjoying its status as a tourist destination for adventurous souls searching for something different.
Most sources describe Oymyakon as a very cold place, but this claim is disputed by its mayor, Vladimir Zaebanyi, a colorful fellow who dresses like an English aristocrat, drives a Ferrari, and owns a large herd of goats. “It’s all Western propaganda,” he insists. “All the jokes about Siberia being so cold. It’s a huge exaggeration. Everything’s relative, after all. Yes, someone from California would say it’s cold, but to us it is brisk and refreshing, and we like it. There is a natural hot spring nearby, which contributes warmth. The summer is very pleasant. You don’t need a coat. The winter is invigorating. We like to get out and enjoy it, just like you Canadians. We ski, we hike, we play hockey, we fish through the ice. And you can see the aurora borealis on many nights. It’s breathtaking!”
The principal item on the mayor’s agenda is the construction of an international airport, which he says would increase tourism ten-fold. The government is considering it. For now, travelers must fly to Yakutsk and then take a bus to Oymyakon.
The city’s only hotel is the InterContinental (formerly known as the Hotel Oymyakon). Its manager is Pascal Forotti, a Frenchman who visited Oymyakon in 1990 and fell in love with it. “Many celebrities have visited here,” he says. “We have a gallery of framed photos over the bar. Frankie Avalon and his wife, Kathryn Diebel, spent their honeymoon at the old Hotel Oymyakon in 1963. And Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore stayed here in 1972. And last year, Paris Hilton was here for a week. She brought her chihuahua.”
A 5-day package at the InterContinental will cost you a very modest $400 U.S. per person. Amenities include a swimming pool, exercise room, indoor squash court, conference rooms, satellite TV, and an underground walkway to the Nedotrahanaya Department Store and Promenade, with its upscale boutiques. Beautiful (albeit pricey) Russian escorts are also available 24/7 — a must for the business traveler!
The city has a reputation for excellent food. The Siber Restaurant, on Ebanutaya Plaza, is the place for haute cuisine. Chef Yuri Ebanko, who was trained at the prestigious Ukrainian Academy of Culinary Arts, is known for his sophisticated interpretations of local ethnic delicacies, such as pan-fried reindeer testicles, deep-fried reindeer dumplings, rare Siberian truffles, and steamed salmon from the nearby Indigirka River. A typical meal at the Siber will run you about $30 U.S. per person. The more budget-minded can eat cheaply and happily at Ivan’s Pizza or Irina’s Bar-B-Cue, both on Avenue Volov.
For an unpredictable shopping adventure, you have to go to the quaint Doroga Losinogo Govna, a bohemian or “poor man’s” district. Anyone with anything to sell simply sets up a table in the street, which is blocked off to traffic. Cartons of American cigarettes, videotapes, DVD’s, electronics, Swiss chocolates, toys, clothing, hand-crafted jewlery, paintings, steaming pots of soups and teas, sausage on a bun, stuffed birds, shrunken heads, car parts, used appliances, housewares, guns, patent medicines, busts of Elvis, scuba gear, pornography, antiques, military paraphernalia, and countless other surprises compete for your attention and your money. Meanwhile, buskers, magicians, dancers, street artists, and people sticking needles in their bodies perform for audiences. Some of it is not entirely legal, but it’s a summer tradition, and as long as no one makes a formal complaint, the police look the other way.
The business district is reassuringly normal, with well-dressed people carrying briefcases going in and out of modern office buildings. The city is becoming an increasingly important financial center.
Oymyakon’s most notable landmark is the “Boy On The Bear” — a marble statue depicting a native boy riding atop a large white bear. According to an ancient legend, a boy was confronted by a ferocious bear while picking strawberries. He bravely offered the bear some strawberries, which the bear ate from the palm of his hand. The bear became friendly, and the boy climbed on its back and rode into the forest. People throw coins at the statue for good luck.
The Oymyakon Strawberry Festival runs every August at the Prospect Dohloi Sobaki, the local farmers’ market. It’s largely an excuse for people to get drunk on the local strawberry wine and dance in the streets.
A recently-built amusement park draws many visitors, although, it, too, is only open in the summer.
The nature walk is a year-round recreation, however. Oymyakoners say it keeps them fit. The natural beauties of the countryside change according to the season, but bring your camera regardless. A well-marked path takes you along the banks of the Indigirka, and through fields, forests, and hills. The strawberry fields are lovely, as are the many flowers and plants, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. The bird population is highly seasonal, ranging from multi-colored species to magnificent birds of prey. Migrating musk-oxen can sometimes be viewed at a distance. The hauntingly beautiful and mysterious bat cave is not to be missed. Oymyakoners are proud of these natural beauties and will never allow them to be spoiled by urban development.
All major currencies are accepted in Oymyakon, although exchange rates may vary. Watch out for dishonest taxi drivers who overcharge the inexperienced tourist.
Recommended vaccinations: smallpox, hepatitis (A, B, and C), Kamchatka tick fever.
Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: email@example.com