When God flew over the world to inspect what he had created, his hands got so cold when reaching Yakutia that he dropped all the jewels he was carrying to the ground, scattering diamonds and gold across this vast Siberian region. According to local legend, this explains why the area—known officially as the Sakha Republic—is one of the richest regions in the world in terms of natural resources and must for anyone with their sights on adding a Russia travel adventure to their wishlist.
Located in the far east of Siberia, Yakutia occupies an impressive fifth of the entire territory of Russia—an area large enough to house several European countries, or the majority of the Indian subcontinent. It’s mostly famous for extreme temperatures: winter can drop to around -90°F (-68°C) here, while summer can reach 100°F (+38°C), and the landscape is as extreme as the weather, with rugged mountains, thousands of snaking rivers large and small, and vast areas of tundra and taiga wilderness.
But despite the terrain—and the fact Yakutia is one of the most sparsely populated regions in Russia, with less than a million people spread over its three million square kilometers—it’s a surprisingly warm and welcoming place, as many tourists discover to their delight. Most visitors land in the capital,Yakutsk, a six-hour flight from Moscow, the Russian capital, and a vibrant place to spend a couple of days.
Situated on the winding Lena River, whose 4,000 kilometers length makes it one of the longest in the world, Yakutsk’s history dates as far back as the 1600s when it was founded by Russian Cossack explorers, traces of whose language and lifestyle can still be found in the city today.
Home to just over 300,000 inhabitants today, Yakutsk holds the world record for being the world’s coldest city. Its many large, colorful buildings are built on concrete pilings up to eight meters high to counter the permafrost. But while it’s true that people come here to test themselves against the cold, Yakutsk is also surprisingly developed in terms of tourism and culture—thanks largely to the region’s diamond-mining boom.
The Museum of History and Culture of The People of The North is a great place to get an overview of the region’s ecology and geography, as well as the traditions of Yakuts and their contemporary history, while the National Art Museum of The Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) is a fantastic complement with its permanent and changing exhibitions by local and Russian artists.
The Kingdom of Permafrost
More interactive are the Mammoth Museum and the Kingdom of Permafrost. At the first, set up in 1991 as a scientific and cultural center for the study of the mammoth fauna and its habitat, visitors can marvel at a life-size mammoth skeleton and learn about other extinct ice-age animals as well as the process for excavating mammoths from local permafrost sites (the woolly mammoth ivory trinkets sold at the shop also make for wonderful souvenirs). At the Kingdom of Permafrost, guests can literally take a deeper dive into the permafrost via neon-lit tunnels filled with all kinds of sculptures, from pagan gods to a Buddha—boots and coats are thankfully provided.
Visit in summer and you can experience the traditional Ysyakh festival, which goes back many centuries and is held every year on the summer solstice (June 21-22). This colorful and creative event features a swathe of activities such as horse racing, music performances, wrestling, folk singing and dancing—and of course plenty of feasting; local dishes include horsemeat skewers, reindeer, pancakes, Stroganina (frozen fish), dried or fried fish, and kumis (fermented mare’s milk); the largest celebrations are held at Us Khatyn,just north of Yakutsk, with crowds of up to 200,000 visitors.
Lena Pillars Nature Reserve
Outside of Yakutsk, there are endless thrills to be had for adrenaline junkies, from snowmobile safaris pulled by reindeers or blue eyed Laika dogs to horse riding, ice-fishing, climbing and hiking in the nearby mountains, and rafting or canoeing on the many rivers. One must-see is the Lena Pillars Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site created by the region’s extreme climate. The area, a couple of kilometers south of Yakutsk, comprises a twenty-mile stretch of towering cliffs along the Lena river and natural rock sculptures in various shapes (colonnades, towers, arches), some of them adorned with ancient engravings and writings.
You can also take a cruise boat along the Lena in the other direction (north), right up to the historic port of Tiksi and the Arctic Ocean; in summer the sun never dips below the horizon here (known as the ‘white nights’), while winter is a great time to catch the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).
And let’s not forget the diamonds: Yakutia accounts for an impressive quarter of the world’s natural diamond production (second only to the entire African continent), and 82% of the country’s diamonds—prompting the nickname ‘the treasury’ of Russia. Mirny, a two-hour flight from Yakutsk, is the capital of the Russian diamond industry. Built in the 1950s, the town is based around the local mine (Mir, meaning ‘peace’), which is owned by ALROSA.
Visit Diamond Museums on a Russian Travel Adventure
Visitors can access the viewing deck, and also browse three related and fascinating museums: the Regional Museum of Diamond Mining History, the ALROSA Museum of History and Production, and the Savrasov Kimberlite Museum, making Mirny a place rich in knowledge as well as precious gems.
Russia Travel Tips: How to Get to Yakutia
The best way to begin your exploration of Yakutia is via a direct flight from Moscow to Yakutsk. Extend your layover by one or two nights to see some of the capital’s most iconic sights, including the Bolshoi Theatre, Kremlin & Red Square, Lenin’s Mausoleum and the wonderful Tretyakov Gallery.