A City of Gold and Diamonds – Yakutsk, Russia

Siberia is a living museum, a testament to more prosperous times. Buildings crumble where they stand. Roads wind through villages long deserted. Everything is a relic.

Not in Yakutsk. Yakutsk is the capital city of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), a region unimaginably wealthy in diamonds, gold, oil and gas. Sakha is the world’s second largest producer and exporter of diamonds, and around 30 tons of gold are mined within its borders yearly. The area’s vast mineral wealth got to the head of Mikhail Nikolaev, Sakha’s former president, who made noises about seceding from the Russian Federation. Yakutsk, with its population of slightly over 200,000, would be too tiny to make it on to a map of China, Russia’s southern neighbor. In north-eastern Siberia at 61.5° N, it is a megalopolis, and a wealthy one.

Signs of Sakha’s wealth abound. Brand-new, modern buildings such as the Polar Star Hotel are sprouting up around the city. Many, like Polar Star, are financed by Alrosa, the region’s diamond interest. The sheer number of hotels – 11 – speaks to Yakutsk’s status as a regional center. In contrast, Birobidzhan, the 90,000-person capital of the nearby Jewish Autonomous Republic, is home to a single, lone hotel, which certainly does not match the “money” look of the Polar Star.

A reconstructed section of Yakutsk's historic city wall in front of a brand-new office complex
A reconstructed section of Yakutsk’s historic city wall in front of a brand-new office complex
Many hotels offer “armoured” rooms. One, Sails Hotel on the main town square, appears to offer very little else. This leads to much speculation as to what sorts of guests patronize these establishments. In the Tigin-Darkhan Hotel restaurant, Dmitry Yakimov, a police detective specializing in combating the mafia, notes that one must be careful in restaurants. “Not everyone here got their money by working for it.” Still, Yakimov notes that the mafia poses no real danger to tourists.

Yakutsk’s fifteen museums, too, speak to its status as a regional center (Birobidzhan has only one). Of these, by far the most impressive is The Treasures of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). This museum, well-guarded and accessible only to small groups of 2-4 visitors at a time, houses the republic’s most valuable and largest diamonds (by law, exceptionally large newly-mined diamonds belong to the state). Gold bricks and nuggets are also on display, along with many other precious and semi-precious stones, such as the radioactive charimite, found only in the Sakha Republic and the neighboring Irkutsk Oblast (charamite can be bought in many tourist shops, but this is not recommended, given the radioactivity). The heart of the exhibit, however, is award-winning and often fanciful jewelry.

Tourists in the Underground Permafrost Research Lab
Tourists in the Underground Permafrost Research Lab
Some of the city’s museums operate on an ad-hoc basis. The Permafrost Institute, for instance, operates tours only upon request, taking tourists into its underground research chamber. There, beneath the Earth’s frozen crust, the temperature is a steady 23° F year-round. The shaft is a legacy of one early pioneer’s attempt to dig a well.

The fascinating History of the Cartography of Yakutia Museum, full of antique maps and atlases, has received only a single guest this year (the author), though deserves many more. The curator was so pleased to have a visitor they presented him with a map in gratitude (the map was from “Globus,” an excellent map store, housed in the same building. This is a treasure in and of itself, as the author has never found another map store in Siberia). An added bonus is seeing photographs of the now-elderly curator as a young man working on field projects.

Yakutsk also offers some excellent historical and cultural museums, such as the Museum of Folklore of Yakutia’s Peoples and the Regional Museum. Both museums focus on Yakuts, the most populous of the often-forgotten peoples that inhabited the Sakha Republic before the arrival of Russians. Yakuts are often considered to be the native population of the Sakha Republic. However, Vladimir Tomskoi, an Evenk, dismissed the the Yakuts as “newcomers,” having only arrived in the time of Genghis Khan. Evenks have lived in the area much longer. A tour guide at the Region Museum – herself a Yakut – suggested that Evenks may have lived in the area for as much as 40,000 years.

The presence of a large and vibrant Yakut population differentiates Yakutsk from other Russian cities, where Russians dominate. One the streets, one is as likely to hear Yakut being spoken as Russian. This alone is what attracts many visitors. It is the other face of Russia, the forgotten one.

Though not technically museums, the numerous diamond jewelry stores along Ulitsa Lenina offer “exhibits” perhaps equally interesting. Yakutsk is not a diamond and gold capital for nothing.

Yakutsk may be famed for its wealth, but it is not an expensive city. Museum tickets – despite the fact that most come with private tours – generally cost under $10. Only the most expensive restaurants cost more than $5 a plate. Accommodations are more in line with Western pricing but still affordable…if one doesn’t stay in the Polar Star.

If one is brave enough to face Yakutsk in the winter, Yakutsk offers a relative wealth of theater (as elsewhere in Russia, the theaters are closed in the summer). There is no reason to visit Yakutsk simply to go to the opera theater, but the brand new Sakha Theater presents shows rooted in the local non-Russian cultures that cannot be elsewhere. There are three other theaters as well.

A word should be said about climate. Contrary to popular mythology, Yakutsk is hot in the summer, with temperatures easily reaching the lower 90s, certainly hot enough for even the most severe ice-phobe. Natives like Dmitry Zuyev complain of the heat and wander about shirtless. “It’s only this bad for a couple weeks,” Zuyev comments, sweating. In the winter, though, the temperatures regularly plunge to well under 60 below.

Prosperous and heavily-influenced by native culture, Yakutsk presents an unusual and even exotic side of Russia few have the chance to see. It is more than worth seeing.

If You Decide To Go:

Yakutsk has more than its share of sparkling cathedrals
Yakutsk has more than its share of sparkling cathedrals
Need to Know

The local currency is the Russian Ruble. ATMs, though rare, exist. Check the Lena Hotel lobby. The primary local languages are Russian and Yakut. Although many in the tourism business will speak at least some English, learning the Cyrillic alphabet will make reading street signs and maps incomparably easier. Reservations for travel within Russia are difficult to arrange from abroad. Prices and schedules change. Use a travel agent or arrange tickets once you arrive. If you do not speak Russian, you will probably want to use a travel agent.

How to Get There

Yakutsk’s airport has regular flights from Moscow and numerous other Russian cities. Aeroflot is recommended. Buses run regularly from Neryungri on the BAM railway line to Yakutsk. In the summer months, passenger ships from from Ust’-Kut on the BAM railway line to Yakutsk.

Sources of Information

yakutiatravel.com � probably the only English-speaking tour agency in Yakutsk.

Atlas Goroda – the priceless Russian-language street atlas, sold at “Globus” (ul. Korolenko 2).

There are Russian-language tour books for the Sakha Republic, which are strangely not for sale in Yakutsk. It is possible they are sold in Moscow.

Lonely Planet: Russia & Belarus has a small section on Yakutsk.

Where to Stay

  • Homestays. In Yakutsk, as everywhere in Russia, the best accommodations are rooms let by individual families. The rates are comparable with a cheap hotel, the quality is higher, and it allows one to get to know locals. Yakutia Travel can arrange homestays.
  • Polar Star Hotel. 24 Prospekt Lenina. Yakutsk’s new luxury hotel. Rooms run in the 3 figures.
  • Lena Hotel. Prospekt Lenina 8. The location is excellent, but the rooms can be fragrant. Prices are $25 on up.
  • Tigin-Darkhan. Ulitsa Ammosova 9. Between Polar Star and Lena in price, with an excellent restaurant specializing in Yakut cuisine.

Museums

Yakutsk has a wealth of unusual museums. The best are also the ones you are least likely to be told about. They include:

  • Treasures of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). A display of raw diamonds and gold as well as award-winning jewelry (ul. Kirova 12).
  • Permafrost Museum. Not an actual museum, but a tour of a truly one-of-a-kind institute (ul. Merzlotovedeniya; approx. $15 per group). Tours are by appointment, so you will need help from a local friend or tour agent.
  • History of Yakutia Cartography Museum. This is more a tour through the Cartography Institute’s collection of maps and atlases than a true museum (ul. Korolenko 2). The entrance fee is negotiable.

Where to Eat

Russia does not specialize in restaurants, and there is extremely little difference between them. That said, Tigin-Darkhan specializes in Yakut and Russian cuisine and is worth a visit. Prices average $15 a person.

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