Do you know that the first Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Russia called the ‘New Year's Capital of Russia’ is held in Yakutia, and from this northern land, this ceremony starts its way to other cities? As part of the ‘Winter Starts in Yakutia’ festival, the Yakut Lord of Cold Chyskhaan gives the Symbol of Cold brought from Oymyakon, the coldest place in the northern hemisphere, the Pole of Cold, to the Russian Grandfather Frost (Santa Claus).
Next year, the magnificent ‘Winter Starts in Yakutia’ festival will celebrate its tenth anniversary, this Festival has long become one of the main tourist attractions of the Republic and successfully popularizes the permafrost, cold and the northern hospitality of Sakha (Yakutia).
Frosty Yakutia is 90 percent extreme and is the kingdom of permafrost as half of its territory is within the Polar Circle, and in winter, one can enjoy everything here - from the snow-covered vast white fields, northern lights, and reindeer or Siberian husky riding to famous northern cuisine with its gourmet meals - and in Yakutia, the guests enjoy the local hospitality, warm feelings and friendship, without which nobody can survive in these cold harsh conditions.
Here is the Pole of Cold and winter begins. Here, the local Lord of Cold Chyskhaan (‘chys’ means ‘severe frost’) meets up with Grandfather Frost and gives him the keys of Winter, and the lamps decorating the Christmas trees (called also ‘New Year’s trees’ in Russia) are lit on the squares of the Yakutia’s capital, the lights are mirrored in the fabulous ice sculptures - and the Winter begins its way across the country.
Irina Vysokikh, Minister of Entrepreneurship, Trade and Tourism of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), tells ‘EcoTourism Expert’ about the country’s most exotic festival.
The pandemic introduces changes in all our plans. Will the ‘Winter Starts in Yakutia’ festival be held in 2020?
Despite the difficult situation in the country due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the republican Festival will be held - but online - from November 25 to December 1 taking into account the spread of the coronavirus and the recommendations of the Directorate of the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Natural Resource Use for the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). However, it’s worth noting that the current format of the events has its advantages, for example, any person from any place in the world can connect via the social networks and feel the pre-New Year atmosphere of Yakutia and take part in our Festival.
How was this project conceived and what was its purpose?
The republican ‘Winter Starts in Yakutia’ festival was launched thanks to the event of the same name first held in 2011. Gradually, it developed and new interesting initiatives were offered, which later became a part of this Festival. Among them is the transfer of the Symbol of Cold by Chiskhaan to Grandfather Frost who arrives from his residence in Veliky Ustyug), the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, a unique ‘Stroganina’ festival (slices of frozen fish served cold), ice fishing, snow- and ice-sculpting competition, and much more. Since 2013, the exact date of starting the event has been set - December 1. This day is also considered the official start of a winter season in Yakutia. When the coloured lamps start flashing on the New Year’s tree in Yakutsk, Grandfather Frost starts his New Year tour of the Russian cities that ends with children’s New Year parties in the Moscow Kremlin.
The cold climate has long held back the tourist flow to Sakha, the land of the indigenous people, in winter but in the recent years, the concept of a winter tourism has changed greatly. The peculiar climate and the vast areas of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), bright brands such as the ‘Winter in Yakutia’, the ‘Pole of Cold’ always are of interest to many travellers around the world and attract a large tourist flow to this area.
Next year, we will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first ‘Winter Starts in Yakutia’ festival. During the decade, it gained a special status, and every year, the number of participants and events is increasing, and the geography is expanding. For all the years of the Festival, the tourists and guests from many countries such as Japan, China, France, Germany, Canada, Lithuania, Mongolia, etc. visited the Republic. There were even the travellers from Ecuador and the Republic of Benin.
Every year, new contests and events are added to the Festival programme. Which of them do you think are the most important and interesting?
The concept of this Festival is based on the idea of the unity of the northern peoples, the exchange of their cultural traditions, the promotion of their authentic culture and traditions, as well as positioning Yakutia as a place of the severe cold. The Festival has become one of the most important and beloved events among the Yakuts, and the annual events such as the official first New Year’s tree lighting ceremony in Russia, the ‘Flavour of Yakutia’ gastronomic festival, the ‘Diamonds of Yakutia’ ice-sculpting competition, the ‘Stroganina’ festival have become traditional.
It is noteworthy that the programme of the events is expanding every year, for example, last year, the traditional ‘Munkha’ ice fishing took place for the first time in the Namsky district where the tourists and guests not only watched fishing, but became the most active participants in it. The ‘Arctic Fashion Show’ of the collections by the Yakut designers - the brightest and most magnificent event - is held as part of the ‘Winter Starts in Yakutia’ festival. Both the famous fashion designers and the young new designers present their collections at the shows. The main goal of the project is to promote the Yakut fashion brands and bring them to the Russian and international markets. We hope that this year, the shows will be held online, and the international participants will join them.
Please tell us about the gastronomic food competition: it is known that the Festival helped to promote the Yakut ethnic cuisine in the Republic and far beyond its borders.
Since 2014, the ‘Flavour of Yakutia’ gastronomic food festival has been held as part of the winter festival. For several days, the leading restaurants of the city of Yakutsk offer the best Yakut ethnic cuisine meals in a modern way. As part of this gastro festival, master classes by chefs, bartenders, pastry chefs, and the ethnic food tasting are held. The ‘Stroganina Festival’ is a high point. And this is a favorite festival in the communities where many families and parts of Yakutia compete in the high-quality and fast slicing of the frozen Yakut fish.
The ‘stroganina’ is a specialty among the Yakuts and it has won wide recognition: every year, the Festival is of particular interest to famous chefs in Russia and abroad, to large culinary communities, including bloggers. And, of course, the ‘Flavour of Yakutia’ festival plays a big role in promoting the Yakut ethnic cuisine.
The snow- and ice-sculpturing competition has become quite important in the life of the city and helps to decorate it in winter. The creations by our ice sculptors are amazing as they are beautiful and one-of-a-kind and admire the people and guests of the capital. Famous sculptors from different cities, regions of Russia and from abroad take part in this competition. Last year, about 20 teams from Russia, Canada, Mongolia, China, Belarus took part in the competition for the best snow and ice sculptures. Every year, the sculptures change, the skills grow, more and more interesting and bright works appear.
For about ten years of the Festival, many guests have visited it. Can you tell us about them?
The ‘Winter Festival’, along with the summer national festival ‘Ysyakh Tuymaada’, is among the largest and most amazing ones of the event tourism in the Republic. Every year, the Festival allures more and more guests and tourists from abroad, from the central regions of Russia, from Perm, Khabarovsk and Altai Territories, and Magadan Region. About 7,000 people take part in the Festival.
Last year, for example, within the framework of the ‘Winter Starts in Yakutia’ festival, a fam-tour was held, and the bloggers, journalists, tour operators from South Korea, China and Germany visited our Republic and the Festival.
What interesting moments from the festivals you remember best of all?
Within the framework of the ‘Winter Starts in Yakutia’, the Ministry of Entrepreneurship and Tourism together with the Arctic State Institute of Culture and Arts organized (within the shortest possible time) the ‘Arctic Fashion Show’ festival last year where the Yakut designers and craftsmen showed their collections. Regina Sharifullina, director on the work with designers at the National Chamber of Fashion of Russia, was the special guest of the Show, and she appreciated the Yakut SOLKO fashion brand as a distinguished one among all the works. So, this year our fashion designers received invitations to take part in the ‘Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia’. Such results are very encouraging and inspire to start new creative projects, and not to be afraid of thinking outside of the box.
What is the influence of the Festival on the city and on promoting the brand of Yakutia beyond its borders? What else can be done to make this Festival even more attractive, popular and special?
Our annual Festival plays a key role in the popularization of Yakutia as a world centre of Cold and Winter and attracts foreign representatives who inspire the interest in our land.
It should be noted that the ‘Winter Starts in Yakutia’ festival focuses on the tourists and guests, but, first of all, on the local communities living in the capital and the Republic. Not only the adults liked it, but also the children, as it brings the New Year's magical atmosphere. The winter frosty weather does not keep them from having a merry celebration, and the programme is so rich in events that everyone can find something to his or her liking.
We invite the journalists from major TV channels and media organizations in Russia and from abroad to cover the fabulous events of the Festival. Every year, film production teams, famous journalists, popular bloggers come to the capital of the Republic. For example, last year, a representative of the National Geographic TV channel came, and this year, we expect the ‘Let's Go and Eat!’ production team of the NTV channel to come to us. The Organizing Committee team of the ‘Winter Starts in Yakutia’ festival do their best so that every time, our Festival could surprise and delight the local people and tourists and take into account their interests and wishes for the next year.
The pandemic will end some day or other. What are the prospects for the tourism development in the region in the coming years?
First of all, Yakutia is ready to attract the guests by fantastic beauty of its nature, fishing and cold weather.
Popular and promising areas are and will be the ones like the Lena Pillars National Park, a UNESCO cultural heritage site; rafting tours on the Sinyaya, Buotama, Amga rivers where the picturesque ancient rocks are located along the banks; natural sites ‘Samartai Valley’ with its ‘Kuruluur’ waterfalls, ‘Buluus’ natural glacier, and ‘Tukulaana’ sand dunes; cruises along the Lena River, as well as hiking trips to more remote areas - to the sacred Kisilyakh mountains, to the Momsky area called the ‘Lost World’, and extreme trails including climbing the Pobeda (Victory), Muus Haya, Mat’ (Mother) Mounts, as well as fishing and hunting in the arctic and northern areas of the Republic.
The ‘Lena Pillars’ National Park with its up to 100 metres high and steep cliffs of unusual shape looking as if appearing from the bowels of the earth and stretching for tens of kilometres along the Lena River banks, is becoming more mysterious and beautiful every year due to the local climate peculiarities. The ideal way to see all this beauty is to take a boat trip along the Lena River passing by these giants in summer (June-September), and in winter, you can get to the Lena Pillars using a snow road.
In the Park, the tourists can visit the forest ‘Ust-Buotama’ bison nursery. The animals were brought here from Canada, and bringing the forest bison to Yakutia is associated with the revival of the bison population in the historical habitat, as it was in Yakutia that the scientists found the skull of the ancient bison that lived in this area 20-30 thousand years ago. The Yakut bison died out about 5 thousand years ago, and those animals that moved to North America were divided into two subspecies over time - the steppe and the forest bison varieties.
The ‘Tukulany’ sand dunes are another unique place in this Park. They are a real exotic feature in the local nature, this is a desert surrounded by the Yakut taiga. It looks exciting - there is a dense forest on one side, a noisy river on the other, and there is a huge sand dune in the middle, it is an ideal place for a photo shoot session.
Kisilyakh Mountains are a ‘Northern Shambhala’. These are high rocky pillar-like outliers of a bizarre shape formed as a result of weathering, and the locals revered these mountains ‘sacred’. There exist many legends and myths, and the beauty of the Kisilyakh mountains is simply breathtaking.
By 2025, it is expected to complete the construction of the Lena Bridge, one of the most important and largest transport infrastructure facilities that will connect three federal and five regional highways, the Amur-Yakutsk railway, a river port and an international airport. The aim of the project is to increase the region’s transport accessibility from 21 to 70 percent.
The opening of the Lena Bridge will expand the list of the infrastructure facilities and increase the number of organized and individual tourists arriving from the right bank of the Lena River - both the local residents and the people from other regions of the country.
The rich nature of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) is the main factor in the development of tourism. And, of course, all events are aimed at the wild life conservation and care towards nature.