Last updated on December 28th, 2018 at 07:32 am
How is the life in Siberia?
An easy answer would be: freezing cold, remote and wild.
But that would be an oversimplification of this region of Russia.
I had the possibility to spend some time in this unique part of the world just before the 2019 New Year Eve.
How did it go?
Well, I wanted to experience the life in Siberia, and most importantly create a photo documentary of the local lifestyle.
I had a picture, an idea, of Siberia but was it the correct one?
Let’s start with the most important thing.
Why did I have any interest to experience and document the life in Siberia?
I am an adopted Australian, born overseas but citizen for the last 15 years.
Nowadays, I do consider Australia my home, my place to go back.
Believe it or not, Siberia and Australia share many common things.
The land size, huge (although Siberia is almost twice as big!).
True, Siberia is not a country, however, it occupies roughly 75% of Russia. From the Ural mountains to Kamchatka, facing Alaska and Japan.
It extends from as north as the Pole line to Mongolia and China in the south (you can see a map here)
The population density is just 3 people per square km, in Siberia as well as in Australia.
There are extensive areas without any living human.
And in both cases, the main reason is the unpleasant weather conditions, too cold in Siberia, too hot in Australia.
As I write, the hottest place in Australia is experiencing a temperature of over 50 degrees Celsius.
On the contrary, in a few areas of Siberia people are living in a -50 degrees climate.
I rode my bike to unthinkable places in Australia, from the major cities to the deep hot desert.
It was time for me to experience and see how it is actually the life in Siberia.
So I started checking the Wikipedia page, a few guides and I was ready to go….or maybe not.
Being Siberia such a big territory, there is not a typical winter that covers the whole region.
The few people in the far north have to deal with icing cold weather (down to -70 degrees Celsius in 2017).
Probably, for this reason, most of the population is in the south, with major cities as Novosibirsk (Russia’s third city with 1.5 Million people) in the same latitude as Edinburgh, in Scotland.
My trip started in Barnaul and extended in the Altai region, bordering Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan.
I did my trip at the start of the winter and temperatures were around 0 to -10 Celsius, not much different from most of the northern European countries.
I did this trip with a group of 7 people and our local guide, Igor, took us to the most beautiful locations in the area.
He told me that true enough, in January there are 2 weeks when the cold becomes unbearable (-40), but besides that, it’s like living in North Europe or the European Alps.
In fact, in summer the temperature can go up as much as 30-35 degrees.
There is almost no wind, making the actual temperature and the feeling almost the same.
When you read most of the press, they talk about the extremes, up in the desolated north.
To put it in perspective, it’s like saying that the temperature in Europe is 30 below without mentioning it was actually recorded in northern Finland (but surely Rome or Madrid are much warmer).
Believe it or not, the lifestyle in Siberia is similar to many other places in the world. Places that experience a cold winter like New York, Chicago, Montreal in North America or Copenhagen in Europe.
This just means that in winter you need to get well dressed before going out.
Kids still go to the playground, with winter clothes. They enjoy the swings, they run around.
There is one anomaly, the climate is very dry and the snow is super powdery, making it almost impossible to play snowballs.
People still go to the pubs and restaurants, as modern or characteristic as in any other parts of the world.
Interesting enough, restaurants have a (un)dressing room where you can leave your bulky jacket and shoes.
Villages are very characteristic, with single storey houses painted in a pastel blue or yellow.
Cities are instead less attractive, with the Russian style buildings scattered around. The communist architecture is probably not my favourite, too minimalistic.
I have experienced traffic jams in the early morning and in the late afternoon, as in any other city in the world.
There are no scooters riding around in winter, but instead snowmobiles.
This is to say that I could not find any difference between Siberia and any other places with a similar climate.
In Australia, I have a Russian friend and I do clearly remember a chat we had once in a pub.
In his opinion, smiling was something that had to come from the heart and not dispensed on a regular basis, without particular reasons.
The Ibis hotel I had in Moscow was proud to have a “smiling team” that could help in case of any issues.
I asked myself if smiling, or the lack of it was becoming a problem in Russia.
I had to investigate the subject so I asked around, on every possible occasion.
Indeed, I got confirmed that smiling comes from the heart and it’s not given away, not even on request.
And I experienced this myself.
I was taking a photo of a characteristic Siberian guy and I asked for a smile.
He answered that he would do it only if I can tell him a joke. There must be a reason for a smile.
We all had a big laugh, I made the photo and he started offering his homemade cherry liquor. I had a new friend.
People in Siberia need a connection and once it’s there, they give you their heart.
The more time you spend with them, the more you will feel part of the family and doors become wide open for you.
Siberia and Australia were both famous places of exile in the past.
I was actually said that more and more people in Moscow are planning to move to Siberia, for a better life.
I was a bit surprised about this but, at the same time, I heard so many times exactly the same thing for Europeans planning to move to Australia (and I was one of them).
I decided to stay in Australia because of the energy I could feel.
The same kind of energy I experienced in Siberia.
The power to change, to improve, to enhance, to feel more accomplished. And in a more welcoming environment where you feel more part of a family.
But not only that.
In Siberia, from the time I landed, I experienced a great sense of honesty.
One example that says it all.
When people go for some quick shopping they leave the car parked outside, not only open but with the engine on (to avoid possible issues with the cold temperature)
Such is the trust between Siberians.
Do that anywhere in Europe and bye bye car.
I was queuing up in a shop and I was almost on the front when someone tried to take my place.
I was absolutely surprised by the other people around me telling that guy to back off.
They knew I could not talk Russian and they wanted to help me.
I felt like a little kid looked after by the parents.
Now the interesting thing comes.
I personally did expect a world slightly backwards.
Old cars, old snowmobiles, slow internet and absence of mobile signal.
How wrong I was!
The internet in the hotel was so much quicker than at home and the mobile signal was almost everywhere, bouncing between 3G and 4G.
Everyone has a smartphone, everyone has an Instagram profile.
I usually travel with a drone and on one occasion, visiting a beautiful location along the Katun river, I counted 3 drones in the air (including mine).
I loved my time in Siberia and I would definitely visit it again.
This trip has been one of my favourites, ever.
I am quite open-minded. I have been travelling and lived in many countries, in 6 continents.
However, I had this idea of Siberia which absolutely did not match the reality.
Sometimes the post and articles on the internet are way too “click-bait”.
I hope that my experience helps to demystify the extreme myths of Siberia. And, please, leave your comment. I am so curious to see what you think.
But now it’s time to answer the question: would I live in Siberia?
I don’t think I would.
And this is not because the place is not beautiful or the people not friendly.
My main reason is the winter, way too long for me. I am more of a summer boy. I like to wear shorts and t-shirts, complimented by flip-flops (I have quite a big selection).
All this dressing and undressing is fun on vacation, but it would kill me long term.
I guess it all depends on the way you grow up. My local friend Igor said that he didn’t like to live in Estonia because it did not get that cold!
And, as Australian as I can be, I did try my flip-flops on the snow, but they did not work. They got stuck in the white powder.
That is another reason for me for not living in Siberia 🙂
This trip would not have been possible without the help and coordination of the project FollowUpAustralia. Of course, the content has not been influenced by any external support, I write only my honest opinion.
Stef Ferro is the founder and editor of MEL365, a travel & photography website made to enhance the travelling experience and improve the photography work.
Stef is a professional travel photographer with past experience in the cycling and film industry.
Stef runs travel photography workshops in Melbourne and around the world.