I am just back from a trip in this unique land and I thought I should write a few Siberian facts to demystify a myth of harsh winters, impenetrable region, dangerous wild bears and tigers.
Before even starting with the facts, I like to mention two things:
- Siberia is not a country and never was. It is a region that is part of Russia, in fact, it spreads over almost 75% of the Russian territory
- Siberia is huge, around twice the size of Europe. From the North Pole to China and Mongolia in the south. From the Urals mountain in the west to the Bering Sea in the east.
It comes to no surprises that a generalization of the region is not possible.
But let’s go to the Siberian facts.
Demystifying the most misleading Siberian fact: Siberia population is not small
There are in fact around 36 million people in Siberia with a population density of fewer than 3 inhabitants per square kilometre (similar to Australia, by the way).
However, most of the people live in the south, with cities as Novosibirsk with about 2 million people.
If it’s true that the centre-north of Siberia has an almost no population, it’s also true that the south of the region is quite populated with cities and villages scattered everywhere. You can see the Siberian map here.
Moreover, you will be very likely to experience traffic jams around the major cities, as anywhere in the world. You can read more about the life in Siberia in this article.
If you are familiar with Australia than Siberia is pretty similar with the majority of the people living in cities.
It is always cold in Siberia
This is another myth to demystify.
There are four seasons in Siberia, as in most of the western and eastern world (you can read more about it on the Wiki page).
In fact, it’s not unheard to have 30-35 degrees in summer.
In south Siberia, where most of the people live, the winter is cold but honestly not drastically cold.
I was there in mid-December and I experienced only a day with -10 degrees Celsius, otherwise just below 0.
I asked around and indeed that was the usual temperature for that period of the year.
My guide, and now friend, Igor told me that they can have a couple of weeks in late January when it can be extremely cold (down to -30 or -40) but it does not last that long.
In the north of Siberia obviously, it’s icing cold in winter (down to -70 in 2017), but as I was said: “who lives there?”.
Interesting enough, I had a short stay in Moskow after Siberia. It felt so much colder. The main reason was the humidity, much higher in the capital.
On the contrary, Siberia has very low humidity, it is so dry that the snow is like powder.
Siberia has no light in winter and no night in summer
Another myth to demystify.
It may be true, however, it depends on which part of Siberia you are talking about.
You may think that Europe does not have light during the winter if you live in Helsinki, but we all know that is not true. Lisbon and Athens have light for almost 10 hours in winter.
Similarly, the south of Siberia has light during the day.
I was there on the shortest day of the year, in December, and the sunrise was at 9:30am and the sunset around 5pm.
Moving around Siberia is too hard
Not quite true. There is a reliable and good value network of trains and busses.
Moreover, safety is paramount when driving a public vehicle, like a bus.
You may say that is the same in many countries, however, only in Siberia I have experienced drivers stopping every hour to have a 5 minutes rest, and it’s a law that is taken very seriously.
It has to be said that driving over the ice and snow is physically and mentally very demanding.
I had a trip on a bus for three hours, with snow and ice covering the road.
The driver was amazing but you could definitely feel how concentrated he was.
There are no facilities on the major roads
The roads connecting the major cities have stations every 50km or so.
They are modern and they offer restaurants and cafes facilities, besides a small market and a clean toilet.
On pair or even better than in most countries in western Europe.
This is to say that when you travel in the south (where the major cities are) you will have all the facilities you are used to having in your country.
Visiting the north may be different and it’s advisable to join an organised tour (similar to visiting the Australian outback)
Too hard to travel to Siberia
I somehow agree. It’s a myth and it’s true.
However, this doesn’t diminish the beauty of the place.
Certainly, it is not a destination fly-in fly-out. It requires time and commitment.
It’s a new travel frontier, not a package destination.
And this to me is very appealing, but may be not to others.
In my case, from Australia, I took a 22 hours flight to Moscow. From there a 4 hours flight to Barnaul and another 4 hours bus to the south area of Altai.
A unique experience which now I can confirm well worth the effort.
Siberia is a place of exile
This region was indeed an (in)famous exile place but this is not anymore a Siberian fact.
It was a long time ago. You may still be able to hear stories about that time from the local oldies.
Today Siberia is made of patriotic Russian and indigenous people that love the own country.
In some respects, it reminds me of the history of Australia when 200 years ago was colonized by the British to build new prisons.
Today the Australians are recognised as some of the most honest people in the world, and I may add, as well as the Siberians.
Siberian people don’t smile
That has not been my experience, not at all.
There is indeed this feeling that, generally speaking, Russian people do not smile a lot.
And it’s true. I came to understand that diluting smiles diminish the value.
And in some respects, I fully understand that.
What I have appreciated in my trip is how Russian people can be really warm, once they know you.
You feel you can trust them, you can go into a deeper relationship.
In my trip, I had a guide called Igor. A teddy bear in a gigantic 2m body.
We exchanged social links however I thought that was it. That’s how it works nowadays, isn’t it?
Not quite so, we are still in contact, talking about photography, so great.
Siberian people don’t switch off the cars when they park
Yes, I confirm it, to my surprise.
Drivers do leave the cars with the engine on when they go for a quick shopping, coffee or drink.
The main reason is to keep the motor on temperature and avoid possible issues in restarting it.
Moreover, it will keep warm the passenger compartment.
Car remote controls are widespread
In that two icing cold weeks of January cars should be switched on every 3-4 hours if left in the street.
Forgetting this tiny detail may ruin the car engine, sometimes in an irreversible way.
Igor (my guide) one day comes out with a story that I could not initially understand.
He told me that last year he broke his remote and he had to wake up at night twice, dress up for -40 and go out to switch on the car. Something that he doesn’t usually do.
So, it turns out that the locals have a remote to switch on the car from inside the house, without the need to go out in the cold.
Think of a batman car remote. How ingenious is that!
Dangerous Siberian wildlife is widespread
I asked my friend Igor about the famous Siberian tigers. His face had a big question mark.
He could not understand what animal I was referring to.
Here is the fact. There are not many left. They are very rare, only 300 living tigers left and they are all in the far east of Siberia.
There are indeed bears, although in the real wild, not usually close to cities or towns.
I had a few walks in the Altai region and the only footprints in the snow were from rabbits.
The longest rivers in the world are in Siberia
One day my friend Igor told me that a few of the longest rivers in the world are in Siberia.
I nodded, however, in true honesty, I did not fully believe him, maybe because I am used to my father in law, Greek, and his stories on how Greece has all the records (but it’s not really true).
So I went to check myself on Wikipedia and it turns out that four of the longest rivers in the world are actually in Siberia: Ob, Amur, Lena and Yenisei.
I was lucky enough to trek along, and over, the Katun river, which forms the Ob, definitely a unique experience.
The river freezes up in November and breaks up in April. This is the time I visited it and I enjoyed it so much, definitely a different experience to what I am used to.
Whipping in the banya
What is the Banya?
In short, it is a Siberian interpretation of a sauna followed by a dive in the icy water or alternatively in the snow.
It is an experience that I recommend to everyone visiting this part of the world.
This hot/cold contrast definitely gave me lots of energy. My body suddenly woke up, it started vibrating.
Now here is the fact that makes the whole experience different from anything else.
In the sauna, you lie down on your belly, like on a massage session, and the banya-man arrives with a few twigs and it starts whipping your body, first gently and then more energetically.
When they originally explained me the process I was a bit reluctant. However, now that I have tried it I would not hesitate a second to have this form of Siberian massage, again and again.
I did really enjoy being whipped. I never thought I would say so.
Siberia capital is…none
That was a big mistake of mine, but that’s why we travel as well, to understand and learn new things.
There are no capital cities in Siberia, at least no political ones.
There is a de-facto one, an unofficial one, Novosibirsk. The third biggest city in Russia and the last stop of the Trans-Siberian railway.
What I think of Siberia
All of these Siberian facts derive from my personal experience in this unique part of the world.
I did not know what to expect from Siberia, there is not much written on the web. Especially for the winter.
And in true honesty, most of the articles have click-bait titles and content.
The likes of “why it’s impossible to live in Siberia” or “Siberia is the coldest place in the world”.
I really wonder if the writers have actually been there.
It’s like saying the USA is covered in snow for the most part of the year just because Alaska is.
And keep in mind that the USA is smaller than Siberia
The reality I found was very different.
Modern facilities, organised places, sky resorts, like everywhere in the western world. The scenery is however unique, in an amazing way.
And lastly a couple of more practical tips
- English is not widely spoken and, in this respect, I suggest learning a few basic words and downloading the google translator app with the Russian dictionary.
- If you need internet I suggest buying a local sim card. I had one from a provider called Tele2. With $5 I had 15G/month of data included. The signal was very consistent, except in the most remote valleys, which was somehow expected.
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.