Friday, 4 July 2014

Salekhard, on the Arctic Circle -
an historic town in northern Siberia by 66º N

Salekhard is a Russian town located on the right bank of the Ob river, in the Yamal Peninsula, and right on the Polar circle, the 66th parallel.

Salekhard is also close to the northern Russian border between Europe and Asia, on the Asian side, on the east-southern foothills of the Ural Mountains.

Asia / Europe signpost.

It's probably the most interesting Arctic town in Russia, though its History has seen dark years of human misery during soviet times.

The main spots: 1- main square; 2- Church of St. Peter and St. Paul; 3 - old town (Obdorsk)

The new city centre.

Population: ~ 45 000
Coordinates: 66° 32′ N, 66° 36′ E

Does it look like 66º N

Either new, or newly painted.

New pedestrian promenade.

Recently enriched by natural gas sources, the city has been living a boom both in population growth and modern building, as also in public services.

The "Polaris" centre - 3D cinema and shops, in arctic Siberia !

But in contrast with some dreadful gulag towns like the nearby Vorkuta and NorilskSalekhard keeps an historic heritage among the quirky colourful new buildings, and provides a rising quality of life.

A previous local administration building - now marriages usually take place here, sometimes in great splendour.

One of the few wooden houses in the centre.

Window decorated with the city's iconic reindeer theme.

Salekhard was founded in 1595; it was then a Cossack fortress named Obdorsk, the first Russian settlements founded on the territory of Siberia.

Obdorsk (= door to the Ob river) controlled most of the Russian arctic trade until the 18th century, and the local market was the largest in Western Siberia.

By the end of that century, Obdorsk had lost its importance and was partially demolished.

The fortress of Obdorsk, on a promontory over the river.

In the 19th century, Obdorsk became a trade settlement for furs of sable, polar fox, fox, ermine, squirrel and muskrat. Fishery has also been well developed in thanks to richness of fish species in the Ob river - it still is the second strongest income source in the city.

Salekhard acquired its name only in 1933; the word derives from “Sale-Khard”, in Nenets language, meaning “settlement on a promontory".

Nenets meeting in traditional clothes.

The Nenets are the native people of the Yamal /Nenets region, and one of the largest native communities in Russia, also called 'Samoyeds' - a nomadic people who used to live by herding reindeer and are close to the Scandinavia's Sami (or 'Lapps').

Church of St Peter and St Paul.

Designed by German architect Gottlieb Zinke, it was completed in 1894 and was then the only stone (brick) building in town.

Built on permafrost, the foundations and the thermal insulation were difficult to deal with at the time. The polar temple's golden dome is visible from far in the taïga.

Pouring warm light in the frosty polar night.

Obdorsk Ostrog 

Obdorsk Ostrog

Obdorsk Fortress is the remains of the first Russian settlement in Siberia. The fortress was a small quadrangle, with two observation towers.

Inside, the Vasilyevskaya church, made of wood, from 1602.

Somehow, this is the 'Salekhard Kremlin'.

Obdorskij Ostrog was under restoration, and opened in September 2006 in its historic location.

The Theater 501

From the 20th century, under soviet regime, this unusual wooden building is one of the city's historic houses; it was meant to cheer up the troops and the railway workers, mainly with popular comedy. It is situated at Ul. Respubliki, the main street.

The name '501' derives from Gulag 501, the camp where the prisoners who built the railroad lived.

The Salekhard-Igarka Railway

In the early 1950s, Salekhard was one of the main base stations for the construction of the infamous Salekhard–Igarka Railway, to complete the connection of Murmansk and Arckangelsk to Chukotka in the far-east.

Essentially, this was a make-work project for approximately 60 -120 000 labourers (mostly political prisoners).

The planned 1 297 km railway was to be part of a transcontinental rail link across northern Siberia to transform the region.

One gulag camp would build eastward from Salekhard (gulag 501) ; another (gulag 502) would move westward from Igarka. A permanent rail line so far north makes no sense, as new tracks became embedded in permafrost or damaged by frost heaving.

The conditions for the labourers were almost beyond comprehension: everything was built by hand with very little and basic equipment. The rail lines themselves were not reinforced to deal with the permafrost in any way.

In summer, the marshes and swamps prevalent in the area gave rise to millions of mosquitoes, gnats, and parasites. Come winter, temperatures often plummeted to -60°C, and blizzards struck down many of the workers.

This allowed nature to destroy and reclaim much of what had been constructed in the tundra rather easily. Today, the remains of the railway are slowly fading back into the taiga; bridges, camps and empty villages have fallen into decay.

And Salekhard finally has a rail connection to the main network. In a civilized and clever manner.

Russian train passing the Euope-Asia border.

Crossing the wide Ob's estuary, usually frozen in winter, is now also possible by hovercraft (ACV). It's the only way to reach the railway station at Labytnangi, on the opposite bank. With the Ob free of ice, the crossing is easier, by ferry.

The new railway station Labytinangi-Salekhard. If it's not huge, it's not Russian.

Monument to Parallel 66, the arctic circle.

The Fakel ('Torch') bridge, symbol of the Gas industry wealth, has a panoramic restaurant on the top.