All eyes are on Russia right now. For once, this isn’t a bad thing. The FIFA World Cup begins today. Over the next month, 32 teams from around the world will compete for the gold trophy, which depicts two people holding up Earth. Germany, the 2014 winner, is the current trophy holder. France, Spain, and Brazil all have good chances this year. While Iceland, the big surprise at the UEFA European Championship, is the beloved underdog.
But back to Russia. Now, when everyone has football fever, is a great time to explore the world’s largest country. The summer is the only time you’d want to visit the Sakha Republic anyway. The huge autonomous region—it’s the size of India—makes up half of the Far Eastern Federal District. This part of Siberia is known as one of the coldest regions in the world. The temperature regularly drops to minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter. That makes Yakutsk, the republic’s capital, a remote and fascinating place. The city along the Lena River is a major port and diamond supplier. Its buildings sit on stilts due to the year-round permafrost. Plus it’s home to numerous theaters and interesting museums.
Your reason for visiting Yakutsk is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site that lies 160 miles south of the city. Lena Pillars Nature Park is full of breathtaking natural rock formations. The giant stone colonnades rise from 500 to nearly 1,000 feet along the riverbank. They were formed during the Cambrian Period (between 485-540 million years ago) when extreme temperature changes—fast freezing and thawing—created the jagged limestone spires with deep gullies in between them. The pillars extend 50 miles down the river.
Lena Pillars Nature Park is only accessible from June to September, Sakha’s short summer months. The river is frozen the rest of the year. Boat cruises leave Yakutsk early in the morning and return after sunset (that’s around 10 pm right now). You’ll see caves and rock paintings along the way. You’ll have time to hike among the pillars (it’s steep) and eat lunch along the riverbank. Plus you’ll get to see one of the most remote UNESCO sites in the world. The photos you bring back will become your own trophies from this year’s World Cup.