Record breaking Charlie Simpson: My personal journey along Stalin’s Road of Bones was so enlightening
Sending political enemies to Siberia was one of Joseph Stalin’s favourite punishments. However, Charlie Simpson found himself voluntarily making the journey to Oymyakon, the Earth’s coldest permanently inhabited place, to break the Guinness World Record for world’s coldest gig. Upon arrival at the tiny town, he learnt about the harsh realities of Arctic life, and the warmth of human nature.
With temperatures regularly reaching -71°C, life in Oymyakon isn’t easy. As winter sets in, it isn’t uncommon to see trucks with small fires beneath them keeping the diesel defrosted, or seeing men using a blowtorch to loosen up axel grease.
Oymyakon was never meant to be a township – Stalin made it one in a bid to try and control ‘troublesome’ nomads in the far reaches of Russia. Today, despite a population that also includes miners, old traditions live on. Yakut ponies, a rare native breed that is able to forage for food beneath layers of heavy snow, are the lifeline of the local people, providing fur, meat and milk to generations of local families, and reindeer are also an important part of survival.
It was here, that ex-Busted and Fightstar frontman Charlie Simpson decided would be the perfect place to break the Guinness World Record for the world’s coldest gig.
To get there, Charlie and his team had to travel along the M56 Kolyma Highway, or the ‘Road of Bones’, so called as when Stalin’s political prisoners were digging it as part of his gulag programmes one dropped dead every metre. Their bodies were simply buried alongside or beneath the 2,031 km road, which links Nizhny Bestyakh in the West with Magadan in the East.
What motivated you to try and claim the world record for coldest gig?
It was an idea I developed with Jägermeister who I’ve been working with for some time. They came to me with the idea of putting on a gig in extreme conditions so we threw a few suggestions around and hit on going to the coldest inhabited place on the planet – which is in Siberia – to play a gig. We then approached Guinness World Records who loved the idea and laid down the criteria for the record.
In Oymyakon the staple diet is horse and reindeer meat – did you indulge?
The first thing I was given to eat was horse meat and I also tried reindeer liver. Can’t say I’m a fan of either, I’m afraid! The reindeer herders offered me some mountain ram which they’d just stewed which was actually really delicious – tasted just like roast lamb! The food was OK but the best thing was being welcomed by the locals as we stayed in their homes throughout the duration of the trip, and they were very accommodating.
Were there any surprise Fightstar or Busted fans in the audience?
The music culture over there is so different, there doesn’t really seem to be huge exposure to music, particularly in the small villages we visited. I suspect the set I played was the first live Western music they’d ever seen, although they seemed to enjoy it. It certainly wasn’t my usual crowd.
What did you wear to keep warm?
We obviously had warm weather gear on, and our thermals, but the biggest challenge was how to play the guitar without gloves on. It takes just minutes in those sorts of temperatures to get frost nip or frost bite on exposed skin so we had to pack heat packs down my sleeves to keep my hands as warm as possible. Without gloves on the pain was absolutely excruciating and I started to get all the symptoms my doctors had warned me to look out for. At one point I really thought I would have to stop playing. But the expedition leader told me I was 20 minutes away from frostbite and I knew I only had three tracks left to play, so I just kept on going. It would have been really disappointing to go all that way and not manage to break the record while I was there. It took two days to get the feeling back in my fingers afterwards.
How did you get there?
It took four days to get to Oymyakon itself – we flew into Yakutsk in Russia, followed by a 1000km drive on the Kolyma Highway, also known as ‘The Road Of Bones’. It’s a treacherous ice road that is the only way through central Siberia and stretches all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It took about 20 hours driving in total to get from Yakutsk to Oymyakon itself, the road was extremely uncomfortable!
How did you mentally prepare yourself for the performance?
I was equally excited and nervous about the trip. I mentally prepared by ensuring I did my homework. I spoke to a lot of doctors in the run up to the trip, to make sure what we wanted to do was even achievable in those temperatures. I also physically prepared by doing a bit of training before we left – we tried to simulate the conditions there, and the best way to do it was to lock me in an industrial freezer for fifteen minutes whilst playing my guitar. Mind you, it was only -15°C so not actually as cold as the temperature I ended up playing in, which was -30°C. We also had a few practice runs whilst we were travelling across Russia, but only a few minutes at a time. I knew I was in really good hands – the guys who organised the trip have travelled all around the world and are used to extreme weather conditions, so they knew what they were doing. It all came down to teamwork in the end!
Did the trip inspire you in any way?
I have definitely been inspired and would love to tackle something like this again. Who knows, next time I might try and break the World Record for the world’s hottest gig in the Sahara or somewhere like that.
Much of the infrastructure in the areas around Oymyakon (e.g. ‘The Road of Bones’) were built by GULAG inmates. Was it an eerie experience?
I did find the history, and the culture, really interesting. It was so far removed from anything I’ve ever experienced. Siberia is so different from what you expect from Russia. The local people have Asian features and the local language is Turkic in origin – it came from Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages apparently. It was only later that it was colonised by the Soviets. The landscape is so remote and unforgiving you can understand why prisoners were sent here – it’s the worst punishment I could imagine! I was told that the North Koreans still use some of the other prison camps in Siberia for their political prisoners.
Did you see any wildlife?
We did indeed. We went reindeer sledding, rode horses, met many husky dogs and even did a bit of ice fishing. It’s so cold that the fish freeze the moment they leave the water! If you want to see me in action, go to www.facebook.com/JagerMusicuk
Was it your first time to Russia? What was your overall thoughts about the trip?
I’d never been to Russia so was really excited to get out there to see this part of the world. It was very beautiful, very very cold and really interesting to meet the people who live there, and discover how they live, and deal with such extreme weather conditions. It’s a world away from London or Woodbridge in Suffolk where I grew up!
To see more videos and interviews from the gig visit http://facebook.com/JagerMusicUKTagged in: Charlie Simpson, coldest gig, Guinness World Record, Oymyakon, Siberia, Stalin's Road
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