I’ve never been very good at winter.
Other people, though — other people are absolute pros at it. They dress appropriately, alter their diets accordingly and never seem to acquire an illness any more severe than a slightly rosier complexion.
As such, I have been cold ever since I arrived in Russia. From Moscow’s -1 to Syktyvkar’s -31, I’ve been shivering, sniffing and self-diagnosing myself with everything from hypothermia to hypochondria.
On Saturday I set off once again for the Sysola river. I had been twice before, but had yet to see it in a completely frozen state. Averaging the usual range of weather readings taken from Google (according to the BBC, it hasn’t dropped below -16 since my arrival), I decided that it was about 25 below and pushed my gloved hands as far into my pockets as they would go.
On my way, I stopped to check up on the Christmas tree in the main square. It was up and decorated, but progress was still slow and the ice city being built at its base was still looking pretty sparse. There were a few deer and other adornments, but mostly it was just a building site of big blocks of ice waiting to be sculpted.
I was at the river for maybe five minutes. I don’t think I have ever been so cold. I don’t think anything has. Even snow thinks twice about falling after approximately minus twenty, and it’s snow. I hadn’t even crossed the park when my legs began to burn and my nose began to freeze. By the time I reached the bank I was having trouble breathing.
Catching sight of a boat frozen at its dock between bouts hidden behind my scarf, I crossed the ice at a canter and shot a few images of the surreal spectacle in front of me. It was a beautiful day, and if I hadn’t been actively solidifying I could have happily spent all morning exploring the village on the far side of the river that had been until this point completely out of reach.
Barricading myself in Barrymore while I hugged anything with steam coming off of it, I slowly defrosted over a coffee and carbonara. Psyching myself up over desert, I set a conservative course for the school that would permit me a few minutes in every shop along the way. As I say, I don’t think I have ever been so cold.
I needed the whole of Sunday to get over the ordeal, as I crouched in the corner of a hot shower with a cup of tea in one hand and my hot-water bottle in the other. It was all I could do to keep myself off of Web MD and from escaping on the first flight to sub-Saharan Africa. By Monday I was wearing every single item of clothing I owned just to check my postbox.
Of course, I was overreacting. Again. There had been other people out on the river that day — children, old people and animals — who showed no signs of turning blue or falling to pieces in front of me. I have since passed men in trainers, women in tights and one particular guy smoking a cigarette at his door in shorts. And that’s after the temperature had dropped yet again.
As if this country and its climate hadn’t emasculated me enough, I was today introduced to the Russian equivalent of “dooking”. Explaining Hogmanay to one of the school’s teachers, I mentioned that it was traditional for some to run into certain rivers on New Year’s morning, for a laugh, before suggesting that it might be too cold to do anything similar here. Ha.
On the 19th of January — known officially as Baptism Day — and often even the night before, crucifix-shaped holes are dug into the ice of various rivers across Russia so that individuals can christen themselves in the holy
Hell it’s cold waters. So not only do many of Syktyvkar’s residents brave the river at night in mid-January, but they strip to their underwear and jump through a hole in the ice. THREE TIMES. I’ve seen pictures.
Forgive me, then, if I doubt that there is any doomsday scenario apocalyptic enough to wipe Russia off the map. Whether or not the world does in fact end tomorrow — hadn’t you heard? Well, FYI — I honestly don’t think it’ll touch us up here. In a part of the planet populated by bears and wolves, in which it is too cold even for snow and where people must literally sweat anti-freeze, I doubt a rogue comet/alien invasion/solar flare could do much damage.
As for me, heck I’d probably welcome a little fire and brimstone. I’ll even bring smores.