The notion of living, even thriving, in a Russian/Siberian winter is a fascinating one. Just how do the inhabitants of those vast locations manage it? Also, it’s even harder to imagine their lives under such extremes throughout history, without modern communications, GPS, medicine, food availability, manufacturing, and survival equipment.
It seems that hardship, as with many other conditions, is relative. The above paragraph is largely a testament to my level of comfort within a modern, centrally heated UK that is temperate by global standards, if a little wet and dreary at times. That’s our ‘normal’ here, and whilst we often venture out in tee-shirts and other light clothing during Autumn (and even early winter), foreign visitors from the southern Americas, Europe and equatorial/tropical climates wrap-up and complain about the cold; made worse by our persistent humidity.
The “normal” that Siberian residents are familiar with is several magnitudes more extreme; with a temperature differential of approximately 80°C at the limits of Summer and Winter. That’s -40°C to 40°C, or thereabouts. Yes, Siberia is only frozen during the winter, which may confound your expectations. The Summers, although short, can be pretty damn warm depending upon location and we could probably cope with them – it’s a dry heat after all.
The winters are a different matter and frankly, the locals win. That doesn’t mean that such an extreme is ever “easy” of course, for anyone. They have an inherent toughness, born of routine hardship, that we don’t possess. I spoke to a Siberian shaman, living in Buryatia who had reached his late 70’s and was still active and doing well. Similarly, I gained small insight into winter life on the border of Ukraine and Poland during the early 20th Century, via a close friend whose Grandfather grew up between the wars.
In his home country he lived a relatively poor village life of adapting and making-do, rather than buying the latest innovation to insulate against reality. That wasn’t an option. When the seasons struck hard, he braced for the blow and took it’s force. His father would order him and his brothers outside to roll unclothed in the first winter snows, thereby acclimatising them to the coming freeze. Problem solved, although I wouldn’t recommend it. Likewise, modern Russian/Siberian/Ukrainian life does include the infamous ice-swimming at Epiphany, sometimes within appropriately cross-shaped pools carved into the ice itself. And of course: ice swimming at New Year, or at another time that appeals, frankly (providing that ice is available). They just can’t help themselves.
There’s also the ongoing banya tradition of diving out of the steam and into frozen water; -for reported health benefits that are both physical and mental, so I hear. There are also inherent dangers to this practice, in the form of cold shock response (and more), particularly for those who are not used to the practice and/or have underlying health issues. Ongoing conditioning is a factor, as is common sense and consultation with your doctor, should the idea of frozen immersion appeal! The locals make it look easy but that does not mean that it is; for us at least.
A contact of mine in the Moscow region has some general wintery advice of her own (though not on the specifics of ice bathing). In her own words: “I would add… recommendations to buy for a winter trip (in) Siberia; warm clothing (winter down jacket or coat, a fur hat (with) earflaps or Ushanka hats, wool scarf, gloves, sweater, insulated thick pants, thick woolen socks, warm underwear, warm boots with fur and with thick soles).” She also raises a very good point: “This outfit can be purchased in Moscow and (in the) cities of Siberia.”
Yes, the issue of fur comes up again, here in the west many have a problem with the wearing of it (except by its original animal owners). In the east, most don’t. From a personal perspective, the larger point concerns the dilemma of whether to ship-out to Russia with your winter wardrobe, or to take the minimum and then buy the serious gear whilst out there. In the first instance, some dedicated research is in order, to find the kind of protection that an arctic explorer would use. So, not a quick chat with the minimum-wager at your local camping shop about what’s on the bargain-rail. Your life may depend upon it. You’ll pay western retail prices and pile up air baggage charges (I like to travel ultra-light). Also you’ll increase the sheer heft of the whole travel process; but you will be set to go, if your info was good. And of course, you will have been able to research and purchase in English.
Waiting/hoping to get what you need in Russia is risky. Crucially, if you plan to trudge around Moscow looking for warm winter clothing, what will you wear in the meantime? It’s still winter, right? You’ll still need winter gear that is at least good enough for city life, directly off the plane. The exchange rate is amazing but how is your language? My pidgin Russian can clunk through mundane situations in a “John and Jane” style, but yes, I could buy a coat in Russia. I’d also take some reassurance from the fact that I was buying something for the Russian winter from people who actually live in it! The thing has to work, surely? Hopefully I wouldn’t have frozen by the time I handed my Rubles over. Esther presents an informed perspective on
“Bring anything that is made of wool – it’s pretty much the only thing that works when temperatures go below -15°. I arrived in October with most of my suitcase occupied by coats, wool stockings, socks, sweaters, scarves, hats and gloves; people in my dorm mocked me when they saw how much stuff I brought with me, but I was the only one who wasn’t complaining when the cold hit, because I was ironclad.”
On the flip-side, you can’t absolutely count on cheaper prices, plus there may be an unofficial 50-100% westerner-tax to contend with, imposed by unscrupulous tradespeople seeking to take advantage. You’d perhaps have to be unlucky though; I found the shops in St.Petersburg to be perfectly fine for example; but one city is not representative of a whole country. Just hire a local taxi for a reality check anytime you like. Or rather, don’t. Ok, having been there, I’m jaded.
Also, speaking of others, ask those who are experts in the field, about the reality of a frozen excursion to Russia/Siberia: people who have actually done it, your tour/travel company, your guides etc. All indispensable resources, undoubtedly, preferably consulted before the fact rather than after.
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