Russia’s winter season has so much more to offer visitors than sub-zero temperatures, Max Lovell-Hoare and Sophie Ibbotson explain.
Nothing prepares you for seeing your own breath freeze to the end of your nose and onto the fur of your hood. Stopping breathing is, of course, undesirable, and it is in any case enthralling to watch the cloud as you exhale, dragon-like, or endeavour to puff out smoke rings, the skin of your face tingling all the while in the cold.
Wrapped up in thick Fjall Raven parkas, the down-filled fabric and fur-tipped hoods keeping out the worst of the elements, -25 Celsius was remarkably unobtrusive. We’d emerged into the early morning light from the home of Galina, our hostess in the village of the Old Believers, to watch the sun slowly creep over the horizon, casting its rays across corrugated rooftops and hills. The ice and snow, still virgin in places, twinkled in the sunshine, creating a veritable winter wonderland.
The Old Believers – those who clung to the old traditions when the Russian Orthodox Church split hundreds of years ago – were exiled first to Poland and then, by Catherine the Great, to Siberia, which has ever since been their home. With absolute determination to survive, they cleared sections of forest around Ulan Ude in order to build homes and farm the land, compensating for the 90 day growing season by germinating their seeds and hardening their seedlings inside. In spite of the inestimably harsh climate and Stalin’s 20th century purges, somehow the Old Believers pulled through, many of their traditions intact.
Three generations of Galina’s family welcome guests from the Golden Eagle for dinner in their community hall. Toasty warm and seated in a room richly decorated with traditional costumes, jewellery and historic photos, we dined on the staples of the Old Believers’ cuisine: smoked fish with home-baked bread; mashed potato and meatballs; grated carrot and cabbage salad; and deep fried pastries with a bitter-sweet wild currant jam. The table groaned under the weight of the food and bottles of wine and vodka, a perfect accompaniment to the fish.
Though eating and drinking was a pleasure, the best was yet to come as Galina and her family took to the stage, Russia’s answer to the Von Trapp Family Singers. Since 2001 the Old Believers’ folk songs have been recognised by UNESCO as a valuable part of our world heritage, and we were treated to an extended performance of music and story telling, complete with audience participation. We chortled our way through the mock marriage ceremony of two fellow guests, but soon enough the boot was on the other foot as one by one the men were summoned onto the stage to drink vodka and be kissed by Galina.
When the meal was finally over, we had a choice to return to the train or to remain in the village overnight, try out a banya (a Russian sauna) and to sleep as a guest in someone’s home. We opted for the latter: you always get a far greater insight into local culture by staying with a family, and we’ve frequently found such an opportunity to be the highlight of a trip.
Though some of the Old Believers do still live in their traditional wooden homes, for others life has moved on. Our hostess and her husband lived in a Soviet apartment block, but inside were all mod-cons including, thankfully, central heating, electricity and hot and cold running water. The banya, heated to sweltering temperatures, was in the back garden and smelt richly of the pine sap melting in the wood of the walls and ceilings. The heat and steam drew all the impurities from our skin, our muscles relaxed, and when it came to dash back through the snow to the apartment, we barely noticed the cold at all.