Vodka and bikinis in a wonderland

JILL WORRALL
Last updated 07:25 23/12/2013
st isaac's square
SPARKLY: St Petersburg's St Isaac Square decorated for Christmas.

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Misha, my Russian friend, was swatting sandflies from his legs after a fruitless fishing session near the Haast Pass.

"Next time we go fishing, it will be ice fishing in Russia," he said. "There are no sandflies there - and there are fish," he added pointedly.

I told him I'd remind him of that once he got home to Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent, where he works. And I did.

Misha by now had had second thoughts. "It's too cold," he replied. He, who had been born and bred in Moscow. "I don't like Russia in winter. It would be better if I come back to New Zealand."

But I had the bit between my teeth now ... I envisaged sleigh rides, Christmas lights in Red Square, silver birches sparking with frost. He gave in.

I left New Zealand on a sultry New Year's Day only to lift up the window shade on the Dubai to Moscow flight to be met by the blinding whiteness of a featureless expanse of snow.

At Moscow airport Misha was waiting with an armful of clothing that he insisted I don before we walked outside. Boots, gloves, a hat, padded jacket.

"Why you want to do this when I could have come to New Zealand and we could be having fish and chips on Caroline Bay I do not really understand," he said, as we emerged into the grey of a Moscow afternoon, me bundled up like a Teletubby. It was only about 3pm but there was the feel of night closing in.

We headed straight for the railway station and an overnight train to St Petersburg. Befuddled with non-stop travel, I collapsed on to my bunk in our sleeping compartment only to be woken a few minutes later by the carriage attendant bearing caviar and vodka. Supper, Russian-style.

St Petersburg was gearing up for the Russian Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7 (The Russian church still uses the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar used in most Western countries, hence the different date).

As our taxi swished through streets slushy with melted snow, we passed a giant illuminated Christmas tree and a gargantuan red-cloaked figure of St Nicholas in St Isaac's Square.

St Nicholas, a much revered saint in Russia, is the forerunner of our Santa Claus or Father Christmas. With the cathedral looming behind, it was a graphic expression of how Russia has changed. During the Soviet era, when religious practices were outlawed, St Isaac's was converted into a museum to atheism and even Christmas trees were banned. Today, Russians of all ages are back praying in their churches and Christmas celebrations are growing in popularity.

As the sun set, lighting the gilded 122-metre high spire of the Cathedral of St Peter and Paul ablaze, we drove over a bridge spanning the ice-bound Neva River. Cycles of freeze and thaw and the pressure of water still flowing underneath had created great frozen waves and jagged peaks of ice on its surface.

At night we strolled down Nevskiy Prospekt, St Petersburg's premier shopping and entertainment boulevard, to admire the Christmas lights and find dinner. We ate borsch soup and rabbit stew in a restaurant with a lobby that looked just the way I imagined the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to be. It was lined with diners' luxurious fur coats. I stroked them all, furtively.

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We walked gingerly across the icy cobblestones of Palace Square in front of Catherine the Great's Winter Palace. A skating rink had been constructed in the centre of the square, where skaters whirled to the strains of Tchaikovsky.

In the Church On Spilled Blood priests and worshippers were hauling fir trees into the church and tying them to the altar rails ready for the Christmas services. Snow dusted the flamboyant roof domes of the church, built to commemorate the assassination of Tsar Alexander III in 1881.

By Christmas Eve, January 6, we were in the Golden Ring, north of Moscow. It's so named because in the 16th and 17th centuries this was Russia's spiritual and economic heartland, a place of towns, monasteries and churches made rich because of their position along major trading routes that linked Russia with the Asian silk roads and western Europe.

Near Vladimir is a small chapel set on a hillock above a bend in the frozen Klyazma River. We walked to it in the company of a local guide who startled me as we trudged through the snow by saying: "Turn and look at me".

I did so. "In winter we always check our visitors for signs of hypothermia but you are fine, your skin is pink. I don't need to worry until you start to go white," he said. "And it is only about -15 [Celsius]."

When I came out of the church Misha was nowhere to be seen. Then he appeared around the corner of the chapel a few minutes later, beckoning me to follow.

"Happy Christmas," he said, pointing to a pony harnessed to a sledge piled high with blankets. Once I was tucked up behind the driver she set off, sleigh bells ringing, the pony's breath condensing in the cold. Misha and the local guide walked behind. They'd declined to join me, ostensibly on the ground they wanted to smoke; more probably because to be seen doing something so touristy would have been deeply embarrassing.

But I didn't care; we swished over the snow towards Vladimir where the 12th century blue domes of the Bogolyubov monastery could be seen through frosted tree branches. I was the Ice Queen.

That afternoon we went ice fishing, a winter ritual that Misha promised me would be rewarded with more fish than I'd found for him in New Zealand. Misha and his friend Sergei drilled three holes in the metre-deep river ice. I was not allowed to help; this was very much the domain of Russian men. Then to my amazement they produced fishing rods the size of chopsticks. I couldn't see how we were going to extract metre-long pike (which was I'd imagined we'd be hauling up from the frigid depths) with those.

But I kept quiet, ate the small vegetable and meat pies that are part of the ritual and quaffed a warming shot of vodka. Misha and Sergei then dropped balls of maggoty bread crumbs into the holes to lure the fish to the tiny hooks. I was given a job - handed a sieve-like utensil and told to patrol the holes to ensure they didn't freeze up as we waited. And waited, and drunk another vodka.

Nothing moved along the river and as the weak sun dropped below the trees, so did the temperature. Misha estimated it was now about -20C.

Then, there was a brief flurry of activity around one of the holes. Misha pulled in the line and there was our catch. It was no bigger than a goldfish and by the time the men had poured the celebratory shot of vodka, it was stuck, frozen solid to the ice.

"I'm not filleting it," I remarked.

We returned to our cottage that was part of a small hotel complex inside a working monastery and close to the winter and summer churches (winter churches have few windows and are usually smaller so are easier to heat).

That evening we stomped towards the church along a path cut into metre-deep snow. A Christmas Eve church service had been running continuously all day and would keep going all night. Worshippers, priests and nuns came and went, joining in the singing and lighting candles before the icons around the walls. We stood in the flickering candlelight as the haunting singing led by a bearded priest with a deep bass voice echoed around the shadowed alcoves.

Then it was off to dinner in the restaurant nearby. It was packed with mostly holidaying Muscovites and despite being inside a monastery, the vodka and Russian champagne flowed ceaselessly all evening. A progression of bands, gypsy singers and Russian Cossack dancers entertained us, the colours of the Christmas lights spilling out through the uncurtained windows on to the snow outside.

Blini (Russian-style pancakes), dishes of red caviar, soups, potato salads and sizzling dishes of venison were delivered by a fleet of sweating waiters and waitresses in an almost uninterrupted stream, while the decanters of vodka were refilled constantly. Suitably uninhibited by then, there was no shortage of dancers once the disco began.

The DJ was told there was a New Zealander present. "We have just one western song to play in your honour," he said. "So you must get up to dance with this one."

"This is your fault," I muttered to a grinning Misha, "So you're getting up with me. Don't even think about leaving," I added, noting him planning an escape for a smoke.

And so it was that while the monks sang in the church nearby and the temperature plummeted to about -30C we saw in the Russian Christmas Day dancing to Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Polka Dot Bikini.

Sometime around 2am we set off back to our cottage. During the day the snow had thawed slightly then refrozen, making the walk perilous (the vodka had nothing to do with it). We linked arms to negotiate the journey. I mentioned to Misha that it would be embarrassing for my family if I slipped into a snowdrift and was found frozen solid the next morning.

"But Jill, even if the worst happens you must remember you will be all right. You need to think of vodka not as alcohol but as antifreeze," he said, reassuringly.

- The Timaru Herald

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