Street Life: Samotechny Lane, Moscow - Seasonal ordeal by fire and ice

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ON BOXING Day the hard men of my native Yorkshire show their mettle by covering themselves in lard and swimming in the North Sea off Scarborough. It has always been my ambition to join these "Sons of Neptune". But for now, I am doing my temperature training with the weaklings of Russia.

Over Christmas I went from minus 12 degrees of frost to plus 90 Celsius - and all without leaving the environs of Samotechny Lane.

To earn the heat, I first chilled out. Wearing three jumpers and a fur coat, I went to watch the men making ice sculptures for new year on Pushkin Square. The neon temperature gauge above the square stood at minus 12 and the wind cut like a knife.

"Perfect weather," said the brigade leader, Viktor Pavlovich Chernyshov, or "Palich" to his workers. Icicles stuck to his beard but he glowed from his exertions and looked as hale as Father Christmas.

The men were using chain saws to make surprisingly delicate sculptures from blocks of ice brought up from Pioneers' Pond. A row of completed Doric columns sparkled at the entrance to their impromptu ice park. Inside, they were working on figures from Russian fairy tales.

"And that's Tsar Boris Godunov, isn't it?" I asked. "Don't be daft," said Palich. "That's Pushkin."

Of course. Not only were we at the lower end of Pushkin Square, opposite the famous statue of the 19th-century poet, but also 1999 will be a year of celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of the "Russian Shakespeare". Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and various private sponsors were paying for the ice park to help to launch those celebrations.

"What will happen if there is a sudden thaw?" I asked. "And what if war breaks out?" grinned Palich. "Don't you worry, I have my secrets for keeping the temperature down."

Indeed he does, for Palich runs a firm that makes ice sculptures all year round. In warmer weather his workers toil inside a giant refrigerator, carving swans and bears to decorate banqueting tables in posh hotels.

Palich continued to radiate his own inner heat but I was going blue, standing there talking to him. Luckily, my next appointment was with Irina at the banya, or Russian steam bath.

"Come in quick, shut the door, don't let the heat out," she said, as I entered the wooden cabin at the Astrakhansky baths, where bath attendant Boris had worked up an air temperature of 90C by throwing water on to hot coals. In minutes, I was sweating with Irina, a doctor who practises alternative medicine, and her heat-worshipping friends.

"Whip me, whip me," cried a naked man in the corner and Irina obliged by lashing his back with birch fronds.

This is not what you might think it is. All thoughts of sex disappear at just 10 degrees below boiling point and Russians go in mixed groups to the banya for the sake of their health, not for orgies.

In a cold country that barely sees the sun for six months of the year, the banya gives essential warmth to people who cannot afford to fly off to Florida. Even the banya has become something of a luxury since the economic crisis and beggars stand outside the bath house, hoping for kopecks from the relatively rich Russians going in with their towels and birch branches.

It is possible to endure the extreme heat for about five minutes. The temperature in a Finnish sauna is even higher but tolerable, because the air is drier. "There's nothing quite like the banya in nature," said Irina. "You can't compare it to the jungle or the desert. Perhaps this is what it would be like inside the crater of a volcano."

You get so hot that you are dying for cold. You plunge with abandon into the icy swimming pool. Heat and cold feel the same. You come out tingling. Your whole body feels the way your mouth does when you have eaten a mint.

"It is not recommended for people with weak hearts, of course," said Irina, "but it's brilliant for your blood circulation. That's the point of the extremes of temperature. Your body is cleansed of all stresses and, afterwards, it finds its own natural balance again."

So, Sons of Neptune, see you in Scarborough Bay next Boxing Day. Jumping in the North Sea. Piece of cake.