On an icy day of -15C my three-year-old son Dow and I found ourselves on the outskirts of Novgorod, Russia's old capital, surrounded by rows of tenement blocks rising up from the frozen earth like decaying teeth. We were following our host, Vladimir, towards his home in Tenement Block 359, where a family stay had been arranged for us by The Russia Experience. Novgorod is the third largest city in Russia. It is located at the confluence of the Volga and Oka Rivers.
"This is the Sleeping Village," Vladimir told us gruffly as we trudged over the compacted snow. "People go to work, then come home to sleep." Vladimir is a history teacher. A stern-looking man, with gold teeth either side of his mouth and a trim black beard flecked with grey, he led us into the dark, damp interior and to a lift that creaked its way up to the family's tiny flat on the sixth floor.
There we were greeted by his wife, Tatiana, a tall skinny woman with protruding front teeth, his shy teenage daughter Helena, and Babushka, Vladimir's mother, who picked up my son and bear-hugged him roughly. Dow looked wary but let her carry him over to a large chair where she chatted with him in Russian. "English, mama, English," Vladimir bellowed from the hallway.
The flat was a cosy mish-mash of furniture, books, coloured drapes and scraps of wallpaper. We dined in the kitchen, looking out at the grey skyline of tenement blocks, while Babushka served borscht. Vladimir told us how wealthy his family had been; his father had owned Moulin's, a club modelled on the Moulin Rouge, but had lost everything in the Revolution.
Tatiana was trying to tell me something in Russian. "English, Anna, English," Vladimir shouted, looking up from his soup. "She says: 'Communism was not communism.' And today is not democracy. They are both ideals."
Later that evening, as Dow snored softly on the makeshift bed in Helena's room, I sat in the kitchen listening to Tatiana recite poems she had written, first in Russian, then translated into stilted English. They were all love poems - simple and sweet.
The following day, we caught the number 16 bus into the city, crushed against fur-wrapped bodies as the heat coiled around us and steamed up the windows. "We have German buses, which are good," Vladimir told me. "And we have Hungarian buses, which are bad. This is a Hungarian bus."
We spent the day touring the city, everywhere accompanied by the sounds of spades scraping, as people cleared the snow and ice. After a visit to the five-domed Cathedral of St Sophia, the oldest church in Russia, a tour of the city's kremlin, and a show at the Puppet Theatre for Dow's entertainment, Vladimir took us to an old Communist-style café that sold only tea and doughnuts. An old man shuffled around holding out his hat for handouts. "It is the old people who have suffered most," Vladimir said dropping coins into the hat. "They don't understand democracy and have little to live off."
The next day Vladimir and Helena took us to the frozen lake of Ilmen to ice- fish. The bus dropped us deep in the countryside surrounded by vast flat fields blanketed with thick snow. Vladimir and Helena were dressed in big waterproof boots and thick fur hats - Dow and I had borrowed an array of ill-fitting woollens. In one hand Vladimir carried a fishing rod, in the other an ice drill that looked like a giant corkscrew.
"Keep your ears open for the sound of ice cracking," he said as we set off across the frozen lake. "Sixty fishermen a year drown while ice-fishing in Russia." He told us that most deaths occurred on the ocean when it freezes. "The ice shelves break off, carrying fishermen out to sea."
He found a good spot, set up his gear, drilled several holes in the ice, then lowered lines weighted with mosquito larvae for bait. My son watched, loving every minute of it. That night, back in the warmth of the flat, we ate the four fresh carp we'd caught.
It was only then that Vladimir told me he had lost his brother to ice-fishing. I asked him why he did it if it was so dangerous. "I get to feed my cat for free," he joked. Then, more seriously, said: "You are a writer, yes. Then if fishing is like a story, ice-fishing is like a poem." Babushka needed no further prompting. Opening an alarmingly thick text book she began to recite her own poetry in her deep rasping Russian dialect. "English, mama, English," Vladimir shouted across the room.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE: The Russia Experience (0208-566 8846; beetroot.org) will be including Novgorod on Christmas departures within its Beetroot Backpackers programme. Prices start from £425 for a nine-day trip. Flights and visa cost extra. It also offers homestays in Lake Baikal and Ulan Ude.
FURTHER INFORMATION: See website of the Embassy of the Russian Federation at great-britain.mid.ru.