Russia: Taking the plunge

The Russians find dozens of ways to celebrate winter, says Margaret Campbell
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The Independent Travel

Winter is the quintessentially Russian season (cue for clichéd image of a snow-covered Red Square, troikas dashing across white fields, Omar Sharif in a fur hat), and the inhabitants of the world's largest snow resort certainly make the most of it, practising everything from sledding (on anything available, from cardboard boxes to sturdy toboggans) to high-altitude heli-skiing and extreme off-piste snowboarding.

To most western eyes, the morning ritual of "the walruses" epitomises the most extreme embrace of the Russian winter: these hardy souls gather daily by rivers and lakes to dip or swim briefly in the freezing waters. On emerging, they exercise energetically for a few moments before dressing warmly and heading off with a reinvigorated spring in their steps.

Like the walruses, practitioners of winter fishing focus their activities around a hole in the ice, but they conserve heat by moving as little as possible: once the ice has been drilled by huge corkscrew-like devices, they unfold collapsible canvas stools, wrap themselves in protective plastic sheets and wait for the fish to bite.

Across Russia, cross-country skiing is easily the most popular winter sport: it forms part of the PE curriculum in many schools, and most people have their own equipment. In this largely flat land it is the most accessible form of skiing, practised almost everywhere, from December to mid-March. On weekend mornings the underground and suburban railway line trains are packed with people jostling skis and rucksacks as entire families head for out-of-town forest trails, some of which may be floodlit late into the evening.

In Moscow, Serebryanyi Bor park is a local favourite for cross-country skiing within the city boundaries (nearest metro: Polezhayevskaya).

Skating is an urban as well as a rural pleasure, and every big town has at least one ice rink and, more commonly, several. Some of these are reserved for professional ice-hockey teams, but many more are open to amateurs.

In Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Levin's outdoor skating skills were used to impress his future wife Kitty: contemporary suitors could head for any of the numerous small rinks around the capital, but the most popular spot is Gorky Park, where equipment can be rented. In St Petersburg, skaters head for Park Pobedy, the Fontanka Embankment and the Kirov or Spartak stadiums.

Downhill skiing has become increasingly popular in recent years, as increased prosperity has made it more accessible to the middle classes and provided investment for resorts and equipment. In fact, Alpine skiing has become the upwardly mobile classes' sport of choice since Mr Putin began being filmed regularly on the slopes.

There are currently about 300 ski stations across Russia, and the core season runs from January to March. Although there are some excellent resorts, the majority will probably lag behind those of western European or North American skiing areas for the foreseeable future and, unfortunately, many of their websites are in Russian only.

While the altitudes around Moscow and St Petersburg are not particularly high, nor the runs especially long (usually no longer than a few hundred metres), there are dozens of resorts within easy distance of the two major cities, and good destinations for weekenders or anyone looking for skiing action as part of a more varied holiday.

The largest and most popular stations around Moscow are Sorochany, Shukolovo and Volen, all of them within 60km of the Moscow ring road. Sorochay is the priciest, and attracts large crowds at weekends. However, it offers round-the-clock skiing and the longest runs in the region. Shukolovo is a favourite with the political elite, which occasionally results in a slope being closed off to the public when a VIP is using it. To compensate, it has a good selection of well-groomed slopes and good lifts, a skating rink and an indoor swimming pool. Volen Sporting Park also has a wide range of activities for non-skiers, including a half-pipe for snowboarders, skimobiles and paintball.

However, the most exciting options for real skiing action in Russia are hundreds of miles from the capital, in the North Caucasus and by the Black Sea or, for extreme adventure, several time zones away in the Altai mountains or Kamchatka.

Two of the main Caucasus resorts are grouped around Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest peak (if you define the continent broadly). The Cheget and Elbrus stations are set amid spectacular scenery in the Prielbrusie National Park in the Baksan Valley. Cheget's runs are the more challenging, while Elbrus ( www.goelbrus.com) offers more possibilities for less advanced skiers and has a longer season. Ski-lifts rise to 3,700m in both places, and there are possibilities for heli-skiing, snowboarding and off-piste skiing, although the latter should be attempted only with local guides. Given the extreme altitudes, time should be built in for acclimatisation.

Dombai is an increasingly popular Caucasus resort, famed for its sunny climate, air purity and breathtaking views. Skiers have a choice of slopes, all above 3,000m, and about 20km of trails. Dombai offers good value for money and a reasonable range of facilities and equipment rental.

Not far from the summer resort of Sochi, the Krasnaya Polyana resort is rapidly approaching European standards. Equipment and facilities are being improved and new lifts have opened up previously inaccessible slopes. Prosperous Russians and adventurous foreign skiers are attracted to miles of powder snow, steep slopes and the best après-ski options in the country. However, skiing here demands a reasonable level of skill, as there are limited options for beginners. Snowmobiles, hot-air ballooning and heli-skiing are all available.

Further afield, the resorts of Abzakovo, near Magnitogorsk, and Zavyalikha (nearest big airports Ufa or Chelyabinsk), have invested in high-tech equipment and facilities. These areas offer cheap skiing, but temperatures are likely to be lower than in European Russia and the slopes are not as steep. In the Far East, however, the Kamchatka peninsula provides the ultimate in Russian adventure skiing and snowboarding in a spectacular setting.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Several companies offer ski tours to Russia, and are the easiest way to deal with visa regulations, language problems and travel arrangements. More information is available from the following sites:

www.pilgrim-tours.com

www.slope.ru (Top Sport Travel)

www.yak-yeti.com (Heliski Yak & Yeti Worldwide)

www.russianadventures.ru

and, more generally,

www.visitrussia.org.uk/ (Russian National Tourist Office)

www.intouristuk.com/index.shtml (Intourist).

If you plan to spend time on Russia's slopes (and can read Russian), try to get hold of Russkie gorki: skloni i trassi (Russian hills: slopes and routes). This book lists the country's ski resorts and provides information on transport and accommodation.

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