The sun had barely risen behind the smoke-shrouded Power Station No. 5 when I joined the small group stamping their feet around the bus stop. On this sharp February morning, I, too, was impatient to get going. But unlike most of the muffled Siberians around me, I wasn't heading to work in Novosibirsk's nondescript city centre: I was going to join a friend in Akademgorodok, the scientific research town 20 miles north, to spend the day finding my skiing legs on miles of cross-country tracks in the woods.
Winter visitors to Russia are often surprised by the way that public transport continues to function in temperatures well below freezing. A bus heaved into sight and slithered to a stop nearby. Any residual cold from standing around in sub-zero temperatures soon disappeared in the crush. I had no sooner handed my fare towards a distant and invisible conductor than it was time to start edging my way through thick sheepskin coats, for the transfer at the Bolshevik Instrument Factory.
The next section of the journey took half an hour, standing wedged like a sardine. The city was soon left behind as the bus crawled down a long straight road sliced out of dense forest: tall conifers rose on either side of the track, their darkness contrasting with the snow-topped branches, and broken here and there by a cluster of brightly shuttered log houses or the carved and decorated gateway to a summer campsite. More frequent still were the flower-wreathed crosses marking the locations of fatal accidents – in Russia, all too often, long straight roads, vodka and speeding go together. The snow was now becoming cleaner, and only the road and its immediate sides were black with fumes and dirt.
Eventually I squeezed out, and began to feel better about the weather: "five degrees of frost" isn't cold when the sun's out and you're wrapped in as many layers as a matrioshka doll, and the forecast had promised clear skies with just a hint of unspecified "precipitation" later. I collected my equipment at Larissa's flat – her mother's skiing jacket and 20-year-old wooden skis. I strapped them on and stepped out. Except that apparently you don't step out, you pretend you're ice-skating, bend your knees and glide forward, alternating legs. I think. The trick was to stay vertical and keep moving, and since everything was flat, I could just about do that.
We headed towards the Ob Sea, the extravagantly named man-made lake bordering Akademgorodok, complete with a generous stretch of imported sand: anybody who imagines Siberia as nothing more than snow-driven waste should see this beach in summer, when winter-weary city-dwellers sweat it out on suburban trains for a few hours of sun-worship.
Since the awesomely broad Ob River was dammed 50 or so years ago on its course to the Arctic Ocean, the region's micro-climate has eased and winters have become milder (relatively speaking).
Today the water was frozen, and speckled with seated figures wrapped in plastic sheeting, hoping for a catch from their ice-holes. But we turned our backs on them, and skied or stepped our way along Golden Valley, lined with wooden cabins once built for the most prestigious academicians and now highly sought after by the nouveau riche. A couple of turns, and we were crossing the Botanic Gardens, a brave attempt to impose order on the powerful natural world that was cleared in the 1950s to build a city that was supposed to become the technological heart of the Soviet Union. Today, only the most dedicated scientists remain, scraping a living on pitiable salaries, while less ideologically committed colleagues have been snapped up by universities in the West.
The terrain was becoming corrugated as we joined a path marked out through the forest. Progress was slowed while I picked myself up and tried climbing out of (minuscule) dips. Larissa, who skied with the grace of one who had learned to glide across country in primary school, was patient but puzzled – surely I could pick this up more quickly...
We moved away from the town, skimming across clearings where the wind had traced out fanciful patterns on the snow and the odd bird or animal track cut across our route. There were a few other skiers around, but not enough to make a difference to either views or tranquillity. Gradually we settled into a manageable if unhurried pace, occasionally stopping to let the silence seep in. Although a million people lived nearby, the dense taiga [pine forest], uninterrupted in some directions for thousands of miles, was a stronger presence.
The hours slipped by quickly, and by the time we opened the flask of sweet black tea and ate our sandwiches of smoked lard, the sun had reached its wintry apex – Novosibirsk is on the same latitude as Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The trees were thinner now, and the white bark of birch trees, so Russian and so reassuring, stood out from the dark conifer trunks.
Larches, bare except for a few hardy yellow leaves, looked more forlorn. After a few minutes, the cold began to have an effect, and we moved off. Given Larissa's skill, there was little point racing, but we tried anyway, and ended up gasping for breath and laughing in a snowdrift. The track was marked out by occasional posts, but finding it seemed to be largely a question of instinct. By mid-afternoon, dusk was closing in, and at the next junction we set our sights on home. I was pleased with my progress, until we stumbled (in my case, literally) upon some flood-lit training tracks, where serious skiers were hurtling round at great speed. Some had rifles slung over their shoulders: skiing and shooting is a popular biathlon in Russia.
The promised precipitation now materialised, dousing the trees in a light coat of fresh snow. We hurried now, past allotments where Larissa's father grew gladioli, doubtless confounding his more pragmatic neighbours, who tried to force every last vegetable out of their small patches; past a silver-domed Orthodox church, in these woods since 1991, when the Patriarch of all Russia himself turned up for the opening ceremony. Back into town, past the mammoth skeleton unearthed many years before, and towards a piping bowl of ukha fish soup.
No easy way exists to reach Novosibirsk. The least painful option is probably on Transaero via Moscow; alternatively, you can stop off in the city on your way along the Trans-Siberian Railway. A more esoteric option is the weekly train from Berlin via Central Asia. It is best to enlist the help of a specialist agent, such as Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711, www.regent-holidays.co.uk)Reuse content