This cold scares me.
They call it мороз. The frost. A misleading turn of phrase: a week ago, if someone had asked me what frost meant, I would have described a silvery morning in October, sun shining, the earth covered by what appears to be a spider’s web of diamonds. In Siberia, however, the frost is a beast of an entirely different nature. The world was already white – and then the temperature plummeted. Frost, for the Siberians, is extreme cold.
It arrived in time for the weekend we had chosen to visit Krasnoyarsk, a city five hundred kilometres to the east of Tomsk. We travelled overnight on the Trans-Siberian Express and arrived early in the morning, just as it was getting light. In front of the majestic station building was a large, open square, with a stone lion rearing into the hazy air far above us. We briefly cast our eyes up to the indifferent, somewhat incongruous creature, and then retreated back into the warmth of the station, having already lost feeling in our fingers.
There is something so inhospitable about the Siberian frost. The very light is cold, and all warmth has fled, now merely a memory or a fragile luxury captured beneath layers of clothing. People are few and far between, and those that are outside hurry along determinedly, wrapped up to the extent that only their eyes are visible. The frost cannot be escaped.
That first day in Krasnoyarsk was spent hurrying from station to bus to museum to bus to restaurant. At least, that was the plan. It turned out that it was not so easy for a group of five foreigners in an unfamiliar city. First, we got off the bus too early and spent a painful half an hour searching for the literature museum. Then we traipsed between ticket offices in an (eventually successful) attempt to collect our tickets for the ballet. Worst of all was the quest for the key to our apartment, which took place after dark and involved several stressful telephone conversations with an impatient Russian lady. I couldn’t think straight; all I could think about was getting inside as soon as possible.
Thankfully, we found the key and were finally able to relax in the safety of the apartment, still with ten fingers and ten toes (I counted, just to be sure). Having weighed up our wish to experience Krasnoyarsk’s nightlife versus our wish to remain warm (it didn’t take much deliberation), we played cards, drank vodka and danced in the wonderfully spacious, wonderfully clean apartment. We didn’t even have to hide from the CCTV cameras, unlike in our Tomsk halls of residence.
Over the following two days we visited a couple of churches, saw Sleeping Beauty at the theatre, walked in the nearby nature reserve (we are beginning to learn that it is just not possible to wear too many clothes). And everywhere we went, even on the public transport, people heard us talking English and asked us where we were from, what we were doing here, what we thought of Russia… and very insistently requested our contact details. Quite remarkable, the number of friends you make per day in Siberia.
In spite of the formidable temperature, we survived, and returned to Tomsk to a relatively tropical -10°C. As it turns out, there is nothing to be ashamed of in being afraid of the cold. ‘You know,’ a local said to me, ‘the true Siberian is not the one who has no fear of the frost, but the one who manages to dress warmly.’