December 24

How to survive Moscow’s -17 deg winter


Moscow is one of those exotic places that doesn’t do anything by the mediocre – it is either too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer. In December, I voluntarily packed my bags and the only Russian phrase I knew – здравствуйте (try saying ‘Does your ass fit you?‘ quickly, which means ‘Hello’ or ‘How’re you’) – and headed to one of the coldest winters I was about to experience.

Before I arrived, I was unreliably informed that it would be a torrid -10 deg, but when the plane touched down on the tarmac, the captain of the motherboard announced that we’d landed in -17 deg. Surely a couple of degrees difference wouldn’t be much noticeable? Boy, was I wrong.

As I stepped out of Domodedovo airport, I was greeted by sharp blades of icy wind that threatened to cut my face open. I knew then that I had truly arrived. I also knew that the most logical thing to do was to run for immediate shelter, so I started after the cosy Aeroexpress faster than Usain Bolt, leaving J behind.

The brilliant Aeroexpress took under an hour to arrive at Paveletskiy railway station. From there on, our whimsical journey on Moscow’s metro began. After battling what seemed like 10 billion commuters, we alighted at Smolenskaya, which was a short walk to our hotel situated on Moscow’s most famous pedestrian street called Old Arbat. This street was a tourist trap, so if you need a Russian hat, you can definitely find one here. I wasn’t going to complain. I was in Moscow for ArtDocFest (Russia’s main documentary film festival) to support the talented Jake Mobbs, who directed a documentary about teenagers living on the streets of Perm, Russia.

At 11 pm, all restaurants on the Arbat were shut, except a number of fast food chains – McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Teremok. Upon positive recommendations, we headed to Teremok to get some pancakes, or blinis. It was a relatively cheap meal, with every fillings imaginable, from ham and cheese, salmon, chicken caesar, bacon blinis, to dessert blinis, such as berries and banana with chocolate. Feeling extremely carb-loaded and satisfied, we went back to bed.

The next couple of days were equally as cold. We opted for short walks and sought shelter in any building every 15 minutes. Russian women do not scrimp on fur or duvet coats, many of them wear double scarves and often a scarf around their head with a hat on top, it was a make or break survival situation.

Noteworthy buildings, some of magnificent stature and grandeur, were the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral, and the GUM (pronounced as goom), all located on the Red Square and within walking distances of one another. In a city where 79 of the world’s billionaires live, most of them would be doing their Christmas shopping in GUM, otherwise known as ‘the exhibition of prices’, as no one except the mega-wealthy can truly afford to buy anything there.

Within St Basil’s Cathedral, the more modest interior design includes corridors which felt more like mazes and chapels dimly lit by existing light. Doors that were painted in gold and painted floral motifs on walls evoked a spiritual ambience that instilled peace in its visitors.

Another delight to Russia has to be their Georgian restaurants. One footstep into Jon Joli and I knew that it would be the end of my meat abstinence. The heady mixture of spices and marinade grabbed every single air particle in the restaurant, filling me with shashlik and sizzling hot tomato-based stew dreams. Pina Colada was a winner, and their homemade raspberry drink was a home run. The only rival to this restaurant that we can recommend is Khachapuri, another Georgian restaurant that’s famous for, well, khachapuri, a Georgian cheese bread. The gorgeous fried black sole that I ate there was top of the range, to say the least.

By way of serendipity, we found our way to Kamchatka, a Soviet-style bar which served food from Soviet times, and beautiful vodka and beer for excellent prices for an expensive city like Moscow. The interior of the two-beer hall was decorated by objects that reminisced Soviet nostalgia, and everyone looked like they were having the best time. The Soviet snacks did not look pleasing though, and I decided to give it a miss. It was a place that if you did not come with a group of friends, you were bound to leave with some. We met an entertaining, fun, and intelligent bunch of new friends, who were so nice they drove us around the city.

On the same side as the Kremlin facing the frozen Moskva River, we stumbled upon the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, more commonly known as the Pussy Riot church these days. This beauty was rebuilt in the 1990’s since its demolition by the Soviet Union, and it glistened like the purest pearl in the night.

In a gargantuan city like Moscow, most people go on their ways daily, minding their own businesses. Throughout our short trip, a fair number of Russians, especially those who spoke English, were very curious about us and offered heartwarming hospitalities. Although the city was enveloped in a grey vibe while we were there, we were touched by a few souls who had very sunny personalities. Perhaps it was a coping mechanism for the cold weather, that they each carried a sun within their hearts. If this doesn’t warm you up, and you like to be beaten with a stick in temperatures upwards of 200°F (90°C), you can always go to the best banya in Moscow.

This article was published on Huffington Post.


Arbat, ArtDocFest, banya, GUM, Jon Joli, Kachapuri, Kamchatka, Moscow, Red Square, russian hats, Soviet, St Basil's Cathedral

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  1. Entertaining read, Sam. I liked the “motherboard” you flew in on, the “top of the range” food, and the church glistening like a pearl. I really like this discription of the sun from within. 😉

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