Week 11: First impressions of the Siberian ‘winter’

Posted: November 24, 2009 in Иркутск
Tags: , , , , , ,

As far as I’ve been keeping track on the weather report, last week’s temperatures included the lowest low I’ve seen thus far (-28 deg. C.) and the highest high I’ve seen since it’s frozen (-3 deg. C.).

Although autumn officially still has about a month to go, the magic of the Russian cold has been out and ambling about the streets of Irkutsk for a good month now.

The sidewalks are frozen in what looks like will be the same ice and snow for the next 4-5 months. People slip and fall with notable frequency; people generally don’t stop to help. A small hill across the courtyard beneath my fourth-story window already has a long, worn-in track of ice from kids’ (and the neighborhood drunks’, by night, I’ve seen) sliding down on sleds, cardboard scraps, and behinds.

Ice slides are the thing here–none of that snow-sledding nonsense of the less adventurous.

This includes the production of the season: Public Transportation On Ice. After all, Gogol said, “What kind of Russian doesn’t like fast rides!”

On the busses and in the marshrutka vans, and in cafés alike, the windows steam up and crystallize with ice in seconds, which, when traveling and not knowing which stop is next, adds yet another dimension to the compulsory and groundless trust in fate that this country demands. At least, they say, the potholes and ditches have been leveled until the spring.

Negative 10 deg. C. and upwards is pleasant when out and about, especially if the sun is shining and the wind at a minimum. It’s a dry cold, –for the most part. When the moisture or wind pick up, you couldn’t wish for more scarves and hats and layers to bundle yourself up.

Snowfall and icefall are beautiful.

The Russian men, now bearing the tall, stiff fur hats, evoke the age-old legends and kid-age stories of harsh Russian winters of stone soup and troika (three-horse carriage) rides. The Russian ladies, now in their luscious furs, and still in their high-heels (kobloki), glisten and glimmer even more than before. The sequins on their woolen hats with the snow and the ice themselves all reflect the early-evening, late-dusk blue, and the gold and red light of streetlights and car lights, catching all angles of the last sparks and flicks of the sun’s final glint across the River Angara against the brilliant gold crosses and spires of the city’s white onion-topped churches.

Then only at night do I understand why only works of great length can truly describe such nights: the streets of Dostoevsky and the skies of Bulgakov’s make-believe are the only possible use of language to do so.

A measured portion of vodka for strength on the way home on late weekends helps more than I’d think, even in light of the slipperiness, darkness, emptiness of the streets.

Once the door to the apartment, or even the door to the bus, is open, and the warmth of the kolektiv (“ka-lyek-TEEF,” collective) is there in front of my eyes, my frozen stiffness temporarily resides. And so, life goes on in Siberia as if nothing outdoors has changed at all.

And to think that this is only the beginning. . . .

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