To fight autumn gloom Russians, especially kids, are looking forward to snow and favourite winter occupations.
Winter doesn’t officially start till late-November or December but try telling that to people who already have to deal with sub-zero temperatures and bone-chilling winds. The most difficult time of the year for many in Russia is this stretch between the middle of October until the time winter sets in. The birds have already flown south for warmer weather, animals have started to hibernate, the harvests are complete, the mushrooms picked and the dachas abandoned. The trees have shed almost all their leaves and dark clouds leave a feeling of general gloom.
I found it very tough to feel motivated at this time of year in Russia. There was a stark realisation that the warmer months were over and that it would take another 6 months before one could see and feel the first traces of spring. Even the fun-filled New Year holidays seemed like a lifetime away. These are the last days of the year in many parts of Russia when one can go for a jog or a bike ride and within days it would be time to put the sneakers and the bicycles away for a few months. Of course it was easier for me to deal with the late-autumn weather when I thought about the dreadfully hot and dusty post-monsoon month of October in my hometown, Bombay. It seemed to me that the whole northern hemisphere, tropical or temperate had to deal with this period of transition before the cold season.
Some in the Russian Far East hate this “neither here nor there” weather so much that they plan getaways to places like Thailand precisely at this point of the year. The municipal authorities tend to go really slow when it comes to turning on the heating and homes in Russia can feel as cold as the unheated cottages of Himachal Pradesh in the winter! A nice mini-vacation on a Thai island may just be the right remedy for the in-between season. By the time those lucky enough to afford the tropical holiday are back home, the buildings are warm and well-heated.
The snow is beautiful and completely transforms the great Russian landmass but many hope for a delay in the first storm that sets the snow in place for the winter. It’s more about delaying the feeling that the long winter has commenced and with it cold and short days and early sunsets. The chilling late-autumn winds are unbearable and the weather gets slightly warmer when it actually does snow.
The first major snowfall of the season makes for a breathtakingly beautiful sight. There’s an innate purity in the freshly fallen snow and once it really comes down heavily, it’s easier to appreciate the phenomenon. There are few things are thrilling as watching the marvel on the faces of children as they enjoy the first snow of the season. This marvel can also be seen on the faces of adults from countries which don’t have real winters. For many in the tropical coasts of India and the cities of the plains, seeing snowfall remains a dream and trips are often planned to places like Manali and Kashmir just to get a glimpse of snow. I’ve seen many an excited Indian relishing the first snow in Russia. Most of these people were first year students. The poor kids had no idea that endless winters were in store for them over the next six years.
With the snow setting in, come the great pleasures of the early winter, like slipping and falling on the icy sidewalks. In cities like Moscow, the snow is usually cleared off the streets using chemicals. To experience a winter adventure one has to venture out to places that receive disproportionate snowfall and where the lethargic municipal authorities don’t bother making sidewalks navigable. “What’s the point in removing the snow and ice, when there will be another snowstorm soon and the sidewalks would get filled up all over again?” Such is the mindset that makes an early winter walk an adventure in some Russian cities.
Even if winter does set in by the first week of November, it’s still too early for winter sports such as outdoor ice skating and skiing. This is a good time to visit museums, art galleries and libraries. The cultural season with concerts, plays, ballet and the opera is also in full swing and one won’t be starved for entertainment. The cultural events make this period of transition much easier to handle. The days start going by a bit quicker and before you know it, December and the New Year break are looming in the horizon.
Like with most things in life, Russians have a philosophical attitude towards the cold season and take the good and bad of these 6 long months in their strides, happy in the belief that summer is coming soon.
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