10 ways to survive a Russian winter vacation

The phrase “Russian winter” may bring to mind images of tall fur hats, snowcovered gold church domes, and steaming bowls of borscht. It may also remind you that both the armies of Hitler and Napoleon were driven off by the cold winter of the north and that “Russian winter” is also an explanation why every invader has failed to conquer the country. Winter of 2010-2011 was forecast to be the worst in Russia (and Europe in general) since they began keeping weather records, but so far, it’s just been freezing (or below) as usual.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to visit the largest country in the world when it’s cold. The long lines to visit Moscow‘s Kremlin or St. Petersburg‘s Hermitage museum virtually disappear over the winter months, and hotel prices, which still high, dip to slightly more palatable levels. More than anything, winter is when you’ll find Russia at its most “Russian”: residents draped in fur, sipping vodka, or taking a steam at a banya bathhouse.

After a recent stint in Russia over the winter holidays, I put together a few ways to get through a week or two in subzero temperatures and even learn to love the cold.1. Find something warm to sip – Though Russia is famed for their vodka-drinking (more on that below), you’ll find coffee to be the most widely available beverage, with even the simplest cafes offering a full range coffee drinks from espresso to macchiato. You’ll find familiar brands like Starbucks and Costa Coffee, as well as Russian chains like Kofe Xaus (Coffee House) and Shokoladnitsa (Hot Chocolate) on nearly every street in major cities with every conceivable hot drink including tea (pronounced “chai” like in Turkish and many Balkan languages).
2. More warming beverages – You can’t talk about Russia without talking about vodka, the national spirit. Russians actually tend to drink more beer than vodka, though both are readily available most anywhere food and drinks are sold and both good for a warm-up. Cocktails are pricey anytime they involve imported alcohol, but a half-liter of local beer or a small glass of vodka (sipped, not drunk as a shot!) can warm you up for a just few bucks. While many bars and restaurants can serve alcohol 24 hours a day, a new law means you can’t buy strong alcohol (i.e. nothing stiffer than beer and wine) after 10pm so plan ahead if you want a late nightcap.
3. Eat filling food – Take a look at any Russian menu and you’ll see the food is made for cold months – hearty stews and soups, variations on meat-and-potatoes, and salads that rely heavily on mayonnaise and meat. If you are looking for lighter (and cheaper) but still substantial fare, seek out pelmeni dumplings, pierogi cheese or meat pies, and blini pancakes. Russian chain Теремок (pronounced Teremok) is all over Moscow and St. Petersburg and is a quick and reliable stop for a pancake with any conceivable filling from ham and cheese to red salmon caviar. They have both restaurant locations and street stands, with handy picture menus so you can point to your choice instead of struggling with Cyrillic. Street food gets classier when caviar is involved.
4. Tread carefully – An ice storm hit Moscow just after I arrived on Christmas, making the sidewalks slippery and treacherous. Many Russians took advantage and slid gleefully down the street and down hills. It may look fun, but you don’t want to spend your vacation in traction or even with a bruised tailbone. Take small and careful steps on icy streets; gravel is used to make it less slick but salt not as common. Ladies, you will see Russian women tottering along the street in 4-inch stiletto boots and think you too can do it. You cannot. It is in their DNA to walk gracefully in high heels on ice while we slip and slide in our most practical shoes. Speaking of shoes…
5. Wear boots – I admittedly mocked my husband for buying huge waterproof boots before our trip, as they won’t see much action in Istanbul where winter temperatures have barely dipped below 50 F, but he was warm as toast. I wore knee-high flat leather boots most days, and while they weren’t waterproof, they kept me relatively warm and dry (though warmer socks might have helped). On the days I wore shorter, slip-on shoes with long pants, I was miserable and ended up with wet pant cuffs and cold ankles. Embrace the equestrian look and tuck your pants into your boots for extra warmth (then again, men may just want to make sure their cuffs aren’t too long).
6. Dress in many thin layers – You may think Russia is the time for big bulky sweaters and coats, but you’ll find that thinner is better. Many museums require you to check your coat at the door and you won’t find them all to be well-heated, so better to have warm clothing underneath. Layers also give you options: I arrived in Moscow in a wool coat bought in Istanbul and left wearing a puffy down coat UNDER the wool, plus a few other layers. Let your wardrobe be flexible and able to add or subtract, it’s easier to pack as well. Check the Gadling cold weather gift guide for some good winter clothing ideas.
7. Bring a good hat – Walking the streets of Moscow, you’ll be sorely tempted to buy a beautiful fur hat like everyone else you see but think again. Is it really that cold where you live? Do you realize how expensive a fur hat is (think a few hundred dollars at minimum for a good one)? Also, a structured fur hat can’t be stuffed in a purse or a pocket on the metro and needs to be carried inside museums, it’s like having a pet to take care of! Suddenly a ski cap seems much more practical.
8. Find the shortcuts – Even in subzero temperature, walking is still the best way to explore Russia’s major cities, and streets are usually well-cleared. After you get your bearings, however, you may want to look for some indoor shortcuts: department stores and shopping centers that span a block, underground passages, and subway tunnels. Russia’s metros are not only beautiful (and heated), they often have multiple entrances that can put you blocks closer (or further) from your destination. Find your landmarks and figure out the Cyrillic so you can take a break from the outdoors for a few minutes.
9. Check your hotel amenities – After location and price, two key hotel features may be a bathtub and a coffee maker or tea kettle. After a day trudging around the city in snow, a hot bath and a cup of tea can be worth their weight in gold. My Moscow hotel room at the Mamaison Pokrovka, had a full-fledged espresso machine with every option for coffee and tea, greatly helping us to warm up each morning and night. Also, some mid- to high-level hotels offer a pool, sauna, and/or jacuzzi for guest use but check the fine print: many are only free for guests for limited hours in the morning.
10. Soak at a banya – Another Russian winter essential is the bathhouse where you can sit in blissfully hot steam for hours. You may want to skip the birch branch flogging but there’s a reason many brave souls dive into snow after a steam: the banya brings your body temperature way up and warms you inside out, while the snow seals your pores. Sound too extreme? Maybe skip the snow and go back to the beginning of the list for some borscht and beer. Na sdrovia!

Find other ways to keep warm in frigid temps? Have you found Russia worth braving the cold? Leave your suggestions and experiences below in the comments.

Amazing Race 13, recap 9: Russians don’t laugh at you, they laugh with you

With Terence & Sarah eliminated, and Starr & Nick coming in 1st four times in a row, it was any one of the team’s game during episode 9 of the Amazing Race 13. As the teams headed off to Moscow, Russia from Almaty, Kazakhstan, I was curious what would trip up Nick & Starr and if Andrew & Dan could dump their status as the team with the most trouble with tasks.

Moscow was shown as a complicated city that is more than a little expensive in the taxi department. The city gave two teams a bit of grief. Language barriers and a lack of being able to find directions were consistent problems. By the end of their day, I hope there were shots of vodka waiting.

Travel Tips:

  • Hotel bedroom slippers will temporarily work as shoes.
  • I would find someone who knows English to write down locations in Russian in order to find places more easily. That’s just an observation I had after watching the teams struggle.
  • Keep a sense of humor. It will help.
  • Work out taxi costs before you get in a cab, but it may not do much good.
  • On second thought, when traveling in Moscow, don’t take taxis. They are EXPENSIVE.

Recaps and Cultural Highlights

Even though teams left the Pit Stop in Almaty, Kazakhstan at different times, they were on the same flight to Moscow. The airport scene in Kazakhstan was a hoot once Andrew & Dan showed up. Because they left their shoes at the puppet theater when they dressed up as a cow, there they were shuffling along in hotel slippers. Luckily for them, there was an open shoe store at the airport despite the late hour. Shoes weren’t cheap, however. From what I could tell, the least expensive pair cost $80.

Each bought sneakers and didn’t complain about them pinching, rubbing, or making blisters later on in the episode. I assume that meant they were decent shoes. If anything, these frat boys were pleased with their shoes, but were concerned that their money stash was diminished. What a funny story they have to tell later.

Dallas and Starr had more time to further their interest in each other at the airport. Yawn. As with any romance that starts on the road, I give it a 1 out of 5 chance of succeeding.

What was more interesting was when the teams hit Moscow. The buildings’ magnificence impressed the whole gang, but everyone was focused more on money once they hopped into a taxi.

Moscow is very expensive. A taxi ride from the airport to the first stop at Krutitske Podvorye Monastery cost $100. Not one dollar. One hundred dollars. Other taxi rides to the other tasks seemed to cost about the same due to the distances the teams traveled. Being lost may have added to the price.

The monastery was a beautiful Russian Orthodox building with a church service in progress when the teams arrived. I gave Toni high points for covering her hair with a scarf when she stepped inside the church to light a candle. The candlelighting led to the next clue. As she said, “It’s history…There’s reverence and respect. ” As she pointed out, when in a place of worship, one should act appropriately.

Once she & Dallas received their clue that directed them to Kolosok Camp, a decommissioned military base, they were off again without a hitch. Nick & Starr were close behind until Nick & Starr got lost.

Once at the camp, teams were to chose between marching with soldiers or serving soldiers borscht. All teams initially picked the marching. From Ken & Tina’s amorous attitudes during this activity, it looks like all they need to do to get rid of their marital woes is to put on a uniform once in awhile.

While Toni & Dallas and Ken & Tina were marching away, Nick & Starr were not having one bit of luck with their driver. It didn’t matter that it was Nick’s birthday. They spent a good deal of the time between tasks during this whole episode lost. To their credit, there was minimal snipping, although Nick did ask Starr how crying could help. He should try it sometimes.

In the meantime, even after Nick & Starr finally showed up, Andrew & Dan kept bumbling along at the military camp which provided great guffaws at my house. First, Dan couldn’t correctly wrap his feet with fabric like a good Russian soldier should. “Neit, neit, neit,” the supervisor kept saying. The boys decided to ditch the marching and headed off to serve borscht to the 75 waiting soldiers. Once they found out they had to wear the uniforms to serve soup, it was back to the marching.

That was a bad idea. Andrew couldn’t march to save his life. I was rolling on the floor and my sides hurt from watching him. I like this guy. Even the Russian soldiers were laughing hard at watching them. To his credit, and to Dan’s, they got a kick out of themselves as much as the soldiers did. Back they went to serve the soup. Despite their abysmal luck with tasks, they looked like they were having a great time. They also seemed to be off of their bickering from the last episode.

Once teams finished marching like a soldier or serving watery borscht, they were off to find the town Zhukovsky and the Zhukovsky Bakery. At the bakery, one member had to move 50 sacks of 55-pound sacks of flour from the back of a tractor trailer to the bakery floor. Ken was able to plow on through this task. Once Andrew showed up, he happily kicked with this task as well. Dallas, although keeping his team’s lead, struggled. Nick struggled even more so. No one pulled out their backs. I was anticipating that. Once the flour sacks were moved, it was off to the Pit Stop at Neskuchny Sad Park. As Phil pointed out during some of his descriptions of Moscow, the city is filled with beautiful parks.

Who Won: Toni & Dallas were able to keep their lead and arrived at the Pit Stop first. Finally, a team other than Nick & Starr won a round.

What Toni and Dallas won: A trip to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Who lost: No one. This was another non-elimination round. After all the laughs at Andrew & Dan’s expense, I’m happy they stayed in the race for at least one more week.These two said they are fine with their underdog status.

That’s a good thing. If they win this race, it will be the biggest comeback ever. It’s a long shot. They have a speed bump to do and absolutely no money because they gave all they had to the taxi driver who dropped them off at the park. If they are still in Moscow next week, I say they are in big trouble. If they head to a new country, they receive more money. As they said, they need a miracle.