Winter Swimming, or What To Do in Petropavlovsk in January? Aug 17, 2011
Have you ever dreamt of swimming in a river in -30C temperatures? Well, neither had I, but I did it anyway in Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan. Kreshenye ("Baptism" in English) is a Russian Orthodox holiday that falls on January 17th each year, and is celebrated primarily by holes being cut into lakes or rivers, priests blessing the water underneath, and people dunking themselves 3 times. Not everyone gets in - many saner people arrive with an assortment of empty bottles and merely collect some blessed water to take home. Those aiming to have a religious or cultural experience, however, have to get in the water. With that in mind, a group of other Americans volunteering here in Kazakhstan and I traveled up to Petropavlovsk this past January to test our metal and collect another story. Here's a guide for those who plan to follow our lead and take the plunge:
Step One: Go to the River Ishim, where the dunking takes place. It's on the outskirts of the city with nowhere warm to shelter after getting in the water, so do yourselves a favor and do what we didn't: arrange for a taxi to bring you there and take you back to the city afterwards. If you don't, there are no available taxis waiting by the river and you'll have to take a bus back into the city, during which time you'll lose feeling in all your extremities. Also, and this is very important, bring a towel! On the river itself there will be two big tents - one for women and one for men. You can leave your clothes inside these tents while you get in the water. There were two dunking places outside of the tents when we went, each with a wooden staircase built into it so you can walk down into the water and back out. There's also another one inside the ladies tent for those girls that don't want all the onlookers (of which there are many) to see them shivering in their swimsuits. When you're done, don't wait for your friends...get your butt back in that tent and put your clothes back on so you can stop freezing quite so much.
Step 2: Go to a banya (a Russian sauna) afterwards to warm back up and high five each other for what you've just done. Petro, like all Russian and Kazakhstani cities, has lots of both public and private banyas. I'd recommend renting a private banya for an hour or two - most have a sitting room where you can hang out, a small pool, the banya itself, and toilets. If you want to have another real cultural experience and do it like the Russians do, make sure to bring vodka, lots of zakuski (little things to eat with vodka, like pickles, dark bread with kalbasa sausage, fish, etc), and birch branches to beat each other with to exfoliate. The banya we went to was right off the main walking street in the center of town.
Step 3: If you're not too toasted after step 2, put all your warm clothes back on and take a stroll around downtown Petro's walking area. It's lined with old Russian-style brick buildings, stores, the occasional government building (including the city and oblast Akimats, or government centers) and cafes. In the wintertime it also features giant ice castles, sculptures, and slides, all of which you can climb all over and most of which are lit from within. When you've finished taking pictures, you can get some food at one of the many restaurants lining the street before going home feeling like you've done something worth remembering!
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