It is minus 30°C. Siberia. Mid-January. After weeks of ice cold showers and the odd naked leap into piles of fresh snow, I find myself standing in a long line of Russian men, wearing nothing but a pair of rather tight Speedos.
Despite my preparation, the cold is almost unbearable, especially in my toes, which are red and numb after barely a minute’s exposure to the snow and ice underfoot. My body implores me to return to my clothes and run inside, yet for some reason, my head tells me to stay.
It is Russia’s ‘Kreshenie’ festival, the annual Epiphany celebration, during which men and women submerge themselves in freezing water to cleanse the body and spirit. Unlike most participants, my motivation is not religion, but curiosity. I chat through my chattering teeth to men in the queue, all of whom are interested to meet an Englishman prepared to indulge in their ice-cold customs. Their warmth and curiosity have epitomised my stay in Russia.
Ever so slowly, the pool comes into view. I have lost all feeling in my toes now but they burn red against the snow and I know that frostbite is not yet on the way. After an excruciatingly long six minutes, I reach the front of the queue and dip my feet into the water. It is laughably cold, a cold that demands a reaction, which in my case takes the form of a hoarse cry of incredulity. How can anything be that cold?
The man behind gives me a nudge; it is time. As I lower myself into the water the sensation is more akin to burning or the intense stabbing of pins on my skin. My lungs seem to contract and I resurface, spluttering and gasping.
But this desperate inhalation of air is strangely satisfying and I begin to enjoy myself. Though the water is devilishly cold, the pleasure I derive from this divine awakening eclipses any discomfort. The water stimulates me, physically and spiritually, leaving me shivering, but content.
The sanctity and warmth of a rewarding cup of tea indoors make the few minutes of pain worthwhile. My recovery is swift, my spirits are high and my soul is cleansed. My Siberian epiphany is complete.