Living in Kazakhstan in a small town only 40km or so away from the Russian border has its perks: Russian holidays! And the most unusual tradition that I’ve come across thus far is Russian Epiphany – an Orthodox celebration for the baptism of Jesus, a literal celebration in the form of dunking yourself in icy cold waters usually from a hole cut into a frozen river in the middle of winter. Sign me right up for that!
I’d been enquiring for a few days, I’d never really thought I’d get the opportunity to jump in a frozen river, and I’d never even had it on the bucket list. But as soon as I heard it was possible I wanted to get involved. The only problem was, I needed someone to hold the towel for me on the way out, or at least help me back in my jumpsuit afterwards, so I roped my mate Dougie into it.
A colleague of ours, Cas, had offered us a lift in his car out to the river and the event was sponsored by a company contractor. The hole had apparently been cut the day before all ready for us! Me being ever so practical, convinced Doug to join me in wearing massive company-supplied jumpsuits to keep warm. They were super snuggly and I’d already tested mine by wearing it out to site in -19C for around an hour or so (and stayed incredibly warm) but we looked like giant red seals. We were very lucky that the temperature that day was only -4C with windchill of -15C (it could have been worse, the lowest that month had been -23C, windchill down to -40C!)
Cas sat in the front with his driver as we headed out of town and down the main highway. We were on the look out for the hole. About half an hour later his driver spotted a cross in the distance (it marked the spot), did a smooth reverse on the icy road and we soon came off the bitumen onto a camouflaged snow-covered road to our destination.
I couldn’t believe it was happening… there was a crowd of around 30 people a mixture of organisers, expats and locals. A lovely “cold” spread had been provided along with some warm wine, and goulash. But first – the dunking!
One gentleman got out of his car in just his trunks and a bathrobe (practical!), headed for the lake and went straight in! Following his example I was determined to just do it. And off the coveralls came and into the icy hole I went.
It. Was. Cold.
Tradition calls for three big plunges to cleanse your sins, and after the first big dunk it was hard to convince your shocked body to do it again and then again. I jumped out in a hurry and tried to wrap myself in my towel, but all I felt was numbness.
When my senses finally came around I popped back in my jumpsuit and took some photographs of others taking their turn, chattering my teeth and jumping to keep warm. My fingers and toes, however, were not having fun and very soon I had to pop some hot pockets and trudge back up the river bank to warm myself with hot wine and soup.
It was exhilarating, I couldn’t feel more alive afterwards, all my senses were awake. I let out a couple of happy shrieks, I couldn’t believe we’d all just done that! One ice swim down! And the highlight of my month!
After a well earned vodka shot and nibbles, we were soon headed back to camp where I enjoyed a long hot shower. Winter, it’s been really fun thank you.