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"We don't believe that you come from a cold climate like ours," said Dorge, a student in my arts administration class on Friday morning.
"Why not?" I said.
"Do you know what the temperature is this morning?"
"TV said minus thirty-four."
"And look how you are dressed. You do not dress correctly for cold weather."
"What's wrong with my clothes?"
"Where I come from it isn't cold enough to break out the heavy cold weather wear. This is all pretty mild. I must say I have been very disappointed with Siberian weather. It isn't nearly as cold as everyone tells me it would be."
This latter remark was greeted with hoots of laughter and derisive sounds. I later reported this exchange with Olga Kuznetsova, vice president of academics at the East Siberian Academy of Culture. She thought the exchange was quite funny as well adding, "Remember what I told you, minus thirty isn't like minus forty and minus forty five is much colder than minus forty."
"Olga, you are such an optimist. When it gets to be minus forty, you will say minus forty isn't nearly as cold as minus fifty or fifty five."
"You are right and you may get the experience of such temperatures. It is only early December. Don't say I didn't warn you."
Truth is thus far I had been doing quite well in my layered approach that included a fleece lined Columbia outer shell (aka parka), a heavy Johnson Mills wool shirt and wool vest over a L.L. Bean turtleneck; long johns, those miracle insulated socks that wick away sweat, a fleece hat under a handmade Adirondack Mountain Rose wool hat, a Kenneth Cole fleece neck warmer (swag from the Sundance Film Festival) and my new made in Korea Alaska insulated boots. I still could still add my new Patagonia Apilene long undershirt, a fleece pullover over the wool shirt and vest, silk socks and another set of underwear. Then I'd start looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy. Oh yes, my hands are fairly warm in my Eastern Mountain Sports climbing gloves, but they've been around, been repaired in a few places with duck tape and may not handle temperatures too much colder if I stop, stand around and perhaps try ice fishing. What I don't have is the layers of body fat that so many Russians and Buryats use to buttress the flanks.
The one problem with my approach is I'm over heated once inside. The buildings are kept so warm the last thing you need is to be wearing turtlenecks (my favorite shirt for eight months of the year), sweaters and long underwear while indoors. Russians put all their insulation in very thick fur coats, often with an added insulated felt lining when it goes below minus twenty, fur hats and fur boots. All that comes off at the door. Once inside they may well be wearing quite sheer clothing as one rarely needs more than that. Our Adirondack approach of keeping the inside temperatures a tad cool to save on heat bills has no meaning in communities where buildings are heated by the city via massive hot water pipes that manage to deliver near boiling water miles from the large coal driven furnaces to heat the buildings. Those few not on the city system are heated by brick wood stoves that blow our iron, steel or soapstone stoves off the map for delivery of heat and fuel efficiency. Literally one pine log split into one inch square eighteen inch long pieces of kindling will keep a house hot for hours if not all night. The bigger challenge Russians have is keeping their skin moisturized living in all this dry heat, say nothing being in a climate that only gets sixty days of rain a year.
The people who amaze me are the Chinese workers sitting in the cranes and working on the various building projects, still pouring concrete in minus sixteen to minus thirty (and below) temperatures. I might add the people who sit out all day in their open stalls selling books, clothes, hats, furnishings and food, and the men out on Soviet Square carving and laying blocks of ice to build all manner of ice walls and structures for the holiday celebrations. At 8:00 PM they are out there under the lights hacking away in temperatures so cold back in the Adirondacks we take our car batteries inside so they'll be warm enough to turn over the engines in the morning.
"This American wants to ask you some questions," said Ayuna to the man setting an ice blocks at 6:30 in the evening on Soviet Square in the center of Ulan Ude. "Will this be OK?"
"His name is Naj Wikoff. He teaches at the Arts Academy. He is from Lake Placid, NY."
"I've heard of it. Where they had the Olympics."
After introducing each other I said, "What are you making?"
"An arch out of ice. It will be the gateway to the festivities on the square," said Dachinima.
"Do you carve the blocks as well?"
"No, one crew cuts them out of the river. We make the walls and arches. The artists do the carvings."
"It's - 28 now. Have you been here all day?"
"How do you stay warm?"
"We don't stop working."
"I'm impressed. How do you keep your feet warm?"
"I use felts in my boots."
Later as we crossed the square I said to Ayuna, "I took my gloves off for just a couple minutes to shake their hands and take pictures and they are practically frozen. Dachinima was sharpening his steel chisel without gloves for a good ten minutes. I don't know how they do it."
"Do you want to talk to the cravers now? They are over there," said while pointing across the square.
"No. I'll try them tomorrow. I want to go inside and thaw out my hands."
2005 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475