How to Keep Warm During City's Deep Freeze

Itar-TassA common sight at the Sandunovskiye baths: one man beating another with birch leaves, an old ritual to get the blood flowing.
While the brutality of the Russian winter has served for centuries as the country's most effective domestic defense mechanism -- tearing at invading armies with brutal, ripping claws -- it offers the natives no immunity. Russians still have to live through its frigid darkness for six months every year.

But since necessity is the mother of invention, winter in Moscow offers up a wide range of hot spots where you can forget about the mercury that's dipping steadily to a defeating figure. In these places, the famed Russian winter can become bearable, even enjoyable.

The banya, or bathhouse, is a cultural tradition that became popular in the late-17th century, when attending a communal bath was the only way for many Russians to stay clean. Today it is valued as a place to relax and socialize, and it is also believed to have therapeutic benefits.

In a Russian banya, water is poured onto smoldering rocks to create a light, dry steam. Temperatures can rise to as high as 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit).

Georgian nobleman Sila Sandunov opened Moscow's most famous banya, the palatial Sandunovskiye baths, in the late 18th century. With its cathedral ceilings, gilded walls and celebrity patrons, this local landmark offers a Finnish-style dry sauna, steam rooms, a dipping pool, segregated bathing areas, private rooms with table seating for eight, a restaurant and a beauty salon. Massages are also available.

"People come here for the history and the beautiful architecture as much as for the bathing," said Alexei Sorokin, a manager at Sandunovskiye.

Sorokin claims that the banya is a great way to stay healthy. "The steam opens up your pores and allows you to get rid of harmful toxins," he said.

Sorokin added that while Sandunovskiye's regular clientele frequents the banya year-round, winter is by far the busiest season for the bathhouse.

For a homier feel, try the Na Presne baths, where you can shoot a game of billiards between steams. You can also take a turn at the karaoke mike or get some color in the solarium. Later, fuel up at the restaurant on either Russian or European fare before visiting the fitness center downstairs.

If you are pining for waves, warm sands and palm trees, Transvaal Park is the place to go. This massive indoor water park, where the temperature is kept at a toasty 30 degrees Celsius year-round, lets you visit the tropics without ever leaving the city limits.

Transvaal Park offers everything you need to get your mind off short days and icy temperatures, including an indoor lagoon complete with a beach, artificial waves and exotic plants. There is also a waterfall, an indoor river and an Olympic-sized pool.

Those who are just looking for a quick swim can head over to the heated, Olympic-sized swimming pool at Olimpiiskaya Derevnya, or Olympic Village. Besides a pool, there is also a sauna and a fitness center.

Another traditional, albeit simpler, method for protection against the cold is the old standby: vodka. However, while alcohol can provide a feeling of immunity against the cold, it is not a good idea to drink heavily before going out into freezing weather.

"Alcohol dilates the blood vessels and fools you into thinking that you are warm," said David Rosario, a general practitioner at the American Medical Center. "However, the cold weather affects your body just the same. It's a great way to get hypothermia or become otherwise seriously ill."

Rosario says that the best way to stay warm is to drink plenty of warm beverages, wear several layers of clothing and, most importantly, make sure that your head and feet are kept adequately insulated, since those are the two points on the body from which heat escapes most quickly.

"It only takes a few minutes of exposure to bad weather to make you sick," he said. "It's extremely important to be properly dressed."

And for many people, it's important simply to look good during the winter. Although having a tan will not help you feel any warmer, you may look healthier than the hordes of pasty-faced zombies shuffling past you down the street. The only way to sport a golden brown color during Moscow's winter months is by visiting a tanning salon.

Sun City, a chain with six locations in Moscow, has tanning beds of every strength and description, including vertical beds and those for the upper body only. Most locations offer a beauty salon and juice bar, as well as a full range of tanning products. And if you feel a sudden urge to tan at 3 a.m., Sun City's Tverskaya branch is open 24 hours.

"Tanning in the right amounts lets you look great and it helps your immune system," said Marina, a manager at Sun City on Tverskaya. "Plus, there's something about being tanned in the winter that just makes you feel good."

Sandunovskiye baths, 14 Neglinnaya Ulitsa, Bldg. 3, Tel.: 925-4631,

Na Presne, 7 Stolyarny Pereulok, Tel.: 255-0115,

Transvaal Park, 16 Golubinskaya Ulitsa, Tel.: 423-2022, 785-0202,

Olympic Village, 2 Michurinsky Prospekt, Tel.: 437-0698

Sun City, 22 Tverskaya Ulitsa, Tel.: 299-1211,

From the Web