Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Winter's Full Force

Winter is not real winter without snow and ice so in the absence of much this year in Toronto, I've spent the last few weeks going in search of it elsewhere.

In January, a friend and I flew up to Quebec City for a long weekend. We had booked ourselves in for a night at the Hotel de Glace, or Ice Hotel as it's known in English. Unknowingly, we scheduled our visit to coincide with the hotel's opening night, which turned out to be great. Each year the hotel is rebuilt entirely from scratch. This year, architecture students from across Canada have assisted in the design and construction.

When we arrived, it was -27 degrees centigrade so the thought of spending a night in a giant igloo filled us with some trepidation. On arrival, we placed our suitcases in lockers and were welcomed in the Celsius building, which is not made of ice, is heated and contains the showers and toilet facilities. After a few Ice Ciders, which I can highly recommend, and canapes, we made our way outside to see a wonderful fireworks display light up the ice structure.

We were also able to stroll around the hotel, enjoy a cocktail in a glass made of ice at the Ice Bar and peak into all the rooms. We were lucky enough to have been given a suite so rather than a bare, cell-like room, ours featured carved images of native designs on the walls as well as furniture, including a bed, made from ice.

Before braving the cold for a night on an icy bed, we were given a mandatory briefing session on how to go to bed and sleep without freezing. We were told there would be a sleeping bag awaiting each of us on the bed but before we did anything, it was important we warmed our core body temperature by spending some time in the hot tubs and sauna. We then had to ensure we were completely dry before putting on our sleepwear. This had to be not too warm, completely clean and made of man-made fabrics. The reason for this was to avoid sweat or sweat residue as this could freeze and then cool the body.

We were instructed to take a clean, dry pair of socks with us and that on arrival in the bedroom, we were told to take off our boots and switch into the clean socks on the bed itself before unwrapping the sleeping bag. The next step was to get inside the inner sleeping bag and then the outer bag. We were also told to ensure we did not breathe anywhere inside the bag that was closed tightly around our necks to ensure moisture did not penetrate the fabric and then freeze.

I was particularly anxious about the potential for needing the loo in the night. We were advised that you simply did the getting into bed routine in reverse and then went through it all again when you came back having traipsed the 100 or so metres to the bathroom. This seemed like an awful lot of bother to me so I decided to stop drinking and attempted to drain my bladder as much as I could before going to bed!

I have to say, I followed all the rules but despite the guide telling us many people reported their best night's sleep ever, I found I got quite cold and by 6:30am after a number of hours of fitful sleep, nature was calling so I decided enough was enough. Sleeping in a room made of ice was certainly an experience but not one I would necessarily feel the need to repeat! However, the hotel is itself an amazing piece of art and I would highly recommend a visit if you're ever in Quebec City in the winter.

After our somewhat chilly night, we were able to warm up at the rather magnificent Chateau Frontenac Hotel where we stayed on the second night. The luxurious and warm bed was bliss!

Quebec City is a lovely town full of history and charm. We once more braved the cold to wander around and also treated ourselves to some spa treatments. I particularly enjoyed our horse-drawn carriage tour, watching the toboggans on the old toboggan run, riding on the ferry across the frozen St Lawrence River as well as the trip on the funicular railway down to the old part of town, La Petit Champlain.

We saw some crazy guys practising for the canoe races to be held as part of the Quebec Carnival the following weekend. These guys were actually canoeing a bit and then jumping out to drag their canoe across the ice bergs in the river before jumping back in again. Dangerous stuff...and they must have been so cold!

In February, as if experiencing -27 in Quebec City wasn't cold enough for me, I headed to Central Asia and the country of Kazakhstan. My trip was for work and I spent just over a week visiting four cities in the country to attend education fairs and various meetings. I had got rather concerned the week before I left when I see the temperature in Astana dip to -50 degrees centigrade. Fortunately, it was -30 by the time I got there although that does not factor in the wind-chill. Much of Kazakhstan is very, very flat and, trust me, the winds roar across those plains!

I'd like to rave about Kazakhstan, but I'm afraid I find it a very odd place. This is my second visit and although Almaty has some character to it, Astana is just a collection of very weird futuristic architecture plonked in the middle of nowhere. Atyrau and Aktau are both rather bland oil towns on the Caspian Sea with Aktau's only real redeeming features being that they no longer mine uranium there and that I saw camels in the snow.

So it was with pleasure that I moved on to Russia and its capital Moscow for a further week of work. I love walking around Moscow and so travelling between meetings was fun for me as I passed by some of its famous attractions such as Red Square, the Kremlin and various golden-domed churches. I also managed to sneak in a couple of hours to visit the Pushkin Art Gallery which houses some amazing artworks by the world's greatest artists. However, one of my favourite things, which makes it a joy to commute around Moscow, is the Moscow underground. The Metro stations really are works of art in their own right. The mosaics, chandeliers, statues and marble are incredible - one of Stalin's better decisions.

I returned to Moscow again after a quick trip to Kazan, where I'm afraid I didn't really see anything beyond the hotel and offices although I gather it it, too, has a splendid kremlin. After another day and fair in Moscow, I flew up to St. Petersburg, my last stop.

St. Petersburg is a joy of a city. The architecture is amazing and just seems to go on and on. It's more elegant than Moscow with its canals and wide boulevards. Unfortunately, I hardly had time to see anything on this trip but did squeeze in an early morning walk as the sun rose. Seeing Russia in the winter has been something I've long wanted to do. I've always been in the summer before and in my head Russia 'is' winter. It was interesting to see how the Russians cope.

I was fascinated by the way the snow is cleared - it's brushed or shoveled then loaded onto lorries and taken away. The road surfaces are plowed but then big roller brushes go over the top to churn up the icy residue. Of course, the people also bundle up well and the buildings are very warm so it's a constant battle to adjust your own body heat. The amount of fur being worn in both Kazakhstan and Russia was quite incredible. Apart from its warmth, fur is most definitely used as a sign of status.

Anyway, I'm now back in the relative warmth of Toronto - it feels almost spring-like in comparison to the wintry east!