The Great Moscow Escape: Go Skiing

The first of two ski reports being published by The Moscow Times. This week's article covers cross-country and downhill skiing in and around Moscow. Next week's will highlight popular ski resorts in sites around the former Soviet Union.








Nothing is as white and quiet as a Russian birch forest in winter. The snow muffles even the shuffling sound of your skis as you slide along the track, combining one of the most complete forms of exercise with the perfect escape from Moscow's slush and smelly wet fur hats. It is the one sport in which Russians of all ages and walks of life appear to excel. Foreigners can work up a decent sweat but we're still overtaken by dedushki and babushki every time.


Here are a few of the more popular local cross-country ski routes, plus some survival tips, advice for beginners, shopping tips and a few suggestions for downhill ski-bums.


Just remember: If you join your Russian friends for a day of cross-country skiing, you may find yourself sipping hot tea or vodka around a campfire for more time than you will spend on your skis -- but that is at least as much fun.





Cross-Country Routes


Usovo (Seven to eight kilometers). Our favorite cross-country ski routes start or end at Usovo, a small dacha town just south of the Moskva River, west of the city. The slopes are easygoing and there are plenty of options for short and long outings. Trains leave Belorussky Station once an hour, at 9:32 a.m., 10:25 a.m., 11:35 a.m. and so on, and take about half an hour.


From the station, head south (to the left) across a field and into the woods for 1.5 kilometers. At a gully, which runs east-west, head east (left) along one of the ski tracks for about three kilometers. Before you hit a paved road, head north to the Barvikha train station, and from there you can catch a train back to Belorussky Station.





Tryokhgorka (15 kilometers). From Belorussky Station, take a train heading for Odintsovo or Golitsino, but make sure it stops in Tryokhgorka after about half an hour. From the platform you can probably join a traffic jam of skiers through the village and into the forest. You have many options, but try to keep heading northwest (straight ahead). If you have not crossed a road and a gully after an hour, you may be lost. Ask fellow skiers for Ptichnaya Polyana, a field in the woods where you will find dozens of skiers resting at picnic spots, and most likely also a group of mad middle-aged Muscovites playing volleyball in the snow. Follow the track that starts at the northeastern corner of the field and follow it for a few kilometers to Usovo and then take the train home.





Nekrasovskaya (12 or 15 kilometers). Great for a quiet day in the woods. Be careful: Not all trains from Savyolovsky Station go as far as Nekrasovskaya or stop there (after about 40 minutes). Get off from the last wagon of the train, cross the tracks, head left along the tracks until you have passed the village and then put on your skis. Head west (to the right) into the woods for six kilometers until you see Nerskoye lake ahead of you. You can either turn around here or head northeast (right). After the six-kilometer point, you cross a road; after another four kilometers in the northeastern direction you should be at Trudovaya Station, where you can catch a train back to Moscow.





Radishchevo (30 kilometers -- if you make it, that is). This is where the hardy cross-country skiers go. There must not be many of them, because sometimes there is not even a skiing track. The hills make for a fast descent but, inevitably, quite a climb up as well. Trains leave frequently from Leningradsky Station (at 8:10 a.m., 9:00, 9:20, 10:10 and 10:50, for example) and take about 50 minutes. Start early.


At Radishchevo, walk to the front of the train and head west (left) for 15 kilometers through the forest, crossing train tracks once along the way. You should pass underneath high voltage lines between two villages. Before you leave the woods and hit the Istrinskoye water reservoir, head south (to the left) for seven kilometers until you hit the Istra River. Don't risk skiing on the river until late winter.


About five kilometers downstream you will see the silver cupola of the magnificent Voskresensky Monastery of Novoyerusalem. It is well worth a visit before you ski on along the river to the Istra train station, which you should find on your left.








City Parks, Suzdal


Before you head off on any of the big trips, you may want to try out your skis in any one of the city's parks: Izmailovsky (metro Izmailovskaya), Serebryanny Bor (metro Polezhayevskaya, bus 20, 21 or 65) and Bitsevsky (Metro Chertanovskaya) usually have decent tracks. You can also try Timiryazevsky Park (metro Timiryazevskaya) but you have to go at a quiet hour to avoid hitting any unwieldy babushki.


For a long weekend, why not rent a pre-Revolutionary merchants' house in Suzdal and combine a visit to the country's most romantic monasteries with a cross-country skiing trek through the region? It costs $40 per person per day, but the weekend before Christmas has been completely booked up


(8-09231-21901).








Advice for Beginners


To get yourself going, lean slightly forward, kick your legs forward and move along the same way you would walk -- just faster. You will know you've got the hang of it when you gain speed easily rather than coming to a full stop after every step. It may take a while but just keep going. Taking it slow is also enjoyable.


When going up mild hills, the tips of your skis should face outward and leave a fishbone trace in the snow as you go. Steeper slopes can be tackled by moving up sideways, side-stepping with your skis.


As for the downhill action, if you're going faster than you feel comfortable, just step out of the track, face your skis inward and form a "V" to slow down -- or just roll over into the snow.


A faster but exhausting alternative to regular cross-country skiing is skate skiing, which involves moving your skis as though they were ice skates and using both polls to push off at the same time.





Survival Tips


It may sound obvious, but it's important: Dress in layers, keep your feet warm and take liquids (a thermos of tea, for instance) as well as food, which can be carried in a small backpack. A spare sweater and a pair of socks will keep you warm as you wait for the train home.


Avoid puddles when you are skiing or the ice will stick to your skis and slow you down. Elderly Russians will expect you to get off the tracks for them and young Russians may seem rude, but you should have been here long enough by now not to take that personally.





Downhill Spots


Hardcore downhill racers may find the hills in and around Moscow a little tame, but they are great for learning the ropes and keeping in shape.


?The hills at Krylatskoye (metro Krylatskoye) are the most popular. When the lifts get going in decent snow, they are supposed to cost about 2,000 rubles (45 cents) per ride, if you don't mind risking your life on them.


?You can ski with a view from the Sparrow Hills (formerly Lenin Hills), starting from the platform at Moscow State University.


?After a 10-minute walk south from Nagornaya metro station you can find a nice steep hill, and there are several hills with lifts near the palace at metro Tsaritsino as well.


?It is more interesting to get out of Moscow and head to Romashkovo, a train station on the way to Usovo. Head south (left) to the ravine. The slopes are great for sledding.


?Much further out is the Paramonovsky Ovrag (gorge), a local favorite even among more advanced skiers and bobsledders, with numerous ski lifts. It is too far by train but you can reach it by car by driving north along the Dmitrovskoye Shosse to the town of Turist.





Shopping


Gone are the days when you could get decent skis for a few dollars, but there are still a few good deals out there. The best place to go is the Olimp store across from the 1905 Goda metro, but be warned that it can be a madhouse on Saturday mornings in the winter.


The store has a decent selection, but the best deals are found outside. The bustling street market has been dispersed by police, but you will notice quite a few men looking like they are waiting for a bus.


Ask any one of them whether they have any skis to sell and they will offer you anything from 50,000 ruble ($11) wooden skis to the fanciest equipment, often hidden in a car around the corner. They will put your bindings on for free and are full of advice.


The best deals on the street are the leather Dinamo boots at 200,000 rubles, and Ukrainian-made Fischer skis at about 200,000 rubles. Olimp occasionally has these skis as well.


Inside, you can find Austrian-made Fischer skis: The Air Core model is a good deal at 343,000 rubles, but the Yugoslavian Elan skis are not bad either, and at similar prices. Fischer also sells skate-skies for over 1 million rubles.


Boots go from 213,500 rubles for a Russian-made pair of Adidas, to Fischer skating boots for 910,000 rubles. We have been happy with cheap Czech boots, but like most cheap boots they are not made of real leather.


Poles are not worth great expense and they go for as little as 30,000 rubles. They should reach your shoulder or, if you are skating, be your height. Dinky Soviet-made bindings sell at 10,000 rubles, but make sure your bindings fit your boots. The Metalloremont stores across town can put your bindings on your skis but they may be sloppy; the street salesmen will do it for you more carefully.


To reduce friction on the tracks, wax goes for 43,000 to 80,000 rubles. We never use it but others don't leave home without it.


Downhillers could have great fun with a pair of mini-skis at 125,000 rubles. They are short metal skis that come with a rugged shoe-cover that enables you to walk up the hill without slipping. You then simply step into your skis and shoot off.


Real downhill skis range from 300,000 to 1.5 million rubles at Olimp, but the Alp-Industriya store offers a far better selection and service at similar prices.


The store, at 18 Pervomayskaya Ulitsa (165-9081), near metro Izmailovskaya, also has boots from 400,000 to 2 million rubles, and much more you did not know you needed.