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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Healthy Plunge With Russia's Ice Walruses

Birds do it. Bears do it. Men with no clothes and long, dangly hair do it. And last week I, too, stripped down and joined that curious breed, the "walruses" for an icy dip in one of Moscow's central parks.


Of course, I hadn't meant to do it. I thought I was going to see an alternative prenatal group, to interview the woman who runs it. She calls herself a "spiritual midwife," and she teaches future mothers the mysterious art of baby yoga and how to make traditional Russian toys out of old dish cloths.


We met at the metro. It was one of those particularly cold mornings when you feel glad you managed to find an extra couple of socks to put on in the morning, and when the babushkas selling sustenance on the street flap their arms up and down with rare gusto.


There were 12 of us all together: the spiritual midwife, a motley of women in various stages of pregnancy and their husbands, a photographer to record the proceedings and me. The men were sallow and pasty. They could have done with a large steak and french fries, but I learned later they were vegetarian. "All set?" asked the spiritual midwife, who was slim and blond, with eyes that transfixed yours when she spoke to you -- far from the gnarled, gray sorceress I had been expecting. She looked as though she could tackle anything. "Oh yes," the expectant mothers said in chorus, and they took the lead, their spouses following meekly behind.


What would they be doing today, I wondered. Yoga instruction using rag dolls as babies? Hip and abdomen strengthening exercises to the strains of natural earth music? There was no sign of the spiritual midwife, whom I might ask. She had disappeared down a steep, snowy track, with her band of eager women in tow. The men clutched at branches, trying to stop themselves from sliding down the slope. I wished I had skis.


The wind started up. Old men pulled their fur hats down more tightly over their ears, and mothers gathered up their sledding children to take them home. We rounded a bend, and there in front of us was a makeshift wooden shelter, painted green. There were no other buildings in sight, and it suddenly felt very quiet. The spiritual midwife handed a couple of husbands ski poles, and they started to break a sheet of ice in front of the shelter. As they scooped chunks of ice out, I noticed an iron ladder sticking out at one end, and I realized with alarm what it was.


In the meantime, the participants had taken off their clothes, and they were now jumping up and down inside the hut. I closed my eyes and tried to pretend I was squashed inside a steamy, rush-hour metro car. When I opened them, the first woman was walking over to the ladder. She climbed down and stood up to her shoulders in the pool. Then she dunked herself, did a couple of strokes and climbed out. One by one, the others followed. No one wore a swimsuit -- these were hard core walruses.


The spiritual midwife, who had stayed under for twice as long as anyone else, was counting. "There is one person left," she announced. It was no use hiding behind the shelter, and I was too cold to run away. They all looked at me. "Come on," said one of the women, whose thick, blue veins stood out on her stomach like battery-jump leads. "Don't be afraid. It's all in your mind."


"But I don't want to take off all my clothes and jump into a hole full of freezing water," I protested.


It didn't wash. Now the others chimed in. "Just don't think about it," they said. One of the men offered me his soggy towel for when I got out. Everyone stopped drying and dressing and stared at the cowardly, prudish English girl.


I was left with no choice. Think of what you're doing for the reputation of Britons abroad, I reminded myself as I untied my scarf. My clothes were taken away and piled up in a corner of the hut.


"Swing your arms. Shake your legs," ordered the spiritual midwife. I did as I was told. "Now you're ready," she said. "In you go."


I stepped out of the shelter onto the ice, and walked across to the pool. I had to be quick because I could feel my feet sticking to the ground. When I reached the ladder I turned around to face the audience. They were silent. Even the man with waist-length hair, who had been swaying like a tree in a storm with his arms above his head ever since we had arrived, stopped his wild dance.


What happened next was over so soon I still cannot quite believe I did it. I climbed down the ladder and submerged myself -- you are not a true walrus unless you dip yourself completely. It was so cold, I could not breathe for the 10 or so seconds I was in the water. My hair turned into an ice cube as soon as I stood up. Someone helped me out, and the silence was broken by cheers and applause.


"Dry yourself quickly," the spiritual midwife advised. "Or you'll get cold." The water on my legs had started to freeze. "Well done," said my fellow walruses, and I was handed my clothes and a shot of vodka. I've never loved that stinging, thick syrup so much.


Afterwards, the spiritual midwife took me for a coffee in a cafe near the metro. What was it all about, I asked her? Why did she and her friends and a whole host of other Russians subject themselves to this vicious torture? She laughed. "It isn't torture," she said. "In fact, it's very good for you. It stimulates the blood circulation and works wonders for your skin. All in all it's one of the most healthy things you can do at this time of year."


She speaks from experience. Last year she went on a trip to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland to visit the Buddhist colony on Holy Island. "I bathed in the sea there every day," she said. "But isn't it unwise to shock an unborn baby like that," I asked. On the contrary, Julia replied. She used to do it all the time when she was pregnant, and she regularly takes her two small children for a dip in the park.


"It isn't just for health reasons that the walruses strip down and swim in winter. It's a whole way of life."


We ordered more coffee, and she told me about the competition that takes place at about this time every year. Dedicated walruses from all over the world make their way to Kamchatka, the easternmost point of Russia, to swim the mile of Bering Straits to the coast of Alaska. "They are wearing swim trunks, though," said Julia.


We made our way back to the metro, my hair still frozen under my hat. Say what you like about the walruses -- that they're mad, that they're freaks, that they're totally irresponsible. One thing is for certain -- it works. Hang the bottle of cod-liver oil and all those manic chin-ups in the gym.


At the metro, the spiritual midwife and I went our separate ways. "Hey, Julia!" I shouted after her. "See you next week."