Monday, 31 January 2011

Swim City

No man drowns if he perseveres in praying to God, and can swim.
- Russian proverb
Until last weekend I haven't been swimming (плавание plah-van-i-yeh) in at least two years. This is mostly due to the fact that I banjaxed my shoulder, effectively putting an end to any front crawl (кроль k-rawl) shenanigans, but I can still do the breast stroke (брасс brass) without any major repercussions. So where other than overpriced fitness centres can one go for a dip in the Russian capital, I hear you cry?

Well, there are far worse places than Чайка (Chai-ka lit. "seagull"), which is an open-air swimming pool (бассейн bah-say'n). Unfortunately, finding a decent picture of the complex is difficult, mostly because it shares its name with a rather famous - and incredibly depressing - play by Anton Chekhov. Fortunately, Google maps comes to the rescue.

View Larger Map

What you might also be asking is why on earth is someone going to an open-air swimming in the middle of a Russian winter? To that I don't really have an answer. I have a picture, though, courtesy of Alexander Baranov's flickr account.

Admittedly the temperature at the time that photo was taken was -20 at night. The coldest I've been there was when it was roughly -10 two weekends ago. And no, the pool is not -10, it's about +25 in the water.

Typical of Russian bureaucracy, in order to actually use the pool, you need to go and get something called a медицинская справка (med-it-sin-sky-ya sprav-kah) which is a doctor's certificate.

Fortunately, you don't need to go to some small hovel on the other side of the city for the scrap of paper that gets handed out for nearly everything and would probably be simple enough to falsify. There's a special office inside the complex where three ladies sit doing nothing but processing said scraps of paper and taking people's blood pressure all day. A few more form-signings and payments at the cashier later, one eventually gets to the changing rooms, which is where things start to get really Soviet.

First off you have to forfeit your медицинская справка to someone sitting in a small booth in exchange for a locker token (don't worry, you get it back later). Once you find your locker, you'll be presented with an odd sight.

Unlike a typical coin-operated lock and key mechanism found elsewhere, Chaika's lockers have four dials on them, both on the inside and the outside of the locker door. On the inside you clunk the dials into whatever code you want - which you later match on the outside to open it. Obviously you don't have the dials on the outside be the same as the ones on the inside, but the trick is trying to remember whatever 4 digit code you came up with. On the upside it means you don't have to worry about having to dive down three meters to get your key from the deep end.

Now I hope you brought a plastic bag (пакет pah-ket) with you, as well as a pair of flip flops (тапки tap-ki), a swim cap (шапочка для плавания sha-potch-ka d'lya pla-van-i-ya), goggles (защитные очки zah-sheet-ny-ye atch-key), a towel (полотенце po-lo-ten-tsye) and some shower gel (гель для душа gel d'lya doo-sha), because you'll be needing all that later.

Before taking the plunge, like at any pool you need to take a shower. Usually showers have the valve by the pipe connected to the shower head. Not so in Chaika. The valve is on the floor, which you have to stand on to operate.

Getting into the main Olympic-standard pool is actually kinda cool, though in the West it might be seen as a gross safety violation. You step into a small pool connected to the outside ,which is obstructed by a barrier that you then have to swim under. I suspect it's primarily a measure to keep the cold out of the shower area.

So once you've stuck on your swim cap and swum under the barrier, you're out in the open. And you better keep swimming, because even though the water is warm, the air above is still pretty cold.

Once you're sick of the pool, it's time to hit the sauna, though that involves having to walk outside around the pool.

[Writing about a Russian sauna/banya requires a whole other entry, so we'll skip this part for now. ]

After leaving the sauna, take a cold shower and then head round to another, much smaller pool. Now don't worry, this one's indoors. There's probably a very specific name for this bit, and if I knew it I'd post pictures because of how awesome it is.

You can only exit the pool from one side, the other side is up against a wall. About three meters up the side of that wall is a sort of gutter from which blasts a torrent of water. There are about ten of these things along the length of the pool. It sounds odd, but for the full Chaika experience you need to stand under one of these waterfalls and let it beat down on your back and shoulders. Bizarrely, it's the same as if someone were massaging you, and is ridiculously relaxing. And then you go back into the sauna and repeat the process a couple of times, and then outside to another pool in the open to come down from the whole experience.

Hopefully, by the end of all this, you are not dead.

In closing and in keeping with tradition I leave with a video of "Russian Rocket" Alexander Popov, who set the world record for the 50m freestyle in 2000.


In other news I was at an extremely odd recital at some performance artist's apartment last night. His name is German Vinogradov and he is a strange man. How I actually managed to end up at such a bizarre event should best be saved for another day, or wiped from memory altogether. I do not recommend looking him up on YouTube.

Also, Moscow's new mayor Sergey Sobyanin has come under fire for supposedly lax snow-clearing efforts in the capital. Already there are mumblings about the good old days of Luzhkov. I can't honestly see the difference between this year and last year's winter.

Edit (February 13, 2011): I managed to find this little gem of Tango instructors Anton and Anya practising a routine.

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