Winter Sports in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

South Sakhaliners once again woke up this morning to a blizzard coming in from the north, this one being forecast to last at least two days.  Perhaps surprisingly, this will be welcomed by many.

A feature of the New Year holidays in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk has been Russians and expats decked out in expensive skiing and snowboarding gear descending from the slopes and grumpily complaining that there is not enough snow coverage, they have holes in their equipment from rocks and sticks, and this is Russia and it is January and what the hell is going on?  This blizzard should provide enough snow to allow for skiing and snowboarding, just in time for the end of the holidays.  There has however been enough snowfall for kids to go sledging, and one of the more amusing sights of the town is the gang of kids stood at the bottom of Gornii Vozdukh trying to hitch a lift up the mounatin with anybody who’s going past.

One winter sport which has been popular and not dependent on snowfall has been ice skating, and last week I was invited by my Russian friends to go along.  There are several skating rinks in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, all of which are made by clearing a flat area, hosing it down liberally with water, waiting for it to freeze, and clearing the snow off it periodically.  There is a hut which collects cash and rents skates, and sometimes there is a little kiosk selling snacks and drinks (including beer, of course).  Supervision is non-existent, and once you have paid your 50 Roubles for the hour you can go on the ice and do whatever you feel like and be as idiotic as you please and nobody will come and tell you to behave.  In fact, most of the time you’ll fit right in.

When I accompanied my Russian friends, I found they only rented skates up to size 44 and I am a monster 45 or 46, so sadly (and actually with some secret relief) I could only stand and watch, leaving me extremely disappointed I never brought my camera.  The Ossetian proved himself to be an excellent skater and an utterly reckless one at that.  As he explained, most Russian boys have been playing ice hockey at school from when they were very young and hence are superb on skates.  He shot about the ice rink like Wile E. Coyote with his ACME rocket-skates, and had some spectacular falls and crashes which seemed to bother him not one jot.  My little Korean friend Valeriy was equally as good but not so reckless so managed to stay on his feet most of the time.  The women did their best just to avoid their boyfriends and husbands and skate around gracefully.

Anyway, the next day I stomped down to the shop, came back with a pair of ice hockey skates, and went with my friend Valeriy to the ice rink.  As I strapped them on and stood up, I realised I had only ever done this twice before, the last time being 12 years ago, and I had been pretty poor then.  So I stood up looking and being very wobbly, and just kind of stayed there not having a clue how to propel myself forward.  The ice skates you rent in the UK have little serrated grips at the front and back which you use to push off from, but ice hockey skates have none.  After watching me wobble on the spot for a minute, Valeriy decided I needed a hand and gave me an almighty shove in the back which sent me like an arrow across the ice.  Halfway across, I noticed my feet straight out in front of me level with my eyes and in the split second it took me to work out they really should be elsewhere I had crashed on my back into the ice and Valeriy had come tumbling over the top of me.  Common sense really is in short supply on a Russian ice rink.

Being a determined chap, I slithered off to the side where it was quieter and practiced going up and down and up and down the rink.  If I fell, I’d simply plunge sideways into the big banks of snow which surround the ice.  After about half an hour I started to get the hang of it, and I learned that you push off at a 45 degree angle using alternate legs to get moving.  I also saw that there are almost no beginner skaters in Russia.  Unlike a visit to a UK ice rink where adults wobble about clutching the sides along with everyone else, on this ice rink there were just two of us flailing around like windmills and falling on our faces: me, and a girl who judging by her size was about 18 months old.  Everybody else was an expert, or so it seemed to me.

Two days later I went back to the same rink, determined to improve.  This time I got some unexpected advice from a Russian chap called Sergei who took it upon himself to give me some pointers as to how to move along better, advice that was not bad at all.  He then launched into conversation with me about England, foreign people in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and a whole load of other stuff which I struggled to follow, before Valeriy rescued me.  It turned out the chap was a police detective, and nice chap that he was and grateful I am for his instruction, I would not want him leading the investigation into my murder.  Anyway, after an hour on the ice I had improved significantly and can now move forward reasonably quickly with a better than evens chance of not falling over.  All I need do now is practice more, but that will mean waiting for the snow to stop and hoping that I will have time once my potential snowboarding career takes off.


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