Semyon poured out the chilli vodka into our glasses and took the kolbaski, boiled sausages, out of the plastic bag. Our fingers, numbed by the early evening wind and snow, gripped the amber liquid and turned blue.
Swig, fire in the throat, furnace in the belly.
'Arrrr, I can feel the wings!!!' He roared into the silent air, sending an echo flying over the snowy expanse.
Then the sausages scrunched and popped pleasingly in our teeth as we watched the sunset play in the trees and snowfall.
'This is the best Monday ever!' said Laura
Laura and I had packed our overnight bags one Monday and caught a little bus East to the historic city of Vladimir, about three hours away, with no firm contacts or plans. It was a city of great importance and was once a major capital, and would have been the present day capital if power hadn't gradually shifted to the newer settlement called Moscow. It is part of the Golden Ring and also contains some UNESCO sights (part of a collection of white buildings along with Suzdal and some other small settlements).
Having seen the historic centre - a strip of majestic white and gold cathedrals and churches stretched out along a ridge overlooking the Vladimirskaya region and stuck between snow and cyan blue skies - we found a little cafe that served Russian soups and home-made pizzas. I had started planning our evening escape back to Moscow if none of the couchsurfers responded to Laura when suddenly her phone buzzed.
'It's Diana! She's coming here, now'
As the last of the Solyanka was drained and the surreal pizzas were finished a mousey girl and her two friends blundered noisily into the little eatery. Kolya was fairly quiet and sheepish at first, but Semyon, with his manic hair and pierced ears flumped down and ordered two shots of vodka.
'He's getting over a hangover' said Diana, putting us at ease.
They toured us round a bit, but apart from a snowy mound from which people were sledding - and Semyon flung himself down - and a highly reflective theatre front where we tried, in vain, to capture us all jumping in a photo, there wasn't much more they could show us. The evening was slowly approaching, so we had to start making some decisions. Either we held on, hoping another couchsurfer would text back offering us a place to stay or we would get an evening bus back to Moscow.
'Let's go to Bogolyubovo then' said Diana
'But first' added Semyon, finger in the air 'we need weapons' - alcohol
So it was with that Laura and I left the bus in the tiny town of Bogolyubovo, passed the overblown white and duck-egg blue monastery, and found ourselves drinking spicy vodka and eating sausages with three absurd Russians who screamed when photos were taken and catapulted each other into snow drifts as the sun lowered and bruised the sky orange.
We walked over a elevated bump of ground that served as a pathway through the snowed over expanse and followed it over to a tiny, lonesome white church - the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, silly name - that was touched tan by the glow of the sun. At the building itself was one of the most quixotic and magical views I have even seen. The sun, at the tree-line, was spilling rays through the pine trees as the air above was a gentle spectrum of oranges, light pastel pinks and dark blues and the little church stood like some pretty, sculpted sentinel. The silence was tangible and we all just stood there, gawping.
After a failed dive into the snow bank, some snow angels and the buying of more 'weapons' we were back in Vladimir. Kolya, who isn't even a couchsurfer and only set up a facebook page for us to contact him after we had left, turned to us and offered us a place to stay at his grandparents flat.
'They're not alive now. We just use it to party'
It was a real soviet era timepiece. Everything was musty, wooden and mismatching. There was a funk of age and a feeling that no one had lived there for decades. The door to the living room creaked open and we dumped all the food on the table and ordered a pizza. While Semyon set up a hookah pipe Laura and Diana set up the feast: radishes, salad, kolbaski, mushroom sauce for dipping, brown bread, crisps, and a piquant cabbage mix. With the pipe bubbling away Semyon crackled an old LP player into life. Tchaikovsky streamed out, followed by the Beatles and then Russian 80s band Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine). It bounced off the fading wallpaper and old curtains. We danced, drank cognac, conducted invisible orchestras and blew smoke rings and stuffed ourselves silly.
At around half past ten Semyon had to leave. We walked him up to the centre through the dark alleys, all white powder, and past the little wooden houses - izbushki - to the are of churches and cathedrals which were all lit up.
'You'll have to come back in Summer' smiled Diana 'You will come back in Summer'
* * * *
In other news:
Sunday 6th was Maslenitsa - basically a week-long pancake day that ended on the 6th. I went and met a Russian girl, Margarita, for the first time in Kolomenskoye park. It was surreal and cold and snowing. I danced a jig with grandma, toboganned down the hill on a rubber ring, ate blinis with meat and drank hot medovukha - a kind of Russian mead.
On Wednesday the 9th - I walked around the Stalin Skyscraper complex with Richard and looked at the vast panoramic views of the whole city from the viewpoint at the Sparrow Hills nature reserve.
On Friday the 11th things came to an abrupt and melancholy stop with Olga.
On Sunday the 13th I walked around Park Pobedi (Victory Park) in the sun - for now all is warm and melting to a soundtrack of drips. It is spacious area that includes a grand concave building that helps constitute the Great Patriotic War memorial, along with the massive obelisk and spread of poignant memorial churches for different denominations. An interesting fact is that the obelisk is exactly 141,8m high - 10cm for every day of the war. Nearby, under a skyline of business buildings and bouncer-like Soviet flats, is Moscow's massive screw you Napoleon Triumphal Arch.
In the evening I sat in a hot bath, reading Gogol and planning trips.