Young Russians seek health, highs in ice swimming

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Osman Delibash, 26, a member of Moscow's ice swimming club "Walruses of the Capital", poses as she swims in a strip of water cut in the ice by the bank of the Moscow River on February 3, 2019. (AFP)
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Osman Delibash, 26, a member of Moscow's ice swimming club "Walruses of the Capital", swims in a strip of water cut in the ice by the bank of the Moscow River on February 3, 2019. (AFP)
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Osman Delibash, 26, a member of Moscow's ice swimming club "Walruses of the Capital", steps into the icy waters of the Moscow River on February 3, 2019. (AFP)
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Natalya Seraya, the founder and chief of Moscow's ice swimming club "Walruses of the Capital", dives into a strip of water cut in the ice by the bank of the Moscow River on February 3, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 19 February 2019
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Young Russians seek health, highs in ice swimming

  • Russia’s winter swimming federation, based in the Siberian city of Tyumen, lists joint health and good skin among the benefits

MOSCOW: Diving into a long hole cut in the ice, Viktoria Tsuranova swims a few strokes and flashes a smile at the photographer capturing the moment for her Instagram account.
She is one of a new generation of Russian “Walruses” — hardy swimmers who plunge into frozen rivers and lakes all through the winter.
They swear it wards off not just colds but also cellulite, as well as giving them a rush of euphoria.
Ice swimming in Russia has long been associated with older, usually Speedo-clad men.
But Tsuranova and other members of Moscow’s “Walruses of the Capital” club are giving it a fashionable new image.
“A sporty way of life is right on trend now,” says Nikolai, drinking rosehip tea with honey in a grey onesie.
He has just taken a dip in the L-shaped strip of water cut by the bank of the Moskva River, in the relatively balmy air temperature of minus two degrees C (28 degrees F).
“There’s a kind of new wave of young people coming up now, following the generation that set the standard for walrus swimming — the older generation.”
Tsuranova, a fitness blogger, later posts a video and photo of her swim on her Instagram, which has 103,000 followers.
Shivering a little in a fur coat after her swim, she says: “I’m just interested in the extreme, in testing myself. I’m scared every time.”
She says she hasn’t been ill once over the winter.
“It’s a great way to prevent excess fat deposits and cellulite,” Tsuranova adds.

Others are more equivocal on the health effects of ice swimming, defined as taking a dip in water temperatures of zero to four degrees C.
Russia’s winter swimming federation, based in the Siberian city of Tyumen, lists joint health and good skin among the benefits.
But it also warns that those with weak hearts or breathing problems should not attempt it.
A separate study by Tyumen scientists in 2015 found that the cold temperature caused stress on the body for people who swam in ice over a period longer than 10 years.
Ice swimming is also practiced in Scandinavia and China, though it is particularly popular in Russia, where cold water is seen as a way to toughen people up.
Millions of Orthodox believers in the country plunge into icy pools every Epiphany as part of a religious tradition.

The facilities at the “Walruses of the Capital” club are minimal — a green-painted hut with tiny changing rooms heated by stoves.
Depending on their experience, ice swimmers tend to stay in the water for anything from one to around five minutes.
But the club is not just an amateur organization — it also trains swimmers to take part in international competitions held outdoors in winter.
The club’s star swimmer Osman Delibash, 26, trains regularly and recently made a video showing her sitting for an hour in the frozen-over pond in her garden.
This set a record recognized by a Russian association for the longest stint in cold water by a woman.
She has also won a string of medals for swimming distances of up to a kilometer in sub-zero air temperatures.
Delibash, who also teaches soldiers serving in extra-cold environments and performs as a stunt woman, walks around in the snow bare-legged in a bathrobe.
“Water is my element — specifically icy water,” she says.

The club’s founder and Delibash’s trainer, Natalya Seraya, gives out certificates to a group of new “walruses” as they crowd inside the steaming hut.
Seraya, who has set Russian records for marathon ice swims, tells them: “Nothing will boost your immunity more strongly than icy water.”
“This is the path to health and long years of active life.”
However, as part of her postgraduate studies, she is also researching, with the help of some of the club’s ice swimmers, where the limits in its benefits lie.
“What’s good for you, what’s dangerous, where is the dividing line?” Seraya says, describing the outlines of her research into the effects of ice swimming.
Swimmers also talk about experiencing psychological benefits from dips.
“There’s some kind of cleansing, as if you reset yourself back to zero,” said first-time swimmer Tatiana Batalova, while blogger Tsuranova says she feels a “high” on emerging.
“When you come out of the water you feel warm and joyful like you’re on wings. You could even call it euphoria,” says Seraya.


The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

Syrian businessman Ali Shami arranges olive soap bars in a factory on the outskirts of Aleppo. (AFP)
Updated 23 March 2019
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The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

  • Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year

ALEPPO: After years of war, the scent of laurel oil once again wafts from a small soap workshop in Aleppo, signaling the revival of a landmark trade in the battered northern city.
Surrounding soap workshops in the Al-Nayrab district still lie in ruins, badly damaged in the four-year battle for the former opposition stronghold. But for Ali Shami, hanging up his apron was not an option.
“I never stopped making soap throughout the war — even if it was just a little,” says the 44-year-old, who fled his home city during the fighting.
“But this workshop is special,” he tells AFP. “It was here that I started more than 30 years ago.”
Shami reopened his soap workshop last month after shutting it down in 2012, when Syria’s second city became a main front in the eight-year-long conflict.
The scars of war are still visible on the building, its walls punctured with holes caused by shelling. Rushes of wind gust through the gaps.
Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year.
He installed a new metal door and refurbished the main rooms where the soap mixture is heated and then poured out to dry.
He watches as five workers stir a thick mixture of olive and laurel oil in a large vat.
Beside them, another five workers slice cooled and hardened green paste into cubes and stack them in staggered racks.
Shami says he was able to resume operations quickly because Aleppo soap is handmade.
Its production “relies on manual labor, a successful mixture, the passion of Aleppo’s residents, and their love of the profession,” he says.
After closing down in 2012, Shami tried to continue his work in other major Syrian cities. “My existence is tied to the existence” of soap, he says.
He moved to the capital, Damascus, and the regime-held coastal city of Tartous, but Shami says the soap was not as good.
“Aleppo’s climate is very suitable for soap production and the people of Aleppo know the secret of the trade and how to endure the hardship of the many stages of its production,” he says.
Shami, who inherited the soap business from his father and grandfather, boasts about the superior qualities of Aleppo soap, the oldest of its kind in the world.
“Aleppo soap distinguishes itself from other soaps around the world as it is made almost entirely of olive oil,” he says.
“European soap, on the other hand, includes animal fats, while soaps made in Asia are mixed with vegetal oils but not olive oil,” he says.
The Aleppo region is well-known for its olive oil and sweet bay oil, or laurel.
Shami says the Aleppo soap industry was hit hard by the fierce clashes that rocked his home city, before ending in late 2016 when the army took back opposition districts with Russian military support.
While conditions are less dangerous today, soap producers still grapple with shortages of raw material and skilled labor, he says.
“We are struggling with the aftermath of the battles,” he says.
Dozens of soap producers are still waiting to complete renovations before reopening their workshops. Hisham Gebeily is one of them.
His soap-making center in the Old City of Aleppo, named after the family, has survived for generations, dating back to the 18th century.
The three-story stone workshop covers a space of around 9,000 square meters, and is considered among the largest in the city.
But the 50-year-old man was forced to close it in 2012.
The structure still stands, although damaged by the fighting: Parts of it have been charred by shelling and wooden beams supporting the roof are starting to fall apart.
“Before the conflict, the city of Aleppo housed around 100 soap factories,” he says.