Krasnoyarsk: Journey to a Siberian Healer

Cold. It is very cold. Not everyone can adapt to this climate. But if you grow up here, you have no choice. Perhaps, for this reason, local people grew old here, until the youth of recent times. Yet, I'm happy because I know someone who can tell me about life in Siberia 70 years ago.

Every winter I’m reminded of how the simple things make my life better. One of them is a hot shower. Not just warm water after a cold trip home. No. It feels like fiery liquid vapouring off my skin, which paints my skin red afterwards. It's glorious. For me, this is a wild pleasurable experience. Other enjoyments are just as primitive but also just as enjoyable. In the context of the climate, they invoke even greater experiences and feelings. I’m talking about hot tea, a comfortable bed and a beautiful fluffy cat, a cat that waits for you to get home after a hard day of work. Yep, this is all you need.

Although born in Siberia, I grew up and now live in Moscow. Here there are periodic opportunities to get warm; in the subway, mall or cafés. Conditions at home, school and work were enjoyable at any time of the year. And of course, all the blessings of civilisation were also on hand. As a resident of the capital, I could not imagine it otherwise. But in a Siberian village, it is a different situation. So, I reminisce about a time when I was younger and travelling to my grandmother’s house situated in a small village in Krasnoyarsk.

 Trains in Krasnoyarsk Krai. Image courtesy of  Aleks Ossie Pringles .

Trains in Krasnoyarsk Krai. Image courtesy of Aleks Ossie Pringles.

 Krasnoyarsk Station Platform. Image courtesy of  Raymond Cunningham .

Krasnoyarsk Station Platform. Image courtesy of Raymond Cunningham.

The train to Krasnoyarsk departs from Moscow Yaroslavskaya railway station every day. It takes about three days to get to Krasnoyarsk. Throughout the train ride, people entertain themselves as best they can. Some sleep, some drink vodka and sleep and then drink vodka again. Others play chess, cards or read books and drink vodka. But most do experience periods of boredom. Three days is a long time. The scenery outside, although stunning, doesn’t change; snow and forest. 

And so I arrive in Krasnoyarsk. The architecture of Krasnoyarsk is not vivid and memorable. It is flecked with a large number of factories and poor environmental conditions. The snow covers a layer of thick grey soot. The roads are rough and the weather consistently cold. The thick smoke comes from the many factories within which most of the locals work. All these factors make Krasnoyarsk grey and gloomy almost always. Sometimes it seems that time here has stopped 20 years ago. And yet the sun's rays break through the clouds of thick smoke at times. Character exists. Some people still live in wooden houses. Colour, when present, stands out more against the grey backdrop. My grandmother worked all her life in a train parts factory in Krasnoyarsk. Despite the fact that she had to fix the heavy equipment and complications of the train, she did a better job than some of the men. In the USSR many women worked in factories, it was not uncommon. 

 Industrial landscape of Krasnoyarsk. Image courtesy of  Aleks Ossie Pringles .

Industrial landscape of Krasnoyarsk. Image courtesy of Aleks Ossie Pringles.

But arriving in the village was not the end point of my travels. My grandma lives in a part of the village which you can only access by an old bus. When you travel on this bus, your mind fills with prayers of not crashing. Because in this cold, if you did crash, you would be seriously hurt from the injuries and the cold. There was no bus crash this time. I walked along some snowy streets and then finally arrived at my grandmother’s house. When grandma opened the door, she hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. I barely remembered what she looked like because the last time I saw her I was five years old. Likewise, she was shocked at how much I had grown and how tall I was. I didn't arrive with empty hands. I brought her new clothes and a few bottles of vodka. In Siberia and Russia, vodka is not only a drink; it’s medication, sauce, and fuel. For my grandma, vodka is a tool, which had now replaced her many other vices. She used it for therapy or disinfection and sometimes it was a remedy for insomnia. I joked that they were gifts for all the holidays of the year.

 Krasnoyarsk Krai. Image courtesy of  Aleks Ossie Pringles .

Krasnoyarsk Krai. Image courtesy of Aleks Ossie Pringles.

 Rimini van in Krasnoyarsk. Image courtesy of  Marco Fieber .

Rimini van in Krasnoyarsk. Image courtesy of Marco Fieber.

I helped her with preparing firewood and cleaned a fish from which she cooked a fish soup. She had become so thin like she had eaten nothing but this soup for a long, long time. She asked how my girlfriend was and what I dreamt about in life. But then the conversation turned to her, and she shared stories from her childhood. We talked for a very a long time. We enjoyed each others company immensely. One story struck me to the core. She told me as a child she was on a hunting trip with her father. On the trip, she met a very menacing and hungry bear. The bear wanted to attack them, but her father shot into the air, and the bear ran away in fear. All ended well. But after this incident, grandma would feel intense panic during hikes in the forest for years afterwards. 

The food she served me was wholesome and tasty. Almost all the ingredients she had sourced from the nearby forest and river. It is amazing how much can be done with just a fish: salt, boil, roast, stew. But in the evening I started to feel unwell and developed a fever. The next day the fever got worse. My grandma left for a while to visit her neighbour. After a few hours, she returned with a large package. She began to cut, grind and boil whatever was in the package, and the smell was nasty. I passed in and out of consciousness over the next 24 hours. I felt so fatigued. But when I woke up, I felt much better. Grandma noticed my bewilderment and explained how she cured me in such a short time. 

The vile smelling solution that she fed me was my cure. She used a base of vodka (naturally) and added fat, various herbs and nuts. For me, a man that typically relied on pills and ran to the doctors all the time, it was a miracle. My grandma was healer. She also served me pine cone jam which I now enjoy in place of candy. I learned later this was also part of my recovery. And of course, I took these wonderful recipes with me back to Moscow. A few ingredients I brought from her house as some were only available in Siberia. And these recipes I want to pass on to my future children and city dwellers who love pills more than the power of nature, as I once did.

Pine Cone Jam* 

1 kg young green pine cones (under 5cm in length)
1 kg of sugar
3 litres of water
(or a ratio thereof)

Take young green pine cones and rinse well with cold water. Then place in a large container and pour in boiling water. Put the saucepan on a small fire and cook for 5 hours, then leave for a day in a cool place. If you prefer to remove the pine cones at this stage strain the broth through a colander. Add the sugar, stir and put on medium heat. Stir occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil, remove the resulting foam and cook for another 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Leave the jam to cool down, then boil it once more and cool. Spoon into jars for storage.

 Pine Cone Jam. Image courtesy of Yury Oreshkin.

Pine Cone Jam. Image courtesy of Yury Oreshkin.

Cold/Flu Elixir*

100 g pine buds
100 g Rubus chamaemorus (Cloudberry) fruit/berries
50 g Chamerion angustifolium (Fireweed/Willowherb)
1 litre of water


Mill the pine buds to a fine powder. Add Chamerion angustifolium to boiling water and wait 5-7 minutes. Then add pine bud powder and cloudberry to the broth wait 3 minutes. Consume 100g in a glass of water every 2-3 hours for colds or flu.

You can purchase pine cone jam at Cococo.

* The above recipes are not a replacement for treatment from an experienced practitioner. 


Yury was born and grew up in Russia. He loves travel, food and people. He likes to write about architecture, culture and travel and he has a weakness for befriending cats.