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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 January 2008, 06:34 GMT
Ed Leigh's snowboard journey

Ed Leigh takes in the splendour of Moscow's architecture

Ski Sunday returns to our screens on the 20 January for a brand new series.

As part of the revamped, hour-long show presenter Ed Leigh takes on a series of fascinating snowboard adventures around the world.

In his first escapade he goes behind the Iron Curtain to investigate snowboarding in Siberia, Russia.

Watch the film of Ed's trip during the show on Sunday 20 January from 1900-2000 on BBC Two and the BBC Sport website (UK users only).

By Ed Leigh
Ski Sunday presenter

If you know anything about snowboarding and skiing in Russia then I'll bet that it involves one of the following two places.

Probably the best known alpine destination in Russia is Sochi, the host for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and its flagship resort of Krasnaya Polyana.

The second spot is Kamchatka and it is Russia's Alaska; the peninsula sits at the same latitude and has the same low elevation peaks and sub-zero temperatures.

It may seem surprising, then, that when I put in my request to travel to Russia neither of the above places were mentioned.

Instead, I put Siberia.....

I must admit that I questioned my own motives for requesting to be sent to a place that through the ages has proved itself time and again to be the world's biggest and most effective natural prison.

But I had my reasons.

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Firstly, I have travelled quite a lot, but sadly most of it has been to either well-to-do alpine resorts or well-trodden surf destinations.

Very few places I've travelled to have been truly challenging and that is something I wanted to change with the opportunity I'd been given this winter.

Having narrowed my search to the largest province of the world's largest country, all we had to do was find a resort.

This actually proved to be easier than I thought.

There are apparently a handful of resorts in Siberia, but for an area one and half times the size Europe, that's nothing to boast about really.

However, any guide book you read routinely name-checks Sheregesh or, to give it it's nickname, "Little Switzerland".

A map of Sheregesh in Siberia
Sheregesh is located in the wilds of Siberia

This was me sold, an area referred to as Little Switzerland, accompanied by the bold claim that the resort has never experienced ice, well and truly had my appetite whet.

Four hours after arriving in Moscow, we took the train to our opulent hotel where we were greeted by a rogues gallery of previous guests that included among others Lady Thatcher, Nicolae Ceausescu, Leonid Brezhnev and then Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris!

As enlightening and steeped in history as Moscow was, it was a relief to get out of the city the next day.

We had been routinely stopped everywhere when we tried to film and while my skin had thickened a bit, I welcomed the prospect of confined space and neat vodka that 29 hours on the Siberian Express offered.

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I would use it as a training camp to toughen up, from where I would emerge at our halfway stop in Yekaterinburg a new man.

In many respects, the trip was a success.

I drank a lot of vodka and even if I say it myself, I could get a Russian measure (around a quarter of a pint) down in one with only about 10 seconds of grimacing by the end of the journey.

Yekaterinburg sits on the Ural mountain range that forms the natural border between Europe and Asia (rivers either run into Europe or Asia from this point) and while the mountains aren't huge there are a couple of places to explore.

We asked our guides to choose and they took us up to a spot called Ezhovaya, mainly because it had floodlighting and it was late.

This meant that with its one lift and hard-packed dusty snow the only difference between my first experience of a Russian resort and a indoor real-snow centre was the lack of a roof.

After that it was back on the train and when we finally got to Little Switzerland we realised it was a very, very ambitious comparison.

Little Merthyr Tydfil might have been closer.

Sheregesh town centre was distinguished by a huge mine shaft and, of course, the customary power station blasting out smog.

There was also a prison and, almost as an afterthought, the lift system on the surrounding hills.

Ed Leigh lies in his bunk on the Trans Siberia Express
Conditions were cramped on the Trans Siberia Express

I wanted to interview some of the locals, but ended up trying to convince the chief of police that we were not spies or terrorists (our visit happened to coincide with national and local elections).

In short, cold war suspicions are still alive and well in the darker corners of Russia.

By the time we got out on the slopes a large part of the day had gone. But that didn't seem important anymore.

It comes back to the old cliché that the destination isn't as important as the journey and that was never more true than in this case.

I realised how much my attitude towards, and understanding of, Russia had changed in the four days we'd been there.

My skin had most certainly thickened and I'd stopped caring about the staring and started to see the very warm side to Russian hospitality, even if it does take half a pint of neat vodka to unlock.

"So what about the snow?" I hear you ask.

It hadn't snowed for three weeks and it was a bit tracked, but the powder was still boot deep and with a taxi rank of snowmobiles waiting to ferry you into the back country there was plenty to keep us amused.

Well worth the epic journey.

Next week: Ed will be in Hirafu on the island of Hokkaido in Japan.


Ski Sunday runs for eight weeks from 20 January to 9 March on BBC TWO and the BBC Sport website.




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