Winter sports craze in the heart of Russia

Thousands of tourists from all over the world flock to Yaroslavl Region for its striking views and millennium-old churches and monasteries. But it is not just history that attracts people, as it is also a perfect spot for sport-lovers.

Winter means that the region’s nearly 37,000 square kilometers are covered in snow.

Everyone is going crazy for sports – just ask the roster of professional athletes speeding through the International Ski Federation's cross-country World Cup at Demino – a winter sport and leisure center situated on the pristine banks of the Volga River.

Poland's Olympic gold medalist Justina Kowalczyk smoked past the other women in the first day of races.

“Ah! It was a very good race! The conditions were very difficult for the classic, but I feel it’s quite good,” said Justina Kowalczyk.

Next was the men's race where Valentina Tereshkova herself, the first female cosmonaut, was welcoming the finishers.

“It’s wonderful. Pavlov has won, but all of them skied well. It’s a great event,” Tereshkova said. “Of course, I want our women's team to be even better than it is, but they did perform well. We are very glad for Russia.”

With over 400 children enrolled in classes, Demino offers average middle class Russians a chance to realize their dreams as sportsmen – and offers the foreigner a chance to see this place for what it really is.

Locals want it to be a new winter destination, one that will fill the surrounding restaurants and hotels.

“Thousands of people come and spend their time here every year,” says Yury Lastonichkin, mayor of Rybinsk. “And we are sure to expand our opportunities, because this will inevitably affect a number of people who go for sports in general, and for winter sports in particular.”

Not far away, in the historic merchant's city of Uglich, festivities are just getting underway to celebrate winter.

Its massive dam on the Volga River powered Moscow with electricity throughout World War II.

Uglich’s churches greet tourist boats on their first stop from Moscow – from the Church of John the Baptist to the Church of Prince Dmitry on Blood built in commemoration of the young prince Dmitry's gruesome death in 1591.

And during a season when most cities are pretty quiet, ice swimmers make a party of it – in the most colorful way possible.

“I've been ice-swimming for 30 years! I love it! There is no need for any of the harmful habits that are widespread nowadays,” says ice swimmer Lyubov Kargina. “Just set them aside and go down for a dip in the pond.”

Uglich's population may only be 37,000 people, but it attracts a quarter of a million tourists every year, and winter sport festivals offer a way to keep tourism going all year long.

Back at Demino, when not skiing or snowmobiling, they are waiting for a turn to relax at a rather unusual fireside at the end of the World Cup Races.

After a frightful windstorm last summer, 90 per cent of the surrounding forest was knocked down.

Locals retaliated by stacking the fallen wood 22 meters high and registering it in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The pile will be turned into a massive bonfire after the final race.