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What to do when the water runs cold

The first thing I ever bought in Irkutsk was an electric kettle. It was the best thing I ever bought. Not because it could make a mean cup of chai (although it could). But because it was my shower.

Oh, I had a real shower. And most of the time it worked like a shower should. It pumped out the steaming hot water that I need first thing in the morning. This is of critical importance to me as, without the perfect morning shower, I’m completely unable to function as a normal rational human being. But one morning the shower only pumped out cold water. I was in my own personal version of hell. A cold hell, but hell nonetheless.

What I didn’t realise at the time (I was too busy screaming obscenities at the shower head to remember the good advice I’d been given before traveling) was that, every summer, for a few weeks at a time, the Russian authorities shut off the hot water supplies. You see, Russian hot water isn’t heated in a small household boiler. Instead, it is heated at a big old power station down the road, and pumped all the way across town to people’s apartment buildings. The hot pipes, besides being grossly inefficient, also provide a breeding ground for bacteria, and to stop the nasty little bugs dead in their tracks, the pipes have to be shut off and cleaned.

Most Russian’s take the lack of hot water in their stride. Some, the ones with no friends, don’t bother washing. The hardiest Russians don’t even notice – they just shower in the cold water and claim its good for their health. Most Russians, however, just visit a friend, and shower at their place (the authorities only shut off the water to one part of the city at a time). But what about the wimps? People like me, who can’t function without hot water? What do we do?

Yup, we shower out of a kettle.

KettleNow, any fool will tell you that a regular kettle doesn’t hold enough water for a full and satisfying shower. That takes at least two and preferably three kettles. They’ll also tell you that kettles traditionally heat water to boiling point, and that showering out of kettles is therefore a risky business. Electricity and water are a dangerous combination at the best of times. When you add in Russian plug sockets that spurt out blue flame when you plug stuff in, things become riskier still.

So how do you go about taking a kettle shower? Simple. The first thing to do, obviously, is to heat the water. But care is called for here. Kettles don’t have a thermometer. You have to find a way to heat the water to just the perfect temperature and then, at exactly the right moment, switch the kettle off. How to gauge the temperature accurately? Well, think of running a bath for a baby – only, instead of your elbow, which is far too bulky to fit comfortably in a kettle, you use your finger. Don’t, whatever you do, insert your finger so deep into the water that you actually touch the heating coil. The heating coil it far hotter than the water surrounding it. Touching the heating coil hurts!

Washing your hair is the first order of business. It’s a pretty simple job in theory but, as with everything in Russia, far trickier in practice. Take about 1/3 of the water, and pour this over your head to wet your hair. Then, after carefully replacing the kettle on the edge of the bath, massage your shampoo in as normal. Now comes the tricky part. Half blinded by shampoo, and with slippery fingers, very carefully feel around for the kettle. Try not to knock it over or you’ll not only have water all over the bathroom floor (which will annoy the person in the flat below no end when it seeps through their ceiling) but you’ll have a head covered in shampoo, eyes that sting like fury, and absolutely no water left to rinse the shampoo with. Assuming you successfully grasp the kettle, raise it above your head and oh so carefully rinse your hair. Remember – there isn’t much water in a kettle, so the water needs to trickle out, rather than pour out.

Once you’ve done your hair you should be on easy street, frankly. Just repeat however many times are needed to wash the rest of your body. For me, that meant reheating the kettle twice more. Large and/or smelly people may want to take a more leisurely ‘shower.’ Remember, though, to be extra careful plugging the kettle into the wall this time – no matter how carefully you dry yourself, your fingers will always be damp enough to attract the blue flame of death from your overactive plug socket.

Finally, once done with your morning shower routine, don’t forget to use your kettle one more time – for the all important cup of chai!


  • You forgot another category of Russians: those who install their personal electric boiler.

    You can buy a small boiler for a reasonable price. It is more than enough for a single, and even for a family of four it is satisfactory. You can rig the plumbing to switch easily between governmental centralized hot water and your own. This way, the boiler is only used in emergencies and during these summer ‘prophylactics’, as they call it.

  • I lived in a small village in Romania for 2 years, and never had hot water. The village was scheduled to have hot water provided to it’s residents by the same means you discuss, but a little revolution in ’89 put that plan on hold. Money ran out and collectivization plans ended. The town also had a water program. On good days, water would be provided to the residents from aout 6 till 10 in the morning. It would be off through the day till about 400 in the afternoon through 900 in the evening. Over the two years, the water company decided on several occasions to deny water to the town as punishment for not paying the water bills. This forced me to store water in 2-liter bottles and in my bathtub ahead of time waiting for occasions like this to strike. Summer of 1999, the water was off an entire month. We drew water from wells…and heated it on our stoves. Did the ‘ol shower in the plastic tub routine. I prefer to wet down my entire body, soap up my hair and other parts then do a complete rinse. God…I love free flowing water.

  • I remember when I was in that situation, on more than one occasion, I would take the jarringly cold shower. Then I would dump a pot of hot water over to attempt to warm up. My wife (girlfriend at the time) had me boil about 100 pots of water and continualy bring them to her so she could keep her baths hot. Talk about a pain…I would have rather spent the time chopping wood for a nice hot banya/sauna.

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