To the Banya!

Peter and I travel remarkably well together, partially because each of us is usually willing to follow along with whatever uncomfortable and/or unpleasant experiences the other can come up with, like Latvian water aerobics, or a homestay with Mongolian nomads. But it took a bit of prodding to get him to accompany me to a banya, a traditional Russian bathhouse where people partake in the sadomasochistic practice of baking in a hot steam oven before beating themselves with branches.

“Why would I want to do that?” he asked me. “And are you sure I don’t need my bathing suit?”  It was a good question. Not only did the concept itself sound unpleasant, but we were visiting Moscow during the midst of what some meterologists have called the worst heatwave in a thousand years, which was accompanied by a smoke cloud caused by nearby wildfires. It was not a day that made one want to voluntarily get even hotter. But it was our last afternoon in Moscow before we got on the Trans Siberian railroad that night. We – by which I mean I – had to do it.

After several days of great weather, the smoke had returned.

We’d considered going to a central, famous bath called Salduny, but upon learning that it was nearly $50 a piece just to enter – plus the fact that according to my friend Christine, the men’s half contains all the fancy stuff and the women’s half sucks – we found a recommendation online for a different bath slightly out of city center for half the price. Na Presne, I think it was called. The bath was pretty close to an easy-to-reach subway stop. But as we’ve learned over the past few days, “pretty close” in Moscow can easily be ten or fifteen New York blocks – the city is big. What’s more, the street signs tend to only be in Cyrillic, and only tell half of the story: blocks in Moscow are so large that they often have entire mini-neighborhoods inside of them, complexes of apartment buildings and shops in what you’d think would just be a courtyard.

The bath was in one of those courtyard mini cities, and it took us a good fifteen minutes – complete with several wrong turns and interactions with security guards – to finally find it, a large, brick building with a blue logo that looked like “Bath” and separate men’s and women’s entrances. After wishing each other luck, we parted ways, both a bit apprehensive about what lay in store.

After I paid the entrance fee, an attendant gave me a voucher for a towel and led me to the changing room/lounge area. It was an open room with cartoons on the wall of happy bathers sitting in wooden tubs; the bath attendants and several customers lounged at small tables watching what appeared to be a Russian version of Scrubs on a TV dangling from the ceiling. There were curtained-off changing rooms, but apparently my ticket was only good enough for an open stall right next to the television, which made it seem like the entire roomful of people was watching me change.

I’ve been to baths before, but I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect in the Russian banya. My first challenge, it turned out, was finding the parilka – the steam room that’s the essence of the Russian banya experience.  After taking a shower to rinse off, the first room I came across was an open space filled with rows of benches and buckets of water, presumably to soak your venik, the bundle of birch branches you beat yourself with to exfoliate and stimulate your skin. I would imagine there are times when the room is filled with row upon row of bathers, but with the weather being as it was, there were only a few women standing around, lathering their bodies with various beauty treatments. Nearby was a tub labeled “hydro-massage,” where a woman lay submerged as an attendant worked on her back.

A door led to what I assumed was the parilka – a mint-scented sauna with stadium-like rows of wooden benches and a large bucket of water next to a metal-doored brick oven. No one else was in it, the door was open, and the two bath attendants who came in to sweep leaves off the floor and refill the water politely indicated that I might want to leave. Something clearly happened in this room, but not now.

So I decided to buy time in the Finnish sauna, a room next to the parilka that was so hot that I couldn’t breathe through my nose without worrying about singing my nose hair. This was a dry, penetrating heat; I managed only several minutes before realizing that if I stayed any longer, I might actually pass out. So I escaped to the final room: a large plunge pool, totally empty, with three water spigots – one that looked like a large round showerhead, one with cascading water like a gentle waterfall, and one that was just an open pipe (useful for massage). The water was freezing, but I took the plunge, and was rewarded by the feeling I remembered from the Russian Baths on East 10th street when I’d dared to pour a bucket of freezing water on my head: shock, breathlessness, and then exhilaration. I realize I sound like a soft drink commercial, but there’s no other way to say it: it was deliciously refreshing.

But this was not what I’d come for. Eventually I heard an announcement in Russian over the loudspeaker and saw a small parade of women entering the Russian bath. I followed, taking a seat on a bottom bench as I observed the people around me – a variety of ages and sizes, naked except for sandals, sheets, and very silly bell-shaped felt hats, which are popular as a way to protect your hair from the heat. How exactly they protect your hair – or from what – was unclear, but the effect was to make it seem like I was bathing with a group of nudist female Robin Hoods. As was perhaps appropriate, these Robin Hoods were braver than I, and several of them spread their sheets on the top layer and lay down upon them, face down, as if sunbathing in an oven. Others simply reclined, their sheets falling to their waists. I sat wrapped prudishly from armpit to knee, waiting to see what might happen next.

Soon thereafter, a bath attendant entered the room. A round woman, also with a felt cap, she was wrapped in a special sheet, one decorated with cartoon figures of people soaking in a banya and beating themselves with branches. I could tell right away that I liked her, even as she pulled the door shut behind her. (I remembered a review I had read online of these particular baths, which claimed that the attendants actually locked you inside until the heat became unbearable – I was grateful that it seemed she had simply closed the door.)  Glancing around at the women under her care, the attendant pulled on two heavy gloves and cranked open the oven, which let out a disconcerting creak. Working quickly, she then began ladeling water from the nearby bucket onto the fire, each splash landing on the hot rocks with a hiss. I counted 113 ladles before she pulled the oven door shut and turned back to face us. As the steam spread, the room became much hotter; several women in the top row groaned.

Next, the attendant picked up a bowl of water that had been sitting by the door and carefully measured several drops of scented oil into it – the source of the peppermint smell that permeated the room. Warning us with what must have been Russian for “watch out!” she began turning in a circle, flinging ladles full of the water around the room. Droplets of mint-scented water hit the walls and our heads, adding to the room’s already refreshing smell.

The attendant walked to the middle of the room. Assuming a warrior-like stance, she picked up a different cartoon sheet and began swinging it in circles above her head to spread the heat. Please take a moment to imagine this scene: a short-haired, rotund woman clad in nothing but sandals, a sheet and a bell-shaped felt hat, violently swinging a towel around her head like a lasso. Waves of scalding air hit my back; sweat began to flow. This was the real deal.

But she wasn’t done; instead, the attendant dripped mint oil onto two bunches of branches sitting on a bench by the door. Picking them up, she worked her way around the room, waving them above each of our heads as if anointing us with delicious, mint-scented steam. She even gave one bather a playful smack on the back. I loved the attendant and her silly felt hat. And, truth be told, I wasn’t even that hot. This was nothing compared to the Finnish sauna.

That turned out to be because I was on the bottom level; when I returned for a second round and dared to go higher, the heat quickly became unbearable. But that first time, I remained pleasantly warm as the attendant put down her branches and opened the oven again, ladeling in more water beore eventually leaving us to steam on our own.

I alternated between steam room, sauna and plunge pool, realizing at some point (I believe in the cold room) that I was completely content: my aching feet had temporarily stopped hurting, I could feel my circulation pulsing through my body, and the contrast between heat and cold was leaving me feeling delightfully calm. It was a shame, I thought to myself, that no such tradition exists in the United States, a place where it is considered weird to sit naked in an incredibly hot room with strangers and have people beat you with branches.

My only regret was that I didn’t buy a bundle – something had gotten lost in translation in check-in, so instead I merely watched with envy as several fellow bathers slapped their thighs and backs. But I can live vicariously through Peter.  He entered the Russian sauna at the same time as a couple of others and apparently felt the need to prove his manhood by engaging in a one-sided battle of the baths (I don’t think the other men knew they were playing). After lying with the men on the highest, hottest level for 10 minutes, Peter was about admit defeat when the men threw an additional challenge, standing up  from their bench and beating themselves with their branches. Intimidated, but not wanting to appear so, he joined in.  By the end, his birch bundle – which he subsequently christened “Ivan the Terrible” – had left small red welts all over his back.  Still, as we emerged from the baths, rosy-faced and refreshed, we both decided it was worth it.

The outside of the baths.

Moscow, we still love you!

Leave a Reply