The Banya

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ah, the banya - a Russian bathhouse. This is definitely another one of those things I'd never had done if I wasn't with a group and accompanied by a native guide. To quote the trusty LP:

"The main element of the banya is the parilka (steam room), which can get so hot it makes Finnish saunas seem wussy by comparison*. Here, rocks are heated by a furnace, with water poured onto them using a long-handled ladle... After this... people stand up, grab hold of a venik (a tied bundle of birch branches) and lightly beat themselves, or each other, with it."

Yup. I went to a Russian bathhouse and beat myself with sticks while standing naked in a steam room so hot that it felt like I was trying to breath scalding hot chocolate pudding. It was surprisingly refreshing, and we all agreed that it's easy to understand why this is a weekly ritual for many Russians.

Russian Banya (Not my photo. Unsurprisingly, I did not take my camera into the banya. Ours was much more dimly lit, and had no men in it.)

Here's how it goes, or at least how it went for us. We arrived at the banya and Katherine, our leader, gave the boys instructions, since they'd be on their own in the men's side of the banya while the rest of of would be in the women's side. She handed them 100 rubles and said, "That's to buy the whips", at which point their eyes got quite large. In fact, the whips - veniks - are bundles of thin birch branches with the leaves still on them, about 18" - 24" long and around an inch in diameter where they're all bundled together.

RuA venik (also not my photo, but they looked just like this)

So off the boys went, somewhat apprehensively, I think. The rest of us headed to the women's side and into a sort of communal change area where women were hanging around, all naked except for sandals. They were chatting, and changing into and out of clothing, sitting around drinking beer, and generally being completely uninhibited. We were not so uninhibited, but managed to make it into the steam rooms in various states of undress.

I cannot describe to you how hot it was in that dimly lit room. I was covered in sweat and condensation about 3 seconds after entering; it took quite a bit longer before I was able to breath. The floors were all wood, and there were benches around the edges, and stray leaves from the birch branches stuck to the floor. The whole place smelled vaguely woodsy. We spent 3 or 4 minutes in there before coming out to cool off. During this time, our birch branches were soaking in a pan of water, I suppose to soften them up. We took them in with us when we went back in a Katherine administered the whipping, one bundle in each hand. Basically you just get smacked all over your back, butt and legs. It doesn't hurt at all, as the LP says, " ...the effect is pleasant and cleansing: apparently, the birch leaves and their secretions help rid the skin of toxins." After a good whipping, you go out again and stand under a cold shower for a few minutes. They also had one shower stall with a big wooden bucket full of cold water that you could tip down on top of your head. That was fantastic.

And then you go in again for more steam and whipping.** It looked like a very social thing - lots of women were lying down on the benches while friends whipped them. Some whipped themselves. Some just sat around sweating. And after a time you go back out for another cold shower, and repeat the cycle as often as you like. I think I did it 4 times before soaping up in the communal cleaning area to get rid of all the sweat and banya leaves.*** There were showers there too, and lots of stone benches with big shallow pans where you could soap up. I particularly liked filling the pan with cold water and dumping the whole thing on top of me. By the time we dried off and got dressed and met the boys outside I was pleasantly knackered - sort of like you feel after a long run and a shower. Or maybe like after a massage. Satisfyingly noodle-like.****

And then we went for supper, where I had caviar blini and two large Heinikens. It was a good day.

* Steve, Lisa... have at 'er. But I'm here to tell you, that place was HOT. You could probably do booming business cooking soft-boiled eggs in the parilka.

* *Ok, I just have to say here that I cannot begin to imagine what the comments are going to be like on this post, so please keep it clean. And yes, yes I do appreciate the extreme absurdity of the whole thing. But I'm telling you, we all agreed it was really nice.

*** Katherine says there's a phrase in Russian used to describe someone annoying who won't go away. You say they "stick to you like a banya leaf".

**** This might also be partly due to the fact that it was a VERY long day. We'd arrived in Novgorod after getting an overnight train from Moscow, which was very cool. I slept quite well on the train, but train sleep only goes so far. Once at the hotel I waited for the cafe to open so I could have breakfast, then went back to bed for 2 more hours that morning. The group reconvened at noon for a walking tour around Novgorod, then I found an internet cafe for a while, bought some breakfast supplies, went for an 8km run and had a beer and a bag of chips before we finally met up again to get the taxis to the banya. It's no wonder I was feeling a bit done in.

Bonus Gratuitous Photo of Random Lenin Monument: Because I've been in Russia for a week now, and haven't posted any Lenin monument photos yet, so I'm surprised I haven't been officially reprimanded. This is the weirdest one I've encountered - tucked into the woods on the side of the road, next to a path I ran along in Moscow. Nothing nearby, no indication as to why it might be there. Actually, there may have been an indication, but it was likely in Russian. Regardless, it was odd, and not, at the same time.


Lisa said...

Ha ha!!! No, I won't throw in arguments about Finnish vs. Russian 'saunas'...I'll just agree that yes, it gets HOT and STEAMY and I LOVE IT!! I have used birch and cedar 'whips' myself...actually preferring the smell and feel of the cedar oils.
Sooo glad you are enjoying this!

cinc said...

That's very cool Pam! My baba and grandpa had a bayna in Benito, Mb and then it got moved to our farm - I rememeber doing that with the cool water and it being stifling hot!

That's awesome! so loving your adventure!!

Viviane said...

I for one am absolutely flabbergasted that the signs to the Lenin Monument in the forest were in Russian! (kidding)

It sounds like you're super open to new experiences, good for you.

Post a Comment