An Evening at the Banya

I posted this over on my other blog too, but since it's a decidedly Foreign Service experience, I'm reposting it here. Enjoy!

As some of you know, I made the rather bold decision to visit a traditional Russian banya a few weeks ago. A banya, for those of you who don't know, is sort of like a bath house/sauna/torture chamber. It sounded right up my alley, so I said, "Sure, why not?" Actually, it sounded like my own personal version of hell, so I said, "Sure, why not?" Because I'm crazy like that.

There were originally supposed to be four or five of us going, but one girl had to work and the other chickened out (in retrospect, I don't blame her), so there were only three of us left: my friend K and her friend who works in St. Pete, A, and yours truly. K had been to this very banya a month ago, so I figured it was a good sign she was willingly returning. A was a banya newbie, like me. We took a cab out of the city (the cabbie sweetly proclaimed, "Americans are all fat, but you are small." - I like to think we did our part to shatter American stereotypes that day) and arrived at the quaintest little Russian village I'd ever seen.

I should have known that such a charming exterior could only house pure evil.

We went into our own little cottage, where there was a wooden table and a couch along one wall (I shudder now to think how many a naked, sweaty ass has perched on that couch) and a doorway leading to an anteroom. One more door took you to the sauna itself, aka Hades.

While we waited for our personal banya dude to prepare, we started nibbling on the snacks K and A had brought with them. When banya dude, who we'll call G (because that was the only part of his name I understood), saw us, he told us not to eat too much before our treatments, which we chose from a long menu that I couldn't read. K recommended the honey and coffee scrub, so we all went with that (it also only involved one trip into the snow, which was plenty from what I could surmise). K offered to go first so we could get an idea of what we were in for. Just as I regretted watching Sarah undergo her LASIK procedure before I did mine, I would come to realize that perhaps watching K wasn't such a good idea. But we'll get to that in a bit.

I mentioned previously that the banya generally involves nudity. You're provided with these fancy little cloth, well, cloths, to wear, but once inside the sauna, any extraneous clothing only makes things more unbearable. Whilst strategizing with Sarah ahead of time, we decided I should take a pair of bikini bottoms ("I draw the line at vag," were Sarah's exact words, and I was inclined to agree). However, K and A made it clear that I was being overly prudent, so I gingerly stripped out of my clothing and wrapped myself tightly in a lovely leopard printed frock while I awaited my turn. We all walked into the sauna together, which was already a steamy inferno when we arrived. K laid herself out on the wooden platform atop a thin foam mat and A and I watched in awe as a nude K was pummeled with various foliage, our nostril hair immediately singed in the extreme heat and our eyeballs melting down our faces. Eventually G told us to get the hell out, since we'd have our own turn soon enough and we needed to have something left to sweat out when the time came. At that point, I wasn't sure I actually still wanted the treatment, but it seemed too late to back out now, and anyway, I was morbidly curious about the whole thing.

My banya ensemble, sure to be all the rage next season.

I could go into a lengthy description about what it was like watching K experience the treatment, but I think it will be more effective if I describe what it was like for me as it was happening. Ready folks? Here goes.

G, who spoke enough basic English that I felt confident he'd understand simple phrases like "too hot," "I'm dying," and "get those goddamn birch branches away from me NOW," instructed me to lie down on the platform as Krisi had done, face down. He placed a bundle of cold-water soaked pine branches under me head and another on top, to keep my head cool. (By the way, I do not recommend the banya to anyone with claustrophobia, as I felt like I was trapped inside a giant, burning bush for the majority of the treatment.) As I tried to blink dripping water out of my eye and extricate a pine needle from my lips, G threw some water on the hot coals, picked up his bundle of birch branches, and got to work.

The birch branches are mostly leaves, so it felt a bit like having wet chickens smacked up and down my body. G waved the birch branches vigorously, creating little eddies of molten heat, and then smacked again, paying special attention to my feet and lower back. Occasionally he'd redip my pine boughs so I didn't roast to death, but it was so hot in the sauna I was afraid to open my eyes, which was just as well considering I was buck naked and didn't really want to think about the fact that a large, sweaty man in transparent clothing was standing next to me. Several times, G paused in his whapping to throw buckets of ice cold (literally - a direct line from the snow) water onto my body and head, leaving me spluttering and gasping for air.

After a while I flipped over, which was when I really started to regret going fully nude, and the process was repeated. When I seemed thoroughly beaten and oxygen-starved, G took my hand and led me outside. I should mention that once outside, anyone who happened to be walking by would have had a full-on show. Fortunately, it was after 8 pm by this point so I had darkness on my side. When I realized I was actually expected to run out into the snow barefoot, I looked at K and A (who had come out to witness my humiliation) with disbelief. But G was nudging me forward, so I dashed out into the snow as fast as possible, waited for about fifteen seconds while G rubbed snow into my shoulders and back, screamed something along the lines of "MOTHER F%&*ER," and sprinted back into the house.

There was also a tea break in there somewhere, but the exact sequence of events seems to have escaped me.

Then it was back into the sauna for more birch branches, followed by a thorough scrubbing with pine branches (which hurt even more than the birch branches but slightly less than the snow), and then came the fresh coffee grounds and honey, which G slathered all over my body until I was sticky, gritty, and ready for the whole thing to be over. "Finished?" G asked me. I mumbled something along the lines of "da" and G took me to the anteroom, where I was literally hosed down with more of the freezing water. And that, my friends, was that.

All in all, the process lasted about 45 minutes, in temperatures ranging from 190F to somewhere around 0 (it wasn't a particularly cold day, thank goodness). I was assured I could expect to feel invigorated and as soft as a baby the next day, but somehow I woke up with a sore throat and a rash over most of my torso (I blame the pine needles, but it could just as easily have been the coffee grounds; it's hard to say). Today, I'm sick with a cold. I seem to be the only person in world history who got sick from going to the banya, since most people apparently get BETTER when they visit. Perhaps my immune system wasn't ready to tackle so many extremes after just getting over the stomach flu? Whatever the case, I'm not at all sorry I went to the banya, but I can't say it's something I plan to do on a regular basis (aka ever again). As I told John, I can't imagine anyone actually enjoying the banya, but I suppose if you're Russian and you really believe that sweating profusely and experiencing extreme temperature fluctuations is good for you, it might be something you come to look forward to. You know, in the way some people look forward to a good enema every now and again.

I will say this: I'm proud of myself. While I was lying in my nest of pine needles, hyperventilating as I listened to G go about his preparations, I had to give myself an honest-to-goodness pep-talk: "You are stronger than the banya, Mara." I faced several fears that evening. A fear of saunas, a fear of flagellation, and a fear of public nudity. This is what living abroad is all about, people.

That, and finding out just how far you're willing to go for a good blog post.   


  1. I had been waiting for you to post this ever since you mentioned you had agreed to go! A friend of the family had us all rolling on the floor in hysterics with his experience - I think he got whipped with eucalyptus branches rather than birch and pine, though. Sorry to here you are under the weather now. But if you can pull through the Banya you can beat a little cold!

  2. My banya experience was sooooo different from yours! Next time go to a DIY place and just ask the nice babushkas what to do with the birch branch you are holding. Let's just say neither snow nor the outdoors figured into my banya time.


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