S Lyokhkim Parom!!

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By Luc Jones

Getting naked, hot & sweaty with other men (or women if are a lady) at first might not sound like your idea of fun but you can’t say that you’ve really ‘done’ Russia unless you’ve experienced a visit to a banya. On the surface it is basically a bath house but the whole process is taken seriously, yet at the same time it’s harmless fun even if it doesn’t always feel like it at the time. Think of it as a bit of bonding session, but it’s certainly something you won’t forget in a hurry!

In Russia, the banya is very much a ritual although its origins stretch back centuries, to the days when bathing as we know it did not exist. Nowadays it is much more of a pastime yet traditions are maintained so it’s useful to familiarise yourself with what you are about get yourself in to. Essentially you will enter a hot, steaming room, work up a sweat and then wash it off with cold water, but as you will see, there is much more to it than just an old-fashioned way of keeping yourself clean.

For starters, a banya can range from a small, wooden shed in the country for just a few, close friends to a huge, ornate building which can accommodate dozens of people, such as the famous Sanduny (see contact details below). You will need a few items to make your experience complete, although these can be purchased or rented at the higher-end places; if going to a banya at somebody’s dacha, check if these will be provided although many shops in Moscow sell the basics. Generally you pay an entry fee which allows you two hours, although you can add on additional hours if you’re not ready to leave.

Many banya frequenters wear a felt hat which helps to protect your ears from the extreme heat – you will strip off completely and head into a room where the temperature is close to 100C, so slipping on a pair of flip-flops is a wise move. As is a cloth sheet to wear around your waist if you’re a little shy although it then doubles up into a mat to sit on once inside although some opt to stand; you don’t need a degree in physics to quickly realize that warm air rises so the higher up you are, the hotter it gets. And the longer you stay in the sweatier you become, although hardcore banya aficionados can be seen beating each other with birch branches, called a ‘venik’ which improves the circulation, apparently. Water will periodically be poured onto the hot stones to create additional steam, and eucalyptus is occasionally added for a more authentic smell, and don’t be surprised if one of the more experienced participants starts to wave a towel around to spread the heat.

Once you reach the stage when your body cannot stand any more heat, you exit the banya, and into a cold pool to wash off all the sweat. Depending on how sophisticated your banya is, this could be anything from a large swimming pool to a pond in the garden, and if you really want to show off in winter months, you can roll around in the snow although this is best done after a few vodka shots.
On the subject of refreshments, you won’t be surprised to hear that there is often some alcohol involved after you’ve rinsed off sweat off yourself. Most public banyas will have a small café or shop selling beer, soft drinks and snacks although the swankier the venue, the better the fare (Sanduni boasts an extensive menu, featuring Russian, Georgian and Uzbek cuisine, plus an assortment of beverages from draught beer to vodka, cognac & champagne). Then it’s back in for another round of banya, a ritual which will be repeated several times until you’re ready to keel over!

Unless you are lucky enough to have your own banya (or visit someone who does), or rich enough to rent out the entire premises, it’s likely to be a same-sex affair but it’s all completely innocent. Please don’t even think about packing that tube of KY jelly (if you’re that way inclined), but do bring along some soap, shampoo and a towel for showering at the end. Banyas are generally geared towards men but ladies can enjoy them too; Sanduny has a separate female section. If you only learn one banya-related phrase, it has to be ‘S lyokhkim parom’ (which very roughly translates as ‘I hope the steam goes easy on you’)!

Sandunovskaya Banya (typically shortened to just ‘Sanduny’) is centrally located, just off Ul. Neglinnaya D14 (nearest metro is Kuznetsky Most) – the website www.sanduny.ru is in Russian only but has picture of what you are getting yourself into (as well as the magnificent interior).