One of the Russian traditions I’d been wanting to try for a while is a visit to the баня (Banya). It’s a Russian version of a sauna, where you wear silly hats and get beaten with oak vines. (It’s actually a lot better than it sounds!)
The problem with this kind of thing is that you can’t just wander up to the nearest баня and go in. I had no idea what to do, how it works or what the баня etiquette is. Making a faux pas whilst naked generally makes things worse!
Parked up in Novosibirsk, we left Ken with the bikes while Chip and I set off to find the most hidden hostel in the city. The stop house hostel is in a tower block on the second floor, round the back with no signs. You have to get past the female security guard who looks like the woman from the old Bond movies, but once you’re in it’s great.
Anyway, I digress. Back at the bikes Ken had attracted a couple of passing goldwing riders who stopped to say hello. Mikhail and Yujin were interested in our travels and invited us out……. To the баня! We weren’t sure what to expect and I think Ken wasn’t too keen, but we went along and it was awesome.
More like a private health club and country club combined, we rented the Moscow room. We started with a few beers while Yujin cooked up a storm on the BBQ. More people arrived, Alex, Kirill, Alex 2 along with Marguerite. The food was great and I’d almost forgotten about the sauna part until the men all got naked save for a loin cloth.
The баня was very hot, until Misha pure poured water on the coals. Then it got really hot! The hats are necessary to stop your ears from scalding. The cold plunge pool was a welcome relief before another round of beers and then back in the баня. Round 2.
I found out that the first round was a gentle break in. The second time I got to lie down and get flayed with the oak bush. It doesn’t hurt, the leaves are soft and they’re also wet. The wet leaves are held over the hot coals before the flaying commences, the effect of which increases your body temperature dramatically.
So lying there I went from “shit it’s hot” to “holy fuck I can’t breathe, I’m going to die here” in a nano second. It’s one of those experiences that’s great once it’s over. We had the traditional 5 rounds of баня, beer and plunge pool before calling it a night. At 5am!
Just another example of Russian hospitality and an amazing experience I’ll never forget. A huge thank you to the Goldwing club of Novosibirsk. This morning my skin feels so fresh, that wretched Mongolian dust has finally been exorcised!