St.Petersburg

The Russian Banya

more than a year ago

Eyeing up the broken lift, the dilapidated surroundings and the half-hearted 'Kazachie Banya' sign, I muttered, ‘I’m a little nervous.’ We cautiously entered this unknown land of Russian tradition, to be confronted by naked ladies… lots of naked ladies. Having paid 50Rbl each to use the banya, reputedly frequented by Rasputin in its younger days, we reluctantly stripped off, gradually realizing as we looked around us that we had none of the necessary provisions: no towels, soap or slippers. Returning approximately six times to the charming, yet bemused, banya assistant (see picture) to hire the necessary items, we noted the sign crossly informing that underwear is ‘categorically prohibited’, dropped our towels and entered the main bathroom.

The banya is more than just a ‘bath-house’ to Russians. Although those with no hot water at home use the facilities out of necessity, many visit because they believe that only the highest level of cleanliness can be achieved here. The banya usually consists of a sauna, parilka (a furnace-heated steam room) and cold pool. Although there are established traditions, people also develop their own routines and the banya experience is meant to be a personal cleaning ritual.

Lingering by the showers clutching our veniki (bundles of dried birch leaves that are used to ‘beat’ out toxins) a tiny Russian lady took pity on us and introduced us to banya etiquette. First, we took a standard shower and poured buckets of water over ourselves, before soaking our veniki in hot water for ten minutes and entering the intensely hot parilka. Our lady periodically disappeared to drink beer and leaving us unsupervised at this moment, it all got tricky.

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Over a year ago
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