Visiting a banya (баня) is a quintessential part of your Russian journey. Not only is it beneficial for your health and pleasure, it’s also been my favorite Russian cultural experience so far. A banya is a sauna that is heated to an extremely high temperature to cause you to sweat excessively. This gets your blood flowing, opens your pores, and makes you feel wonderful.
Lena and I went to the banya armed with the necessary banya items: towels, sandals, веник (venik: twigs from leafy branches made from various trees—ours was made of linden) and special woolen hats.
The first room in the banya is for undressing. After staking out a corner for our things, we took off our clothes and tucked our hair under our caps.
The second room is for washing. There were low benches with large tubs that you could fill with water from a faucet. Half of the tubs were filled with soaking venik, and the other half had women vigorously splashing themselves with soapy water. The air had an earthy, healthy smell from the venik, and the floor was strewn with leaves from various trees. Women emerging from the sauna had green bits stuck all over them. Lena gave me some honey to rub onto my face. Other women were also applying homemade skin softeners all over their bodies. Two younger girls were colored a deep brown from the generous amount of coffee grounds and sour cream that they’d applied.
We entered the sauna, which was a small dark room with a furnace and a long bench to sit or lie on. The room was already full, so we stood while the others set about their banya business. Picture, if you will, a room full of large naked Russian women thrashing their own bodies and the women around them with their venik. The mood was both cheerful and serious–it’s an art form as well as a satisfying way to spend your Sunday. The layers of body fat and breasts jiggled joyfully as the branches bounced off of their sweating flesh. The women took turns making more steam, and would occasionally wave their venik skillfully above them to circulate the currents of hot air. After a few minutes I had to leave for some water and a chance to breathe. Our venik was done soaking, so we took it back into the sauna and I laid down so Lena could start beating me with it. My first impression was that it was incredibly painful. My skin was already burning hot, and the branches beating against my skin intensified the burning. To cool down we went outside, where others were already playing in the snow with steaming bodies.
We showered, steamed and beat each other again, and then went down to the nearby lake to hop into the прорубь (ice-hole). We had to wait our turn while some naked men climbed out, and then Lena bravely led the way and showed me how to take the cold like a Russian.