I sit on a small slice of wood in the banya – the sauna in the traditional Russian bathhouse – surrounded by naked Kyrgyz men cramped onto the benches around the stove.
Every one of my pores is screaming with sweat, which runs in tracks down my reddening body and drips freely off my nose.
This is my sixth and final round. I last as long as I comfortably can.
That’s it, I tap out. I stand up, weaving through those remaining, ducking to avoid the blistering heat that hangs around the ceiling, and make for the freezing plunge pool that neighbours the sauna.
As I open the door to escape, a young Kyrgyz ushers me back in, pooh-poohing my protests, ordering me back into the bake.
I sit back down, and he stands to spin a towel around in a helicopter fashion, circulating the hottest air above around the rest of the room, roasting us all even more intensely.
As my body is being seared, steak-like, and in front of me stands a burly Kyrgyz fellow, butt-naked but for his woollen hat, whirling a towel around like a lasso and causing untold discomfort to his sweaty compatriots, it occurs to me I should write about the Russian banya.
Once upon a time a sauna was to me was this place that the odd gym has, and God only knows why people go in there.
After discovering and then investigating the benefits of cold exposure with sea swimming, I stumbled upon the science behind extreme heat exposure as well as cold. Science and experience say it’s good for you. So I frequented the sauna at the gym the odd time, timed myself for 10 minutes, and either left or did one more round.
So when my Kyrgyz compadre Nurlan invites me and my friend to the banya in Osh, the second city of Kyrgyzstan in the south, I think that’s somewhat of an odd suggestion for a daytime activity with four blokes.
But the banya is something of a European social and cultural constant, and in the post-Soviet space, acts like a health and social club, complete with saunas, plunge pools, professional scrubbers, masseurs, hairdressers, restaurants – even bars!
At my favourite banya here in Bishkek – pictured above, a cheap and gloriously tatty old Soviet monstrosity of aesthetically spiteful architectural design – I was sweating next to a portly pensioner who spoke a bit of English. (Side note: it is in the banya I resolved never to let myself gain such weight that my manhood becomes irretrievably enveloped.)
“You want drink after sauna?” He asks me with a thick Russian accent.
“What – a drink?” I flick my neck with my forefinger, the somewhat odd but immediately recognisable sign for drinking alcohol in post-Soviet states.
“Yes,” he replies. “Russian vodka.”
So he, me, and his pensioner pal go into the banya bar.
Kyrgyz men sit at the tables, manhoods covered by sheets and bellies, drinking maksim and beer, eating boiled eggs and manti, chatting and laughing and eating and smoking, and invariably gawping at the conspicuously Celtic-looking fellow, who presently is sat with two of their local oldies eating horse meat and throwing back shots of vodka.
At one more modern and impressive and less grimily Soviet banya, there are pool tables and a restaurant, and even a ‘winter garden’, with sunbeds on which one can recline and relax and breath in some air free from the surrounding city pollution. There’s a wide variety of plants and trees filling out the glassed enclosure. I note there is a banana tree there. I drink maksim, sleep for a little while, tired and relaxed from the sauna, and awake rejuvenated after my nap.
Yesterday I was at the banya for around 3 hours. The other day I was there for around 4 hours. Both times there were men with whom I talked when I arrived and who remained there when I left.
Obviously, we are spending but a fraction of this time in the blistering heat of the sauna or the frigid freeze of the plunge pool. I manage maximally 10 minutes in either, and that is at a hard push, feeling happily faint and head-clear afterwards. The feeling of diving into an icy pool of mountain water immediately upon exiting the sauna is indescribably refreshing and invigorating.
Some of the banya time is spent moseying about between bits and bots, like washing and whipping each other with birch leaves, massages, sitting and chatting, reclining and sleeping, drinking tea next to the pool. There is faffing and fannying around, the prerogative of a man enjoying his day off!
It is so beautiful and bizarre, to me, essentially a Westerner with one-or-two hour slots of time to apportion specific activities: there exists in this culture a protected space where men go, get naked, clean themselves and each other, expunge toxins and purify themselves, honour and guard their health, prize and enjoy relaxation, have a cheeky nap, a cheeky beer or two, and eat and laugh, and then go home clean and chirpy and chipper. Glowing.
My late Latvian great-grandmother told me her husband wouldn’t wash all week, then on the Sunday, he and the other men would go to the banya. In winter, without the luxury of a plunge pool, they would go outside and roll in the snow. Fresh and refreshed, squeaky clean for the week ahead.
You don’t know you are missing it until you try it. I’ve only had the pleasure of going to a Russian banya six or seven times, yet already I know when I leave it will feel like there is something missing. It is has comprised an important part of not only Russian culture for a thousand years, but also of the Greco-Roman culture which influenced it.
The Roman equivalent, or rather Roman ancestor, was the thermae, which was essentially a big community centre where people did everything together. Literally everything: read, write, create, eat, drink, exercise, sauna, swim. Socialise generally, in the proper senses of both of these words.
Most, sometimes all, of these mentioned activities are still enjoyed in the Russian banya.
I think of it as the health and social club par excellence, where people do simple human things with each other. Ape-like. Au naturale. Wash each other, eat and drink with each other, bathe naked together, sleep and exercise in each other’s company. Talk, grunt, pant, shout, laugh.
There was one specific sauna session where we were one youngun, maybe ten years of age, a band of young men such as myself, and then an august older amputee in a wheelchair sporting a traditional Kyrgyz kalpak. It’s hard to appreciate the scene when your head is down, hair burning into your scalp, breathing shallow so as not to burn your nostrils, but the mental image that remains is a glorious one.
The nakedness, I think, is a big thing. It took me a couple of trips before I was ready to bare my naked body without awkwardness and leave the optional strip of cloth where it belongs, in the locker, for when you should shield the ladies behind the bar from your pride or shame (dependent on whether you frequented the hot sauna or cold pool last).
It took me another another couple of visits before I bore my nakedness happily and carelessly.
A couple of visits ago, one of the friendly local guys with whom I shared chai and chirp at the bar was shocked I hadn’t had a full body scrub. I thought, that sounds like some sort of effeminate treatment that should be had only by women at hotels whilst their boyfriends caress pint glasses in the hotel bar.
As it turns out, not a lady, but a rather large Kyrgyz man greets me in the room, ordering me prone on a raised bench, butt-naked.
He roughly scrubs my arms, neck, back, ass, legs and feet with a scourer, causing me to wince and groan, not unpleasantly, before throwing a pail of water over me. He flips me over, and makes me wince all over again, ripping over the sensitive skin of my armpits and scrubbing concerningly close to my exposed appendages, before going over both back and front again with soap, then dousing me with water.
I feel fecking amazing afterwards.
I wonder, how strange does this all of the above sound to Western European readers? The ones without this bathhouse culture, anyhow. Much of Europe still honours the cult of the bathhouse.
I’m somewhat desensitised to naked towel twirling men, now. Happily so.
Not quite desensitised the naked man-on-man washing, nice as it was.
The concept of large groups of men being naked together in cramped enclosures and spending several hours pottering about between the sauna and drinking beer and napping around strangers isn’t normal to me, not to my ingrained and involuntary cultural instinct.
But, Christ, it doesn’t stop me enjoying it.
In fact, I’m going there now.
Big up the banya.