A ‘banya’, in the most traditional sense, is the Russian equivalent of a hammam or sauna. Popular in both winter and summer, the banya is an age-old tradition used to cleanse the pores, lose weight and to just get away from it all. Aside from the promise of extreme heat and chit-chat, it’s common to take a collection of leaves and twigs along to whip oneself to stimulate circulation. Popular throughout the former Soviet Union and the typical complement to any summer house, Bishkek is no different with its assortment of communal banyas serving the city’s population.
Given the implicit Western connotations of a bathhouse in which naked grown men whip each other, I was fairly apprehensive about making a first visit. Nonetheless, with lengthy encouragement by my Russian teachers who insisted that it is a ‘must do’ in the Former-Soviet Union, off I went after a gym workout for a bathe.
The cost of entry was a princely 300 som (~$6), and I was afforded no shortage of Soviet hospitality at the cashier as I danced about to try and get the attendant’s attention. After finally being able to pay the young woman, I wandered around the lobby until I found the entry to the Men’s section. Inside I was given a sarong-like towel by a female attendant, and a locker key. Wrapped in my Polynesian-inspired loincloth I headed on into the main room, which was lined with showers on one side, small benches in the middle and the entrance to the cozy sauna. After a brief, extremely self-conscious shower, I took to the steam room wrapped in my modesty sarong.
The steam room proved to be hotter than anything I’d ever experienced and at several points I thought I might faint due to the heat. With a Soviet industrial furnace heating the oven-room, it made the outside temperature of 36 degrees seem tepid. Inside, Kyrgyz men took it in turns to whip each other with fans of oak leaves although I politely declined given my increasing fear of evaporating. Eventually one of the compatriots took it upon himself to stand on the bench and swing his towel around his head, like some sort of middle-aged Kyrgyz Ricky Martin, to force the hot air down. Despite the audible gasps for air and cries as the oven got hotter, there was definitely a sense of communal struggle to endure the intense heat which was endearing.
After several trips into the oven like an unfortunate Hansel or Gretel, with intermittent douses of icy water, I came to recognize on the wall what has become one of my favorite words in Russian, бассейн. Inside the next room was a large swimming pool filled with near-freezing water – or so it seemed after so much time in the steam room. Easily the best quality of the pool was that it was filled with fresh water, completely free of chlorine. Although it’s probably unhygienic, there’s nothing worse than getting into a sauna when you’re covered in chlorine.
And thus the first steam room/swimming pool visit was by and large a success. I’m not sure if I’m going to forgo the modesty sarong, especially as I received quite a few stares as the only foreigner in the building, although that’s another question for another time.