Hot Sweat and Tears – Life in a Central Asian Banya
The thing about banyas in Central Asia I found, is that they are so much more than just a place to get cleaned up. I spent over three years in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, much of that time in rural areas, and each village, town or city I happened upon, had its own peculiar handle on the whole banya experience. Some households, particularly in the villages, have their own banya, which range from small compact steam rooms with ancient home-made boilers that look like something my dad might have put together, to plush pine clad rooms, with hot stones, which are slightly reminiscent of the set of a 1970’s Swedish porn movie!
These were the private banyas. Cozy places to exchange gossip with family or friends, while generally whipping each other with dried leaves after drinking copious amounts of vodka. In the cities and towns there are larger communal banyas, where you can also get a massage from a huge guy named Sergei while exchanging gossip with family or friends, while generally whipping each other with dried leaves after drinking copious amounts of vodka. Occasionally, while being leaf-whipped whilst naked and drunk by a complete stranger, the thought crossed my mind that this probably wouldn’t be considered normal behaviour anywhere else in the world. However, here in the former soviet republics, it is just considered a “good night out”.
When I first arrived in Kazakhstan, local friends felt the need to invite me along to their local steam room, but overcome by English reserve, I managed to put off my initial visit until I was working in the small village of Korgalshin, about 120 kilometres south west of the new Kazakh capital, Astana. I was staying with a local guide, his wife and three teenage daughters. We had been working in the neighbouring National Park and returned somewhat dirty. As there was no running water in his cottage, Timor suggested he heat up the banya and I clean myself up. When the time came, he showed me the hot stones, a bucket of hot water and a bucket of cold water and left me to it, disappearing to milk his cow. I disrobed in a dark outer room about the size of a cupboard, and entered the steam room. It was warm but not unbearable, so I mixed some of the hot and cold water together in a tin bucket and started to wash.
I don’t know exactly what was going through my mind, but something in me decided that it wasn’t hot enough, so as Timor had shown me, I took a cup of cold water from the bucket and poured it onto the stones. Instantaneously, there was a hiss and a fog of boiling steam filled the room. Liquid seemed to seep from every pore of my body as the heat became so intense that it felt as if my skin was about to peel off. Everything began to burn as the steam scalded my entire body and I can remember a number of thoughts rushing through my head as I considered my options. Naked, boiled and dripping sweat I decided upon my only viable course of action. I flung the door open and rushed out of the small steam room, straight through the darkened changing room and out into the lobby. As I regained my composure, breathing deeply, enjoying the cooling air on my body, I suddenly became aware of my surroundings. Gauhar, Timor’s wife, and their three lovely daughters were busy preparing vegetables for the evening meal as I stood before them naked and dripping sweat onto the floor. There was a stony cold silence as we just looked at each other, until one of the girls started to giggle. With as much composure as I could manage, I smiled and muttered an embarrassed “Sorry!” before rushing back into the fiery sauna. Later that evening over a meal, the family were polite enough not to mention my ordeal, other than saying with a smile, “So, was that your first banya, Tim?” and every time after that I would pass one of the girls in the hallway, they would start to giggle.
For some people, I guess that my first experience would have put them off banyas for life. However, it destined to make me all the more determined to accustom myself to the heat by acclimatization. Each visit, I would try to stay in that little bit longer, occasionally drinking with newly acquired friends who were fascinated that a foreigner like myself washed, let alone took a banya and never again, during my three year stint, did I ever put cold water on the hot stones. Gradually, I built up a slight resistance to the steam and even found the whole process therapeutic after a while. The most difficult thing was fielding a constant barrage of questions from my newfound friends about British football, British women and British beer, usually in that order.
During my second year, I took a trip to Lepsinsk; a small village nestled in the valleys in the southeastern corner of Kazakhstan, which lead into China. It was ostensibly a fact finding mission, so each night my boss, another Englishman, and his brother who happened to be out on holiday in Kazakhstan, stayed with a different family. On our third night, we stayed with a Russian family, headed by the rather rotund, yet larger than life honey farmer, Boris. Boris was definitely old-school Russian and invited his entire workforce for a meal to celebrate our arrival. Needless to say, this involved vodka and a number of glasses of his potent homebrew honey beer (sweet, yet deadly!).
All in all, the evening passed pleasantly enough, when Boris decided that we should all continue the party down at his own private banya. For a personal banya, it was quite large, but then Boris wasn’t exactly a small man, so as Seamus, his brother Joe and I, joined by a host of farm workers followed him down the hill to a building about the size of a small cottage, we were pleasantly surprised. In all there must have been about ten of us, as we all stripped off in the concrete floored lobby area. Luckily, Boris and his workers had brought down an ample supply of the honey beer, so we just chatted and swapped drunken stories, whilst apparently resembling some sort of naturist club social event. Its funny how alcohol can break down the language barrier, but none of this felt in any way bizarre to Seamus or I who had spent some time in Kazakhstan.
For Joe however, it must have seemed more than a tad unusual, particularly when Boris started swishing swatches of dried leaves around in the air, testing each for flexibility and general whippiness. So much was his enthusiasm that even some of his own workers looked nervous. Our host had insisted that the steam room itself be “Russian hot!” which I assumed was probably not a good thing, and then said that he was going to treat us all to a traditional soviet sauna experience, which basically meant he was going to give us a good beating with the leaves too. Apparently, there was only room for Boris and one other person at each time so like lambs to the slaughter we queued up awaiting our fate. One of the workers turned to me and said something along the lines of “Guests first!” On hearing this Seamus and I pushed his non-Russian speaking brother to the front of the line. As Boris ushered him in I think I distinctly heard Joe doubt his brother’s parenthood and Seamus looked almost guilty as the door closed shut behind him. Inside we heard Joe’s weak and nervous voice utter two sentences. Firstly, he asked Boris with fake bravado, “So, what do you want me to do?” and then after a couple of sound thwacks from the leaves, “Ooh, that’s quite nice really!”
Soon Joe emerged with a smile of someone who knows he can now relax and enjoy other people’s pain. One by one each of us entered the room, lay down on the wooden slats in the blistering heat while Boris beat us with scented leaves. It was truly hot in there and even after a few minutes, we were ecstatic to be released so we could run outside and plunge ourselves into the ice cool plunge pool that Boris had added to his banya, diverting water from a nearby stream. For some reason, the Russians feel that going from boiling hot to freezing cold, and then downing a large glass of vodka, is good for you. I have no doubts that I now know the real reason why the male life expectancy in these parts is only in the early fifties!
I managed also to do some work in Kyrgyzstan and spent a period of time traveling around various sites there with a local guide called Alex. Accompanying me this time were a Scottish ecologist, called Ken, and a Welsh environmentalist called David, both of whom were familiar with Central Asia, but not Kyrgyzstan. At the end of our trip, after having been on the road for about seven or eight days without a shower, Alex invited us back to his home on the banks of Lake Issikul, for a home cooked meal and a banya. We jumped at the chance of getting clean, but were told again that only two of us could fit in at a single time. Ken and I who also happened to be the two slimmest, volunteered to go first. After single-handedly managing to break the water tap on Alex’s boiler, we fixed it secretly with a pair of rusty pliers we found outside in the changing area. Ken and I settled down for a wash and relax, and were able to almost feel the dirt and grime of having been on the road for so long, just evaporate. This was proving to be all that was good about private banyas and after a lengthy period of time, we both emerged refreshed and best of all clean.
As we passed David and Alex in the kitchen, while grabbing a couple of beers from the old soviet fridge to continue our relaxation in the garden, David, for whom this turned out to be his first ever banya, asked me in a hushed voice. “How long are we meant to stay in there for, Tim?” This is a difficult question to answer, because it depends on really how comfortable you feel in extreme heat. Personally, my time has ranged from anything from five minutes (which is quite pathetic!) to one hour (which still impresses me!). However, true devotees can stay for up to three hours slowly melting away in the boiler room, while drinking themselves senseless. I suggested to David that he try at least to last thirty minutes by constantly pouring cold water over his head, but otherwise to be lead by Alex. He took a large swig of my beer and wandered off into the steam room with a look of determination. About ten minutes later, David, red faced and sweating, but clutching on to an ice-cold bottle of beer, staggered into the garden to join us.
“Why so quick?” we asked.
“Well!” David responded. “I was sitting there quietly, frightened to move too much as it was a tight squeeze for both of us too wash at the same time. When Alex, stood up, said something in Russian and left the banya, closing me inside.”
On reflection it had been a bit unfair to leave David, a non-Russian speaker alone with Alex in a sauna. “So where did he go?” I inquired.
“I wasn’t sure what to do,” David continued. “So I decided that Alex had probably finished and was outside enjoying a beer with you guys. However, when I left I got changed and went out through the kitchen. He was there lying on his back still naked cooling off on the floor, while his wife carried on cooking around him. He seemed a bit upset that I was leaving early.” He paused. “I think he’s gone back in!”
“Did he say anything to you?” I asked curiously.
“Well he said something, but I don’t understand Russian now do I?” David then smiled broadly. “I even had to step over him to grab a beer from the fridge!”
Since I’ve left Central Asia, I haven’t once had a single banya to clean my skin of the cities pollution and quite frankly I miss the social camaraderie of the larger banyas and the character and intimacy of the smaller private ones. I suppose life to be a path where one learns many lessons along the way. My banya experiences taught me many things, namely that there is a right and a very wrong time to be naked in front of your hosts and also that drinking too much vodka whilst actually in a banya, may not actually be the smartest thing in the world to do. However, the Central Asians and the Russians certainly enjoy life to the full and nowhere does this manifest itself more, than in a banya.