I Visited a Russian Bathhouse.
For some time now, I’ve been talking about the idea of the banya experience with some native Russians I know. They always explained it to me as a relaxing, beautiful experience.
Basically, they talked it up real big. And I began buying into their talks, envisioning it as a bathhouse for badasses — the kind of place where you’d see Arnold Schwarzenegger rocking nothing but but a towel and beating up bad guys.
Plus, Andrew Zimmern dug his time there.
So, yeah, I was sold.
And, as I drove up to the Russian banya in Carrollton, I felt amply prepared. It helped that I brought along a Russian-speaking friend, a bottle of vodka and a six-hour swath of day with nothing to do.
But when I laid eyes on the strip mall that the banya is nuzzled into, pretty much every romantic notion in my head died away. Turns out the first-impression reality of the banya wasn’t quite as awesome as I expected it to be. For one thing, there was no Schwarzenegger. Beyond that, the exterior of the place, with its a yellow-beige facade, large windows, and faux-marble mosaic designs were a little drab.
The place just looked tacky. In turn, my knuckles tightened around my bottle of vodka as I strode in, hoping the inside was better than the out.
Thanks to my friends, I wasn’t walking in completely blind. I knew that a banya, in execution, is a pretty simple concept with only slight variances depending on geographical location. Inside, I knew I’d find what the layman might call a “sauna,” although the banya equivalent of it is much more extreme.
That might explain why, once inside, the owner of the banya — a guy named Tony — walked me through the procedures of the spot rather explicitly. It’s all about knowing your body and an exact order of events, he told me. Per his instructions, I began my adventure by taking a shower and rinsing all the oils and lotions from personal hygiene products off of my body. From there, it was a towel around the waist and straight into the banya.
Compared to the average American sauna, this room was motherfucking hot. Like, repent-for-your-sins, abandon-all-hope, you’re-going-to-regret-this hot. The hottest areas of a Russian banya are 240 degrees — steep stuff compared to the 180 degrees of a traditional sauna. And, yeah, the first minute in that sucker is 60 seconds of miserable adjustment. My pores refused to open, so I was left to sit in an obnoxiously hot room, not sweating at all.
Then, all of a sudden, sweat drips just started carving rivulets down my chest and arms. I touched my hair and found it searing. The extreme temperatures of the hot room was magical in a sense. The way it beat me down and drained all my energy just left me defenseless, forced to relax.
What was funny to watch was many other people who came in and simply weren’t prepared for the heat one bit. They spent the majority of their time in what I came to call the light-weight sauna, the sissies.
Me? I spent 20 minutes in that bitch before rushing out of the room and welcoming the relief of the cool air.
There, I found a dining area for those using the banya — a space comprised of plastic patio furniture, which was good, because I couldn’t begin to imagine the horrible stench a cushioned seat would hold after a couple dozen sweating elderly men sat in them. My friend and I took two more trips through the hot room and several shots of vodka before we eventually ordered food and tea from the kitchen up front. After another 20 or so minutes in the sauna, two hot bowls of borscht waited at our table.
The food was better than expected. The borscht was hearty and soothing, the vegetables and meat perfectly cooked. I asked Tony what meats he uses in the soup as he was walking by — a query to which he glibly responded, “If I tell you, I have to kill you.” A part of me believed him. Back to my borscht it was.
The next four hours were a flurry of sweat, vodka, tea and something called “herring under a fur coat.”
On the fourth or so trip to the hot room, my friend and I traded off hitting each other with a venik — dehydrated leaves soaked in hot water that are used to help the skin in some way that I don’t quite understand. Mostly, we just used it as an excuse to beat the shit out of each other with a bundle of branches. Clearly, the vodka had started to take over our adult judgment faculties.
As we entered the fifth hour, exhaustion finally set in. No amount of food or drink could overcome it. We relented and conceded. It was time to leave.
But not before indulging in arguably most important part of the banya experience — the cold plunge. In Russia, this plunge was usually a dive into some snow or ice-cold lake water. Here, they have a small pool filled with water hovering at 40 degrees.
On the 15-foot walk over to the pool from where I was dining, I slipped a few times — a combination of wet rubber and half a bottle of vodka, no doubt. The freezing dip shocked my sense back into place, though. It also closed my pores back up, ensuring a clean body until the next night out on the town.
My heart rate picked up a bit in that pool, too. After submerging myself in the crushingly cold water, I came up as a sharp yelp escaped my lips. I’ve jumped in pools in the dead of winter and I knew what to expect — but that didn’t make it easier.
In the end, though, it was worth the effort.
Listen: I know this all sounds pretty miserable. But it does not take an insane person to enjoy the Russian banya experience. It just takes about $100 in your pocket and a willingness to try some extreme stress relief, which isn’t the oxymoron you might initially believe it to be.
The whole experience kinda ruled, really.
Granted: The vodka helped.