Naked in a Moscow bathhouse: A Singaporean lives to tell
One man’s tale of being whipped by foliage in full view of Russian strangers – while wearing nothing but a funny hat.
I have always had mixed feelings about spending time in saunas or steam rooms. While I appreciate the supposed benefits of purging out toxins through an intense dehydration process, I do feel like I already perspire plenty in the heat and humidity of home sweet sweaty home, Singapore.
Also, "damp" really isn’t a good look on anyone.
Which explains my apprehension about visiting a Russian public bathhouse, or banya, during a recent trip to Moscow in March. Also, I had recently watched Eastern Promises again and doubted my ability to make it out of an unplanned naked knife fight like Viggo Mortensen did.
But after enduring several days of Russian spring temperatures at a toasty high of -7 degrees Celsius without proper cold-weather wear (it’s supposed to be spring!), I found myself in serious need to regain some sensation in my fingers and toes and other assorted bits.
So my travel companion and I found ourselves at Sanduny Bath House, touted as the oldest banya in Russia, being founded in 1808, and highly recommended by a number of Muscovites.
THE RUSSIAN BARE
Past the understated entrance (think ground-floor, corner shophouse unit in a less busy side of Bukit Pasoh), we deposited our outerwear at the cloakroom and, after some vigorous sign language on our part, eventually found the main changing area.
Instead of minimalist wooden benches positioned between rows of lockers like many changing rooms in Singapore, this was more of an open recreational space with rows of large straight-back leather chairs. Very much like an old-school whisky lounge, if all the patrons were Russian men of varying vintages lounging around with a vodka or beer in hand… sans clothing.
Several private rooms are available for those who prefer some privacy and those who have not yet enjoyed a few vodkas.
An attendant very quickly noticed that we were very, very new to this scene, and warmly ushered us to one of the large seats. While your clothes are left draped over the back of the backrest of a chairs, this Singaporean is happy to report that valuables like wallets, mobile phones and passports are safely stowed away in plastic bags sealed with zip-ties at the main reception. Yes, just like it is at Mustafa Centre.
A few moments later, we were naked, towels in hand, slippers on our feet, and bell-shaped, off-white felt hats on our heads.
Let me spend a few moments explaining the hats.
This was not a misguided fashion choice. Apparently, the human scalp heats up quicker than rest of the body, so the insulation from said felt hat – mandatory and sold at the banya – keeps one’s head relatively cooler in order to allow the rest of the body to catch up and reach optimum perspiration temperature while in the steam room, or parilka.
Yes, the hat prevents you from passing out in a sweaty mess, but it certainly does not prevent you from looking ridiculous. We saw a variety of ways guests folded and bent their hats to make them look somewhat presentable. None worked.
Felt hats propped askew, jauntily, on our heads, we took a deep breath and made our way to the cold pool and steam room area. Perhaps the act of taking it all off and putting on a funny hat evoked a sense of reckless abandonment, because even with all my manliness just waving around out in the open, I was honestly in a great mood.
That was before I thought I was going to die.
I realised very quickly that because lenses love condensation, it wasn’t possible for me to wear my spectacles in the heated steam room. So with myopia and astigmatism in full effect, I cautiously navigated my way to find a spot to settle down, studiously avoiding any unfortunate belly-to-belly altercations or sword-crossing possibilities.
Surprisingly, the first sensation of bare-butt-against-wooden-bench wasn’t as sharply uncomfortable as I expected. But perhaps this was because the almost 100-degree-Celsius steam had already killed my nerve endings. Or because I was doing my best not to think about how I might have sat in a spot that some other naked person had just vacated. Couldn’t be sure. Some things you just don’t want to know.
We were informed keep each session in the steam room to no longer than 10 minutes. By the 327th second (yes, I was counting), neither I nor my travel companion was able to maintain any form of coherent conversation. It started to feel like boiling water was being forced through my nose and mouth with each laboured breath. But because there were no other witnesses to say otherwise, let’s just say that it was a piece of cake and we strode casually out of the room 10 minutes later like manly men do.
The sensible part of my brain was screaming to just get changed and leave. Unfortunately, we had already booked a banny venik treatment, which involved getting our naked bodies flogged by “brooms” made of oak and birch branches. And that was the Singaporean part of my brain talking: We were kiasu enough to make a booking before doing any proper research. Hooray, efficiency.
To be fair, the treatment is supposed to help to improve blood circulation, rejuvenate the body and even improve skin tone. And, hey, everybody else was doing it so why couldn’t we?
The entire banny venik treatment takes only 15 minutes. In the first half, you lie face down on a table in the middle of the steam room as a burly member of the staff branch-slaps your back in ascending levels of strength and finesse. You then exit the heat to take a dip in the cold pool before heading back into the steam room. This time, lying on your back as you get your front torso and arms a little branch-lovin’, before ending the session with a final cold-pool dip.
Now, there are two aspects of this process worth noting. First, dipping your parboiled skin, now lightly seasoned with natural oak and birch dustings, into chilly zero-degrees-Celsius water is a life-changing experience. As in you actually feel like you’re going to die. Then you quickly surface, awakened, refreshed and totally recharged with heightened senses.
Pretty much like Hugh Jackman in that Adamantium scene in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. At least, that’s what I like to believe I looked like.
Second, and this is the point that many reviews leave out, while you’re lying on a table in the middle of the steam room, butt-naked with a funny hat on, know that there will be other hat-wearing naked guests also sitting around the room, in various extents of crotch display, having a casual conversation with their naked friends.
I’m sure that no one was analysing my goods, but it can feel like you’re a new pledge in an initiation ceremony of the Russian chapter of a funny felt hat fraternity.
Still alive, we returned to the first recreational area to find our clothes and leave. Which is when another of Sanduny’s burly staff members (“burly” is probably in the job description) rang a bell and announced something in Russian. Which is when everyone in the room got up and got out.
“Oh dear”, I thought. These responsible Russians took absolutely nothing with them as they evacuated. “It’s a fire drill.”
THIS IS THE END
“No, everyone go to steam,” someone burly said to us. “Now.” He was very convincing.
We were ushered back into the steam room, again, this time filled with about a dozen or so already-profusely sweating Russians sitting almost shoulder to shoulder. We heard the heavy metal door of the room clonk shut behind us. I cursed myself for not learning how to say “take my friend instead” in Russian.
One of the Burlies then began throwing more water than I felt was humanly necessary into the furnace to raise the temperature in the room real quick. Everyone grimaced from the heat. Then the steam-happy Burly took a spot in the middle of the room, armed with what looked like a long-handled pizza peel, and began waving it around to circulate the hot air, occasionally fanning it in the direction of guests around him.
It was… invigorating. When a gust of hot air hit me, it felt like beads of sweat on my cheeks and shoulders were swept away. It felt that I actually might have turned the corner and found banya nirvana. It is also possible the heat had finally caused irreversible brain damage.
After several minutes and another announcement in Russian, the door was flung open. Guests gave a quick round of applause and filed out of the room. Some high-fiving each other; most smiling and laughing.
Till this day, I do not know what the flog happened. Even after numerous Google searches. My guess is the group session was meant to truly create a bond between people through the act of overcoming adversity together. Or it could just be they were laughing because a bunch of naked sweaty men man-spreading together in felt hats is a pretty comical scene.
But by the time I had showered and was reunited with pants, I felt like a totally different person. Yes, my body was still trying to make sense of the ordeal it had been subjected to. Yes, it felt slightly violated after two hours of extreme physical and psychological challenges. But I also felt recharged and revitalised.
There was a tingle in my skin, more pep in my step, and I was ready to take on the frigid days and nights of a Russian spring.
Parting words: If you’re planning a visit to Sanduny, do not go all by your lonesome. It’s not that my travel companion and I felt unsafe at any point during our time there. It’s just that the entire experience is a very social one.
From the two-seater leather chairs in the recreational area to the unforgettable birch-slap – it’s simply an experience that requires company and the occasional assurance that you will, indeed, live to see your mobile phone again.
Plus, have you seen Eastern Promises?
More information on Sanduny Bath House here.