The Lonely Planet Moscow guide starts with a “Top Five” list that rates a visit to the Sanduny Baths as Number One. I didn’t think a visit to a Russian banya sounded very appealing (the descriptions I’d read made it sound more fun if you’re a man), but Jon went and loved it. So here’s his guest post on the experience:
Wow. My first guest post.
A few things to know before we start: the banya is a Russian bathhouse. Since childhood, I’ve always enjoyed being in water. I was (and sometimes continue to consider myself) a competitive swimmer. I’m also known to compete in the “executive triathalon” (i.e., sauna, hot tub, and steam room) without even exercising first. So while I’m not an expert, I’ve enjoyed my share of water- and bath-related activities.
My friend Nick, also an American, agreed to join me for our trip to a banya in . We chose to visit Sanduny Baths, because of how the Lonely Planet Moscow guide talked it up.
The Sanduny Baths have separate facilities for men and women, and for the men, there are three classes of baths: “First Class Man,” “Higher Class Man,” and “Highest Class Man.” Nick and I decided we’re clearly of the highest class and willing to spend 500 rubles (~$20), so off we went to be Highest Class Men.
After we paid up, the cashier directed us upstairs with some pointing and gesturing. The Sanduny Baths entrance is beautiful, and the clubby experience is enhanced by the oligarch bodyguards sitting just outside the entrance. It might be my imagination, but the two bodyguard-looking men were both six feet tall and built like linebackers, with short cropped hair and big bulges inside their chest pockets. Maybe they weren’t carrying guns, but from one look, I knew they were no jokers.
When we entered the locker room, with its contrast of sumptuous leather benches and lots of naked men drinking beer, the first thing Nick and I noticed was that there was no place to lock our stuff. So after taking off our clothes and putting on what appeared to be white bedsheets, we put our wallets and camera into a Ziploc bag I happened to bring (thanks to my very forward-thinking wife), and I decided to carry it around with me in the baths. No doubt Nick and I were the poorest guys in the Highest Class Men’s area, but I just can’t leave my wallet and camera sitting out in the open, unattended. I don’t care what “class” of man or bodyguards are around.
One of the great things about traveling to foreign countries is the chance to observe people, learn what they do, and gradually adjust your own habits and mindset to fit in. So we found a pair of 60-year-old guys to follow because they looked like regulars. First, they showered. Then they entered the steam room for five minutes to sit naked. And then went for a dip in the greco-roman “cold” pool. Then they cycled through again, starting at the steam room. So we did the same.
Being prudish Americans, at first we didn’t sit naked in the steam room. But after sweating to death with our sheets on, we realized it was time to do as the locals do and drop the sheets.
After cooling down with a dip into cold water, we started the cycle again with the steam room. But this time, our unsuspecting guides started to hit themselves with what looked like a bunch of leaves (venik). Not to be left behind, I left the steam room to get my own so I could copy them.
Let me tell you two things about this experience with the leaves:
First, it’s not much fun. It feels like hitting yourself with damp leaves. Not bad, but not good.
Second, you should ask for leaves rather than take them when you see them around, unattended (which is what I did).
After taking the leaves, I ended up in a bit of a conflict with a bathhouse attendant. Of course, I didn’t understand exactly what he was saying (in Russian), but I’m pretty sure I was accused of stealing someone’s leaves. I had to pay up 140 rubles for the leaves I stole.
Anyway, now that we’d gotten the hang of the bathhouse, we got tired of watching two fat 60-year-old men hit themselves with leaves, and we continued to alternate between the steam room and the cold baths.
Two hours later, we emerged from the Sanduny Baths incredibly relaxed. And I felt like we’d learned something about Russian bathhouse culture. I’m not sure it would be as fun or memorable for women at the Sanduny Baths (they don’t seem to have all those classes of facilities for the women), but I’d definitely make a trip to a banya if you’re in .