Monday, July 07, 2008

My Own Private Banya

For anyone that doesn't know this about me, I am obsessed with saunas, hot springs, and pretty much anything having to do with heat that I can soak in. When Krish and I tried to experience a Russian banya three years ago, I had apparently dragged us into a men's only institution. All of the naked men had been shouting something, which I thought at first to be "follow our pointing fingers, which will take you to the women's only section." After an unsuccessful search of finding the women's section, it apparently meant something more like "get the f* out of here; exit through that door!"

This time I was determined. I scrolled through articles and reviews in the St. Petersburg times, and chose one of the "fancier" ones that, according to the article, allowed walk-ins. Finding the entrance to a restaurant in Russia is difficult enough -- I wasn't going to dare mess with trying to make a phone call. I slept in till about 0900, then gradually strolled through the island where our ship was docked towards the metro stop. The weather was so perfect I felt like I was walking through a Care Bears cartoon. The sky was clear, the sun bright, and the clouds hung like little puffy cotton balls. To celebrate the serenity, I stopped to get a coffee. Unlike the more common approach to customer service in Russia, which is basically -- there isn't any-- the waitress was quite friendly. I managed to order a coffee and what I thought was going to be a cheese croissant. I suppose in homage to the gray loaf of bread the russian bakery down the street sold me at home, whatever it was, involved stale bread and was filled with cheese so moldy that webs of fur hung from both ends when I opened it. Some people are into that sort of thing, I suppose, but I'm really not. I tried to eat a few bites, just so the nice waitress didn't think she did something wrong, but all was lost when the top of the sugar container came flying off when I tried to add some sugar to the dark brown sludge. She laughed. I laughed. Whatever.

I got off at the pushkinsaya exit, followed the directions right to the street where the "kazachy bani" was supposed to be. I saw a sign that looked like, maybe, it could say something close to it. And it had the numbers "24" which I thought probably meant 24 hours. I entered expecting to find some sort of reception desk but instead found a big, dingy, empty hall with dirty cement floors. I walked along it, taking notice of the offshoots -- a room with a non operational bar with some old beer taps, a room with an old pool table and a lot of mirrors, finally taking notice of an old, faded black and white photo on the wall of old naked men bathing. Ah-ha, I thought. It must be around here somewhere.

I finally approached an indoor guard tower; with it's bullet proof glass and solider carrying a large weapon, I would expect it to be more on the entrance to the gaza strip versus a day spa, but I figured I'd ask him anyhow. My hand gestures simulated bathing with soap, which I knew wasn't what you really do in banyas, but he finally got it. I wasn't going to pull out my little cheat sheet of russian words after the train station experience. "Three" he said. "Third floor?" I asked, pointing up. "Three" he kept saying repeatedly until he finally dragged me, albeit gently, to the base of some stairs that would've been the perfect location for a horror film back in the film school days.

I wasn't sure if he meant to climb three stories or to go to level 3 (ground level appeared to be 1 and not zero), but all of the doors looked the same anyhow -- closed and unmarked. I tried ringing the buzzer next to the door on what appeared to be "level 3." Nothing. Also no people running around in towels anywhere or any other potential patrons. I tried a door on the next level, which actually had a sign on it, and a man in slippers actually answered the door.

We had a five minute convo with a lot of gestures and broken english. I gathered this much -- there was a banya. He took me on a tour where I took note of the interior wallpaper, which was salmon with a gold pattern, and looked kinda like a whorehouse. It was dim, and although he wasn't smoking I had the sense that a lot of smoking had taken place. There was a large room with a fireplace and couches, then the banya, which had 4 shower stalls, a large step-up cold dunking tank which reminded me of a smaller doughboy pool, and the wooden steam room which was actually heated by a small furnace. I have no idea how or what our transaction was about, but I somehow ended up renting this entire place to myself for an hour, for around $45. I had come that far, so even if the banya didn't involve lots of naked russians beating each other with wet birch sticks, I was going to sweat even if it meant doing it in a complete stranger's house --- which brings me to my final point. I'm not sure if this was a personal banya or one that was supposed to involve the public. When I finished changing back into my clothes in my own personal fireplace room, I walked back out to pay him and found him eating lunch with a woman that looked to be his wife. At this point, I really didn't care. It was a done deal.

1 comment:

jpe said...

another interesting day on sas... i too love all things hot