How to go to a Russian banya

Stripped naked + stuck in a hot room + drowned in ice water + beat with leaves = a Russian banya.

Banyas are the Russian version of saunas, except they make you want to die while you’re in them. They’re real great when it’s all finished, though.

There are three general areas of the banya: the hot room, the cold room, and the hangout room.

In the hot room, the temperature rises above 150°F (70°C) and the humidity reaches 80% or higher, so you just sit and sweat and sweat and sweat. Because you’re sweating so much, you’re supposed wear nothing but a pair of slippers and a felt hat. The hat protects your head from getting too hot and the slippers prevent you from slipping because the floor and your feet are covered in water and sweat.

Sitting there, your heart starts beating hecka fast and you start breathing like you’re running a marathon.

As if that’s not bad enough, you’re also supposed to hit yourself (or have a friend hit you) with a bushel of birch leaves because #Russia.

But slow down there, Turbo! If you’re new to the banya world, don’t sit in the hot room longer than 10 minutes or you’ll pass out and wake up naked on the floor surrounded by Russians. This isn’t a Ke$ha music video, so pace yourself.

After the hot room, you’re supposed to drench your body in ice-cold water. According to Russian folk wisdom, anything involving ice water and buckets is healthy. The idea here is that the hot room opens up your pores and the cold water closes them, squeezing out any nastiness inside.

To cover yourself in ice water you can 1) jump into a pool of ice water (terrible), 2) lay in a tub of ice water (also terrible), or 3) dump ice water on your head (really terrible). If none of these options are available, just go outside and roll in the snow (which is terrible too).

After this hot/cold torture, you’ll go to the hangout room and relax. Take 15 minutes to recover, then go back in and do the hot/cold process all over again. Repeat four times or until you pass out (but remember that I don’t recommend that option).

Afterward, you’ll feel very refreshed. Your blood has circulated through your whole body, you’ve sweated a lot of junk from your system, and the combination of hot and cold leaves your skin with a nice crackly feeling.

But you’ll also be very very tired. You basically just ran a couple marathons and did five ice bucket challenges, so just go to the closest donut shop and chill for the rest of the day (there’s a Krispy Kreme right off of Red Square).

donuts

Pro tips:

-Banyas are supposed to be a social event, so bring a friend if you can. Otherwise you’ll just be that weird naked guy sitting in the corner alone (as opposed to that cool naked guy surrounded by his closest naked friends).

-In between hot/cold sessions, instead of going to the hangout room, if you can find a big tub of warm water to chill in, do it. I did and it was one of the most relaxing things of my life.

-The most authentic banyas are the ones at people’s summer homes. So if you want the real experience, just go into the middle of the countryside, find a stranger’s house, and crawl into their banya!

-If you don’t feel like playing Goldilocks with a stranger’s banya or are stuck in the city, I recommend Sanduny in Moscow. The prices there range from pretty cheap to pretty expensive. I did something in-between and it only cost me $40 (because the exchange rate was bomb). It would have been $10-$15 cheaper if I’d brought my own slippers, hat, and birch branch, though, so if you want to save money, buy those things before coming to the banya (you can find them at a grocery store).

Here’s a video I made right after I went in January!!!!!

Why it’s worth going to Russia.

Almost six years ago today, I got my mission call to serve in Russia. When I first realized I would be serving in Russia, I was like, “Crap. Russia.” I didn’t want to go to Russia. The language seemed super hard, the culture and history didn’t seem very interesting, the people never smiled, and I knew it would be a challenge living in a country that had no technology, not even have cars or indoor plumbing.

When I got there in November 2009, I started learning what Russia was actually like.

No technology
First, there ARE cars and indoor plumbing. Before I went to Russia, I thought horses were still the main mode of transportation (the only things I knew about Russia, I’d learned from Fiddler on the Roof and Anastasia, so can you blame me????), but after being in Russia for a day I quickly realized that cars, indoor plumbing, and even light bulbs are just as common in Russia as they are in America. In fact, the biggest cities and tallest buildings I’ve ever seen are in Russia, so it is definitely just as modern and developed as America.



Unfriendly people
Everyone in America told me that Russians never smiled and were a pretty tough people to befriend. HOWEVER, some of the FIRST THINGS I saw in Russia were couples walking outside holding hands and SMILING, friends walking around together and SMILING, and people just looking like normal people, not like the communist robots I’d heard about. I realized that most of the Americans who’d told me about Russia had never actually been there, so how would they know what Russians are actually like?

Climate
Russia is effing cold. I had heard the word “cold” before my mission, but never actually knew what it meant. I’d lived in California basically my whole life, so the coldest I’d ever felt was, like, 32°F. When I got to Russia, winter was just starting, so it was 32ish°, which I thought was the coldest it could ever be. I was so cold, I wore two scarves: one for my neck and the other for my face. People told me I looked like a Muslim woman.

They’d laugh and say, “You know it’s going to get colder, right?” and I’d laugh and say, “That’s not even possible, right?” But it did get colder. The coldest I ever felt was -40° (which is where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet), but that wasn’t typical. -5°F to -15°F was pretty normal. Cold, but livable.

I learned to enjoy the cold, so much so that when I went back to Russia after my mission, I made sure to go during the winter. To me, Russia isn’t Russia if your nose hairs don’t freeze.

Hard language
Yeah, Russian’s hard, at least for me, no getting around that. The alphabet only takes, like, two weeks to learn, but actually speaking the language sucks butt. However, I think being able to understand is much more important than being able to express yourself. Listening for the few words I understood and paying attention to context went a long way in helping me understand what people were saying to me. And, since I had a mission companion, I could rely on him to say what needed to be said.

So the language is daunting, but it isn’t everything.

Uninteresting history and culture
So Russians may not be the cold-hearted people that Americans make them out to be, but they certainly have a colorful history. They’ve existed as a people for nearly 1,000 years, so of course they’ve had some super interesting stuff happen. They were invaded by Huns, they drove the Huns out, they had fake tsars the people elected, they had real tsars the people killed, they had fake tsars they elected then decided to kill, they have beautiful literature and art, they had communism, they sent the first man into space, they had Stalin, they have Putin, and BORIS NEMTSOV WAS SHOT FIVE DAYS AGO OH MY GOSH WHERE IS THE TRUTH AT? So, interesting stuff.

Of course, I didn’t know a lot of this while I was actually living in Russia since I was busy doing the WORK OF THE LORD, but I learned it in college after and it explained a lot of what I’d seen on my mission. So definitely take a Russian history course if you get the chance, especially if you’ve been to Russia before and you’re wondering “What the eff???”

So I ended up having a blast in Russia. I finished my mission three and a half years ago, but I really wanted to go back, so that brings us to the next part of this story ….