Taking the Heat in a Russian Banya
Karen Ofsthus traveled with MIR from Moscow, Russia to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia via the Trans-Siberian Railway. After a fabulous welcome meal in Moscow, Karen visited a Russian public bath, or banya, before starting her railway adventure. Here’s her take on taking the heat, Russian-style.
The banya has a practical origin. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that baths entered Russian homes and even then, only the wealthiest had them. The masses went to the public banyas to bathe. While it’s evolved from a co-ed, utilitarian necessity to become more spa-like, it’s still very much a lynchpin of Russian culture. You’ve probably heard the stories: A sauna with deliriously high temps and “beatings” with birch branches?
True. All true.
The sauna itself, well, it was torturous. Thirteen steps lead to a 12 X 12 brick room with birch slat floors and benches. At stair number one it’s hot, but not terribly unbearable. At stair number 13, however, the temperature is a suffocating 11 degrees Celsius! Do the math (111 º F). These temps can kill you!
Stair number four was my kind of environment with a temp still compatible with human life. Only thrice did I venture to the top. The first time was out of sheer curiosity. I lasted 3 minutes. The third was to check the thermometer again, after Elza, the banya assistant, threw water on the furnace.
I’m not embarrassed to say I liked it. Every bit.
It was so hot I thought my head was going to pop like a melon in the sun when I turned over for the frontal beating, but rotisserie I did. Wow! On rubber legs, I barely made it down the stairs after the ordeal, but I was smiling like a Cheshire cat too!
I discovered that my tropical trip to the banya facilitated a good night’s rest, giving me tons of energy for the next morning’s activities.
If you’re inspired by Karen’s adventure, you can travel to Russia on MIR’s scheduled tours on one of these itinerary that feature a banya stop, or create your own custom, private journey with a MIR specialist:
Small Group Tours
- Siberian Winter Escapade
- Siberian Odyssey: Legends of Lake Baikal & Tuva
- Mongolia to Moscow: A Trans-Siberian Railway Adventure
Rail Journeys by Private Train
- Trans-Siberian Winter Wonder Land Route: Eastbound – Moscow to Vladivostok
- Trans-Siberian Winter Wonder Land Route: Westbound – Vladivostok to Moscow
Our itinerary, your dates on a classic independent journey.
(Photo credit: Vlad Kvashnin – bathers can recover and prepare for another round of steaming in this pleasant little room just outside a private Siberian banya)
PUBLISHED: January 2, 2015