Taking the Heat in a Russian Banya

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.

Helen Ofsthus on the Trans-Siberian<br>Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Karen Ofsthus on the Trans-Siberian
Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Banyas: Soaking It UpGorgeously designed, Moscow’s Sanduny Bath House sports pink Italian marble, long leather lounges, and a massive “wet” room, replete with showers, a wooden dunking tub and solid marble tub. It also has a wooden bucket filled with cold water, suspended from the ceiling. A little pull on the chain and wooosh! Female battle cry for sure!

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 60 degrees Celsius! Do the math (140 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.

Russian <i>Banya</i><br>Photo credit: Katya Boyarska

Basking in the heat of a Russian banya
Photo credit: Katya Boyarska

Wrapped Up, at 154 DegreesI couldn’t believe my eyes as the temp climbed to 68 degrees Celsius (154°F) while hardy Elza lay on the floor under a wool blanket, sweating it out! Read that again slowly… “under a wool blanket!” She came out from under that blanket 15 minutes later, smiling like a Cheshire cat and still alive! I was honestly flabbergasted. I gave her a high-five and showered her with a congratulatory bucket of ice-cold water. She screeched, but continued to smile like a Cheshire cat. Russians are a tough lot, I’ll tell you that!

Banyas and Birch BranchesThe second time I ventured to the top of the stairs I had flat-out consented to a birch branch beating. Yep. I paid money and allowed the banya attendant to whack my naked, sweaty body with a double fistful of birch branch and leaves, soaked and softened in water.

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.


Russian <i>Banya</i><br>Photo credit: VladImir Kvashnin

Private Siberian banya
Photo credit: VladImir Kvashnin

Travel to Russia with MIRIf you want to read more about Karen’s trip, read her stories from the Trans-Siberian Railway journey from Moscow, Russia to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia which culminated at the Naadam Festival.

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


Rail Journeys by Private Train


Private Trip

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

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