Chapter 12: "It's getting a bit warm in here!"
I had heard of this Russian tradition...a small group of men, relaxing and experiencing camaraderie in the warmth and comfort of a sauna or steam room. Well, during this trip, I found myself in exactly that situation…a visit to a true Russian баня ("bon-ya")!
Image at right: Astronaut Clayton Anderson is pictured in Russia outside in the snow. Credit: NASA
Our crew arrived in mid-afternoon, greeted by our host Igor (Chief Editor of a popular Russian technical journal), complete with his digital camera and friend Коле ("Coal-ya"), or "Tom" as he was affectionately referred to (apparently his last name or "fa-mil-ee-ya" was Tomarov…hence "Tom"). We quickly changed into our swimsuits and following a brief orientation, were directed to the entrance of the сауна ("saw-oo-na") or sauna.
Now, I have been in a sauna before, but not like this one. First we donned hats reminiscent of an old Robin Hood movie (to protect balding heads from the searing heat reflected from the ceiling). Second, we put on our slippers and grabbed a seating mat. Upon entry into the steam room we were handed a brush and instructed to rub it on our skin everywhere we could reach. As we sat there rubbing and soaking in the heat, Igor began to pour small ladles of water onto the already scorching rocks that were our heat source. The thermometer on the back wall had been reading near 90 degrees (Celsius). As he poured the water, the temperature soared upwards to over 100 degrees!
Image at left: Astronaut Clayton Anderson is pictured in Russia outside in the snow. Credit: NASA
What happened next was beyond compare. The heat was overwhelming, giving me the urge to throw open the door and run outside. But that wasn't allowed…yet! Igor grabbed a pre-wrapped bundle of tree branches with leaves that he had soaked in water. He instructed us to stand up and pull our hats down over our faces. He then proceeded to whack our chest and back while pausing only to use the branches to fan the heat emanating from the scalding stones. At that point, the heat was almost unbearable and I was seriously considering a call to the nearest fire department! But Igor yelled "три минуты" ("tree min-oo-tee")...three minutes, and I gritted my teeth in hopes of surviving that long. As the door was finally flung open at the end of our "flogging period," we were led down a path through a snow bank to a small 3-foot by 4-foot hole in the ice (yes…that's right, a hole in the ice!) filled with near freezing water. Igor, ready with his camera and standing there in his bathing suit, waited for us to build up enough courage to jump into the "pond." Well, jump I did! It was freezing! I couldn't remember ever being so cold. My heart rate shot clear through my head and I quickly scrambled to get myself out of there, only to find myself standing out in the snow with the temperature hovering near -8 degrees C! But then, miraculously, I realized that I felt pretty good. I felt cold, but invigorated.
Throughout the remainder of the afternoon and early evening, we alternated periods of sharing conversation over food and beverages, floggings in the sauna and trips to the "water hole." The only variation that remained was the obligatory "jump and roll" in a snow bank, performed in lieu of the "pond" swimming. I am still not sure which one I preferred…maybe neither (at least the snow bank was closer to the banya)!
We departed from there at dark under a peaceful light snowfall. I was feeling comfortable and rejuvenated; ready to head back to Star City and as Igor put it, to "…sleep like a baby."
Спокойной ночи ("Spa-koi-noi Noch-ee")…Peaceful night!