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Banya – A Sauna Experience You Won’t Want to Miss

By Tatiana Kuzmina and David Witherspoon

Banyacommon sight in Kazakhstan is of grannies sitting on stools on the street selling vegetables and flowers to passersby. Along Kunayev Street on the edge of Almaty’s Panfilov Park the babushkas sell something different. At first glance it looks like Christmas wreaths. But they are actually birch branches with the dried leaves still intact. What are they for? To give you a good swatting when you’re in a Russian sauna, or banya.

Kazakhs, who love banya as much as the Russians who introduced the pleasure to them, say the swatting improves circulation and opens your pores, helping you to sweat toxins away. Swatting also relaxes you, like a massage. No trip to Kazakhstan is complete without going to a banya, and one of the best is the palatial Arasan Banya near the corner of Kunayev and Ayteke Bi in Almaty.

Dinmukhamed Kunayev built the Arasan with public funds during the 1970s, when he headed the Kazakh Socialist Republic. The Soviet brass in Moscow was furious about the extravagance, which included a dozen saunas, a big swimming pool and a changing room with chandeliers and a bar. In fact, they fined him for his transgression. Although he may have gone overboard on the Arasan, many Kazakhs would argue that banya are a necessity rather than a luxury. That’s especially true in villages that lack running water.

Patrons derive the most benefit from a banya when naked, afficionados say, so a city banya usually has separate saunas for men and women. Some allow both sexes in the same sauna but require bathing suits. If you go to a village banya, be prepared for the shock of naked men, women and children in the same sauna, however.

Bathing facilities in a city banya usually consist of showers, saunas and coldwater rinsing pools.

Some customers shower before entering a sauna, others don’t.

The sauna is a simple affair: benches to sit on, a tap and a coal- or electric-fired oven. Atop the stove are hot rocks. The room is hot but dry when you enter. After a few minutes, a bather will fill a bucket with tap water, then pour it on the rocks. The result is instantaneous steam. The next part of the adventure is seeing how long you can bear the steam.

While you’re gritting your teeth, the sweat is pouring off you and you feel as if you’re inhaling super-heated air. Then one of your buddies adds to the sensory overload by swatting you with the birch leaves. Depending on the swatter’s inclination, the first swishes may be on your chest and arms, then on your front legs. After that your pal may ask you to lie on your stomach so you can be swatted on your back, tush and the backs of your legs.

After you swat your buddy back, you’ll be hot enough to melt onto the tile floor. That’s when you open the door and plunge into the adjoining pool. The shock of the cold water is momentary. Your main sensation is relief from the steam. After you’ve cooled down, you re-enter the sauna to repeat the routine.

Between the five or six repetitions that are enough for most people, you swap stories with your sauna mates, talk about sports, fashion or other topics, and gossip. Sometimes people play cards in a sauna.

You wrap up your banya experience by showering and perhaps downing a cold beer.

When you leave, you’re as relaxed as if Boris the power-lifter has just given you an hour-long massage. And your skin feels as soft as a baby’s.

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