Friday, June 24, 2005

Naked Hairy Russians

Somewhere between Moscow and Omsk

We are on the Trans-Siberian train, making our way east across Russia. Five of us are crammed into a space the size of a small, walk-in closet. Jason, Mike, Mama, Babushka, and Baby are ridin' the train to nowhere.

Moscow turned out to be better than the first day would indicate. The weather improved dramatically, and we weren't as far removed from the city center as it first seemed. But, we didn't have a lot of time in the Moskva. It turns out we had to catch the train a day earlier than planned, and we had a few chores to do. So, we ended up doing some touristy stuff, but I don't think we got a very good feel for the city. We walked around a bit, but we didn't really meet any locals, and we didn't do anything that was distinctly "Moscow".

Well, that's not true. The afternoon before our train left, we went to a russian bath house. A very unique experience.

Finding the place was a challenge in itself. We walked down to the older section of downtown Moscow, winding our way through slanted cobbled streets flanked by thin ten-story buildings. We eventually found our way to the back alley that was fronted by the bath house sign (Sandunovskaya Baths). The only thing we found there were well-dressed Russians in brand new BMWs, having a pow-wow with some local police, and slightly angry and exasperated employees in dirtied smocks trying to help the bumbling Americans find the entrance to the bathhouse.

We made it in, but took us some time to deal with the door lady. At this point, Mike has become very adept at communicating with Russian speakers through a mix of grade-school russian and pantomime. We climbed up the marbled steps, made it past the doorman, and entered luxury. The main room was like an old-style ritzy bar with huge leather sofa-seats and lacquered wooden booths. Except it wasn't a bar; it was a locker room.

Fat, hairy russian men wrapped only in towels (and sometimes nothing at all) sat in the sofas, and walked around carrying pints of beer and cups of tea. Plates of salted fish and soups spotted the room, and uniformed waiters loafed around, picking up trash and arguing with the customers.

Eventually, we got towels and sandals, ditched our clothes, and made it to the bathing portion of the house. There were four sections to the bathing room: the showers, the pool, the sauna, and the wooden casks. The showers had hot and cold water, and the pool was cool. The saunas were unbelievably hot. The bathhouse regulars would sit in the hottest upper portions of the sauna and beat each other with birch branches, gossiping about whatever. It was way too hot up there for me. I had to stay near the bottom of the sauna, next to the entrance, where there was some cool air cutting the blistering heat coming from the central oven and heating lamps. The wooden casks were filled with ice-cold water. The idea was to jump into the casks directly after coming from the sauna, and shock your body into relaxing. I tried it once, and it hurt.

The strangest thing was the experience of being surrounded by hairy, naked men. I would like to say that I was objective enough for it not to bother me, but it was disorienting at first. It's just not something that I'm used to, so I wasn't quite sure how to behave. But, it only took about five minutes before I tuned it out. It became part of the background noise of the baths.

Overall, it was a very relaxing experience. It ended up costing us about 1500 roubles ($50) combined, but it was worth it. The knots in our backs were gone, and we were cleaned and prepped for 2 days trapped on a cramped, stinky train.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I learned on the Simpsons that Russians just sound angry. They're not really angry.

Day two of the JavaOne. That Developing J2EE Apps class blew big chunks. The dude might be the biggest J2EE expert, but he really couldn't teach the stuff, especially to a n00b like me actually interested in learning it. So I just spent the time reading Wikipedia, IMming Nick about how much the class sucked, and wishing I could speak to the woman behind me.

Later I went to my friend's house (DAMN I want a house) and got my ass soundly handed to me in Texas Hold 'Em. I will never play poker again. I will have to contend myself with being a good swing dancer.

6/27/2005 5:38 PM gmt

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