For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like I need to be responsible. I’ve adopted the mentality of “just tell me when and where and I’ll be there.” I didn’t realize it would be so liberating. So when our friends proposed going to баня or banya (a Russian-style bath) to avoid the chaos of a presidential visit to the university, I didn’t object.
It was a bit disorienting to see military men and extra security all around campus as we made our way to our taxis early Wednesday morning. I hadn’t had any coffee yet, but the biting wind and icy snow were enough to bring me to my senses and remind me what it was all about. We remedied our lack of coffee and breakfast with a stop at a charming little café called Ministry of Coffee (or Министерство Кофе). I ordered what they described on the breakfast menu as “What Russians Find Filling” – a cheese and yellow pepper omelet, a crepe with smoked salmon and cream cheese rolled and topped with creamy caviar, and served with a side salad (fresh greens are a precious, or at least an expensive, resource in Astana).
Part of the package included a private shuttle to the baths, which were nearly 40 minutes outside of the city. The roads were quite bad with all the wind and snow and our driver was not always attentive, but we made it.
It’s always good to be reminded that appearances can be deceiving. We pulled into what looked like a shanty town – lots of tarps covering buildings and piles of things, old machinery and busses sitting around, etc. And the bath cabins. Oh my. I could identify at least three little log cabins, each with its own identifying logo on the top. I spotted one with the creepy clown face and thought, “Please, not that one,” – which of course was ours. Luckily upon entering, the cabin proved quite charming! There was a living room area with vinyl covered benches and a table for eating, another room in the entryway with a large wooden table and benches, a shower, and the sauna room itself. “But where is the bathroom?” we wondered. If you’ve never used an outdoor squatter toilet with a door that doesn’t completely close on a 20°F day, you should try it – surprisingly invigorating having icy winds blowing across your nether regions…
Anyway, there was at least a sauna to defrost and keep me warm. And warm it did! The wood-lined room with upper and lower benches centered around a wood burning stove (which also serves as a cooking stove we later realized as the scent of marinated chicken filled the sauna shortly after ordering an afternoon snack), which was fed from the outside (just like Roman bathhouses!). It was amazing how much steam and heat could erupt from the stones on top of the stove when water was added (during our last half hour of the day, my husband dumped the remaining bucket of water on these and steamed us all out of the room with the boiling heat!). The room was so hot I could not spend more than 10 minutes in there at a time without getting dizzy. For the next five hours, we alternated being in the sauna, sitting around, and going outside in our bathing suites. Surprisingly, despite the wind and the blowing snow, being outside didn’t feel cold, it felt refreshing! While I’ve always thought polar plunges were crazy, I could see possibly doing it next time – as long as I have a warm banya before and after!