Josh and I have never been ones to go all-out for birthday celebrations, and now that we have two kids to plan birthday parties for every year, we are even less inclined to anything. To top it off, the past five weeks have been so full of holidays that we've gotten a little fested-out. First came Josh's birthday on Feb. 4th, then Valentine's Day followed by Men's Day on the 23rd and my birthday on the actual 29th, and finally Women's Day on March 8.
However, we did celebrate our birthdays in a rather unusual way - by going to the banya. The banya is the Russian bathhouse, an experience no one should miss. We were lucky enough to have Russian and Kyrgyz friends introduce us to it the last time we were in Kyrgyzstan, and since we have returned, we have gone a few more times. A friend took Josh on his birthday, and two of my friends took me for mine.
People always ask us, "Do you have banyas in America?" and we respond: Not like this! I recall the Holiday Inn having a little steam room, in which four or five people sit around in their swimming suits for a bit before jumping back in the pool. The banya is something else entirely.
Men and women have their own separate sections, because in the banya everyone is completely naked. The entrance fee is fairly cheap, about $5, depending where you go. You pick up a big sheet and some flip-flops, undress and stash everything in a locker, wrap the sheet around yourself and head into inside to a large, humid washing room. Off goes the towel! You grab a washing basin, rinse it with bleach, and choose a spot for yourself at one of the low tables where you place your basin, shampoo, etc. You can stand beside your basin or sit on the table. Faucets are available for filling your basin with your desired temperature of water. Several showers are constantly running along the side wall. You are free to splash as much as you want and dump as much water on the floor as you want. There are drains everywhere.
Washing is a long, enjoyable process here. People can spend three or four hours in the banya. They scrub down every inch of skin. It's not uncommon to have a friend scrub your back for you. Once, a large Kyrgyz grandmother behind me asked me to scrub her back. To be honest, it was less of a request and more of an expected task, since I was young and she was old. After a bit of scrubbing, I crept away...
In between washing sessions, you enter the steam room - the best part. It's a fairly small room, but on busy days it can hold an amazing number of women at once, hip to hip. Women sit on the benches around the side, or if they want a cooler spot, on the stairs next to the exit. The air is incredibly hot and moist, so thick it feels like hot soup forcing its way down your throat into your lungs. Some people stay just a few minutes, others considerably longer. The smell is pleasant, like oak leaves. Those who like to increase the heat even more beat themselves with a oak-leaf bundle. Not me - I simply sit as still as I can.
After steaming, you go back out to scrub, shower, and leisurely wash your hair. You can return to the steam room as often as you like. Some zealous people jump into a cold swimming pool or a cold shower after steaming. The Russians are famed for plunging immediately into a snowbank or an icy lake!
The banya offers many other features as well, including massages, honey-oatmeal scrubs, a beauty salon, and a restaurant. Usually we go to the restaurant wrapped in our sheets for some sweet tea with lemon at some point during our time there.
You leave the banya feeling smooth, clean, and incredibly relaxed. The perfect follow-up is a bowl of hot, salty soup and a long nap. All in all, a pretty nice birthday.