I’m sure we’ve all been in a similar situation. You’re in the country of Belarus, hanging out with the daughter (you’ve never met) of a former girlfriend who lives in Dubai when you get invited by the daughter’s high school friend to visit his parents and try their Russian sauna. Sound familiar? Pretty normal stuff if you’re a globetrotter used to weird unpredictable experiences like I am.
Firstly, I should tell you something about Belarusians. They’re not big huggers or “Hey! How are you doing?” people. They’re reserved, somewhat serious at first, and hard to get to know, unless of course, you have the inside track and know them through someone they know. Then you won’t find a country of more hospitable friendly people. You just have to get past that wall.
Most homes in Minsk are apartments, not single family dwellings, but it turns out that my hosts had built their home (themselves) on the outskirts of town. They had built a greenhouse with tomatoes so juicy you could taste the sunshine in every bite. There were apple trees dotting their back yard with hundreds of small, crispy apples begging to be picked. Alena was an interior designer so their home was extremely interesting from wall textures to bathroom fixtures, but I’m rambling, getting away from the point of this story. This is about my Russian sauna experience, or what I consider to be the ultimate Belarusian “man cave,” the banya.
A “man cave” by definition is a sanctuary that usually makes wives, girlfriends or other women uncomfortable, celebrates the caveman in all of us and usually has some elements that no one really enjoys (i.e. eating a tequila worm or drinking Jaegermeister), but are necessary evils to retain our status as a card-holding alpha males regardless of your country of origin.
After small talk and chatting with the ladies, my host Sasha and I headed to the back yard to see the Russian sauna he had created with his bare hands (which really kicks up the man cave status). He and his father build the structure from local unpainted timber, sealed with moss between the cracks. The best way to describe the building is a cross between Abe Lincoln’s childhood home and Club Med, if such a thing is possible. The log cabin appeared to be a single room from outside, but once you entered, there were three rooms: a front room with a table and the furnace entrance to put the firewood, a small room with access to a water hose and wood, and then the main room — Dante’s Inferno — separated from the adjoining rooms by the DOORS OF HELL! There was a latch on the inside and outside. I remembered a James Bond movie where a villain tried to kill '007 in one of these by locking him in and roasting him to death. Comforting thoughts.
We started with brandy shots. There were no rounded crystal brandy glasses where one swirls the golden elixir around in the palm of their hand and savors the taste of aged fermented grapes. Nope. Suck it down and try not to vomit. That’s the Russian code. We drank our shots using the shampoo method. Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat. This was good brandy from a faraway country that neither of us could remember. But remembering really wasn’t the point, was it? It was really just alcoholic foreplay before entering the portal of pain.
When my host released the lock and walked into “the room,” I was reminded of Death Valley or Dubai in July. It was hotter than hot. Florida on steroids, but I could deal with it. I am from Texas after all, and I’ve endured some of the hottest and most humid days known to man. Bring it!
So, it was hot, but it was a “dry heat” until my host poured a little water from a hidden spigot into a cup and doused the hot rocks. If you’ve ever seen Indiana Jones where the Nazi’s face gets melted off then you’ll understand what I mean. It was searing lava-hot. I breathed in igneous vapors that scorched my lungs. I had always believed that saunas were designed to make you feel good. That’s what the massage places would have you believe. This was “poker-in-your-eye” hot and I knew I couldn’t last long. But wait, I left out an important detail.
We weren’t just wearing towels and trunks. Nope. There are rituals to make the experience complete, and one of those involved wearing Russian sauna hats. Whether they were made of extinct sheep or some Scandinavian flannel, I can’t tell you. They looked like a cross between the Pope’s hat and the hats worn by the seven dwarves. Why did we have to wear them? The reasoning was based on Russian traditions I couldn’t hope to understand, but I knew they made my head even hotter, and the sweat dripped out of me like a sieve.
So there we were, sitting on the wooden slats, sweat flowing freely from every pore, gasping the scorching air, heads adorned with goofy Russian hats. I was counting the moments and after sweating about five pounds of water out of my face, I insisted we take a break. Outdoors felt like heaven. I could breathe again. A couple more shots of brandy were passed my way along with chunks of cheese and sausage. We unceremoniously downed the brandy and in a moment, I was told that we were going back in. "What?!" I thought it was over! "No," my host explained in a combination of Russian and sign language. You don’t just go in once. I was to discover that this is one of those things that people in Siberia do to fill the long hours of Russian winter when there’s no Netflix or Game of Thrones to watch—the spa version of Russian roulette. You keep playing until someone dies. We went back in. At least I could take comfort in the fact that the last of the brandy had been drunk, so this was probably the last time we would visit the seventh level of hell.
This time I noticed that the water came from a little reservoir with two-foot lengths of tree branches soaking in it like flowers that had been put in a vase upside down. Sasha grabbed the bundle of branches and shook them in the water before he filled another glass to throw on the coals. He explained that customs dictated that the saunas use fresh birch branches. Jokingly I shouted, "Son of a BIRCH!" No one laughed. My American humor didn’t translate. When he poured the water on the coals again, I took a deep breath and tried to savor the delicate aroma of the birch infusion. I smelled nothing but hot steam scorching my lungs. It was even worse the second time. I never felt anything so hot. How could this possibly be enjoyable? I made it about seven minutes before I wussed out and headed for the exit. Was it over? No. There sat a brand new unopened bottle of brandy and more food. This was a buffet from Hades.
My hosts were laughing and no doubt amused by my lack of Russian manliness. It was clear that Alena and the kids had done this before and had no interest in ever doing it again. They seemed to enjoy watching the newbie being tortured, though. As we downed our umpteenth shot of brandy, I told my host that three sauna visits was my limit. I assured him that I would die if I continued this all evening, but I would compromise and do one more short session. Were the brandy shots getting stronger? The glasses definitely seemed bigger. No one else was going in except for my host, Sasha, and his young son who loved shooting us repeatedly with his toy cowboy cap pistol. As Sasha poured another steaming cup of hot water magma on the coals, he told me to lie on the slats facing downward. Was I getting a massage? This was some new development that seemed even more uncomfortable than the last.
He pulled the branches out of the water reservoir, shook the excess water off of them and started beating me with them. Yes. I’m serious. Apparently, Russians love misery, and when being terribly hot and drinking straight brandy isn’t miserable enough, a good beating is in order. Like an executioner whipping a prisoner, I got hit with a bunch of birch branches —hot, wet birch branches—as he slapped my back with what I could only imagine was perceived to improve circulation, possibly an old gulag tradition passed down through generations. I thought we’d stop after four or five times, but after a dozen or so beatings, I called “parlez." I was, after all, a wimpy American who hadn’t been beaten since the last time my mom took a switch to me in my youth. I got up, thinking it was over, but I had been a terrible guest. I’d been the beatee, but not taken my turn as the beater. My host stretched out on the slats and handed me the bouquet of tree branches. It’s weird hitting a half-naked man you just met, with his son shooting his cap gun at you the whole time, but there is something liberating about it too, I guess. I’m sure I had a few welts from his delivery, so I went with it, doing what any red-blooded American would do, and slapped his back a little harder than necessary. I didn’t do it for me. I did it for my country. Maybe the Cold War was over, but the “hot war” was just beginning. Take that Putin! He winced, but took it better than I did. After about 10 lashes, I was done. I needed the brandy now. I went outside to breathe the fresh air and realized how nice it felt to not be in the sauna.
And that was that. I was full of brandy and the endless plates of appetizers that had been placed in front of me, but dinner was waiting inside. We got dressed and then I realized I felt really really good. Maybe there was something to this insane heat and tree branch beatings… okay, maybe not the beatings. I felt relaxed, purged of toxins and thanked my hosts again as I took my Uber back to my hotel. I’m pretty sure that’s the best night of sleep I’ve had in a while.