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Get Steamed: Banya Basics
The banya, or bathhouse, is a cultural tradition that became popular in the 17th century, when attending a communal bath was the only way for many Russians to stay clean. Today, it is still believed to have therapeutic benefits and is also valued as a place to relax, socialize, and even do business.
Though visiting a banya can be one of the highlights of a trip to Moscow, it can also be a confusing experience and there are a few ground rules you should know, like men and women are separated in general sections, although families and couples can hire a private bath for use together, and soap is strictly forbidden (the steam is supposed to clean you).
Here are a few easy steps that will help you get the best steam possible:
1. Check Yourself: If you have low or high blood pressure, a heart ailment, or some other health issue, you may want to stay away. Pregnant women and asthma sufferers are advised to do the same.
2. Check In: After paying the entrance fee, your valuables are handed to a special attendant who puts them in a locker and watches over them. Theft is rare, but you may be better off leaving valuables in a hotel safe. Tipping is customary, generally 50R-150R for the attendant, 300R-500R for a good masseur. You will then be given a towel and assigned a locker for your clothes. Bring a pair of flip-flops to walk around in.
3. Sweat It Out: Champions of the Russian banya believe that steaming helps combat respiratory problems, aids in circulation, and opens the pores to help rid you of all the nasty toxins in your body—that's why the steam room is kept hotter than the fires of hell—a toasty 90°C (194°F) to be exact. Have a seat on one of the benches lining the walls (the higher up you sit, the hotter you'll be). You can wrap yourself in a towel but most bathers in gender-segregated rooms go nude. Towels are, however, very useful for sitting on. Are the tips of your ears burning? That means it's working. Don't overdo it: 10-15 minutes is more than enough for your first time.
4. Cool Down: Once you feel sufficiently steamed, dunk yourself in the pool, barrel, or bucket of icy water provided. This is an essential part of the process—if you don't get your body temperature down, your next trip to the steam room won't be much fun.
5. Relax: The banya will probably have a relaxation zone that provides everything from couches and cold drinks to meals. While the ultra-Russian ambience might seem ideal for doing a shot or two of vodka, keep in mind that you will be dehydrated. Stick to beer, juice, or best of all, water.
6. Repeat Steps 3-5: Once you're rested, reenter the steam room. You'll likely sweat more profusely this go round. This is an ideal time to engage in some self-flagellation with a bunch of soaked veniki, or birch twigs. Repeat the process as many times as you see fit, and when you're done, give your neighbors the traditional post-banya salutation:s lyokhim parom —may your steam be light!
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