West to East Micronesia China Mongolia Russia Baltic Region Visegrad Region Balkan Penninsula East to West Ancient Civilizations Straddling the Straight Southern Africa Eastern Africa Ethiopia United Arab Emirates South Asia Crossing Photo Album Trip Logistics Itinerary Transport Logs Route Maps About Us
Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

Russian Flag MOSCOW


August 22. Moscow "The Russian Banya Experience" After nearly three weeks in Russia I was beginning to feel haggard.  The frequent night trains and regular hassles were taking their toll and I could feel my neck tightening more by the day.  Rob wanted to visit the Armory, Russia's extravagant collection of royal nick knacks, including some Faberge eggs, elaborate costumes, and grand chariots.  He also needed to search out a proof set from the Russian Mint.  That meant that it was  good day for me to do very little.  I'd seen the Amory on my previous visit to Moscow and the memory of it was still too fresh for me to feel like spending a small fortune to see it again.  A day of rest and relaxation couldn't have been more well timed!

About a half hour after Rob left I made my way leisurely to the old Arbat street for a cup of coffee.  From there I passed one of Stalin's monstrous wedding cakes to cross the Moscow River.  I wanted to take some photos of the towering gothic skyscraper but found myself nervous around the lingering militia.  We had seen them hassle tourists, mostly the non-white looking ones, in the subway several times and I wasn't keen to have them sort through my paperwork because they had nothing better to do.  I kept my camera well hidden while I snuck a few shots and headed on towards the river.  The weather was pretty clear and the view from the Borodinsky Bridge as I crossed the river was beautiful.  To the south I could see another massive gothic skyscraper off in the distance.  

Just down stream from the bridge I caught a ferry and cruised along the Moscow River, enjoying the sun.  It stopped every so often but never got very full.  I had some nice views of the domes of Novodevichy Convent as we rounded the southern bend and of the enormous Cathedral of Christ the Savior as we approached Bol Kamenny Bridge, near our apartment.  The apartment actually stood on a large island in the middle of Moscow River and off of the west end of the island a towering statue of Peter the Great had been erected right in the river with a fountain pouring over from the bottom.  It was a bizarre structure that looked like a huge ship mast with Peter standing in front.  The skyline in Moscow wasn't so tall that you could see it from quite some distance.  It was a rather recent addition commissioned by the mayor of Moscow.  Aside from the statue itself being in poor taste it also seemed odd to have such a conspicuous statues of Peter the Great in the city he spurned when he moved the capital to St. Petersberg.  As the boat passed under Bol Kamenny Bridge the highlight of my ferry ride was the stunning views of the Kremlin.  The view from the bridge above had been good but passing along side the Kremlin in a boat was even better.  After we passed under the  Moskvoretsky bridge just beyond the Kremlin I disembarked.  The clouds that had formed during my hour and a half cruise had finally given way to rain so I headed for cover in the Gostiny Dvor department store up the hill but found militia guarding the entrances with metal detectors.  I did venture into the Armory store that was accessible from the outside street but what I thought might have items related to the national armory was actually just a gun and knife store - a very well stocked one with plenty of customers.  The rain was getting worse so after failing to find an easier way to get into the department store I finally just caught the bus back to our apartment.  

It was still early in the afternoon so I decided to go take a Russian banya, traditional sauna.  Being a person who likes a good bathing ritual I had read a bit about it and thought it would be good for my ailing neck.  I left all of my valuables behind and caught the bus up towards Kuznetsky Most.  A couple of blocks from the street I spotted some wet haired women coming out of the alley and turned to find two doors, one for men and one for women, leading into Moscow's most well known banya,  Sandunovskiye.  There was no English spoken but I managed to buy a ticket and get directed up the nearby stairwell to a large dressing room.  There I paid extra to get a large sheet, a towel and some rubber slippers.  One of the attendants directed me to my spot in the dressing area where I neatly disrobed, hung my clothes in the provided hangers behind my bench and tucked my shoes underneath.  A gestured for the woman at the front desk to look after the few valuables (just some rubles actually) and she indicated that she would for a fee of 23R but then just tossed my bag into one of the back lockers without locking it.  

Flapping along in my over-sized slippers with my sheet wrapped around me I was led into the shower room adjacent to the sauna.  A little round woman with short blond hair was bustling around naked and the attendant who had escorted me made a few gestures that apparently meant that I was being passed off to the little blonde haired women.  Without a smile she gave me some directions in Russian and then pretty much left me on my own.  The place wasn't crowded but I observed a few women coming and going from the sauna door in the corner of the room.  To my left was a small pool for splashing around a bit but it all in all the room wasn't very extravagant.  The guidebook went on about the grand swimming pool in its palatial surroundings and this just didn't fit the bill.  Thinking that there might be something extra that I was missing I tried to ask the reluctantly helpful women at the desk.  They looked puzzled and one dragged me across the room to talk with another customer.  This very nice women tried to help me with her slow but neat command of English.  She again showed me the small pool so I tried to more carefully explain what I wanted.  She went back to talk with the staff and returned to tell me that the larger and more grand pool was just for the men and there was no way I could see it.  It would figure that the grand room would be men exclusively.  It reminded me how the women at my YMCA protested that the women's locker room only had a sauna while the men's also had a steam room.  For some reason men seem to require a more opulent bathing environment.

With my confusion sorted out I just decided to head for the sauna.  As I entered the sauna room little round blonde woman directed me to put my towel over my hair.  Some of the regulars had proper banya hats made of white felt and looked like something from a Peter Pan film that they used to cover their hair.  Apparently this was to prevent my hair from getting too dry.  Other women had more modern substitutes like knit caps.   Inside the sauna there was a large furnace that fed heat into the sloping floor that extended under a raised wooden deck.  The wooden deck was reached via a set of stairs on the right that went up about 12 feet.  Once on the top it was a stifling hot heat.  The women made themselves comfortable, spreading out their sheets and stretching out or just sitting with their hands braced on their knees.  With the variety of head ware on the now naked and sweaty bodies made quite a humorous sight.  

After the bath it is part of the ritual to splash yourself with cold water and a large tub stood to the left of the sauna door as we came out with large plastic buckets stacked at the end.  Just beyond that was a old fashioned wooden tub full of cold water with a small step ladder to get up into it.  Along the far wall were several showers as well.  I opted for the wooden tub but had to wait for a turn.  It was a shock to the system but actually refreshing once I had totally immersed myself.  The only drawback was the awkward act of climbing up the step ladder and trying to find a delicate way to get into the tub without feeling like you are flashing your bum to an entire room full of people.  Next I took a shower and kept an eye out for what to do next.  Some women headed for the small splashing pool so I did the same.  But, after that I wasn't sure what to do next. There were buckets of soaking birch branches laying around the room but I hadn't observed anyone whacking on themselves in the sauna.  I wrapped myself in my sheet and tried to look relaxed as I sat off to the side.  

After a rest I went back into the sauna again and repeated the cycle.  This time it was unbelievably hot since it had just been stoked.  A few minutes had most people done. It seemed that people just cycled through this process slowly again and again.  I preferred the sauna a bit cooler and returned after most women had left.  As I settled in for a more relaxed stay the little round women came in again and said something.  I heard the few other women in there tossing some English words about so I looked up and they told me that we had to leave while the stoked the sauna again.  Disappointed I followed them and as I lingered around waiting for the next sauna round the three women invited me to join them.  They were adding some treatments to their faces while some other women had done themselves in total body masks.  Apparently applying treatments was the best thing to do in the sauna interim.  They even offered me some of their products to use.  It was very nice of them to take me under their wings.  We ventured out into the dressing area where women were lounging around, some having ordered some tea or snacks, to wait out the sauna stoking.  I was beginning to feel that I shouldn't be so cynical about the hospitality of the Russians when, in the quieter environment, I realized that these women didn't have Russian accents, they were from Spain.  One was living in Russia and the other two were visiting from Spain.  The one living in Russia wasn't very enthusiastic about her time in there.   The consensus of all three was that the people were generally not very friendly.   Unfortunately my visit was consistent with that view.  Having other friends who have learned to appreciate Russian culture I wondered what we were all missing.

From talking with the Spanish women I learned a bit more about the traditional sauna experience.  She went fairly frequently but said she was not fond of the birch branch trashing.  I still hadn't seen that in action.  Many of the body and hair treatments that women used were made of natural ingredients like honey.  There was a bit of a regular cycle to the stoking, sweating, and cooling that was usually regulated by someone like the stern round blonde women at Sandunovskiye.

It had been nice chatting with some new people and it certainly made me feel less like a fish out of water during my sauna time.  They invited Rob and I to join them for dinner that night if we had time.  As I got ready to go I went to collect my belongings and handed the women 30R.  She proceeded to go one about her business so I indicated that she owed me 7R change.  She turned to her colleagues, pointed at me and laughed, then shrugged and said she hadn't any change.  That was unlikely.  It was a trivial amount of money but to be sure she wouldn't have accepted just 20R instead of 23R.  That would never have gone over but she did her best to humiliate me for asking about my 7R change.  After the conversation I just been having with the Spanish women it was a sharp reminder of what most of my Russia experience had been like and one pleasant bathing experience was just a nice blip on the screen.

I found Rob waiting for me at the Coffee Bean cafe which meant he had gotten the note I left for him.  We had a coffee while I gave some insight into Russian bathing.  By the time we left it was already past 8:00 and both of us were feeling rather tapped out so we grabbed some sandwiches on our way home and decided we weren't up to joining my new Spanish acquaintances for dinner.  They were meeting at 9:00 and we had to get up early the next day.  

August 23. MOSCOW  We decided to take our bags up to the train station and check them for the day rather than back track to our home stay apartment before leaving that night.   It all seemed fine until I questioned why we only got one baggage tag for three bags.  Every other station that we had checked bags at we got a tag for each bag.  The check room guy was offended when we requested more tags.  He said that he didn't have any and ended up giving us back our bags.  That wasn't a big deal because there were several baggage rooms that were opened during staggered times and all worked for our late departure.  The problem turned out to be that one was already full, one was currently closed, and the other guy brushed us off because we had offended his buddy in the next check room.  So, we ended up lugging our bags back up to the wait room and sat there for a couple of hours until the fourth check room opened up.  We decided to check our packs separately so could each get a tag but by the time Rob got his checked in the check room was full!  Fortunately, I waited a while longer and the next baggage room had someone collect a bag so I was able to squeeze mine in.  It all just turned out to be more of a hassle than we had anticipated and having to lug our packs around (not really an option - too heavy) or sit with them in the station all day were grim alternatives.  The packs were probably fine in their original room with one tag but the longer we stayed in Russia the more uncomfortable we felt and Moscow had been a particularly abrasive experience.  Wait staff didn't return our change, the Militia hassled "foreign" looking people in the subways, and we generally didn't feel all that safe so it seemed better to be safe than sorry.

Finally relieved of our bags we found that we really didn't have much energy or, more importantly, enthusiasm for sightseeing in Moscow.  We considered going to the large souvenir market that I had visited on my previous visit but news of rampant pick pockets deterred us.  We just weren't up for having to watch our backs constantly.  So we just made our way back to the center for some lunch and basically spend the whole day on the Internet catching up on emails and doing some much needed trip planning.  This wasn't our usual Internet cafe but a different spot in Okhotny Rad that technically offered "free" Internet access to people who ate at the restaurant.  Ordering was conveniently done via the monitor at our table but the prices more than made up for "free" access.  Still, the food was good and it was a peaceful place to spend the evening.  That is until a table nearby became occupied by three gregarious Russian men who were sucking back vodka and spinning porn on their monitor.   Fortunately, it was time for us to go....

When we went to catch our train that evening (close to midnight) we noticed another baggage check area that we hadn't seen that morning.  Perhaps that would have saved us the hours of sitting in the wait room but in the end we didn't do much anyway so what did it matter, really?  When we boarded the train we were relieved to find our roommates were a mother and eight year old son.  The little boy spoke some English and we soon learned that his mother spoke quite well. She was a cardiologist and had spent time in the United States.  While she was out of the cabin the little boy popped up with skeleton faced Sream-type mask on and startled us.  He was a lively little guy, not at all shy and very chatty.  We had a nice time talking with them until it got late (close to 1:00am) and we decided we had better get some sleep because we would be rolling in St. Petersburg quite early.

TRANS SIBERIAN RAILWAY Ulan Ude Aug 6-7 Irkutsk Aug 4 Aug 5-8 Yekaterinburg Aug 8-10 Aug 11-12 Kazan Aug 13 Nizhny Novgorod Aug 14 Golden Ring Aug 15 Aug 16-17

MOSCOW Aug 17-19 Aug 20-21 Aug 22-23