It was rad.
One of the local doctors who are hosting us has a little country home (Pavel called it a “bungalow” which prompted a discussion about the differences between simple tropical houses on the beach and rustic cabins in the woods).
This country home is about an hours drive from Kemerovo and situated in the Taiga forest; I was told that this is the larges forest in the world, though this is a fact that I have not been able to substantiate as of yet. It was beautiful though…an expanse of birch trees and tall firs.
Our hosts provided us with a generous spread of food, primarily of the type that appeals to hard-core carnivores…I counted nine different varieties of cured meets and three of cured fish (we are certainly not lacking for protein or sodium). And of course, bottles and bottles of vodka. And fresh beer (you can take your recycled two liter bottles to beer dispensaries that have a wall of taps and you can have your plastic bottle of beer filled over and over…and novelty aside, the beer itself is quite tasty).
After our salty, meaty meal and libations, we headed out to the actual banya. It was a little log building behind the house, with a toasty common area with a large sectional vinyl couch for lounging in between rounds in the sauna. We lazed about in our swimsuits, drinking fresh beer and sparkling water and took turns in the absurdly hot dry sauna…by far the hottest sauna I have ever been in.
Then they busted out the birch branches.
So the practice, which I became acquainted with courtesy of one of the local ICU doctors (PS, this is a hilariously incredible departure from the customs of Iraq where men preferred not to touch women or even look them in the eye) goes something like this: You lay prone in the sauna and a beefy Siberian dude in a Speedo hits your repeatedly along your back and legs with steamy branches of birch leaves…after getting you “warmed up” a bit, he throws more water on the hot rocks, heating the tiny space up even more, wets the branches again, places them on the hot rocks and goes for the second round. THEN they throw snow all over you…and in my case, being the first victim and subsequently having the privilege of experiencing the fresh enthusiasm of our hosts, I was so overheated that I could barely breath the scorching air and tried to escape…so they had to restrain me in the sauna while they rubbed snow all over my body.
There was a great deal of squealing and screaming to say the least.
The other first timers found the volume of my good natured protest to be a bit unnerving…though no one else seemed to have quite the same intensity of experience that I did…except our surgeon, but I think he asked for it.
So once I finally escaped, I emerged form the sauna soaked with sweat, completely lobster read and covered with birch leaves…and I think I must have looked pretty shocked and disoriented by the experience…which made the other first timers just that much more nervous.