From a bleak Pskov city we were transported by bus into the rural Russian countryside. On the way, we were asked not to consume liquids as it may be detrimental to the activity we were soon to engage in. Miles of winding forest roads decorated with occasional rustic homes finally led us to our isolated destination. Temperatures were submerged and a small frozen lake could be glimpsed through the trees.
On entering the log cabin building we were given clear instructions on how to proceed. Within minutes we left the changing rooms in bathing suits as if we were a well coordinated group. We lined up on small wooden benches in the entrance room adjacent to a big wooden door. Each of us received a sheet meant to be used as a towel later on, which we wrapped firmly around our shoulders for perceived warmth. Our attention was directed to shiver-control while our guide slipped into the hot chamber to make preparations.
Moments later 14 of us were packed in like sardines on terraced plank benches, desperately trying to adapt to temperatures that had instantaneously sky-rocketed beyond calculation. Light-headedness from dehydration briefly made it difficult for me to distinguish between steam and stars. I recovered somewhat when I suddenly felt the cool and soothing sensation on my skin of being softly whipped with birch leaves. As custom requires, I passed the favour on by using a wet birch branch with lots of leaves to hit the person in front of me on her neck, shoulders, back and arms.
As the scorching minutes ticked by I sensed my extreme apprehension of the upcoming challenge dissipating. Relief though, was indefinitely delayed by the unspoken iron will of the beautiful Nadya, guarding the door and pouring more water on the rocks. A time period indicated by her would determine when our pores were suitably opened to leave the steaming inferno, even if only momentarily.
It was a short sprint around the building in groups of three, with first a cold-air shock just outside the steam chamber and then a second shock outside the banya’s front door. With bare feet, we ran on a sandy and stony path down to the lake’s edge. The jetty was short of reaching the hole in the ice big enough for a human body to voluntarily fit through. A precarious walk on the surface had to be made up to the edge. Then a heart stopping plunge into the deep icy liquid. The initial sharp freeze-burn-sensation turned into a freezing-numb-anaesthesia off sorts. I achieved clarity. Total clarity. For several seconds. The feeling continued to last until I pulled myself up and out over the edge again.
I had blood trickling from my knees and hands where the sharp ice edges caused small cuts when I climbed out. Without delay we hotfooted it back to banya salvation.
An hour and a half later we found ourselves upstairs above the steam room. By this time, some of the braver amongst us had experienced clarity more than once. We were exhausted, but I felt clean in more ways than I could describe and the contented faces of my travel partners told a similar tale. Our hosts had barbecued outside while we were cleansing and now we had an impressive feast laid out on the beautifully decorated long table in front of us. Barbecued chicken, bottles of vodka and wine, plates of traditional Russian snacks and bowls of salad were all prepared and ready, but first many toasts had to be made.
Folk tales, humorous with wise words were told and translated. We toasted to friendships and friends. We toasted to good relations amongst nations. We toasted to excellent health and beautiful women. We toasted to the hope for world peace.
Based on an event in 2006
Article and picture by Jean-Jacques Montagnier