Russian Banya
Russian Banya, Pskov area, 2006.

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 among 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

© 2009


Explorer, Philosopher, Photographer


  1. marja

    Oh no you didn’t. You did? Yes do did. Aaargh I always look in astonishment at TV when they show the people overthere jumping in the icewater. You brave soul
    See you made many journeys. My mum went to Russia to Leningrad There is a travel bug in my family as well

  2. Glennis

    My goodness and you did this for fun! I don’t think I am the sauna type of person, too hot then too cold, I am a temperate creature. You were so brave and deserve the moment of clarity that will always escape me!

  3. Gypsy Café

    Hi Marja,

    🙂 At the time, I did briefly question my own sanity to actually go through with it! But I couldn’t NOT do it if everyone else was going to 😉 (and I’m sure they all felt the same as I did…)

    Yet, the overall experience was one of the most profound I ever had and I’m very glad I did it. The warm Russian hospitality afterwards was truly amazing and for me that was actually the highlight. It was an additional layer of warmth added after the cold.


  4. Gypsy Café

    Hello Glennis

    Thanks for stopping by. Apparently according to Russian belief, one way to really appreciate life is to really know that you are alive. To really know you are alive you need to have an occasional (simulated) near-death experience. 🙂

    Maybe one of our Russian readers can confirm this?

    PS: I believe that clarity can be obtained in more ways than one – and clarity can sometimes arrive quite unexpectedly.


  5. Hayden

    love this description! in high school my closest friend went on a year’s sabbatical to Finland with her family. She returned w/ similar stories of saunas and her father immediately proceeded to build one in the back yard. He was the only one, however, who dove through the thin glaze of ice in their pool afterwards, however – my girlfriend simply rolled in the snow. or so I was told.

    In the first couple of years I want very much to build a sauna at my new Michigan farm – with or without the roll in the snow (and probably without!) it will make the winters much more pleasant.

  6. Gypsy Café

    Ah yes, the snow rolling was not possible in our case, Hayden. It was end of March and although the lake was still frozen, most of the snow had melted – there were some patches left, but not large enough to roll in.

    I would highly recommend going ahead with your idea of building a “banya” on your farm (- the Russian word, also know as “bania”). Even I would consider doing so if I was living in a cold country. Apparently there are strong similarities between the Finnish saunas and Russian Banyas.

    Here’s an interesting site I discovered, including articles on building your own!

    Enjoy the rolling in the snow! 😉


  7. Michelle

    Beautifully written Jacques, I felt the claustrophic heat in there myself.

    But jumping in ice water? Ahhhhhhhhh noooooooo


    I never thought of ice cutting. ouchy!

  8. Gypsy Café

    Thanks Michelle,

    Yup, it was one of the more challenging things I’ve done. Possibly harder than when I jumped out of a plane with a parachute once 🙂

    Glad you could almost “feel it”.

    Most of us had tiny (bloody), but very authentic little “souvenirs” from the experience. Due to the numbing cold we only realised after we got out and no one was badly cut, fortunately.

  9. Ritva


    I know I’m kinda late in commenting, but the story was so well told, I had to compliment you for it. 🙂
    Moments of clarity, eh?

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