Sandunovskiye Bathhouse

Sandunovskiye Bath Men's Entrance -- photo from Flickr

The beautiful entrance that we later learned was for men, not women.

First, I apologize that this is such a long post. But, if you want to hear about the full experience at the Sandunovskiye Bathhouse or want a good laugh, read on.

We spent a long weekend in Moscow. During our trip, I saw the usual sights: the Kremlin, many many cathedrals with onion domes, the super-expensive mall GUM, … Of course out trip was centered around eating, but we got plenty of sightseeing done in between food breaks. In this blog post, I want to tell you about our experience at Sandunovskiye Baths.

Bei and I went to the baths on our last day in Moscow. We were to meet Nikolai back at the Steklov Institute at 5:15, which meant our bath was to be over by 4:00 to get back in time. Our very delicious lunch ended at 13:00 and we headed straight to the baths. Once we arrived, we took a few pictures outside then inside, then walked up to the Kassa (counter where you pay). We noticed that the prices were for men. Seemed strange, but that explained the confused look on the men when we walked right in and up to the counter. The lady behind the Kassa told us that the women’s entrance was around the corner.

The women’s entrance, although ornate, was not as grand as the men’s entrance. I am pretty sure that the men’s baths were far superior in appearance in general too. So, we paid then walked through a small corridor with two chairs and several hair dryers and entered the lounge. There are large leather couches and we had to choose one. Luckily, a waitress who sensed our confusion pointed us in the right direction. She gave us some instructions in English that we are to hang our clothes on the provided hangers and put our valuables in the locker. So, we did as she said, put our towels around us and walked into the bathroom (not the one with toilets, but the one with the baths).

When we walked in, of course, we did not know what to do or where to go. We were by far (say, by at least 35 years) the youngest people at the baths. Along one wall was three showers, all of which were full. Each shower had a marble podium outside of it, some of which were being leaned on by old women. Then there were rows of marble benches. There was about one small sink for each long bench. The benches were full of washbuckets, some with ladies using them, some with oak branches sticking out, and some just empty. I assume that it was the end of their three hour session for most of these women. They were lathering up themselves (and each other) from head to toe.

The general idea of the bath is to go in the steam room for as long as you can handle it, then cool off in one of the pools, then rest on your leather couch while rehydrating. You repeat this several times (you can stay for up to three hours in the women’s bath, two in the men’s), then you shower/bathe yourself before heading out.

Round One. The steam room was not open when we came in, but we were told we could still sit inside even though it wasn’t too hot in there at the moment. We took the opportunity to get started with our hot-cold-rest cycle. They said it wasn’t too hot, but we had enough of the heat within a few minutes. Then, we stepped outside to figure out how the “cold” part worked. There were two large wooden barrels with cold water. I thought you can just go in, but we hadn’t seen anyone use them, so we were too afraid to do so. Then, we found the small pool at the other side of the room next to the two massage rooms (that is at least what we assumed the rooms were for). The water was very cool, but not overwhelming. After cooling off in the pool, it was time for our first rest period, so we returned to our leather couch to drink some water.
Round Two. While drinking water, we notices some commotion. A little later, we figured out that it meant the sauna was re-opened. Eventually, we made our way back into the sauna. It was much hotter than the last time we were there and a woman was throwing water at many of us, then she walked around whirling her towel in the air. I’m not sure, but I think this was to help cool people off. We just sat there until we couldn’t handle the heat anymore and went straight to the pool. Now that we were experienced, each step was taken with direction not much confusion. While in the pool, we observed what was around us. The pool is raised and in the corner of the room, so it gives a good view of the whole room. I noticed that there was a bucket with water in it high on the wall next to the sauna. The bucket had a rope on it so you can dump it on yourself. Committing to the full tortorous experience, I told Bei that I was going to use that in the next round (be careful what you wish for …). We also decided to get some of the birch branches. We hadn’t seen anyone using them yet, but we figured we could go for the full experience. We left the pool and returned to our chairs. This time, we ordered a peppermint tea, and our birch branches.

Round Three. This was a quick round. Someone walked us in and showed us how to soak the branches in hot water. She told us to leave them in there for 10 minutes, so we did a quick round of sauna (which was technically closed again) and the pool. Then, we went out to rehydrate before going for the full experience of using the branches.

Round Four. We weren’t sure when to use the birch branches, but we decided we would go into the sauna when it opened this round. We go in (along with 6 other women) and the door was closed. Bei and I sat, but several people were lying down with their faces covered. Then, the attendant starts throwing water into the furnace. At first, you could hardly notice the difference, then it suddenly became much warmer. There was a slight sting to the air too, perhaps a hint of lavender or eucalyptus or something that you would find in vick’s vaporub. It continued to get hotter. And hotter. Soon, I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore due to the extreme heat. The air started to sting as I was breathing in. I alternated from breathing in my nose and in my mouth. At this moment, if I was a tea kettle, I would have been whistling like mad. When I looked at Bei to ask her how to breathe, it was obvious by the color and expression on her face that her inner tea kettle was violently whistling too. She jumped up and said “I have to go out now”. I thought, well, it is hot, but I am ok as long as it doesn’t continue to get hot. In the time it took Bei to make two steps, it became too hot for me as well. I jumped up just to be greeted by the damp hot unbreathable air. I took one step and froze as every exposed piece of skin felt as though I was walking into a fire. In fact, my fire-safety lessons started re-playing in my mind as I kept thinking “stop-drop-roll” over and over.  I tried to continue my short breaths, but it became unbearable and I decided to hold my breath until I reached the door. I was now almost at the stairs and Bei was by the door, but she was not moving. Momentarily, I thought we couldn’t get out. In panick, I did a quick half turn back thinking that it was better when sitting down and that’s what I should do. Then, I realized that I still needed to take a breath. So, I continued the turn (making a complete 360) and decided to go down the stairs. My feet were jumping up and down because I still felt that I was going to catch on fire at any moment. Magically, I made it to the door and pulled the rope under the barrel of water and was immediately relieved. Meanwhile, an attendant was pouring ice-cold water on Bei. After a few pours, she told me to come over. I gratefully appreciated feeling the cold water help return my body temperature to normal. She dumped four buckets on me, first knees down, then hips down, then shoulders down, and finally a large bucket over my head. Relief.

Round Five. After our last experience, we made sure not to be in there when the room was heating up. When we went in, we decided to try the lying down approach. I also covered my face with the towel I had around my head (it helped for the breathing). As we were in there, a mother brought her 6-year-old daughter in. They were talking back and forth (I have no clue what they were saying), but then the daughter started to cry. I know how she felt, as I almost broke into tears when I thought I was on fire. I don’t think we were in there for too long this round for fear of what happened in the previous round. We got out, poured cold water over ourselves this time and decided to use our birch branches. We didn’t know what to do though. So, we decided that we were supposed to beat each others backs with the branches. Bei used the birch branch to hit me then we exchanged and I beat her back with the branches for about 20 or so hits. Then, we switched again. It was strange, I admit, but we didn’t know any better. Then, an attendant came rushing over and herded us back into the sauna and shut the door behind us. We were confused, but got the signal that we were not supposed to beat each other with the branches when we were in the bathing area. At this point, another girl about our age was in the sauna. She told us that it was too early to use those. We should wait until it cools down so we don’t burn ourselves or others by using them. So, we returned our branches to the bucket in which they were soaking. Several minutes later, the sauna door opened and the woman who showed us how to soak the branches came over to us. She told us that she would show us what to do. When we got inside, she instructed both of us to lie on our stomachs on the sauna benches. Then, she used the branch to beat Bei from head to toe. Then, she did the same with me. After her demonstration, we each took a turn hitting each other with the birch branches. It felt like a gentle massage. Still, a little strange though. After this round, we took a quick dip in the pool. I immersed my head underwater several times because I realized I was still overheated internally from the previous round when I was almost on fire.

Round Six. The final round began with us lying in the sauna. It is much more bearable when lying down. We soaked up as much heat as we could and were dripping with sweat when we came out. Right outside the sauna, I saw a woman get into the large barrel of ice-cold water. I immediately got into the other one, hoping to finally cool down my internal temperature. I took a few dips then went back to our couch. We drank some tea and ordered clean towels to use after we showered. The shower also had an unexpected surprise, as Bei’s shower had no shower head. There was just water pouring out of a pipe! She quickly changed showers.

And, that concludes our experience at the Sandunovskiye Baths. In the future, I will be sure to keep my shoulders covered with a towel or sheet when walking into or out of the sauna.

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2 Responses to “Sandunovskiye Bathhouse”

  1. Olga Says:

    Hi Brit! I’m glad you experience Russia so much! I was laughing a lot while imagining you and Bei hitting each other with the birch branches in the bathing area 😀 of course, how would you know? Six rounds in the sauna is crazy! you are tough! I don’t think I’ve ever had more than four! Have a great time in Saint-Petersburg! Many hugs.

    • bfasy Says:

      Olga, I am glad that we could provide entertainment for you. 🙂 It was a fun experience. Maybe one day I can try again. See you soon in Vienna!

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