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Russian Winter and Banya!

Winter came early this year, already in mid-October snow was falling, although it didn't last long. However, towards the end of November, winter was already in full swing this year, with lots of snow falling and very cold temperatures. Last year in St. Petersburg we also had lots of snow, but not so early. Last year the intense snow started only after the new year. After such a hot summer here in St. Petersburg, everyone is preparing for what many have said will be one of the harshest winters in history!

St. Petersburg this time of year is quite beautiful, white snow in the parks and along the canals makes for a special atmosphere and helps counteract the absence of sunshine. So, what do people do during the winter to stay motivated, cope with the cold and snow, and enjoy the beautiful nature? Well, there are several options, such as cross country skiing, sledding, downhill skiing and snowboarding just outside the city, ice fishing, and just gathering with friends for snacks and drinking.

One of my favorite things to do during the cold winter in St. Petersburg is to go to the banya. The Russian banya has a rich history in Russian tradition. According to Mikkel Aaland, the earliest description of the banya comes from the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113. In the chronicle, the Apostle Andrew speaks of his travels to the land of the Slavs. In describing the banya, Andrew says: 

"I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."

The current banya experience, at least in my trips, is much more enjoyable and pleasant than Andrew depicts in the chronicle. However, what Andrew describes is an accurate description of how banya works still today. A wooden sauna is heated to very high temperatures, high than other traditional saunas, and birch branches are used to "beat" the impurities out of the body, making for a pleasant massage. After some time in the sauna, usually around 5-10 min. depending on your tolerance, you should jump into a tank of cold water to refresh yourself, or if there is a river/lake nearby you can take a quick dip.

It is not as painful as Andrew describes, but for foreigners, it can be quit an unusual and exciting adventure. When you visit Russia, especially if in the winter, make sure you check out the local banya, there will be many of them. And don't be shy, the Russian babushkas (grandmaw) and dedushkas (grandpaw) will help you out and make sure you receive the full experience. 

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