Banya Experience (by Jo Wright, Exeter)
I loved the BANYA EXPERIENCE!! Having never been to a Banya (or even heard of one in England), going to Yaroslavl and accompanying my khozyaika to a public Banya was one of the strangest but best experiences of my life. Completely clueless of what was going to happen, my khozyaika marched me into the changing room and ordered me to strip completely. She then led me into a huge bathroom, where we lay our wash things down and we proceeded into a ridiculously hot sauna where we sat for a couple of minutes (any longer and I would have passed out) before heading back to the changing rooms to "otdikhat" (or relax). Having got over the initial shock of being naked in front of a lot of babushkas, I was finding the experience quite enjoyable. But then came the Veniki... these are Russian birch branches, which are tied together and used for bashing each other in the sauna. Having sat down for roughly a minute, until I was REALLY sweating, my khozyaika told me to lie on a bench with my feet in the air. She then bashed me with these branches, which wasn't quite as horrible as I had imagined, and then made me do the same to her. After that, we went and showered and washed in cold water and then to relax. This routine carried on for a good 3 hours and, believe it or not, I wasn't bored at all! Leaving the Banya, I felt cleaner and fresher than I have ever felt in my life and I had the best nights sleep that night. The following week, I managed to persuade a couple of my friends to join me and from then on, we made it a weekly thing. Part of the enjoyment was the fact that you can lose up to 3kg in one Banya session!