Monday, May 16, 2011

Banya Time!

Check the box!  One of my goals this spring was to try the ‘ole Russian tradition of Banya!  Banya, best described as a steam room or sauna followed by a freezing cold plunge and a healthy dose ‘o torture, actually plays a significant role in Russian culture.  
The Banya, traced back to the 1100’s, is believed to deliver health benefits of better circulation, pore cleansing, de-toxification (great after long vodka benders), improved oxygen flow to muscles, possible skin removal and good plain relaxation.  Many Russians hit the Banya on a weekly basis as part of their health routine.
Here’s how the experience went down:
Met up with a group of fun ladies from the American Women’s Org at the famous Sandunovsky Banya very close to the Kremlin, (we were all newbies to the “sport” except for our fearless leader).  The changing area was beautiful - marble floors, dark wood lockers.
We purchased our recommended head gear - the famed felt Banya hat!  And who doesn’t look good in one of these gems?  We’ve decided it will also serve well as a party hat, an extra thermal layer in extreme weather conditions, and possibly a good piece with which to dust the apartment. 

It’s a good thing men and women have separate Banyas as clothes really were not an option.  We started with the sauna...and you haven’t experienced extreme heat until you’ve been in one of these babies.  The Russian Banyas can reach up to 200 degrees F which is why you have the felt hat on - to protect your head from the scorching heat (sounds like fun - yes?).  The wood benches in the sauna are also hot as hades, but apparently a little burned flesh never hurt anyone.  

After the furnace, you take a full body plunge into an ice...ICE cold water tub which is big enough for one at a time, or an attendant pours a huge bucket of freezing water on your head.  In the winter - you have the tough choice of flailing around in the snow or jumping into ice water in a carved out ice hole over a lake, (these choices are only good and better).  After the ice shock, you then submerge into a cool pool which actually feels down right warm after the arctic blast.  

Ice water built for one...

They say rolling in snow is actually colder than jumping into freezing water...

Fun times...
My friend, Katie, and I mustered up a dose of courage to try the popular venik - branches and dried leaves from birch, oak or eucalyptus used by a strong, muscular attendant to pummel the living life out of you while laying down in the sauna.  Let’s just say you definitley feel invigorated and well circulated after 10 minutes of this thrashing.  (The memory of the pain does go away).

Once your heart rate returns to a normal level, you retreat back to the beautiful locker room for tea, juice and a light snack.  And then repeat the entire process until you feel completely relaxed...or beaten up...whichever comes first.
All kidding aside, it was a fascinating experience and one I would do again...perhaps next time in the dead of winter - swimming hole or snow?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Family and Victory Day!

What a glorious week with family in town!  My parents made a visit to Moscow to check out our digs and this beautiful city. Steve and I were thrilled to have them here. Their arrival was on May 9th - Victory Day! (The end of WWII was declared on May 8th but with the time difference - May 9th in Russia).  An incredible 25 million Russian soldiers died in WWII.  As a national holiday (similar to our July 4th), Moscow celebrates with a large scale military parade.

Do you remember the old images of tanks rolling through Red Square?  They still do today! We can see the Kremlin from our living room - and heard the soldiers yelling in unison - quite thrilling.    

These are the images Steve and I caught at a parade rehearsal:


Parade practice in Yaroslav (a small town we recently visited 4 hours away...)

This is a stirring video of the parade highlights (from 2008 - but the parade follows the same format today)...

Even more fascinating - the Russians were able to control the weather on parade day! You may have heard of cloud seeding - weather modification that helps control the amount of rain that falls from clouds, (typically used to create more rain over farmland, etc.).  In Russia - it’s used to drive rain away to insure it does not “rain on their parade”, (they’ve apparently done this for years).
Cloud seeding in action...

They use a machine (or plane) that spits silver iodide, dry ice or cement into the clouds, (brings new meaning to acid rain).   When the chemicals touch the cloud, a hole appears. It becomes bigger and bigger, and it either rains right there and then or, if the clouds aren't very dense, they disperse without any precipitation.  I guess we actually can mess with Mother Nature!

1. Silver iodide is fired into cloud using flares on planes or from the ground
2. Water droplets then attach to these particles
3. They fall as snow if surface temperatures are below or near freezing, or as raindrops at warmer temperatures
4. Heat released as the droplets freeze boosts updrafts, which pull more moist air into the cloud
Despite the use of the cloud-seeding technique, many scientists remain sceptical of its effectiveness
And so...on Victory rained....but then it cleared up to a bright sunshiny day!