After 11 days of hiking, I was happy to make my last day in Kyrgyzstan a relaxing one. However, I also didn’t want to waste my time at the hostel, no matter how nice its garden was. So I started walking down the streets of Bishkek, stopped at a café for pancakes and tea, and then made my way to the Zhirgal banya on Toktogul Street. I had seen the oddly shaped building on one of my wanderings and had learned it’s a Russian bath house. That made me curious to see the inside.
Although the door was open, it was so dark inside that I thought it was still closed. Then I saw people going to an equally dark window that slightly opened and served as the ticket office. I followed and the lady in the window pointed at the 700 som price on a list full of Cyrillic. After I’d paid, she pointed to a door on the right and sent me off with an interesting looking key. I entered the locker room and found number 90. I pushed the key down into the lock. The door clicked open and I found some birch leaves inside. Hesitantly I put my things inside. Then I walked through the locker room. A lady asked for my ticket and in return I got something like a bed sheet. I saw other women wrapping themselves in it, so I followed suit. Then I pulled some slippers out of a big barrel.
In my sheet and slippers I asked “douche?” and got pointed to a door. I entered a room with solid marble blocks and lots of water taps and showers. First I showered and washed my hair. There were only a few other women there. Some were scrubbing each other, one bent over while the other scrubs her back. There were also tubs that people filled with water, rather than taking a shower. Some tubs were full of birch branches but I wasn’t sure if they were for everyone to use. I didn’t see anyone use them and at the entrance I had seen a man bringing in his own.
A door opened and steam came floating out, so I picked up my sheet and entered. I could barely see anything through the steam. There were 2 other women lying on their sheets. I sat down at a lower level. Immediately sweat started dripping down my naked body. What better way to get rid of all the hiking dust than to sweat it all out? Some women wore something like a kalpak hat to protect their hair. Hot drops of water fell down from the ceiling. Nobody seemed to stay super long. An older lady, supported by another woman, didn’t even last a minute. She had trouble breathing in the hot air.
I took another shower and went through another door. A short hallway led to the cupola I’d seen from outside. Inside I found a round pool. Two mosaic dolphins decorated the walls, otherwise tiled with small blue squares. Another woman had splashed some cold water on herself and was now walking around. I lowered myself in the water and was surprised it wasn’t colder. It was pleasant enough to swim up and down a few times. Then I repeated my routine and called it a day. I wasn’t given a towel, so I dried off a bit with the sheet.
If I wasn’t running out of cash, I could have paid for a scrub or a massage. There were small booths on one side of the locker room where people went for a massage or to color their nails. There was even a café where people drank tea, still wrapped in their sheets. Going to the banya could easily occupy a few hours of your time if you let it. Not quite knowing how things worked was a bit of a challenge with the language barrier though. And on this Sunday morning, it was pretty quiet, so I didn’t have to wait. I left the banya feeling refreshed, but that feeling didn’t last long with the 38 degrees outside. Thank Bishkek for airconditioned shopping malls.