Globe Trotting and New Beginnings

Ulan Ude and The Russian Banya

Posted on: October 10, 2009

What is a Banya?

A Banya is a traditional Russian steam bath.

I found out about the Banya from the lonely planet book, which mentioned that you can’t say that you’ve really been to Russia unless you’ve visited a Banya. So it was on my list of things to try out in Russia.

On our Trans-Siberian journey, we stopped for a day in Ulan Ude. This city was our last stop in Russia. Ulan-Ude is a border town right next to Mongolia. It is the capital city of the Buryat Republic in Russia.  The name Ulan Ude means the “red Uda” or “red gate”. Uda is the name of the river the city lies on, and red because the city reflects the communist ideology of the Soviet Union to which it belonged. Until 1991 Ulan-Ude was a city closed to foreigners. According to me, Ulan-Ude is the most “Soviet” city we saw in Russia.

Most people in Ulan Ude do not look Russian at all! They have a lot of asian features (since it is a border town) and they are much smaller compared to the big-built Russians we saw in St.  Petersburg and Moscow. The people are friendly and, in contrast to Moscow, you see some smiling faces while walking around. Ulan Ude was the most traditional Russian experience we had.

In Ulan Ude, we couchsurfed with a couple, Vladimir and Marina. They lived in a typical Russian home with the Banya and toilet outside the home and a small yard where they grew their own vegetables.

They picked us up from the train station and we walked to their place (about 20-25 minutes). Once we got there, we freshened up and hung out at home for some time. Marina made us Blin (russian pancakes – paper thin pancakes in comparison to the american ones). We had some chai (funny enough, hot tea in Russia is also called chai, it doesn’t have milk though), beer and Blin at home with Vladimir, Marina and some of their friends. The chai was made in true russian fashion – a big teapot of strong tea made with tea leaves, you pour a small quantity in tea cup and then pour hot water to dilute it.


Marina making Blin for us



Later we went out to explore the town. This border town had a lot of remnants from the Soviet times. A big giant Lenin statue in the middle of the city and a lot of Soviet flags around. We went into a Soviet-era restaurant which had all the Soviet times newspapers clippings and books etc. In addition to the Soviet time buildings we saw a WWII memorial square with a real military tank!


In front of the Lenin Statue


The Ulan Ude gang 🙂

After our grand city tour, we got groceries for dinner and went home. The evening started off with all of us chilling with chai and beer and then, the boys continued drinking beer while girls cooked dinner (I’m not sure how in every culture it always end up with girls cooking and boys chilling?!?!). We had a typical russian meal with meat and potatoes – Chicken, mashed potatoes and bread.


Yummy Dinner!

We relaxed for sometime after our big meal and then Marina invited me to the Banya. We took our towels/clothes and walked to the wooden cabin. The main element of the Banya is the Parilka (steam room). Here, rocks are heated by a furnace. When you are ready you pour cold water infused with certain essence oils (we tried avocado and grapefruit) using a long-handled ladle. This emits a scent in the burst of steam that comes as soon as you pour the cold water on the heated rocks. You just sit and enjoy the steam and release all the toxins from your body. After doing this a couple of times and feeling completely relaxed you take a shower. Traditionally after sitting in the steam for a while Russians usually jump into cold water but neither me or Marina enjoy cold water so we just ended it with a nice hot shower. 🙂

After the Banya, Marina gave me a glass of currant juice which is supposed to be very good for you after going to the Banya. It was awesome!  After the relaxing Banya we called it a night.

Trying the Banya is something I definitely recommend when visiting Russia. It was a very unique and fun experience and I would totally do it again.


2 Responses to "Ulan Ude and The Russian Banya"

Stoli says hi, and that good luck in his hometown of Ulan Batoor. He was the biggest player there. Now, he’s just a jock from texas.

Sounds wonderful! We’ve always wanted to couch-surf but have been weary. Sounds like you guys are having a blast!

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