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Staying Warm in Siberia

May 25, 2010 at 9:19 pm
By Lily

Siberia is not known for a tropical climate; indeed, I think most of us get chilly when we hear the word “Siberia”. And on our recent trip to this vast territory, we lived through a late May that would rival the weather of mid-December in most of the Northern hemisphere. During our three-day stay on the island of Olkhon alone, we lived through sun, rain, strong winds, snow, and an ice-covered Lake Baikal. Our various hosts and guides there apologized about the weather, explaining that this year has been particularly cold and telling us to come back in August. For the most part though, I didn’t mind when the temperatures dropped. Somehow it felt right, like we were experiencing the sort of spring that I imagined Siberia would and should have.

I admit, however, that we had the luxury of enjoying the cold (and not fearing for our lives) because along with the Siberian May, we got to experience the Russian tradition of keeping warm. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russia has a long history of finding ways to ward off the cold: a banya (the sauna’s Russian cousin) was mentioned in the ancient Chronicles dating from the beginning of the 12th century, and the household oven was traditionally a place for kids to sleep and listen to stories—it was quite literally the best spot in the house. And so, as we vacationed in a place known for its cold, it was rather fitting that we also experienced these traditional methods of staying warm.

Each room in our cabin on Olkhon had a large, white, wood-burning oven, filled up and ignited regularly by the staff, which kept us toasty through the chilly evenings (and the even chillier nights). While the ovens themselves were perhaps nothing unordinary, from my American point of view, they seemed like proof that in some parts of the country, at least, the tradition of the oven as a home’s central feature lives on.

While the ovens seemed like part of our daily life on the island, I think it’s safe to say that our time in the banya felt like an all-out event. In my opinion, the hour in the banya was a high point of the trip, and I’m pretty sure the group agreed—suddenly sweating became an enjoyable activity. In a nutshell, an hour in the banya includes sitting in a steaming sauna for about 15 minutes, washing in the adjoining room, sitting in the sauna again, washing again, and so on, until you’re ready to go (or if you’re like me, pretending that the time hasn’t passed until you hear the next group knocking at the doors). Before leaving, you pour cold water over yourself, which closes up your pores, and as we learned, guarantees that you’ll make some sort of laugh, scream, or loud exclamation.

Although we didn’t get hit with birch branches, as is traditional, and said to help circulation, the banya experience was certainly memorable. While I appreciated the banya for the feeling of cleanliness it provided, I also found myself thinking how oddly awesome it was to be part of such a long-standing tradition—it felt like the same sauna could have existed centuries ago, and would be just as relaxing no matter the time period. Moscow is such a bustling place, and it was a nice change of pace to be away from the grit and noise of the city, and to lie in a quiet steam-filled room on the other side of the Urals. Amid endless steppe and mountains, and on an island in world’s largest lake, who knew that Siberia could feel so cozy?