Naked flagellation in 90 degrees C

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July 16th 2010
Published: July 20th 2010
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For the first time ever I see continuous rivulets of sweat pouring, not trickling, from a person's chin. It is happening to both Vitaly and I as we sit in the burning heat of this log cabin banya, gasping for breath as the smell of burning resinous wood envelops us and wearing nothing other than a felt elf-hat each. While we sit there Vitaly occasionally opens the doors to the furnace and throws in a bowlful of water, the steam from which immediately raises the banya's temperature noticeably. When it seems like the combined effects of the heat and the bottle of vodka that Vitaly's mother-in-law and I have recently polished off are about to make my head explode, I hear a sentence whose beauty at this point in time could not be matched by any other collection of words strung together, no matter how poetically: "OK, let's go out and cool down."

We sit in the next room until our torrential perspiration has diminished to a mere drizzle then re-enter the banya. We remain seated and Vitaly keeps throwing water in the furnace until the room reaches its previous blood-boiling temperature and the sweat is once again flowing freely.

"OK, lie down here," he says, pointing to a raised wooden surface. I do as told, my feet now next to the furnace. He throws another bowl of water in for good measure, the steam from which envelopes my legs and makes me kick them out in pain.

"Stay still," he tells me, "the more you move the more it'll hurt."

I lie as still as I can and he approaches me, a leafy eucalyptus branch in each hand. He raises them above his head and, one by one, brings them down to thrash the living daylights out of me again and again. My skin goes red, pimples pop up and explode in the heat and, over a period of five minutes as he whips the shit out of me, the branches seem to get hotter and hotter even in comparison to the room, somehow absorbing the infernal heat and letting my body know it with every lash.

I stagger out of the banya a shadow of my former self. It is part of a log cabin house in a small village called Uralskiy an hour's drive from the city of Perm, one of the last big cities in Europe before the border with Asia. The house belongs to Kolya and Lyuba, Alisa's great uncle and aunt, who are sitting in the room next to the banya around a table laden with salad, fish, salami, cheese, fruits and vegetables with Alisa and her sister Olga. Everyone laughs at me as I stumble towards them and, looking at my face in a mirror, I see it is the same colour as the beetroot soup we ate for starters.

I sit down and begin to pour myself a glass of the cold fruit kompot that is sitting in a huge jar on the table.

"No, no, you mustn't!" Lyuba exclaims. "Drink some tea!"

"I really can't, it'll make me sweat even more, I need something cold!"

"No, nothing cold will do, you have to drink hot tea," Kolya insists.

I look at Alisa in desperation. "Come on, a hot drink even after a morning shower makes me sweat," I plead.

"Well, you really should drink hot tea after a banya," she agrees with the others.

It appears I have no choice so I let Lyuba fill me up with tea from a samovar. "Should have swum after the banya and not before," I mutter, referring to mine and Alisa's dip in the local river an hour previously. At the time it seemed cold; now it seemed like heaven.

"Absolutely not," Kolya tells me, "you have to swim before the banya, not after."

"But I mean, it would just be nice to cool down now somehow..."

"No," Lyuba confirms, "definitely swim then banya and not the other way around."

I decide to stop talking for a while and drink my tea. Incredibly, very shortly afterwards I cool down spectacularly and stop sweating.

Lyuba disappears and re-enters carrying another 70cl bottle of vodka. When we began the meal several hours ago I expected to drink two or three glasses. Being with the girlfriend's parents I took the rather drastic decision to break from Russian tradition, only drinking a half glass at a time and never being the one to fill them up. Lyuba, on the contrary, kept my and her glasses almost constantly full and often insisted we down them in one. In this way the two of us matched one another drink for drink while the girls stuck to wine and by the end of the meal the bottle was empty.

Now the ritual begins again with the new bottle. We move out into a vegetable garden almost the size of a tennis court and continue eating and drinking.

"How I wish I could drink with you," Kolya tells me, "I wish it so much but I'm afraid, I have a heart problem..."

Great Aunt Lyuba becomes more and more boisterous as the level of the second bottle sinks, sinks, sinks and eventually empties. We all move to the house of one of her daughters. They live in a small town of 9,000 next to Kolya and Lyua's village. Another spread of food is produced along with a third bottle. Lyuba and I finish it together. A fourth is produced and by now the wine is having an effect on the girls so they get involved.

"Lyuba never drinks normally," her daughters tell me, "it's just because you lot have come to visit, it's such a special occasion!"

Everyone gets a good night's sleep.

Click this link for advice on independent travel in the Urals

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