Arasan Bath House in Almaty
Wearing only a felt hat, oven mitts and flips flops a Kazak man dripping with sweat picks up a 2 meter long rod with a bucket on the end and uses it to open the metal door to the banya’s (sauna) oven and shovel in water. The upstairs loft of the banya is packed with mixture of ethnic Kazaks and those of Russia decent. All of whom go instantly quiet as the hot burning steam fills the large room. No one dares to move or speak, knowing the intense heat would make it very difficult, and instead everyone waits. Slowly the room cools slightly and movement is again an option. The silence is broken with the crack of bundle of branches from a birch tree (venik) against one mans sweaty back. Slowly others join in with the whipping practice which is said to improve circulation and is done by a friend or to oneself. The once quiet room becomes loud with the noises of the whipping sounds which eventually synchronize into one common rhythm as if it was an army marching band.
The Arasan Baths lies in the heart of Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan city, Almaty. It was built during the Soviet Union in the the 1970’s by the Party Secretary at the time – Kunayev. He was said to be well liked by the public but his extreme over spending on the Bath complex got him in trouble with his party superiors, by whom he was fined for. The complex is said to be partially inspired by the ancient bathhouse in the Kazak city of Turkestan, which are much smaller and more modest in comparison. The complex houses Russian, Finnish and Turkish baths as well as several private suites for group rental. As people are mostly naked in the public baths they are separate men’s and women’s sections. The Russian style banya is the most popular section in the building and allows access to 4 saunas, a large palatial swimming pool and a changing room resembles more a fancy hotel lobby complete with a bar, couches and chandeliers. Naturally massage serves are offered throughout.
Banyas are said to rejuvenate, cleanse and energize your entire body. To some locals there is nothing that a good banya and shot of vodka can’t cure. For some it’s a much needed escape from the outside world – relaxation for mind, body and soul. Puskin himself said “….the banya is like the Russian’s second mother.” Although the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union is slowly becoming a distant memory to the Kazaks in Almaty, the banya remains as popular as ever. Throughout the cold winters tickets sell out most nights, and for New years day one has to buy ticket days in advance for the privilege to sweat away the dirt from the previous year and whip yourself into shape for the next.
Here are some photos of the Arasan Baths for Steppe Magazine. With temperatures off the charts I had to preheat my camera (old school Canon AE1) in the oven and leave it in the sauna sealed in a dry bag so it would not condensate when exposed to the extreme temperatures.