Did you know: Lake Baikal is the world’s largest lake? Seriously. True story. It is. That is a fact. Its also the world’s deepest. In fact it holds 20% of the world’s freshwater, and at its deepest point it is over a mile deep! You’re probably massively impressed by now.
Notwithstanding the fact that we can’t actually figure out what the difference is between the definition of a lake and a sea (thus leading to suspicions that the Russian’s have labeled what really should be known as the Sea of Baikal as a lake simply to be able to claim some of the nice titles above. Rather like a boxer shedding a few pounds to win some easy belts in the weight division below his own), Lake Baikal really is an utterly impressive place. After spending three days on a train it was like therapy! Being able to fill your lungs with fresh air, as opposed to that of a turgid train carriage, was wonderful.
We made the most of our short time staying at Baikal. We hiked up a mountain to take in a panoramic view of the vast lake (see photo); we went for a long walk to a beach along a disused railway line that, much to our surprise and indeed alarm, turned out to not be disused at all (see photo); we went for a mooch aboard an old rusting boat we quite randomly came across (see photo); and we dined out on a very tasty but very cost effective barbeque cooked by Uzbeks (see photo).
But the highlight from our time at Lake Baikal was, undoubtedly, the evening when we all went for a traditional Russian banya.
So… Going for a banya was one of the few things I was very keen on doing whilst in Russia. A traditional Russian past time, especially for men, its essentially a sauna which also involves jumping in ice cold water and which also involves being beaten with wet branches. Granted, not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, and I can see why it appeals to a macho ‘I’m well hard, I’ll jump into this freezing lake and then smack myself with branches’ mentality.
But I was very much looking forward to the experience, as were my tour chums. I love saunas and steam rooms at home, and I had visions of a quaint log cabin deep in the forest, a small oasis of cool, fresh, calm water, and of a delightful and relaxing evening.
So imagine our collective surprise when we arrived at the banya to discover that it was not, in fact, a pine clad chalet deep in the woods, surrounded by wild but somewhat tame bears, playing soothing pan pipe music. What we were presented with was essentially a porta-cabin on a floating raft, lurching wildly on a particularly choppy Lake Baikal evening. To say it didn’t quite match what we’d expected could be an understatement.
But we’re hardy folk, us travellers, and thus we climbed aboard and ventured inside. To be fair the inside of said porta-cabin was a much more familiar affair. There was a (very small) changing room, and then a (very small) sauna into which seven of us crammed in our swimming costumes. Now as you may know, for the last few days I’ve been suffering from a particularly chesty bout of man flu. As such I was delighted to have the opportunity to sit in a piping hot sauna for a bit, sweating out germs and cleansing my pores, and to begin with that’s exactly what I very happily did.
However, the bit I wasn’t so sure about was jumping into the ice cold Lake Baikal. Indeed, that was the whole point of the banya being on a raft – that you can jump off the raft and into the water. Thus it was that after 15 minutes of generous sweating, we trooped out of the sauna and onto the platform outside leading to the sea.
One of our group – Antonia the Swiss girl – took the plunge first. Whilst we approached the water with British hesitation, she positively launched herself at the lake and disappeared beneath the surface.
I went next. I didn’t necessarily intend to jump in quite so quickly. I was planning to sit and dangle my legs in for a bit first, until I found myself walking towards the edge of the platform with a concerning degree of intent. It turns out I was no longer in control of what I was doing at this point. Rather, that part of my brain that constantly seems to whisper ‘you’ll never have the chance to do this again, so just fucking do it already’ had taken over and was now running the show. I was powerless to stop myself. A second later I’d jumped. I sailed through the air. I began to fall. I hit the water…
You’ve probably been punched in the stomach at some time in your life, right? Maybe by accident. Maybe as the result of an innocent bit of horse play with a sibling. Or perhaps you were actually in an actual real life fight, and were on the receiving end of a low blow? I don’t know. But whatever the case, you probably know what it feels like to have the wind knocked out of you. Your mouth opens, trying to swallow air that isn’t there for swallowing. Your arms flail as you try and get your balance. Your head spins, and you’re out of it for a few seconds. That’s basically what happens to you when you walk out of a piping hot sauna and jump into a freezing cold lake
…And yet, this isn’t a complaint. You need to understand that. This isn’t me having a moan. Because I absolutely, utterly and totally loved it! Sure, I was in the water for mere seconds before reaching for the ladder and hauling myself rather pathetically out again. Fine, once safely back on deck I flapped about for several seconds much like a newly beached seal may have done. But once I’d regained my composure, I stood up and I looked around me. I looked up at the horizon of Lake Baikal and the setting sun, turning the clouds a bright, soft yellow. I looked around at my friends giggling and laughing away, sharing the most ridiculous experience. I stood there, dripping with freezing cold water, the wind blasting in against my skin. And I didn’t even feel cold. I just felt the most intensely relaxed I’ve ever felt in my life. I filled my lungs with the freshest air I’ll ever breathe, I opened my arms at the world before me. All this from the briefest of dips in a chilly lake!
We went back in the sauna, and had our ‘being hit with wet branches’ treatment (technical term). That was ok. I guess it’s designed to get rid of dead skin or something? It wasn’t the most relaxing thing ever, and I ended up with leaves all over me. I’m not sure I can see the point of that bit. Once we’d done that we ran back outside and jumped back in the lake once more, and then finished with one final sauna session to warm our bones before heading off for dinner.
And that was it! Our Russian banya was over. You’ll have gathered by now that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and really can’t recommend it highly enough. It’ll all seem a bit nuts when you get there, and especially if you go for one of the lower end banyas like we did. But, as with any big life experience, the thing to do is to just close your eyes and walk forwards into it, to put the weirdness and the potential risks out of your mind, and to see what happens. The rewards of doing so are usually huge, and this was no different. Having a banya in Russia is now up there among my all time life experiences – from sleeping under the stars in a Ghanaian national park, to scuba diving in Mozambique, to sky diving in Prague, to washing elephants in India. Getting a Banya in Russia has been added to that list.
Just don’t try and recreate it at home with an airing cupboard and a paddling pool – probably won’t have quite the same effect.