Blini, bells and banya – my birthday in Russia

I know there’s lots to catch up on from the Russia leg of my journey, but for the sake of starting somewhere, I thought I’d begin with today.  Hopefully we’ll get back to the other stuff – a sort of ‘Russia in retrospect’ if you will.

Meanwhile, on my birthday, 18 March, I have been in a small town in Russia called Suzdal.  It’s a place that is full of fascinating history, beautiful rural Russian architecture, and picturesque churches – from the simple to the elaborate – that decorate the skyline with colourful cupolas in every direction.

One of my favourite books, “Russka” by Edward Rutherfurd, is a historical fiction novel about Russia, with the main village (called Russka) roughly based on the real Suzdal.  I’m reading it again while I’m here (having finished Anna Karenina on the train earlier in the week – summary – long and depressing, but interesting to now be seeing some of the history to which it refers).  Anyhow, I highly recommend Russka if you’ve any interest in Russian history and a taste for a saga-ish type of read.  But back to the birthday story…

The day started with blini (russian pancakes) for breakfast, served with my choice of sour cream or strawberry jam – the chunky kind with whole strawberries in it.  I’ve adapted pretty quickly to this Russian liking for jam, and will happily now drink my tea with jam in it, or just jam straight off the spoon… especially in a ‘rural’ town like this one where all the jams and honeys are mostly local and delicious!

It was a grey day here, but at least it wasn’t snowing like yesterday!  I headed out in the morning intending to spend a couple of hours wandering through the nearby Intercession Convent (founded in 1364 as a place of exile for the unwanted wives of tsars), and the Saviour Monastery of St Euthymius (also founded in the 14th century, and surrounded by huge rampart walls to protect the town’s northern entrance).

On my wanderings, as it was Sunday (or, as I may choose to believe, because it was my birthday), the bells were being rung!  By chance, I happened to be standing in the convent grounds when 3 sisters played the bells in their tower – cunningly joined by a system of ropes so one person can play several bells from a single position.  It was quite different to the types of church bell ringing I’ve heard before – quicker, very rhythmic, and with harmony.  And again, later in the monastery, the bells were played there too – on the hour a couple of times in succession.  What a birthday treat!

As it happened, the UNESCO-listed monastery is ENORMOUS, and contains within its walls about 10 separate museums in addition to the 7-domed Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, with its soaring wall frescos inside.   And so I ended up spending hours there, wandering through halls of overwhelming priceless history (like the museum titled “Books from 6 centuries” for example, or the prison – established within the monastery walls during the 18th century which has housed quite the array of dissidents over the years).  As one of those people who likes to read all the information beside every exhibit at a museum, it’s quite double-edged that I can’t read Russian… There was SO much more interesting stuff there that I undoubtedly missed just through lack of understanding, but if I’d been able to read it all it would have taken me a week.

Side note – my Russian has improved remarkably, and I can now read the cyrillic script sufficiently to understand train station names, weather forecasts and street names; locate banks, supermarkets, souvenir shops and museums; and then decipher people’s names in the museums (such as, from today – Tolstoy, Checkov, Solzhenitsyn, Karl Marx, and the ubiquitous Lenin along with many of the Tsars; and from last week Tokarev, Markarov and Kalashnikov at the military history museum in Ekaterinburg…).  Also in a moment of personal victory this week I graduated to using the entire sentence for “I don’t speak Russian”, instead of the terribly bastardised abbreviated version I had been able to manage previously which was probably roughly translated as something like “me no russki”.  People have also stopped looking at me strangely when I say “hello” and have started to say “hello” back, which I’m counting as a win!  Not bad for 3 weeks in the country, when after 2 months in Hong Kong I had only managed to pick up “thank you” and “bus stop please” in the local lingo.

Also while I was in the monastery, pondering the somewhat unexpectedly bright colours of the restored 17th century frescos in the cathedral, a group of 5 male singers came in unannounced, took up a spot under the central dome, and proceeded to perform one hauntingly beautiful piece, a capella in close harmony.  It was sublime – they had beautiful voices, and the cathedral acoustics did them full justice.  Afterwards, one of them said something in Russian (probably, “please buy our CD” which it turned out they were selling outside), and they disappeared as swiftly as they had arrived.  Another birthday treat!  And, among my amazing russian vocabulary, I know how to say “beautiful”, so was able to appropriately thank them on my way past.

I had a bit of a bottom-lip-quivering “far from home and all alone on my birthday” moment on the way back, but then scored an internet connection at my guest house (hooray!) and caught up with all your lovely messages which was a highlight.  Special thanks for the texts – made my morning 🙂  And means I can put up a blog post!

One thing I have really wanted to do while in Russia is experience a banya – the traditional russian bath house.  I had picked Suzdal as the most likely spot for this, but thought I’d missed my chance to find and/or organise it having spent so much of the day in the monastery museums.  But, as usual, the plan was already under control before I knew about it and the mother of my guest house host, when I mentioned my dilemma, rang her friend up the road who has a banya in her back yard that they merrily open up to tourists for a perfectly reasonable price.  Hooray!

So they fired up the banya for me, and having received my instructions (from the english speaking hostess – another answer to prayer!), I banya’d merrily away.  Here’s how it works.

1. A wood fire makes a bunch of stones very hot which heats a small room (like a sauna).

2. I, the intrepid never-before-banya’d tourist (a banyip perhaps?), wrap myself in a sheet, don a funky banya hat (apparently to stop your brain exploding in the heat), and head into the hot room.  You splash some water on the stones to steam up the room a bit (and heat it more).  While struggling to breathe and wondering if the hat really will stop your brain exploding, you use a bundle of birch branches (having first carefully checked them for hidden microfilm) to ‘massage’ yourself, which basically means swooshing them around your skin a bit before using them to beat yourself.  When banya-ing is communal, apparently you can get help with the beating bit, and beat others in turn.  Intriguing.

3. Exit the hot room when you can’t take it any more.  Loll around in the ‘relaxing room’ for a while, listening to Russian radio (which I decided was a kind of hybrid program somewhere between Super Request, Love Song dedications, and Juke Box Saturday night), drinking tea, snacking and catching up on the latest in beauty and home mags.  (Same celebs, different language).

4. When you’ve sufficiently recovered, go back into the hot room again.  Stay in there as long as you can stand it.  Distract yourself from the heat (registered on the wall thermometer as 104 deg C) by pondering the correlation between the boiling point of water, the percentage of the human body that is water, and the effectiveness of the banya hat.  Repeat this a few times.  At one point, completely out of the blue, Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb” came out of the radio.  First english language song of the night.  (Ace of Base got a run a bit later).  I think at that point I was literally sweating from my eyelids while reading up on brick colour options in Russian “Home”.  Have never felt less like the said ordnance.

5. After the 3rd go in the hot room (by which point I could actually breathe the air without feeling like I was sacrificing my entire nasal passage, but that may have been because it was already completely burnt out), screw up your courage, throw open the door, and wearing nothing more than swimmers, run out into the snow and dive in.  No joke.  I was aiming for my first ever snow angel to go with my first ever banya experience, but it turns out that by 9pm there’s a fair icy crust on that deep snow and it hurts to wallow around in it like that.  Quite apart from the fact that you’re LYING IN THE SNOW wearing frighteningly little, which is not to be prolonged by the sane.  So, no angel.  But I did take a photo of the snow divet to prove I did actually dive in.

6. Reap the apparent benefits for health and wellbeing.  I’ll let you know how that goes…

It has certainly been a birthday to remember!  Will hopefully be able to add some pics tomorrow before I head for my next stop… Moscow!

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Blini, bells and banya – my birthday in Russia

  1. Mum

    WOW!!!!!!!!!! Anna, what a FANTASTIC Birthday!!! – Don’t know whether you’ll ever be able to top the birthday in Suzdal in 2012.

    And all that beautiful music and bells . . . .

    Perhaps you could meet us in Sankt Peterburg and be our official interpreter!!

    Thanks for all the fabulous detail about the banya – now I actually know someone who has been in the banya and then dived out into the snow!!!

    Have a happy last day in Suzdal, lots of love Mum & Dad xxx

  2. Adelaide

    That was an awesome read! Loved hearing about it all. I think they were definitely ringing bells for your birthday.

  3. Kate

    Amazing! Love your stories. Russia sounds fabulous, lots of cold, snow and fresh air. And of course banya-ing. Am slightly convinced that experiencing a communal banya and beating one another (banya-ing??) is traditional s&m masquerading as a public practice. Thoughts confirmed by the background track (sex bomb). Hope it came with a side of vodka 😉

    P.s. now have a hankering for jam…

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