The Russian banya is such a unique experience. You are asked to undress completely, wrap yourself in a white sheet, go into a sauna where eucalyptas water is poured over hot stones. Then a sturdy Russian woman forces you to lie face down on a wooden bench, yanks your sheet off, and proceeds to beat you soundly with wet birch branches. It is both terrifying and invigorating at the same time. In my case, this occurred in the company of my boss (who fortunately now is my sister-in-law), a co-worker and my co-worker's best friend. I was 19. The experience is burned on my brain, as you can imagine. Such a tale surely must fit into the mystery.
At 9:30 a.m. Natasha and the drivers appeared in the hotel and ushered them to the waiting cars. The spa, or banya, was a short 15 minute drive and from the outside looked like a small orthodox church with Siberian traditional white plaster.
“I thought Russians were atheists, Belmond,” Bob looked over his glasses at Drew.
“Never judge a book by its cover, Mr. Jarrett. Especially a Russian one.”
Inside, they silently took in the grave splendor of a vaulted ceiling covered in gold leaf soaring above their heads, and a smooth marble floors worn to a matte finish marking years of its devotees below their feet. What had once been a place of worship for the Creator was now a place of worship for the body. Natasha broke the introspective silence by introducing the banya “nurses,” Valya, and big Valya. Big Valya was over 6 feet tall, blonde, and the spitting image of a young, though giant, Zsa Zsa Gabor.
“And this,” Natasha said with pride, as she took her place beside a distinguished looking man in a shiny navy suit, “is my father, Anatoli Ivanov . He is what you refer to as Minister of Interior. Keeper and protector of natural resources for region. He is also historian and local expert on Tea Trail.”
“Dobro pozalovat! Welcome!” Anatoli grinned broadly at them, two gold eye teeth flashing as he surveyed the group. “Irkutsk and Baikal play great role in history of tea, and therefore in world.” He paused and indicated a dark-haired, mouse-faced young woman, her features very indicative of the local people. “This is Vica, my assistant and also interpreter.”
She smiled shyly. Anatoli nodded to her and she slipped quietly through a side door to another room. Following her with his eyes, he announced grandly, “We have prepared for you, our guests, traditional Russian feast and tea. But first, to prepare your bodies and appetites, we have for you traditional Russian banya. Ladies, please,” he indicated the women to follow Big Valya, then motioned the men to come with him.
Michael had made some inquiries regarding Anatoli when Drew had learned he would be one of the group’s primary guides.
“The typical apparatchik, my dear,” she recalled him saying. “He received his title not long before communism fell, and no one thought or dared, rather, to take it away from him. That’s not what bothers me, though. It’s the Russian mob ties that do. But then, I’d bet there aren’t many apparatchik without mob interests these days.”
The teak and marble dressing room was cool yet humid. The women were shown shelves to keep their things. The Valyas handed each of them a white sheet and one said unceremoniously, “Okeh. Now you strip!”