Veniks & Hot Pots
A Morning at Almaty’s Arasan Baths
Am I missing something? Where are the flipping baths?
My mind recalls the entrance and a huge red sign, ‘Arasan Wellness & Spa’. Right, no mention of baths. Yet I’ve been calling it ‘Arasan Baths’ for days and this assortment of steam rooms, saunas and hot marble slabs is leaving me underwhelmed.
In my quest for a hot dip I’m up and down staircases, poking my head in here and there and staring at the floor plan for far too long. In the Eastern Baths my bewildered look gives me away and my scrubber lady finds me before I’ve even had a chance to look for her. She checks my numbered wristband, confirming I’m the one the English speaking gent at reception had called ahead about. She points at the clock, flashes her hands three times and I repeat with my fingers -three-zero. OK, I’ve got half an hour.
I last all of a minute in the Turkish Steam Room. On to the hot slab room. Can’t relax. Marble makes for a terrible bed and it’s burning my feet. Out to the cooler central slab. I lay down my towel and stare up at the dome, admiring the mosaic walls. Memories of bathhouses in Granada, Istanbul and Bukhara pop into my head. I recount the efforts made by the architect of this fine Almaty establishment to perfect the design and make this the grandest spa in all of Central Asia. I can’t shake my longing for Busan’s Spa Land though, or the rotenburo of Kurokawa Onsen. My tired body craves a long hot soak.
An hour goes by before my scrubber lady is ready for me. I watch her send off a happy customer, a smile and nod of acknowledgement exchanged between us as we swap places. As the bucket of hot water washes over me, a sense of relief prevails. Ahhhh. This is what I needed.
My saviour scrubs away, all the dirt of a month spent backpacking around Mongolia disappearing. My ticklish feet squirm a little but I long for smooth heels again so I force them to behave. The literal scrubbing behind my ears is pure bliss. Then comes the salt. Sounds like a great exfoliant, I thought when requesting the treatment. And no doubt it is, but I wasn’t prepared for the intense stinging, these tiny shards of glass cutting into my delicate skin. It burns as if my entire body were an open wound.
But wow, is my skin smooth as butter after.
I return downstairs and sweat it out in the Finnish Sauna. It’s good and I’m feeling far more enamoured with the place post-scrub. Some ladies next to me are wearing what looks like a felt tea-cosy on their heads. A small towel I’d understand. But a felt hat? In 70 degrees? This is a first. I catch myself staring in bemusement a little too long. Time to move on.
The Russian Sauna beckons me in. I pause just inside the door. So this is where it’s at, I smile to myself. To the left a gaping hole in the wall, a vault of a door swung open to reveal enormous lengths of white hot coal burning inside. To the right a few steps up to a second level, wooden benches tiered up the wall. Birch and oak leaves litter the floor.
An alarming figure grabs my attention. A faceless woman, felt hot pot on her head and a white towel down to her chin, frantically thrashing herself with a bundle of leaves. I think how unusual to have tattoos scattered randomly across her belly, before realising they’re just leaves, stuck to her dripping body. She picks up a second venik and starts a two pronged attack, the brooms shaking back and forth like a cheerleader’s pom-poms. The sound is quite intoxicating.
The lower level seats are all taken so I head on up the stairs. Two, three steps and whoa, the temperature difference hits me like a punch to my windpipe. Struggling to breathe I fumble around with my towel and sit down along from the felt-hatted pros.
A veteran stands up, marching down to the bowl of water by the door. She grabs the long handled metal cup, scoops up some water and launches it like a stone from a catapult into the massive furnace in the wall. Another cupful. And another. When she’s done, a round of congratulatory spasibas resound. I, for one, am not appreciative of the added heat. Tentatively touching the very edge of the door handle, the way you do a hot oven tray, she slams the enormous hunk of metal shut.
It’s too much for me. I rinse off quickly and head for the plunge pool. Thigh deep, edging in slowly, I’m stopped by the attendant. An English speaking staff member appears out of nowhere and explains I have to wear a cap to enter the pool. “I can bring you one from reception if you like?” “It’s OK,” I reply, having no desire to tea-cosy up and not that fussed for the tepid pool anyway. “But can I have someone hit me with the leaves?” When in Rome, and all that. “Of course, let’s go”.
She leads me back to the Russian Sauna and locates The Thrasher, a large middle aged woman with a lifetime of leafy broom beating under her modesty towel. “How do you like your sauna, standard or high heat?” she inquires. “Just standard please,” I respond nervously. She directs me in. The bottom bench is free and I grab it, thankful to have a spot on the cooler ground level.
The Thrasher comes in, grabs a couple of basins from under my bench, and starts hurling cold water at the walls on the upper level. She’d do well in the shot putt, I muse. The other sauna goers duck their heads to avoid a faceful of water. Again and again she flings the water, hisses of steam crying out, until she’s dampened every last bit of wall. Finally, she launches two bucketfuls into the furnace, steam spewing forth like an enraged dragon, before she disappears back out the door. At first I’d assumed she was cooling down the temperature after I requested a standard heat, but this seemed to be heading in entirely the opposite direction.
A few minutes pass, enough for my skin to be slick with sweat, and she returns. She’s dressed in a red fleece and black balaclava, a felt hotpot on her head and a venik in each hand. She looks like a Mexican wrestler crossed with a terrorist. What on earth have I signed myself up for? Her eyes loom large over me through the holes in her ski mask and she motions me up the stairs. Not the second floor! I’m screaming inside. I nearly choke on the hot air, the intensity of the heat suffocating me. Lie down she gestures. The wooden bench burns.
She starts to play a tune of sorts all down my back.
Shish-shish-shish-shish-shish-shish-shish-shish-shish-shish-shish-shish-SHISH, the final whack always a triumphant crescendo.
The smell of birch leaves dance around me. I was expecting pain, but instead, with each strike of the leaves a refreshing, cooling sensation spreads through my body. The only pain is the stifling heat and my burning extremities, not protected by my meagre towel. I sneak a side glance across the room and catch faces of concern, alarm, a slight smirk from the veterans.
Back, sides, front. Back again. A final SHISH signals the end.
And now I can make my escape. Whoops, stood up too quick. Gripping the handrail as my feet slip and slide in my rented rubber slippers, I teeter down the steps, feeling a rush to the head. I launch myself out the door and make a beeline for a bench. Catching my breath, trying not to faint, I curse the lack of water coolers and forgetting to bring my own bottle. Then The Thrasher is back, de-masked and looking altogether less threatening. She’s prepared two buckets of cold water, ready to throw over me. Deep breath she mimes. Instant relief.
One more for good measure, an extra splash on the face, and she’s on to her next victim.
You’ll find Arasan Wellness & Spa at Тулебаева, д.78 (уг.ул., Айтеке Би), Almaty 050000, Kazakhstan (78 Tolebaev Street, just west of Panfilov Park).
The nearest metro station is Zhibek Zholy. Opening hours are Mon-Sun 7am – 11.30pm. Prices start from 1200 tenge / hour for adults.
See photos below for detailed pricings.
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Veniks & Hot Pots
A Morning at Almaty’s Arasan Baths