This week’s blogpost is a bit of a grabbag, as we got up to rather a lot. Our Russian-speaking, old Kazan hand American buddy Harry has just left back to the Mexican food and undubbed movie paradise of the USA, and we’ll miss both his companionship and his expertise. We went to the banya again with another buddy, Chris, to send him off, and it occurs to me I never wrote about it the first time.
Banyas, or steamrooms, have been an integral part of Russian culture for centuries. These days you have two options- the large public baths of naked Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises fame and the smaller, Finnish-style wooden saunas, which are apparently more popular these days, and where we went. The setup is a small changing room, a bathroom, and a two-part steamroom, first the tiled outer room with benches and a cold shower and then the small sauna itself, with red-hot wooden benches and the hot stones that give it life.
A similar setup to ours (although ours was even smaller)
The temperature gets to 90 degrees Celsius (so, almost 200 degrees Fahrenheit), so you don’t stay in long . The first step is to pour warm water on the stones to create steam (never cold, which would scald you) and then sit or lay as the suffocating atmosphere rolls over you. There are three levels of benches inside, and since heat rises, the top is almost insufferable. Another Russian custom is whipping eachother with thin, leafy birch branches to get the blood flowing, which also increases the feeling of heat. After tolerating this as long as you can, you dash out to that cold shower (or, if this was a traditional setup, the snow) and then catch your breath and rehydrate with water, and, if you’re doing it right, a cold beer.
The next day Jeonghee and I checked out a very different culture- cat culture. There was an official cat show in town (one of Kazan’s mascots is the Kazan Koschka (cat)) which seems to have drawn cat fanciers from all over Central Asia (we even met a woman from Kazakhstan). The variety of cats was ridiculous, but the two most popular seemed to be hairless cats and the gigantic, bobcat-like Maine Coon breed.
The people-watching was as interesting as the cat-watching, as big, burly Russian men rushed to take their little froofy cats to be judged and others dangled toys over their felines’ noses to liven them up a bit. The judging was done by one lady, who pretty aggressively handled these cats to check size, temperament, coloring, etc. This was hilarious, because in a lot of ways a cat show doesn’t make any sense. Dogs are like eager to please suckups, so they love jumping through hoops and getting paraded around. That’s no cat I know’s idea of a good time, though, and best case scenario the poor animals just tolerated the manhandling with a bemused look on their face. Many weren’t as happy about it, though…
After a day of laziness, we got on the road again, taking the ferry back to Sviyavsk with my new work colleague Sean in tow. Thankfully the weather was the polar opposite of the last time we went- a gorgeous sunny day that made for some good pictures. Unfortunately, it turned out that many of the closed buildings last time aren’t ever open, or have been converted into shops or hotels. One place we didn’t get to last time, though, was the small blufftop Konstantin and Elena Chapel. It has a very pretty location, although the inside is in the pretty standard restored Russian Orthodox style.
After that, we had a typical lunch of shashlik (Russian barbecue) and kvas (the sweetened rye bread beer I like so much) then wandered among the churches and pathways we saw last time, but now in much finer circumstances. Once nice change was that the Assumption Cathedral was open, allowing us to peck at the inside of this impressive turn of the century church.
The island of Sviyavsk has seen many eras- artist’s colony, political prison, lunatic asylum, school for the blind, and now tourist haven, but outside of the latter, few vestiges of them remain. What is left is a pleasant, nicely situated daytrip, but not much more.
To get back, we had to hitch a ride to the train station. The trick is to wait for an older, cheaper car driven by a young man. It’s likely either a taxi or a person who doesn’t mind giving folks a ride for a tip or just out of kindness. It’s generally an exciting ride as well, with pulsing music and just this side of safe speeds. Ah, Russia…
PS- we bought some honey liquor (mead, basically) in Sviyavsk and gave it a try. The closest I can describe the flavor is honeyed white wine- pretty tasty in small doses, although a bit much for a main course.