Lobby Mural at the Zhirgal Banya

Banya in Bishkek

Published: May 17, 2013

Zhirgal Banya
Hours of Operation: Mon, Tues, Thurs: 9am-11pm, Wed: 12pm-11pm, Fri: 7am-11pm, Sat, Sun: 7am-11pm
Address: Corner of Ibraimov and Toktogul
Price: Adults: 250 Som, Kids (1-12 years old): 150 Som

Desperate times call for desperate measures. After finding out on May 13th that hot water would be turned off in Bishkek for the next month — as part of the annual maintenance of its heating systems — I decided now was as good a time as any to check out one of the local banyas, or Russian-style public bathhouse. Why not? There would be hot water there. Besides, I wasn’t mentally prepared that day to come home to a cold shower. If I was going to hurt that day, I decided it was going to be because I hit myself too hard with birch leaves.

I chose the banya that was closest to my apartment (and about a 30-minute walk from the London School) called Zhirgal Banya, located on the corner of Ibraimov and Toktogul. It’s the complex with the two large white domes. You can’t miss it.

Cashier at the Zhirgal Banya
Cashier at the Zhirgal Banya

As soon as I entered, I was greeted with a dim but clean marble lobby with black sofas and Greek and Kyrgyz murals. The place has the feel of a business hotel. To the left, there is an area to purchase bath products, from standard supplies such as shampoo and conditioner, to more Kyrgyz specialties like kalpaks, the national felt hat (to protect the head from intense heat in the sauna) and towels with Kyrgyz emblems. To the right is the cashier, where you pay your entrance fee and receive your locker key. It costs a cool five bucks for the whole day. After a woman on her cell phone mindlessly took my cash, she pointed me to a door that led to the women’s locker room. (Women and men are separated at the banya.) I schlepped over with my clunky school bag that had my laptop, transformer, recharging cord, iPhone, cell phone, my notebook, and all my other daily essentials. Here we go.

Walking into the locker room, I was met with a line-up of Kyrgyz babushkas who were chatting on a bench in front of the lockers. They immediately stopped talking. A woman at the door then promptly asked me for my receipt, which the cashier at the main entrance had given to me. “Oh, right!” I said. I fumbled through my wallet, self-consciously. I handed her an already crumbled square receipt. She gave me plastic slippers and a light “towel” – a bed-sheet like piece of material that is the standard dress code at a Russian banya. Mine was purple, a bit more colorful than the usual white that most use.

Then a bunch of coins fell onto the ground from my wallet. “Oh no!” I said a little too loudly. As I crouched down to pick up them up, she asked in Russian, “Where are you from?” A bit defeated, I looked up from the floor and said, “I’m from the States.” “Ahh.” I then stuffed all the coins into my bag and wandered away to look for my Locker #42. Behind me, I heard one of the babushkas ask the fee-collector in Kyrgyz, “Where is she from?” “She’s American.” “Ahh…”

After I found my locker, threw in my belongings, stripped, and wrapped myself in the bed sheet, I went to the bathing facilities. Here I found a scene of steam, hot splashing water, and the melodious sounds of the Kyrgyz language. There were several open showers, low faucets, and white marble slabs in the center on which people sat, scrubbed, chatted, and beat themselves with a bunch of leafy birch twigs called a venik (which translates to “broom.”) This process helps work dirt off the skin, but also helps open the pores and lets the sweat naturally deep-clean the skin. The venik also leaves a distinctive and pleasant scent.

There was also a cordoned section off to the side where two women at a time could get massages. There was a range of ages —from young mothers, to old mothers, to very old babushkas, to very young kids. Some walked around in their own towels. Some draped themselves in the banya-provided bed sheets. Most went au natural. The first thing I did was hang my bed sheet on one of the many pegs lining the right wall, and take a hot — I repeat, hot — shower. It was glorious.

Men and women bath domes at the Zhirgal Banya
Men and women bath domes at the Zhirgal Banya

Once I got my hot-water fix out of the way, I explored the rest of the facilities. I sat in the steam room for a few minutes, where I smacked myself with a venik while sitting on one of the wooden benches. I also entered The Dome, a stunning blue-tiled facility with an ice-cold pool in the center. The Dome is an architectural beauty. The tiles of different shades of blue that line the walls and the pool reminded me of the historical mosques of Uzbekistan. The Dome also has window slits near the top that allow natural light to shine through, causing the ripples from the water to reflect back onto the tiles. It was tranquil. Moreover, the Dome has interesting acoustics. As I sat on one of the wooden benches that lined the wall, I realized that I could hear the conversations of women on the other side of the dome as clearly and as loudly as if they were right behind me. It was a strange sensation. (And yes, I admit I looked over my shoulder the first time this happened…and yes, I was met with more blue tile.)

After the Dome, I returned to the main locker room, which had doors that led to two massage parlors, two manicure/pedicure parlors, a hairdresser, and a café bar. Klassno. I got a pedicure ($7.30) from a young Kyrgyz girl, and a back massage ($10.50) from a burly Russian woman. It was hassle-free. I simply knocked on the door of choice, asked if they were free, and then paid with cash, which I retrieved from my locker afterwards.

What was interesting, however, was that despite the presence of private rooms, there was a complete lack of privacy. During both my pedicure and back massage, women of all ages barged in without knocking (some clothed, some not). Some wanted to know when they could be next. Some needed change. Some just wanted to talk. At one point, one girl walked in, slapped some money on the table, and before I knew what was happening, my pedicurist had stopped working on me to bistro, bistro (quickly, quickly) paint this girl’s nails. It was certainly a far cry the beauty salons back home in Virginia, where personal rooms are safe “havens” from the rest of the public chatter and clatter in the main space.

But it was fun. I met some interesting women, I got to practice my Russian, and I even got to give some impromptu English-language lessons. In fact, a bunch of “us girls” ended up having so much fun that even when we were done getting our nails painted, we stuck around the nail salon (while other women came in) to continue chatting. And honestly, I was not surprised by this encounter. I often find the Kyrgyz to be friendly and open people. In fact, when I was at another banya last week in Barbulak, a nearby village in the south of Issyk Kul, I had also had friendly conversations with locals who simply came up to me with a curious smile to ask, “So, where are you from?” This happens repeatedly in Kyrgyzstan, usually upon hearing my American accent, and as a result I have met incredibly kind and fascinating people.

After getting my nails painted and knots in my back worked out, I decided to go for a refreshment. Like Alice in Adventures in Wonderland, I curiously opened yet another brown door that led from the locker room. Here, I entered a café with ten wooden tables and a small bar, where one can buy beer, cigarettes, juice, fried snacks, and cold candy bars. The crowd is a mix of Kyrgyz babushkas, grandkids, and twenty-something-year-old yuppies caked in bright green face masques. Sipping on my glass of overly-sweet raspberry juice (42 cents), I absorbed this scene of smoke, bed sheets, and pictures of Kyrgyz nomadic life on the walls. Yep, I’m certainly not in Kansas.

By 10pm, I decided it was time to head home. It was a weekday, after all, and I had class the next day. So I headed back to my base of operations, Locker #42, changed back into my clothes, and returned my locker key and bed sheet at the front door. I then stepped out into the warm, spring evening and breathed a deep sigh of contentment. When I got home and found that the power had also gone out, along with the hot water, I shrugged my shoulders. After an experience at the banya, it’s just impossible to be upset about anything.

About the author

Eirene Busa

Eirene Busa is a Master's Candidate at Georgetown University with the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. She has a BA in History and a Minor in Middle East Studies from the College of William and Mary. She studied Russian at the NOVAMOVA Russian language school in Kiev in the summer of 2012. She is currently in Bishkek with the SRAS "Home and Abroad: Report" program.

Program attended: Home and Abroad Scholar: $10,000 to Study Abroad

View all posts by: Eirene Busa

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