Earlier this year, I spent 12 days traveling through Russia for Business Insider.
I went inside the Kremlin in Moscow, visited a diamond mine in Siberia, and spent two days riding the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway. I also stayed the night in the ultra-luxurious, $18,000-a-night presidential suite at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton.
But the most memorable part of my trip had nothing to do with diamonds or five-star hotels.
On a rainy afternoon in Moscow toward the end of my trip, I paid a visit to Sanduny, the oldest public bathhouse in Russia, which opened in 1808, more than 200 years ago. Traditional bathhouses — called banyas — are an essential part of Russian culture.
A banya typically includes a steam room with wooden benches, leafy branches that are used for massages, and buckets or pools of cold water. In Siberia, people will often walk outside of the steam room and lie down in the snow. A visit to the banya is said to improve skin and overall health.
At the Sanduny bathhouse in Moscow, I paid $85 for a “branch massage,” during which I was whacked all over my body with birch branches. After dragging the branches up and down my body, which sort of tickled, the masseuse proceeded to whack the branches up and down my body with force for about 15 minutes.
After that — with no warning — she threw three buckets of water over my entire body: one ice-cold, one slightly warmer, and one lukewarm. She had me turn onto my back and then repeated the water-dousing process.
Oh, and I was completely naked throughout this process — with the exception of a green felt hat that was definitely something an elf would wear.
While I wouldn’t say the birch branch was especially relaxing in the moment, I left the bathhouse feeling both serene and invigorated.
If you happen to be in Russia, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to go to a banya. Just prepare yourself for some mild confusion and some solid whacking.