“Come on, whip me harder,” a girl screams, and with a swing that would make Tiger Woods look a little timid, her friend cracks down with a force marking her skin.
The recipient might be loving it but this is no erotic sex session: it’s a traditional Russian banya. But the idea of extreme pleasure and pain makes it comparable.
After an overnight train ride from Moscow, we pull into the small Russian town of Pskov, about 30km from the Estonian border, feeling the effects of a night not quite asleep on public transport.
Our guide’s promise to freshen up in the early afternoon is more than welcome.
Any thoughts of a modern, sterile spa experience quickly evaporate as we head into the countryside.
The roads look like they were built with installed land mines, as the driver tries to avoid potholes the size of black cabs.
“Let’s hope they build saunas a bit better than they build roads,” one of our crew quips.
But this is no sauna: it’s a banya – and, according to our guide Katya, going to one is as important to a healthy Russian lifestyle as drinking vodka.
“When you come to Russia you must go to a banya,” Katya says. “Most Russians will go with their friends once a month to keep healthy.”
The only apparent difference between a banya and a sauna, to my untrained eye at least, is there are no open coals. All the coals, which can reach 800˚C, are in the furnace – not that it makes for a cooler experience.
Turn up the heat
As we pull up to a collection of small farmhouses a weary-looking dog raises his head off the dirt long enough to let us know he’s not done-for yet. If I come out of the banya half as chilled as this dog, I might not make it back on the bus.
But with the temperature struggling to get much above 3˚C there’s little chance I’ll be lounging about outside.
The banya, which is in a cabin situated on the edge of a lake, is fired up and ready to go, but this being Russia it’s important to honour the country’s most famous local custom – drinking vodka.
The idea isn’t to get drunk, but simply to have a couple of shots to cleanse the mind before we get to work on the body.
Suitably cleansed and dressed in a swimsuit I join the others in the banya and, planning to get the most out of the experience, I head for the top row of the cramped enclosure where the heat is most fierce.
If I’m going to cook, I prefer to do it quickly.
After adjusting to the heat in a few minutes, Katya opens the furnace and throws in three ladles of water.
The blast of the resulting heat is enough to force us all to double over as we look for relief closer to the floor.
The deep freeze
After 15 minutes I’m sweating like a prostitute in a confessional box.
Then the beating begins. Girls hit boys, boys hit girls, girls hit girls – it doesn’t matter, but it does feel pretty good. Perhaps that’s down to the fact we’re using branches of birch.
Locals claim the oils in the birch leaves help cleanse the skin and leave it feeling soft and supple.
But after heating and beating myself, the journey to rejuvenation is by no means finished.
I bolt for the door, and rather than striding to the nearby lake Baywatch-style, I hit the ground outside in a prissy jig, trying to keep the cold at bay.
The futility of my undignified attempt to stay warm kicks in when I’m about 5m from the lake and I realise it’s still covered in an icy crust, which has yet to fully thaw after winter.
This is bloody madness. But on I jig, taking the wooden steps that lead into the lake – unbelievably, this is a well trodden path. As I dive under, the breath is sucked
out of my lungs quicker than I can get my head above the water.
I don’t hang about – as fast as I entered the water I head back to the warm protection of the banya, determined to repeat the process another four times as instructed.
By the end of it all I feel fantastic – clean, refreshed, and rejuvenated. As one of my fellow sadomasochists says: “I’ve been whipped, I’ve been frozen and I’ve been incinerated. I feel bloody great.”
» Krysten Booth travelled on a nine-day Russia Unplugged tour with On The Go (020 7371 1113; onthegotours.com). On The Go offers four- to 14-day group tours. Prices start from £299
What to see in Pskov
It’s not the biggest town in the world nor the prettiest, but there are a couple of attractions in and around Pskov well worth your time.
About an hour’s drive from Pskov, the Pechory Monastery was established in the 15th century. It is still a working monastery and the caves found within its walls house the bodies of thousands of monks.
Locals from the village frequent the monastery every day to attend prayer services.
Moscow isn’t the only city to have a Kremlin. The word actually refers to fortified areas in all Russian cities. The Pskov Kremlin played an important role in the history of Russia, acting as a base for control of the Baltic region.
You can still visit the Kremlin today, and see the impressive Trinity Cathedral inside its walls.
Russia: A Soviet Experience
While visits to banyas may be a tradition dating back centuries, it’s the more recent history of the 20th century that attracts most tourists.
The Soviet period (1917-1991) meant Russia was virtually off-limits to much of the world. While the Iron Curtain fell almost two decades ago, the legacy of the USSR still burns brightly and, in some cases, fondly.
Life after the iron curtain
The country is still dotted with statues of Lenin, and the manner in which some Russians talk of the period suggests it’s not simply nostalgia that colours their opinions.
Our guide in Moscow, Natalia, still questions whether things are better now than when the Iron Curtain provided protection for many Russians.
A 40-something tour guide, she bemoans the fact her son listens to so much Western music, his lack of application to his studies and the watering down of Russian culture.
“We are still very much a country in transition – stuck between Soviet times and capitalism,” Natalia says.
“Where we are going I don’t know. We probably had more freedom in Soviet times because everything now is measured in money. Back then we were not starving, we were not hungry and children were well educated. I’m not sure that is the case today for many people.”
The Red Square
Perhaps the most important geographic symbol of the Cold War, the Red Square elicits memories of fear-inducing military parades when tanks and huge missiles rolled through in a show of might.
Today it’s a beautiful square flanked by the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral, the Gum Shopping Centre and the State History Museum.
It’s also the entry point to Lenin’s Mausoleum, where you can see the former Soviet leader lying in state.
Park of the fallen idols
Opened in 1995, this park is filled with statues (such as the one on the right) erected during the Soviet era and subsequently pulled down.
To find it simply head to the massive statue of Peter the Great (it’s on the river, you can’t miss it) and you’ll find it nearby.
Moscow metro stations
It’s rare for a metro station to be a destination in itself, but the Moscow underground is different.
While the entire metro system is a modern-city marvel in its efficiency, there are a number of stations which are stunning for their art and architecture.
They were designed by the Soviets to inspire everyday workers and demonstrate what great things socialism could achieve.
The best of the stations are Mayakovskaya, Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Novoslobodskaya and Komsomolskaya.
The Seven Sisters
Built as a testament to the USSR’s ability to rise from the ashes of World War II, the ‘Tall Buildings’ that dominate the Moscow skyline are stunning examples of Stalinist architecture.
While the buildings now have a number of different roles, the Moscow State University and the Hilton Leningradskaya are two fine examples which are easy to visit.
Visiting the Kremlin is a must.
While you won’t get to see the wheels of Russian government turning (most of those areas are, understandably, restricted), you might be surprised to find a collection of churches and monasteries within the famous walls.