A Shvitz in the Steppe: Almaty, Kazakhstan’s Arasan Baths

In a past life (circa 2009), David managed the local Russian bath here in Seattle.  It was there that he met our friend Helmut, who happened to be traveling with us in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan this past September.  So it made perfect sense that we spend an afternoon in Almaty’s Arasan Baths, famous for being the largest and most opulent of all public baths in Central Asia.

The combination of David’s history with the banya and my living experiences in bath-intensive places like Japan and Korea make us avid bath and hot springs travelers.  We seek them out nearly every place we go, from traditional Turkish hammams in Istanbul, to traditional Northern European spas in the Baltics.  Public baths are a great place to get to know a culture, as they are frequently social hubs, where people gather to not only soak away the aches of the day, but also to gossip about the neighborhood’s goings on.

I had learned about the Arasan baths in Almaty years ago, flipping through the pages of a magazine, “Steppe”, that is sadly no longer being published.  Focusing on Central Asian culture, society, and literature, I don’t imagine the publication had a very wide circulation among English language speakers, and only published nine issues between 2006 and 2011.  In its first issue, Steppe covered the Arasan Baths, featuring amazing photos and a fantastic personal narrative.  This was in 2006.  From that time of first reading the piece, until I finally got to visit in September of 2016, over ten years had passed.  Though, time in the developing world can move more slowly – and despite the great leaps and bounds Kazakhstan has made in those ten years (technologically and economically, at least), I choose to think that much of Arasan has remained the same.

We had just come from our second walk with Dennis of Walking Almaty, and were a bit sleepy from jumping headfirst into intensive sightseeing after a very long travel day between Seattle and Kazakhstan, and knew that the bath would be a welcome retreat from the rather hectic Almaty city center.  Despite being one of the largest cities in Central Asia, central Almaty is quite compact, and we were able to quickly meander our way through the downtown core, past the Green Bazaar and through Panfilov Park, to the large open courtyard welcoming bathers.  Outside there are numerous kiosks to purchase a venik (or the branches used to self-flagellate inside the dry sauna).  Buy one outside the baths for a fun exercise in cross cultural communication with a babushka, or spend slightly more to buy one inside – the extra cost is in the plastic wrapping provided with those purchased inside the premises, I’m sure.

The building in itself is marvelous.  Built in 1984 (such a good vintage for concrete), the bath building occupies almost an entire city block.  There are no hard corners on the building, instead all doors and windows are smooth arches, flanked by neat lines, repeated from ground to roof.  There is also a green dome – either made of copper, or painted to look as such.  The only thing that looked different about it from the pictures I’d seen of the building in 2006 was the white Volkswagen for sale smack in the center of the building’s main entrance.  Kazakhstan is oil wealthy, that’s for certain.

Upon entering the building, I think I managed to sneak one picture before receiving the consternation of the attendants, guards, and shopkeepers alike.  There’s nothing like that red paranoia that continues to permeate the post-Communist parts of the world.  Anyone with a camera, even a goofy American foreigner with a shit-eating grin on his face, is worth a stern look up and down.  We paid for two hours in the main section of the bathhouse – about $10 (3600 KZT) per person on a weekend during low (morning) hours.  With entrance fee we received a free felt cap, traditionally worn in the dry sauna to prevent your skull from overheating (I’m not making this up, I swear).

Sounds pretty self-explanatory, right?  Well, we weren’t quite in the clear yet – we walked in with our hats and towel, got naked and proceeded to try to enter the sauna.  “No no!” we were scolded by the large Kazakh attendant, alternating waving his arms and pointing at our feet.  We didn’t have sandals.  While I had attempted to learn a little Russian before this trip, I certainly didn’t have the vocabulary to explain why we hadn’t brought our own, so instead used the traveler go-to explanation of shrugging one’s shoulders, raising one’s eyebrows, and lifting one’s hands into the air as a last-ditch, “I didn’t understand the assignment.”  So there we waited, naked and somewhat afraid, while our friend rushed off to get us some loaners.

Once inside, we knew the drill.  For those uninitiated, traditional sauna etiquette is as follows:

  1. Wash yourself clean, to make sure you’re not bringing in any outside dirt with you.
  2. Soak your venik in hot water to soften the leaves.
  3. Enter the sauna, hang out as long as you can handle.
  4. Take a dip in the cold plunge pool or rinse off with a bucket of cold water.
  5. Repeat 3-4 as many times as you can

(Hint: the more times you can do this, the manlier you are – or so I’m told)

The Arasan Baths, on the men’s side at least, had several sauna options: a traditional Russian wet steam sauna (or parilka), a Finnish dry steam sauna, and a traditional Turkish hammam.  To get our money’s worth, we cycled through all three before cold-plunging.  Note that it is only appropriate to use your venik in the Russian sauna – you’ll know which one it is by all of the veniks hanging outside.

In the end, David and I only made it two cycles before hitting the restaurant in the main area of the sauna.  Helmut hung out for a while longer than us, and explored deeper in the bowels of the building – full of more bars, restaurants and pools that David and I didn’t get to see.  Oh, well, we thought – just an excuse to come back in the future for further shvitzing!

The Arasan Bath complex is very hard to miss if you’re walking around the center of the city, looking at the city’s main sights.  It is located just West of Panfilov Park and Zenkov’s Cathedral (if you are looking at the front of the cathedral, turn 180 degrees around, and walk, you’ll run right into the ladies selling the veniks), or if you’re coming via the metro, walk East on Gogol street, then take a right (South) on Tolebaev street.  Prices are cheaper on the weekdays, and before 5pm.  If you’re a beginner, I would recommend one hour, as David and I literally only made it about 30 minutes into the two hours that we bought.

Food is decent and beers and Georgian mineral waters are cold and cheap at the restaurant’s bar,  to your right once you enter from outside.

Their official website can be found here.

4 thoughts on “A Shvitz in the Steppe: Almaty, Kazakhstan’s Arasan Baths

  • February 7, 2017, 8:49 am

    I didn’t know David owned a Russian bath! That’s actually really neat! I’ve been living in Russia for 1.5 years, and I still haven’t been to a banya.

    • February 7, 2017, 9:24 am

      He managed a banya – not quite owned it 🙂

      And banyas are great so long as you don’t mind the whole nudity thing!

  • February 16, 2017, 11:46 am

    Ah, this sounds WONDERFUL!!!!! Banyas are the best thing ever! So glad you finally got to check Arasan off the list. 🙂

    Nick, you mentioned learning Russian- how are you doing it? Book, class, internet? Do you ever practice with anyone from the RU-speaking community in Seattle?

    • February 16, 2017, 12:44 pm

      Howdy! I am taking lessons via a web based interface called Verbling. Basically a tutor aggregator, and I found a great teacher who teaches at low rates 🙂 I was hooked up with the RU community via a sister city community here, but with working long hours, dog parenting, and other commitments, it was hard to make the meetings.

      That said, I should probably say I WAS studying Russian, as I haven’t had a lesson in like four months. 🙂

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