Russian banya one of treats of Sochi Games

Associated Press
Bathhouse master Ivan Tkach, right, walks through the outdoor sauna area at the British Banya bathhouse, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. "The most important thing about the banya is to have a good spirit in the body," Tkach says. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — "What's the score?" asks Svetlana Fedorenko as she enters a bathhouse in the Russian Caucasus mountains with her husband and friends: the U.S.-Russia hockey game is still on and most of the country is glued to a television.

A few miles away from the ski slopes of Krasnaya Polyana, where athletes are competing for Olympic medals, an outdoor bathhouse called British Banya is attracting visitors who feel so strongly about the banya, a Russian ritual of sweating it all out in a steam room and whipping each other with bunches of leafy branches, that even a crucial game against the old rivals can't stand in the way of this weekend tradition.

Bathhouse master Ivan Tkach starts his preparations late in the afternoon, at least three hours before the bathing party arrives. He chops the wood, heats up the stove in the Russian sweat room, builds the fire for the native American sweat lodge and ignites the fire underneath a Japanese hot tub, which is swinging on chains from wooden poles.

"The most important thing about the banya is to have a good spirit in the body," Tkach explains. "When people come to the bath house it is not only about warming up the body, but more importantly about relaxing, getting the toxins out of the body and psychologically, leaving the worries behind."

The banya is an institution in Russia. Businessmen make deals there and romantic comedies have been set in the banya. Russians even have a specific greeting for each other as they emerge from the steam room: "Happy light steam!"

Russian bathhouse traditions date back for centuries. One of the earliest and most vivid mentions of the banya in Russian chronicles Princess Olga in the late 10th century avenging the killing of her husband by inviting the killer's emissaries to have a bath in Kiev. The ruthless princess set fire to the bathhouse while her enemies were enjoying themselves.

Russian bathhouse-owners are nowhere near as violent these days. 46-year-old Tatyana Larkin has been running British Banya for seven years since moving from Moscow to start a business of her own. Larkin says she's been a fan of the banya for so long that "when I faced the choice of what to do next, I didn't have that many options."

Larkin says Krasnaya Polyana, the venue for the games' outdoors events, is the ideal place for a bathhouse.

"People come here for a vacation, they ski, they need to have something to do," she says.

Tatyana describes her bathhouse as an "interactive museum of bathhouse art." She was inspired to call it British after a visit to the British Museum in London where she was struck to see a sprawling collection of exhibits from around the globe.

"Our grounds are of course not as big as to present the entire collection of bathhouse traditions across the world, but we've tried our best to display the key points, so that people can find out about them," she says.

One of the highlights of this bathhouse is a native American sweat lodge, a narrow hut which consists of a frame covered with layers of thick felt. A bathhouse master puts hot stones in the middle of the felt hut, pours water on it and lets the people sitting around it enjoy the steam.

Bathhouse master Ivan Tkach is worried: it's nearly eight and the bathing party are still drinking tea and lounging in the aroma-therapy room. "We're losing steam," Tkach complains to a colleague. "Can't they understand?"

The steam room is the pinnacle of a Russian bathhouse experience and Tkach, who has been heating up the stove for hours now, is afraid the guests will feel that the steam "has died out."

Valery Fedorenko, a 48-year-old businessman from Krasnodar, with a red towel round his hips and a woolen hat on his head, comes out of the aroma room. It's a chilly evening and the steam is evaporating from his shoulders.

For Fedorenko, the weekly bathhouse visit is "about recreation, health, the joy of friendship, life and longevity."

Fedorenko is in Sochi to see the competition but he had to leave his hotel room where he was watching ice-hockey to make it for his weekly bathhouse appointment, one thing in his planner he never misses.

Fedorenko says he has been teaching his four children, aged 4 to 27, to make the weekend bathhouse visit a must.

"They all do it, all my friends come over and we go in together," he says. "You can't compare it to anything else."

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