From the Banya to Baikal

“Respected Guests, please conserve water.”

This was written on a sign hung above the sink in one of the hotels we stayed in near Lake Baikal.  It has two purposes: one is to save money on a water bill, the other is to not waste water in a world where fresh water is limited.  In short, economic and environmental purposes.  At first, my roommates and I considered it a typical sign to be hung in a rural hotel.  After our experience in the Russian banya, or bathhouse, we openly laughed at it.

The banya is typically a smaller building, although it can be large, which is built for the purpose of both bathing and for relaxing.  The pictures I have are from an old banya, without any chimney.  Without the chimney, smoke would sit at the top of the room under the ceiling while the heavier wet air would sit beneath the smoke, heating up the current inhabitants.  As a result of there being two windows in the old style, light was minimal, and legends surrounding mischievous and evil spirits living in the banya grew.  But, you are probably wondering how the system works.


First, a fire is lit in the fireplace, the pile of rocks you see.  Our banya experience involved a traditional Russian pech’ which is bigger, and a thus gets hotter.  This serves to heat the room and also to heat water for washing oneself.  Also, to get a sauna going, you toss water onto the oven, or the hot stones, to create steam.  Another traditional aspect of the banya are the clumps of birch branches.  These are first let sit in warm or hot water to make them suppler, and then you beat each other with them.  Yes, six young men stood around in a sauna hitting one another with tree branches.  I will not defend our actions as mature, only as good-natured fun.  But the branches do massage you, and I can attest to there effectiveness personally.  Such escapades in banyas can last two or three ours.  It gets quite hot.

So, for a banya with six strapping young Carls, we had a tub of hot water, two trash cans full of cold water, two buckets of cold water, and a large jug, about four feet tall, of cold water as well.  We used all but the large jug of cold water.  We spent almost two hours in there, hitting each other, washing, sweating, and having a riot of a time.  Perhaps now you see why we laughed at the sign in the bathroom.  Conserve water there so we might waste water in the banya.  As an economics major it reminded me of the tradeoffs we all face.  Worth it.

The next day we lunched on the shores of the mighty Lake Baikal.  The locals call it a sea.  Standing on the edge of the deepest lake in the world, you understand why.  The lake is surrounded by snowcapped mountains, despite the sun shinnying brightly, and while you were almost overheating in the morning away from the lake, the 4-degree Celsius water keeps the shoreline temperature in the fifties at the highest.  The lake itself is a mile deep at the lowest point, contains almost 20 percent of the world’s fresh water (23,000 cubic kilometers), and has numerous endemic species to its ecosystem, including the only fresh water seal in the world.  I’ll let the pictures show you the lake.  Words can’t do it justice.


After spending several days playing on the shores of Baikal and standing on boats sailing on the waters, I thought back to my laughter at that sign asking me to conserve water.  I was ashamed.  Gazing at the sea of Baikal, all I could think about was the shimmering water, clear enough to see 40 meters down, far enough to give some people vertigo.  I couldn’t help but think how horrible it would be to lose such a natural treasure.  Baikal is a world unto itself.

And that’s the purpose of the sign.  Yes, the banya used a lot of water, but one doesn’t go to the banya every day.  The sign is a small reminder that every tiny action counts.  It reminds us to do whatever we can, however small to protect what we have.  The Baikal was here before us, and if we all work hard enough, it will be here long after us.

Article written by atkinsj

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