A friend once recounted for me a rafting trip he took one summer, with friends, among the Ural Mountains. One day, after making camp on a riverbank, they built a so-called field banya, or pokhodnaya banya, the most primitive of all banyas.
They gathered dry rocks and arranged them in a thigh-high pile in the style of a bread oven on the riverbank. In the hole they built a fire and stoked it, stoked it, stoked it before waiting for it to burn down to coals. They scooped out the ashes.
Then they erected a squarish tent around, and over, the pile of rocks. They brought in fresh-cut boughs of birch, and pine, and laid them on the ground around the rocks. Then they got naked, and got inside.
Someone began to ladle water over the rocks. The water sizzled. The rocks made popping sounds. The steam wrested from the leaves and needles their essence, swept it up into the moist air. When they became too hot they waded into the river, or unzipped a flap in the roof of the tent.
They did this, heated and cooled, heated and cooled, till each person’s body told him he had had enough.
“You have to understand,” Nikolai told me, “dinosaurs once walked over those rocks. When you pour water on them, it’s…a connection, a conversation with nature. The rocks give you what they hoarded up over the centuries. And what can release that energy, that energy stored up over millions of years? Fire. Heat.”
“When you finish [steaming] you realize, you feel – yes, I’m still a man!”