Transsiberian, Day 9: Spas, fancy restaurants and nightclubs -- the Russian VIP treatment

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

We weren’t in a rush to do much today, but we did have plans to head to the spa in the early afternoon. We had the luxury of waking up late (in "double digit" time as my family would say), and David, Amanda and I headed to the mini market nearby to grab breakfast. Ihita and June originally left with us to head to a local café, but us three gave up on the shoddy map the hostel staff provided us whereas Ihita and June successfully found the café. I’d like to go on a rant of how obnoxiously simplistic the map was, but all I will say is that it is missing roads, and things marked as roads are just driveways that lead to outdoor staircases, so you can’t logically call them roads.

We grab some yogurts and eat them on the way to meet up with the group at that café, called Grabli. Its decorated beautifully with holiday lights and décor, and the place is cafeteria style with lots of variety of meats, salads and juices. Amanda and I want to get our money’s worth with a three hour time slot at the spa, so we leave the restaurant at ten minutes to one.

We arrive at Sanduny which is a spa that’s been in operation since 1896. No one really speaks English, but we understand we need to check our coats and go upstairs wearing little paper boots over our shoes.

What I found interesting is that the spa area was completely in the open once you ascend the stairs. There was no closed off area preventing you from seeing naked women once you reached the landing. This was drastically different from the Tajik sanatorium from last year; this was clearly a place for rest and retreat. Amanda and I entered the room and it’s like a European café setup, with a counter on your left and small cushioned booths with gold placards throughout the rest of the room. It reminded me of a café because it was so nice looking, like this is where you’d enjoy a nice espresso, surrounded by dark carved wooden tables and golden lighting. And it was serving as such... you could buy tea or snacks here.

Once we paid our entry fee of about $30 USD, the woman led us to our table, the numbers on the gold placards indicating our reserved spots. We could leave our things there or in the cabinet-like lockers near the stairs. Everyone in the café is dressed in a towel or is walking around naked.

We weren’t able to book any services as the openings were only available after four or five, well past when we needed to leave. So no massages, no hand scrubbing, no getting beaten with platza twigs (more on that in a moment). Instead we had access to the café/lounge, the warm bath, the showers and the sauna. We strip down by the lockers, wrap ourselves in towels, and head into the bathhouse area. First we shower per the rules. The warm bath is really just that: warm. It’s not a hot tub and it doesn’t appeal to us so we enter the sauna.

To enter, we go up a small flight of stairs. On the stairs there are bamboo palettes on which a few women are sitting. At the top, there is a sort of bamboo bleacher seating around a larger flat area, where a bamboo cot sits. A naked woman lays face down on the cot while a woman who works at the spa, wearing a towel dress and a pointed felt hat not unlike a peter pan cap, hits her with bundles of platza branches thick with leaves. Amanda and I settle down on the bleachers, myself near a small opening to the outside air so I have some cool, breathable air, and we watch the woman get slapped all over her body. Occasionally the staff dips the branches in a large bowl of water, waves them in the air a bit, and then returns to the rhythmic slapping.

 Eventually the woman finishes and Amanda and I step back out to the café area. Amanda is concerned that we went to the wrong area of the spa, as Ihita and June should have arrived by now. Amanda talks with the manager while I return to the sauna. This time it’s much hotter, despite my position located near that little window. I watch a woman use her branches on herself, waving them in the air send pressing them on her face and legs. Eventually I can no longer take the heat and check in on Amanda who surprisingly had luck talking to the manager. We talk to, or rather, we gesture and use google translate with the manager until she understands our request, that our friends are indeed here and we need to go to the other spa area.

We get dressed and we’re led downstairs, behind coat check, and find June and Ihita. They were in the second class baths whereas we’d entered the first class on accident. Luckily we negotiated not having to pay entry twice, especially since we were downgrading. We settled in and stripped down again, in an equally as nice atmosphere, albeit a little more crowded.

On the menu, as with the first class, they sell teas, juices, snacks and spa items like bowls of honey or oil to apply to your skin. The woman beside us rubs honey into her forehead, and a woman on the other side of the room applies a mud mask to her legs.

Amanda and I go to the sauna and are the first ones in, we sit on the top bleachers but a staff member gestures to have us sit lower to the ground. Quickly, the sauna fills up with so many people that there’s no room to lay down, only sit upright, as people are on the middle and bottom steps as well as the floor. That staff member begins pouring hot water into the coals.

Splash, splash. The steam grows. Splash, splash, the steam increases. Amanda is wearing a metal bracelet and asks me to help her remove it so it doesn’t burn her wrist. I fumble with it in the panic of the time crunch as the temperature increases more and more to reach their traditional 190* F (88*C). It was like a scene in an action movie where the person is attempting to dismantle a bomb and you are afraid they’re not gonna make it… will I get the bracelet off in time?

The answer is no, and I am panicking for that and for the fact that I feel like I am inhaling straight fire and cannot breathe. I nearly have a panic attack as I tell Amanda I’m gonna leave as I grab my sandals and scramble to put them on (I’d previously burned my feet in the first class sauna when I stupidly thought the tiles would be the same temperature as the bamboo). I feel myself losing the ability to breathe as I stand up, and feel even more heat, as the heat rises and now my head is in the level of the hottest steam of the room. Only now do I understand whew were told not to sit on the top level of the bleachers.

I quickly rush past the hordes of women sitting on the floor and race out the door and lean against the first pillar I see as I catch my breath. A staff member indicates to me that showering will help, but right now, I just want to lean against something before I pass out. Oh my god, I have never felt so much heat in my lifetime. Eventually I collect myself and shower. Luckily I brought my toiletries and I am able to do a full shower at the spa instead of at the hostel, saving me some time.

Amanda and I give up on the rest of the spa while Ihita and June were able to book some services in the second class, and decide to sit in the lounge a bit before getting dressed and leaving for the hostel.

While Amanda showers, I run off to Grabli to eat a pre-dinner since later we’ll be dining at the Michelin rated restaurant White Rabbit, the thirteenth best restaurant in the world. Because of that, it’s pricey. At Grabli, I dine on a random variety of offerings, as one does in a cafeteria-style restaurant, such as a meatball, salmon casserole with cheese, bruschetta on toast, and a shredded carrot salad.

I need to hit up an ATM and a convenience store on my way back to the hostel, so I use the map that my hostel provided to find my way back. It frustrates me that it is missing roads. You can’t just omit roads from a map! It’s not a map, then, it’s just suggested popular roads! I end up going all the way back around where I came from. This is the low point of the day. You can’t mess with maps. It’s sacrilege.

I return to the hostel and everyone gets ready for the metro tour and for the White Rabbit dinner. Calvin found a list of cool train stations on the metro line, so off we go with our one-way tickets into the deep underground.

The escalator we take at our home station near our hostel, Tsvetnoy Bulvar, takes about sixty seconds to descend. After a while it becomes off-putting seeing people at such an odd angle for so long…you can get a little dizzy as your perspective is warped.

We go to a handful of stations, but I didn’t keep track of which. Calvin’s blog is better for that. All of the stations were amazing, some with chandeliers, some with bronze sculptures, some with intricate tiled designs or mosaics portraying soviet accomplishments in science and engineering. Any way you describe it, it is definitely more beautiful and fascinating than any metro line in the United States. My favorite part was while we transferred stations, the oddest music would play on the loudspeakers in the station, such as “In the Mood” or “Yakkety Sax.” The trains were retro, all in bright crayon colors like forest green or blue, but the insides were modern with a digital dot reading our station location. And when we transferred, we never waited more than five minutes for the next train.

We ended our tour at the stop near White Rabbit. The restaurant is clearly super fancy, with dim lighting and opera music playing in the bathroom that makes taking a piss that much more magnificent and bombastic. The level where we ate overlooked the city from its 16th floor location, which was nice. I always like a good window seat.

Half of the group went for the fancy chef tasting menu, and half of us went for the a la carte, or regular ordering, menu. I was in the latter group. The tasting menu was nearly $140 USD, and I have never been one for paying for presentation. I just want quality. If a hole in the wall restaurant gives me that, then awesome. I am not big on spending a ton of money on the pizzazz. So while half of the group ate a nearly 20- course menu comprised of test tubes of vodka and used three-foot long spoons made of some special local wood to eat soup, our group shared some delicious bread with butter (the butter was served on a rock for some reason), escargot puffs, mussels served on slices of beets (I didn’t partake but I heard they were super fishy), rye nut bread with caviar, and a bottle of red wine. I ordered a caramelized pumpkin salad with prosciutto, parmesan, quinoa and arugula that was magnificent (I could have easily ordered just that, left, and been a satisfied customer), and my main dish was short ribs with pomegranate sauce and a side of apple purée. Not my favorite, since it was extra fatty. It was the fanciest and most expensive meal of the trip but I am just happy with good food, and it wasn’t the best (the salad was killer, though. Everything else…meh). In total we each paid $45. I was happy with any cost less than sixty, so although it was high, it was still not so bad.

Some of the group went to a hookah bar, but June, David, Amanda and I went back to the Red October district to try the club scene. Now, before I go on, I want to explain the difference between clubbing the US and Europe/Oceania. I had this conversation with the Kiwis back in Bucharest. In the US, clubbing is all about show. Bottle service is a thing wherein people buy bottles topped in sparklers to show how special and rich they are. Hot girls serve as cocktail waitresses in impossibly tall heels that have to be so uncomfortable to stand in. Men lure women into their booths with promises of drinks, and so they look hot with their female arm candy. Everywhere else, the club culture is drastically different. The Kiwis had never even heard of bottle service. Clubs to my British and Austrian friends are essentially bars but with better music and more dancing. As a dude, you can go to a European club in nice bar clothes and be totally comfortable. Such was the case in Bucharest, where people just wore nice shirts or sweaters. Every dude wasn’t wearing a nice button down or blazer, and the girls varied in style from casual dinner outfits to "I wouldn’t wear this anywhere but a club with dim lighting." I loved the casual vibe and the "who cares" attitude. People aren’t trying to show off, they’re just out for a good time. So we went to Russia and I thought it would be the European vibe, but I was wrong.

We hear that in Russia, the club scene is pretty awesome, and very flashy. If the beautiful fur coats and high heels that the Russian women wear for everyday errands is any indication, I am confident that what we heard was right. We head to Icon, and we have issues with the doorman who wants us each to pay a $40usd cover, which we don’t want to do just to dance. ALL WE WANT TO DO IS DANCE. The bouncer goes inside and brings out a club representative who can speak English. We think we’re good as we’re ushered in without needing to pay, but she is just there to give us a tour. She tries to sell us on a table reservation for $60usd a person, because it comes with a seat, coat check and access to the dance floor and one drink. We tell her we just want to see the dance floor, because at this point she’s only showed us the lounge area and told us the dance floor is only accessible for people who have paid the fee, but she keeps insisting for us to go ahead and take off our coats and pay the fee. We’re all feeling that she’s taking advantage of us and refuse to stay. It was definitely the feel of an American club, and I didn’t want to pay sixty dollars for someone to hold my coat while I sat in a corner of a VIP booth.

We left and walked around in the very cold temps to one closed nightclub after another, despite it being past eleven, when clubs should logically be open. We gave up after looping around the area and having trouble finding even a basic bar. We decided to join Calvin, Ihita and Taylan at the hookah bar. As we walked towards the main road, three young men shouted, “Do you speak English?” We say yes, and they all shout in enjoyment. “FINALLY!”

We learn they are Swedish, and their names are Hampus, Daniel and Victor. “Where’s the party tonight?” they ask. We tell them we’re trying to figure that out ourselves, and that we gave up and are heading to a hookah bar if they’d like to join. They happily agree to it, and we stand on the corner of the main boulevard as they hail a cab the old fashioned way as we wait for an Uber and are propositioned by no less than four random people in cars offering their "taxi" services. Can’t trust that.

We finally arrive at the hookah bar and despite them saying they are completely full, we’re let in by some persuading on Calvin’s part to the bar staff. The giant projector TV is playing a lower-than-NHL league (the minor league of hockey?) Russia vs. USA game, which seems so appropriate. There’s a wall of board games to choose from, and our group. When we arrived, the group was already in the midst of a Jenga game, so I go to pick something else. I find out that duh, we’re in Russia, so there are no board games that I recognize except Uno and decks of regular playing cards, all of which are missing over 12 cards. Uno it is!

We end up never playing it, and we find out that the bar doesn’t sell alcohol, but you can bring your own. “Oh, like BYOB.” I say. “Uh, yes, that,” replies the waiter. As it’s too late for liquor stores to be open, the waiter suggests a nearby restaurant. You can apparently just buy bottles from them, unopened, to take home with you. David and the Swedes leave and shortly return with red and white wine, as well as Prosecco.

We easily finish the three among the ten of us and we get booted from this bar as it closes. As we wait in the cold for our Ubers, Amanda, Ihita and June make snow angels for an Instagram video that they’ve been planning for the entire trip, much to the Swedes’ amusement.

We move onto another hookah bar that Ihita and Calvin went to the other night, so upon arrival we’re given the royal treatment. We’re seated in one area but shortly thereafter moved to a private room that fits all of us plus more if we wanted, with a sliding door. They play a song that Ihita loved the other night, at least five times, much to her enjoyment. Ihita and I eventually go behind the counter and get snacks, like trail mix and two bags of chips, to satisfy our early morning hunger.

June and I stay out the latest with our new Swedish friends. I get them to sing with me the Swedish drinking song that I learned while in Stockholm. We stay at the bar until around five AM, and we walk them to their hotel about halfway before heading back to ours. Time to go to bed at six AM!



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