The tradition of public baths is a long-standing one of the cities of the Silk Road. It was reinforced with the arrival of the Russians, who brought with them their own tradition of the taking of steam baths, the banya. Public bath houses are found in towns throughout Kazakhstan, where they retain an important social function as well as being a means of keeping clean. But if you visit only one bath house during your time in Kazakhstan it should be the Arasan Baths in the centre of Almaty, the best known and most impressive in the country. They sit on the west side of Panfilov Park, at the corner of Aiteke Bi Street and Kunaev Street. The association with Kunaev is apt, as the baths, opened in 1982, were one of the buildings at the heart of the plans of the then First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan to turn Alma-Ata into a grand modern city.
Within the large green-domed concrete building are Russian, Finnish and Eastern baths. The Russian baths are centred on the parilka, or steam room, whose inmates slap themselves with pads of leaves of oak, birch or, for the really masochistic, pine, purchased from stallholders outside the building, amid temperatures which reach nostril-burning levels. Don't be surprised to see some of your fellow steam room inhabitants wearing pointy felt hats: they are said to protect the head from the heat of the room. When the heat gets too much, the plunge pool provides starkly cooling relief. The Eastern baths are less extreme, and involve lying on heated marble slabs. Massages are also available, some of which involve applications of honey, but there is nothing gentle about them. There are separate male and female wings. Go with a friend or two and you’ll find it’s an enjoyable and truly relaxing experience.
The interior of the building is a line example of early 1980s Soviet architecture at its most exuberant: little metal balls dangling from the ceiling, porthole-like windows, balconies with raffish curves, stained glass and mosaic work. You can buy anything in the lobby you may have forgotten: towel, flip-flops, pointy felt hat…