Journey Through Eastern Kazakhstan, Part II

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
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Trip End Aug 10, 2007


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Flag of Kazakhstan  , East Kazakhstan,
Sunday, June 3, 2007

After days and days of camping we all feel like cartoon characters who always appear in the same clothes. I try to do some hand washing but my clothes just never seem to come out very clean.  There's dirt under my fingernails, my hair is matted, and a mix of dust and sweat is perpetually caked onto my skin despite my daily attempts to scrub down or find some water in which to take a dip.  So what do you do with a bunch of dirty, moody travelers who will be camping until further notice but drive the truck up to the banya.  Banyas are the public bathhouses that exist in just about every city and town in the Russian empire where the locals go to wash up and hang out in the sauna beating themselves with birch leaves.  It happened to be Men's Day at the banya in Oskemen but Charlie and Sasha nevertheless managed to cajole the operators to set aside a special sauna and wash room for the women on the truck, by now writhing in agony over their self-perceived dirtiness.

The facilities in Oskemen were a bit basic, but for the most part going to a banya's not much different from showering or sauna after working out, unless you want to go local and get silly slapping yourself with birch leaves.  One difference, though, is female attendants in the mens' showers.  Banya attendants are the rough equivalent of hotel floor ladies or train car ladies - fine middle-aged specimens of Soviet-era womanhood clothed in dowdy dresses and sporting Marge Simpson-inspired hairdoos who display absolutely no discomfort wandering around a crowd of naked men in the shower room to demonstrate how to fill a wash bucket with hot water or find you a small mirror to help you shave. 

I must have spent too much time in the sauna since even after pouring several buckets of cold water over my head and getting dressed, I still couldn't cool down.  So I decided a Baltica 9 (strong 8.0% alcohol Russian beer) at the banya bar was just what I needed while I was waiting for the others to finish up.  As I was ordering, a very drunk, rather obese older Russian man started leering at me and mumbled something to me to which I responded, "Nie Russky".  It must have been something crude related to how I was sweating since the bar maid yelled something at him that was clearly, "because he just came out of the banya".  It was too hot to go sit in the truck, so I thought I'd sip my beet outside until it was time to leave.  Within two minutes my brutish new admirer came out to join me, his arm quickly around my waist slobbering something incomprehensible.  It's not that I wouldn't be up for a nice post-banya chat with a good-looking Russian gentleman, but this old creep was not my cup of tea.  Uggghhhh, I'll go sit in the truck and melt!

Semey, also known by its Russian name Semey-Palatinsk, was the last notable city we passed through before crossing into Russia.  Semey's main claim to fame is its proximity to an area known as The Polygon, the site of Soviet nuclear weapons tests up through 1989 and considered another ecological and human health disaster area.

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