9th October 2017
The spirit of the old Silk Road haunts the caravanserai of Tash Rabat. In a lonely mountain valley merchants found shelter for themselves and their horses in the labyrinth of rooms beneath the dome. Here they sat around the fire at night, drinking and swapping stories of unlikely business ventures. Today the stone building stands empty but further along the river Yuri welcomes travellers to the warmth of his yurts and offers them a reviving spa treatment. His ‘Russian Sauna’ is a basic, rectangular shed made of recycled plywood with a rusty chimney sticking out of the roof.
The mountain air was chilly, we hadn’t washed for three days, and the opportunity to steam away the grime was irresistible. My friend Sarah and I stripped down to our underwear and perched on the narrow bench, trying to avoid the burning hot stove on one side and the dangling light bulb on the other. We took turns to stand in a plastic bowl and pour icy water over ourselves from a jug. Gasping with a combination of altitude and cold, we made a feeble attempt to beat ourselves with fragile, leafy bundles of dried twigs.
We were looking forward to the dish of plov, stewed lamb and rice, that we had seen cooking over an open fire at the back of the sauna. But first the men had to have their turn. A single bold member of our group joined a party of Russians to sauna in style. Scorning the jug and bowl, they made a naked dash for the nearby stream, cheered on by an appreciative audience.
That night we found out more about these strangers, now fully dressed, who joined us for dinner. Andrei, who spoke fluent French and Spanish as well as English, was travelling with his two brothers (the older one inexplicably also called Andrei). He explained that he was in the cut flower business in Siberia, importing long-stemmed carnations from Colombia and Kenya to brighten the winter darkness. As we stirred teaspoons of jam into our vodka in true Russian style, we exchanged toasts like the merchants of old. And now at least I knew where to find a decent floral bouquet in Novosibirsk.