Splashback to the '60s

Louise Southerden takes a trip back in time at a Russian bathhouse in Mongolia.

The Mongolian climate can really play havoc with one's complexion. Just ask any nomadic woman, most of whom have rosy, cracked cheeks, as do their children. But I wasn't a nomad. I didn't want rosy, cracked cheeks. I wanted clean, moist skin again after two weeks of trekking in the Altai Mountains. And I was counting on Olgii for that.

Sure, the predominantly Kazakh town in far-western Mongolia resembled a ghetto in Afghanistan, with dusty nothingness at the end of every dusty street and every sign in Cyrillic, but our accommodation looked promising.


At Snow Peak Tourist Camp, our "rooms" were white, circular gers (Mongolian yurts) arranged around a mud-brick shower block. A poster in reception promised hot showers and flushing toilets for "no extra charge". Except that the toilets didn't flush and, when we returned from a quick cashmere-shopping expedition in Olgii, we found no water, either. Our three drivers had inadvertently used it all for their showers, a fact some of my fellow travellers discovered only when standing naked and fully lathered in the camp's dark, cell-like cubicles.

Our Mongolian guide, Tseren, devised a Plan B. "Who wants a shower?" she shouted before instructing our squeaky-clean drivers to take us to the nearest Russian bathhouse.

Most Mongolians have their weekly wash at public amenities because private plumbing is so expensive. I shouldn't have been expecting something like a Japanese onsen, with little stools and pools to soak in. I should have been expecting something like an Australian public swimming pool changing room, circa 1960. At the front gate, I suddenly felt like a small child preparing for a swimming lesson. No sooner had Tseren paid our entry fees (1200 togrogs, about $1, each) than a Russian babushka, wearing a purple smock that bulged in all the wrong places, bustled us along a tiled hallway to a row of numbered wooden doors.

Babushka rapped on each door while we waited behind her, clutching armfuls of sponge bags, clean clothes and travel towels. Russian pop music blared from loudspeakers nailed to the walls. Finally, doors began to open and wet-haired men, women and children emerged amid clouds of deodorant-scented steam.

When my turn came, I locked the door behind me and surveyed my small kingdom: it looked like a car-wash for humans. A curtain of wide, plastic strips led from the dressing area to the shower stall, where a shower rose the size of a dinner plate, operated by hefty levers that would have looked more at home in a ship's engine room, delivered a deluge of gloriously hot and everlasting water.

Too soon, I emerged feeling steam-cleaned. One of the unsmiling attendants pushed past me to sweep out my cubicle with a birch broom but I was cheerfully oblivious, humming the theme music to Doctor Zhivago as I wandered out into the bright Mongolian sunshine.

Source: The Sun-Herald and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers


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