The hammam (bath house) has been an integral part of life in Central Asia for centuries as a way to cleanse and relax. Cities and towns are designed with public hammams in mind.
I decided to partake in this tradition at the Hammom Kunjak, a female-only bath house. Kunjak means “corner” in Uzbek, indicating its location in proximity to the Kalyan Minaret.
This bath house is at least 500 years old. A boiler with water is located under the floor. Steam from the boiler is fed through a special hole. The heat in the room is also supported by the warm air that comes in a tube, laid under the marble floor. It is in original condition and has never been restored.
Entering the hammom seemed weird. There was no obvious signs outside and once past the main entrance, I had to go through two doors to get to the lobby.
I was met by two ladies and a little girl. “You want massage? Very good for you!” said the younger lady. I nodded and we agreed to 120,000UZB ($17.14 BM/$34.29 official).
She grabbed her supplies and told me to follow her. Once we were outside the sauna, she said, “Take off clothes.” She started to do the same. “Everything.” Yup, we were both naked.
We walked into the sauna and she told me to sit down. “Drink tea?” she asked, then proceeded to pour me a cup from a teapot she brought.
As I drank, she started pouring warm water on me. “More tea?” I nodded no. “We scrub now,” she said.
She put on a green scrubbing mitten and took my right arm. “Macaroni! Many macaroni!” she exclaimed as she rubbed off my dead skin. After finishing my arms, she went for my back. “Long macaroni!”
After the scrub, she told me to stand up and proceeded to lather me with bar soap. This was definitely a strange experience considering that I’m the only person who has ever lathered me before. (Ok, perhaps my mother when I was a baby, but that was long ago!)
“How old are you?”she asked me. “I am 41. Three children. One grandchild. You?” “Me? No children. Zero.”
While soaping me down, a big brick fell from the ceiling. The lady stopped and looked shocked. It was a pretty big brick.
Once she rinsed off the soap, she told to go to the other side and lie down on a towel. The stone beneath me was not the most pleasant. Then she started the massage. I would say it was more along the lines of hard slapping at some pressure points than a massage. It wasn’t painful, but I can’t really say it was theaputic either.
That went on for 20 minutes or so with me n my stomach. She got my back, butt, arms and feet.
“This is Uzbek scrub with honey, ginger, herbs. Very good.” She slathered the mixture on my back and the backside of my legs. “Relax. Drink tea,” she said as she cleaned up the sauna… All while naked.
She left me with the concoction on my back for another 10 minutes. Every once in a while, the older lady, her boss, would come down and check on things and show people around the outside changing area. And as I laid there on a stone table, I just kept thinking, “This is all part of the experience.”
She escorted me back to the other ideas of the sauna where she poured warm water on me. “Clean yourself,” she said.
As this was happening, her daughter in white tights and pigtails came into the sauna. A bit weird but ok.
We walked out of the sauna and started to get dressed. “How long have you worked here?” I asked. “Four years. Uzbek woman come here at 15:00. Many!)
A chill came over me. “In June, July, very hot here! Now, March, very cold.” The little girl grabbed the honey scrub and played with spoon. “Future worker here,” her mother joked.
We return to the lobby area and thanks them for their services. “Hammam good?” the older lady asked. “Very good, thank you,” I replied. Before leaving, my scrubber lady smiled at me and said, “Long macaroni!” Glad my “macaroni skin” made an impression on her.
I’ve had many massages before, but this one definitely ranks up there in strange and unsure if I would do it again category. But this is part of Uzbek life. Glad for the experience!