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The International Writers Magazine: Modern China 2007

Chinese Bathhouses
Valerie Sator

Yesterday I called my friend Nana, a 56 year old Kalmyk who teaches Russian at our prestigious sister university. "I can't," she responded, "I'm meeting Irineshka, my Buryat friend. Come along with us," she insisted. "We're going to take a bath."
Due to the last two days of unprecedented snowfall it took us forty minutes to hail a taxi. Turtle-like made our way downtown to Ao Wei – the Miraculous Transformation Bathhouse.

At the entrance two pretty young girls in burgundy colored ball gowns with fake fur stoles met us, grandly opening the double doors. We immediately removed our shoes and walked onto a white shag rug to the check in desk. A clerk handed us little ID bracelets. Then, with Irineshka chatting gaily, we walked into the women's section.
"You can stay as long as you like, it is open 24 hours a day. The place functions as a hotel as well as a bath house. A private room for 8 hours is 68RMB, (about 8USD) the same as the fee to enjoy the baths. For 68 RMB you can stay eight hours and eat twice. Let's eat now - lunch is from 11:30 to 1:30. Afterwards we'll bathe in the pools and use the saunas and heat rooms. All the soaps, shampoos, even toothpaste and toothbrush are provided in the price. Dinner is from 5:30 to 7PM. Come on!"
We followed her into changing room lined with frilly curtains, soft lighting and boudoir mirrors. All sorts of things, from silk pajamas to imported hair products were for sale along the counters and aisles. Everything was very clean. An attendant led us to our lockers, helped us undress and gave us little white shortie cotton pajamas to wear, thin white stretch socks, and a small orange bath towel.
"Let's take a tour first," suggested Irineshka. She led us past the female bathing area, out into a long, plush carpeted corridor. "There are five floors, with over 300 private 'resting' rooms," she remarked. "We'll go to the third, eat, and then look around."
On the third floor we found an extensive circular buffet, emptying fast. All three of us loaded our plates greedily. Twenty chafing dishes, several already empty, soup tureens and platters of sweets and breads lay on the buffet. I saw what I liked: marinated greens, chunks of chicken in pepper, tofu salads, potatoes and mutton – as well as piles of mandarin oranges, jelly roll cakes and small puff pastries. Alongside the buffet a young chef stood boiling fresh noodles. We stacked our plates, took paper cups of juice and sat down to eat. Men and women sat together, all in white pajamas, looking like a room of insane people at a luxurious sanitarium. Life-size fake baobab trees adorned the room. Real birds in cages chirping furiously hung from these trees. The massive ceiling held two domes with badly painted look-alike Italian Renaissance copies of oriental angels, cherubs and Madonnas. Large brightly lit gilt chandeliers hung everywhere. It was kitsch but expensive kitsch.
After eating we walked around. The place was huge. Endless corridors held private rooms for clients to do whatever they wished privately. We entered another huge co-ed area that was glassed in: a dry heat sauna recreation room. Here we saw a dozen swinging wicker seats, as well as a raised shelf area with twenty Chinese nubbly mats (for health reasons) and jade pillows. The room looked like a cave out of a film set for a Disney movie. Adjoining it we found another room, tiled entirely in quartz stones: on the wall, on the floor, and the ceiling. "It is good for circulation to walk on rocks," Nana remarked. The walls of a third room held mosaics of beautiful polished agates. The walls and the floors everywhere exuded dry heat. Outside a bartender in uniform stood at attention beside his array of drinks. Above him a TV played risqué movies. People sat nearby on mats, gambling and drinking. Others lounged in the dry heat rooms, lying prone or swinging in the wicker chairs.
"Let's bathe now," said Irinishka. We returned to our changing room, stripped, and walked from the carpeted area to the bath area, stepping into plastic slippers as we crossed the threshold. On both walls nearest to the changing rooms private shower stalls streaming water filled and emptied with naked ladies. Next to the showers I saw a large tiled Turkish steam room, a glassed in room for full body beauty massage, and another sizeable open area where women vigorously scrubbed down clients with special mitts. At the other end of the room was a warm water pool. Across from it I saw a Finnish sauna. Completing the wall stood rows of sinks and mirrors.
At first Nana and I both felt self conscious but with over two hundred ladies of all body types, all sizes, all ages, all walking around in the buff we both quickly acclimated to the scene. I soon dropped my little orange towel from my breasts and wrapped it around my head like Irinesheka. Together we entered the wet steam sauna, placing frozen towels the attendant offered over our faces. She also gave us plastic wrap squares to spread on the benches to sit on. "Hygiene," remarked Nana.
We all signed up to get our skin scrubbed for 15RMB. The workers, dressed in black support panties and black bras, performed quickly and well. About twenty five women toiled in this room. First the scrubber sprayed down her table. Then she placed a thin sheet of plastic over the massage table and sprayed it down again with hot water. The client lay down on her back. The employee briskly scrubbed her body, from neck down, turned the client on both sides, scrubbed, and then turned her on the belly to scrub. It took twenty minutes and my skin tingled pleasantly afterwards. When I got up to my surprise I saw little clumps of old skin and dirt. The staff member shrugged, gathered up the dirty plastic, sprayed down her table, and called, "Next!"
Feeling brave and solvent, I then signed up for a full body milk and honey massage. In the scrub room it costs less money but I wanted to try everything. A masseuse led me to the showers, cajoled a woman to share her shower with me so I could get rid of any skin debris, and then escorted me into her glassed in room. She first massaged my face and neck with milk and honey, then worked her way down my limbs and torso, placing plastic wrap around each area she massaged and coated. "That's to make it soak in. Your skin will be softer and more beautiful," she explained. Thirty minutes later she unwrapped me and led me to the dry sauna where my two Russian friends were sitting. We chatted, drank juices the attendant brought us and rubbed each other with the milk Irinishka brought, careful not to splash it on the benches.
We showered again, this time in cold water, and returned to the sauna. I plastered balsam in my hair to make it silky soft. Nana rubbed a mask on her face, Irinishka put milk everywhere and we all sat for twenty more minutes. It was delightful. Then we washed and showered, and dressed in our pajamas again.
"Time for the fitness room," commanded Nana. Irinishka led us to a large gym with gleaming exercise equipment. We stepped into plastic slippers, only to take them off when we got on the machines. I walked/jogged a kilometer, rode a bike, and did a few weights. "Back to the baths!" ordered Irinishka. By that point I'd been in the resort for four hours. Overwhelmed by it all, as well as the struggle to switch back and forth from Russian to Chinese to English, I begged off and left the ladies. They continued bathing, ate another meal, and left at nine that evening.
The Chinese understand indulgence. Their food is an endless taste adventure. Now I've discovered other physical pleasures as well.   My skin feels soft as a baby's bottom and I'm utterly relaxed. The total cost: 20 USD for bath, exfoliation and full body massage, a super deal. Don't miss out on this experience.

© Valerie Sartor Jan 2007
Valerie has lived and worked in China since 2004.

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