Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ukranian Sauna (banya) in the Carpathian Mountain

We love baths. 

Being a big fans of hot spring, sauna, steam bath, massage, exfoliation, spring water bath and actually all kinds of baths, we are happy to discover the sauna in Ukraine.

We have tried the Japanese onsen, Taiwan hotspring, Korean Jjimjilbang, Finnish Sauna, Turkish Hammam, Mexican cenote, Hungarian furdo, Slovakia thermal spring, German sauna, aqua caliente in Colombia, Pamukale in Turkey and the salted mineral water in Tuzla (Bosnia), if not more... We are really happy to add another one to our list - the Ukrainian sauna, which is actually the Russian banya. (And now I finally realized how the name of the luxurious  spa in Bangkok 'Banya Tree' comes about!) 

Thanks to our host, Victor in Yaremche, we were brought to a banya in the neighborhood. 

We strolled towards the residential area and arrived a gate. It was occupied by the owner and his B&B. Through a flowery garden, we proceeded to a wooden cottage. Walking up the stairs, we found a rest area, called predbannik or pre-bath, with a changing area, table and some benches. Further inside, there is a toilet, a shower room and finally, the sauna room.
Victor told us that first we need to get naked, wrapped with the big towel provided and go straight to the sauna room.


The sauna room is connected to stove of the predbannik, heated by burning lodges. It was a gloomy, rainy day and the room was already heated, with tea set and even a set of backgammon. 

We proceeded straight into the sauna, which is somewhere between 95 to 100 degree Celsius, and sat for a few minutes. Then we returned to the benches to cool down and get some rest.

We made some herbal tea and enjoyed the warm fire by cooling down slowly. 

Then we entered the sauna to get heated up again.

The heating and cooling circuit is supposed to warm our body gradually, bringing heat into our bones.

I started sweating and blushing after a few rounds.

We enjoyed private use of the whole cabin and it was an perfectly gloomy late afternoon to sit at the stairs outside the wooden cottage, cooling down under the fresh air and drizzle with a cup of warm tea.

Victor explained that banya used to be a Saturday social event, to get cleaned up before Sunday church service and sometimes an activity only for men. Unlike Finland, it is not quite a family regular weekend event in winter. Ukrainians nowadays may go sauna with  friends or relatives as a big group, where all women will enter into the sauna for one round, while men gather for the next; sometimes it is just a once in a while guys' gathering or simply a tourist attraction.

The banya we tried is in fact quite an upscale one. Costing around 60 Ukrainian grivna (around HKD57) per person for 2 hours. But we got a little discount and stayed longer as the owner is Victor’s friend and Ukrainine wishes to show the best hospitality to tourist. (Meaning - us!) 

There could be smaller cabin where the shower area is also the resting area, with hot water heated by the steam room stove and a bucket of cold water, or having water from tap, for mixing lukewarm water to a desirable temperature. 

In banya sauna room, the heater is consisted of a water tank, the rock chamber and connected to the rest room heating fire box. If higher temperature is required, we will splash cold water to the rocks. If it’s too unbearably hot, we could open the banya door or sometimes a connecting window for fresh air. 

Being very similar to Finnish sauna, the most unique part about Banya is in fact, the 'whipping' and the felt hat. 

Our banya have prepared us some bunches of dried thin branches and leaves, called 'venik', the bath brooms, usually made from young branches of white birch, oak or eucalyptus, soaked in very hot water to soften before clients arrived. 

After a few rounds of heating and cooling. It’s time to start the smacking massage. 

For us, everyone took turn to help each other with such massage. Victor trained Adley to execute the massage and all I heard from outside was “ouch”, “Yes”, “Good”, “harder”,“Ahhhh”! And then showering with a bucket of ice-cold water from above, then it’s “Ahhhh” again!  

Sound quite Sadomasochistic! What were they doing!?

Then it's finally my turn. 

The sauna room was filled with aroma of the leaves. I placed a towel on the top level of the sauna, lay flat naked. Then Adley with the felt head, started splashing some cold water to the hot stones. He then pulled the veniks from the hot water bucket, shaking off all remaining drips to the hot stone and waved the veniks on top of me like a fan. A flow of hot steam swang pass me, intertwining with the cool leaves caressing my back. Then he started smacking my back briskly with the veniks. The branches are young and softened in water, which made the whole process not at all painful but ultimately relaxing. The other side followed, repeating the same procedures all over again.

The special felt hats are typically worn to protect the head, from the intense heat when someone wishes to stay inside the steam room for a longer time.  While I’m having a good time lying flat to enjoy the heated steam and cool leaves caress, Adley had to stand inside the sauna room to endure all the heat for almost 5 minutes to finish the 'ritual', which could be rather unbearable.  But the felt gave an excellent protection.
The banya is believed to clean skin, to fight sickness, to build body resistance, to lose weight, to improve blood circulation, to improve skin condition, to exfoliate and to help anti-aging.  Wow! I need to get smacked more often!!
In winter, similar to Finnish sauna, after the 95 to 100 degree Celcisus sauna, people may roll in the snow naked or dip into lakes with holes cutting through the ice for cooling.

After 2 rounds of smacking for everyone, with some relaxing herbal tea, an almost tied game of backgammon (that Adley lost), some stories about banya and more heating and cooling - we were already too late for dinner. Victor’s wife, Anna (a professional photographer turned housewife and mother, whom reminds me of Linda McCartney), was waiting for us at home. She had prepared us the mouth-watering white mushroom from the forest of Carpathian mountains.
Our eyes were all redden after the hot steam and we slept like baby that evening.

Our first caving adventure in Zatyzine, Ukraine

We planned to go hiking on the Ukraine Independence Holiday weekend with our CS host, Andrii in Ivano Frankivsk, however, as a mountain guide, he suddenly got a job appointment for a 3 days trip in the Carpathian mountain.  

To our pleasant surprise, Andrii introduced and arranged us to spend our weekend with his friends, a couple who moved to the mountain in Zatyzine, some 2 hours drive away.
We were accompanied by another CS-er from Hong Kong, who was staying with Andrii on the same night. And Chin Wang is the first Hong Kong couchsurfer we met on our trip.

Jeremy waited for us at the bus stop and we were led into the mountain, among bushes and forest. After walking for about 20 minutes, we finally arrived their cozy little house among the forest, with only one or two neighbors afar.

Jeremy and Svitlana are excited to have guests and are very happy to meet us. 

They believed in the benefit of eating food uncooked and preferred eating everything raw including meat and vegetables. Hence, our first lunch together was salad and bread.
We had some exchange and learnt that  the couple are speleologist, serious cavers who had spent as long as one week continuously underground! They took almost a whole year making maps of their cave, discovering virgin passages and naming them with their team. They moved to the mountain for the love of caves and nature. 

In fact, there are many caves in Ukraine, especially in that area. We are told that when there is a patch of trees in the middle of the farm field, it means there is a cave underground! As they cannot harvest in a hole. 

After lunch, they took us out to explore some gypsum caves nearby. 

We are advised to wear enough warm clothes and something that can get dirty, with hiking boots ideally, plus head lamp. 

Svitlana is the one who led her husband into caving and she is also a cave guide, who take amateur spelunkers to caving adventure. She is very educational in teaching us about the structure of caves, how to move our body inside the cave safely, how to use equipments for cave diving and how to preserve the minerals, by not touching them. 

We hiked around the mountain after a short drive from their home and there are more than five caves at least. Unfortunately, they were covered by mud and trash, until we found a clean entrance that is more deserted.  Svitlana is an adventurer, she is always the first one trying to get in and explore how it is like.  After a few attempt, she eventually  found one in a good condition for beginners, like us, to try. 

The entrance of the cave was small and the path that followed was even smaller.  We have to squeeze ourselves in.  There were some 10cm big spiders inside the cave, near the entrance, then some baby bats. But further inside, there were only rocks, crystals without insects nor animals.   Moving further in, there was a really difficult part that need to crawl like a worm, then we have to climb down by 1.5m to find a wide open area. We climbed one by one slowly, while Adley came last.  We were all standing in the cave looking, but he suddenly fell down among us! Luckily, there was no injury! Just cramp.

It was a wonderful experience to try caving, the cave was dark, cool and quiet. In fact, it was the same cool temperature all through the year, somewhere around 15 degree Celsius I suppose. But I can't imagine living inside the cave for a whole week!  I appreciate the calmness inside the cave but I can't wait coming outside to see the sun.  

We tried a second one with a huge entrance and not very deep inside. That's quite enough for me for my first time and all I can think of are: hot shower, laundry and a warm dinner!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013




這些嘍囉的背景不同,一部份來自體育會 - 都是一些年少氣盛,好勇鬥狠年青人聚集的會社;亦有包括紀律部隊參與其中的會社,所以這些人和警方關係密切。每當他們在反集會中使用暴力或恐嚇,很多時警察都隻眼開隻眼閉,對他們的非法行為視若無睹,選擇不執法。有傳媒拍攝到在反對政府集會中,當這些嘍囉出現滋擾示威者,有內政部官員在附近大厦天台出現。雖然這不代表政府請槍壓止反政府集會,但是在訪問這些嘍囉時得知他們是被"大佬"指派做嘢之後收錢。約1000烏克蘭克尼亞,在失業率高和平均月薪只二三千克尼亞的烏克蘭,這些很好的工錢。

誰找這些大佬找嘍囉? 可以是政客請槍威嚇其他政敵、或地產商請他們騷擾小業主、或商人請他們破壞競爭對手業務、怎會沒有政府官員找人打擊反對者? 這些大佬有接頭人去接生意,而這些接頭人亦有中間人聯絡不願曝光的金主。收費高低視乎唬嚇程度,普通威嚇當然不及見血高價。破壞和平示威只是小事一椿,普通失業青年樂於參與其中,可以一嘗破壞滋味,舒展筋骨,有警方包庇更無後顧之憂。

其實這些以羣眾鬥羣眾的政治技倆是共產黨喜歡用的,就算蘇聯已解體,這陋習在俄羅斯還通用。橙色革命後的烏克蘭居然神推鬼㧬選了個親莫斯科政府 (其實也因為烏克蘭東部有很多俄羅斯移民有關,本土烏克蘭人已經給前蘇聯計劃經濟餓死大部份人),在社會不同領域深受俄羅斯影響,主要經濟活動被俄羅斯支配、傳媒被軟性受控(因為廣告收入大多來自俄羅斯)。政府重施共產陋習針對反對自己的人。

一向有留意香港時局,知道有"愛""關"字頭的親共組織和反政府示威唱對台,甚至有建制支持者騷擾甚到毆打示威者而警察視若無睹。加上後者縱容這些親共組織打壓和平發輪功人士 ,而當中這些組織有成員有黑社會背景。當然這些組織容易把責任推得一乾二淨,說這些黑底嘍囉不屬他們。這些情況很有共產黨收買嘍囉鬥羣眾的意味。親共建制社團有財力請槍為所欲為,傳媒自我審查和公安機構私相授受難以揭發這些嘍囉的財政來源。其實共匪的魔爪已威脅我們的言論自由,講句粗口就被文革式批鬥,不需起它們底已經可以從他們的行為嗅到他們的共匪妖味。以前都無咁猖狂,在這個狼英政府時代居然出然,牠不暗中支持? 搵鬼信 !



Saturday, August 17, 2013

A natural hotspring unknown by many locals in Poprad, Slovakia

There are over 150 hot springs around Slovakia. Not all are touristy hot spring resorts, but some are undeveloped natural area, only frequented by privileged few who knows the secret. Our friend Brandon took us to one of them.

The touristy and the non-touristy choices

There is a water theme park in Poprad, named Aqua City
a family spa centre cum hotel complex, health center and restaurants, which is filled with geothermal water, well-known in the High Tatras area of Slovakia. However, 15km away from Poprad, in the town called Ganovce, has another source of geothermal water only known by very few locals. 

The natural rhythm of the natural geothermal spa

It's actually a pipe that flow 26 degree Celsius mineral water randomly, every 15-30mins, for about 30 minutes every time, 24 hours a day. 

Curing joint problems in a month

People will wear swimsuits and queue up for a splash of the gush. It is believed that the mineral water contained property that cure joint problems.  We are told that many who have neck pain, back pain and joint problems came here everyday, continuously for one month and have been fully recovered. 

A spa party for some

The place, near the open field, is free to visit and opens all year round, any in the day and night. In the evening,there are guys bringing beer to the place, getting drunk and run naked to the spring and had some crazy party in the field.

Who owns it?

We are told that the pipe belonged to the government but the land belonged to an 85-year-old lady, who refused to sell the land, hence it had not turned into a commercial bath. 

The other bath in Ganovce

There is in fact another pool nearby, also in Ganovce, that people need to pay for entry. That pool used to be an ancient Roman bath, but left empty during the Soviet time. The ruins was further destroyed when time passed and it was newly reopened a few years ago.

How does the water feels like?

At our free spa, the water was actually warmer than open air with the cool wind.  The gush of water also varied in strength. Hence when it is strong, it also give massage to our back and should but we need to be flexible and move on our own in all creative ways.

Coming all he way from Hong Kong to visit his little spa!

It was fun queuing up to wait for a splash. The locals are rather curious to find two Chinese being there and gave us a friendly look. 

What you need for the enjoyment?

We brought our own mattress, swimsuits and enjoyed the water and the sun for an afternoon. Some snacks could make it like a picnic!

The archeological discovery

In the village, there was also a cave relics presenting the discovery some years ago for the pre-historical human "Neanderthal" (approximately 105 000 years).  A human brain without skull was found in that location, as it was protected by the mineral of the geothermal water in this area.

Friday, August 16, 2013


七年前的一場狂風從波蘭南來,兩小時內把一大遍樹林摧毀,到今日還沒有完全清理。我們在斯洛伐克Vysoke Tatry的山區就見識這狂風的威力。

經過一晚在Pension Gabriel舒適的休息,我們出發比較遲,眼見其他人早上八時出發,我們坐電車往渡假小鎮Takranska Lomnia已是下午一時。再坐二十分鐘登山弔車到Skaluate Pleso(1741m)。在弔車上看到山上很多樹倒下,還以為是為滑雪場已做成的人為破壞。我們在山上吃過午餐,看看這山區最高的山峰Lomnicky Stit (2634m)。當日登頂的纜車票已售罄,不能上山,我們在這纜車站附近參觀。當日天朗氣清,我們還可以隱約看到馳名的Spis古堡遺跡。

兩時許我們便沿着山腰的紅色路線往Hrebienok行。不到十分鐘便到山區小屋Skalnata Chata。這些山邊小屋是登山人士的中途休息站及借宿點。我們進內看到裏面不同經典腳夫的扶重記錄,照片中看見他們背上那如木梯的背架,上面有石油氣罐、啤酒罐、汽水等, 兩手執行山杖,兩腳穿護膝。後來在一朋友口中聽到他們很容易患上肩背痛症及關節病,這樣負重當然如此。

這是流行的行山路線,沿途看見不少本地人扶老攜幼來行山,亦有遊行,如假日的西貢般。跟着走到另一峽谷,可以遠觀這山區較深入的雪山,我們所行的只是這山區的外圍。其實這個山區可以很”噤玩”,如果不是我那就快解體的行山鞋,在這裏或許可以玩多一星期。不久到達另一山區小屋 Zamkovskeho chata,持最重負重紀錄的腳夫就是來自這個小屋的。身負四百多公斤,就是我們的背包八倍有多!

之後我們見到瀑布Obrosky vodopad。從這裏沿河往下游找另一個瀑布,中間經過Rainerova小屋,找到另一腳夫,年約五十,剛抬上幾箱汽水。這兒的汽水比山下貴五毫歐羅,當中有多少落在他口袋呢? 我們繼續往下走便看到這裏最出名的瀑布Vodopady Studeneho potoka。說規模當然不及我們看到的以瓜蘇及維多利亞瀑布,但我欣賞它在較小但仍展示强弱不同的流水,在石中穿插,在這裏待着看很久也可以看很久也不厭。



就這樣我們到了Tatranska Lesna,在公路上眼看電車走了。再坐電車就要多待一小時,想着到附近的小鎮等巴士,又走錯方向,走多了一公里才找到巴士站。試試找順風車(這些厚面皮的事老婆又不大熱心去做,當然又是我來做),怎料有一對夫婦駕車過了我們居然駛回頭接我們,他們來自斯洛伐克另一地區來這裏旅遊一星期,他們的英文不錯。他們載我們到我們所住的村Nova Lesna,我們早下了車(其實還要走二十分鐘),給我們找到一間餐廳,價錢相宜又好吃。走回旅館拿行季已經時晚上九時半了,早知當晚旅館已經爆滿,有定找街外紥營的準備。怎料東主可以讓我們在客廳的梳化床免費睡一晚 !

我們在這山區有了很開心的回憶,之前對此沒有認識,只知可以從這裏可以往北過境到波蘭 (我有這樣想但老婆當然不太想),還有很多行山徑。今次之行可讓我們想多留一點,希望在來這裏更深入山區欣賞這裏。

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Celebrating Maria's birthday in Polish southern country-side by her favorite activity : eat, eat and eat

Feeling not enough time to enjoy Krakow move, we went back to Katowice to meet Beata to go to her parents' village house in southern Poland. We like village life a lot because of natural scenery, natural food, slow pace and ethnicity. This trip is a good celebration of Maria's birthday. It's worth the effort of detour.

We took the train together from Katowice to Pszczyna ("pis-Si-na", we were laughed at by finding it so difficult to pronounce that presumably one vowel word), where we met her father Jaroslaw. He was very friendly and could speak English well. On our way to the village we brought some food in the supermarket  as we like to make some Chinese dishes; also went to home renovation store where Jaroslaw bought some material for the village home. He was the home improvement guy, and enjoys it a lot.

He was so nice to bring us to Zywiec beer brewery. It had been owned by the Hapsburg family and now still running after two centuries. We knew how to make beer but enjoy seeing their set-up of the old streets and old bar, with old-styled bowling that the kids were crazy at playing. I was concerned why children went for beer tour (just like San Miguel beer tour visited by kids in Hong Kong); wouldn't that encourage alcoholism ? At the end we could drink the beer, I like the clear briskness. When we left the brewery it was raining very heavily (after a long week of hot weather, including the hottest day of the season). 

After another hour of car journey we finally got over some rugged road and arrived the village house near the border town Zwardon. We were welcomed by the favorite German Shepard Rex. Beata's mother Marione and grandmother Kristina treated us nice warm soup for the rainy cold night. 

We had a room by ourselves at the top of the house. It was cozy and comfortable.

In the next morning we had our first breakfast viewing the foggy mountains (we were either lucky or unlucky to see that unclear view at that time). Also we had a good look of the living and kitchen. Kristina was making meatball for dinner the other night. Tonight we made dinner.

After lunch we went out for a short walk, it was foggy around. We did not do much walk and came back to the house quickly. It was good to be wet with the hope that there may be some mushrooms.

In that evening we made our Chinese dishes, including their favorite sweet and sour pork (shanghai style). We also had campfire. On Sunday morning we went to church. It was a great sunny day and also Maria's birthday. She got a bunch of flowers and a pair of thick socks, a good present for her because all her socks were thin and short. 

Her favorite birthday activity came, we went around the forest to pick and eat blackberries along the way. We picked a lot that we later made a berry sauce for steam buns. Rex was a bit put off by our enthusiasm and did not want to walk that far with us. We had to keep giving him encouragement and rest so he could work on. He was a city dog and felt more comfortable lying at home.

The next morning we left with good memories and hoped that one day we could come again and visit this beautiful countryside.