If you just arrived to Almaty and want to relax your muscles after a cramped flight or an endless marshrutka ride, you can do no better than a visit to the Arasan baths. Located in the center of town near Panfilov Park, the Arasan baths offer a luxury spa experience at affordable prices in one of Kazakhstan’s most interesting Modernist buildings.
History and architecture
The baths were originally completed in 1982 on the orders of Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan from 1959 to 1986. It became one of the last and most compelling projects of what is known as the “Kunayev” period of Kazakh architecture.
Kunayev’s legacy as a leader has been diligently scraped away by his successor Nazarbayev, and baby boys named Dimash are now rare compared to the hordes of little Nursultans, but the hulking body of the Arasan baths, which occupies almost an entire city block, proved impossible to erase.
Inspiration: from Tashkent to Budapest
Built between 1979 and 1982 in a Modernist style that defines Central Asian architecture of the postwar period, the project started after a deficit of bathing facilities was established in Almaty. As important: regional rival Tashkent had acquired a large complex of oriental baths just a few years earlier.
No building codes existed for the project envisioned, so designers had to look elsewhere for inspiration. Architects traveled to Baku, Yerevan and Leningrad to soak up bath architecture, and attended the Sanduny in Moscow and the famous Gellert Baths in Budapest.
Design: delving into history
For technological solutions, the architects delved into history. They studied layouts of medieval structures found in excavations in Turkistan and Otrar and measured the air temperature in some of the old hammams still operating in Uzbekistan.
The curvature of each dome is designed so the condensate does not drip on the visitors, but instead slides down from the dome onto the inner walls.
Arasan combines traditional oriental architecture with modern forms. There is a clear contrast between the rectangular structure and the domed spaces. The idea of the unity of opposites (a key concept in Marxist dialectics) is highlighted in the contrast between the austere design of the facade and the richly decorated, well-lit interior space.
Inside, Arasan has been tastefully decorated with marble and pine wood finishes, mosaics and glazed ceramic tiling. Extensive renovation happened in 2012.
Bathing: how it works
Men and women bathe separately. Most people walk around naked save for a towel, but no one minds should you prefer to wear a bathing suit. You have nothing to be embarassed about: Kazakhstan’s obesity rates must be through the roof.
All showers have a free soap dispenser, but be sure to bring slippers (obligatory), a towel and a bottle of water. In case you forgot, you can rent all items from the attendants as well, and a bar is on-site should you want to have a drink.
Once inside the bath house, you can choose between Finnish sauna, Russian banya, Turkish steam baths and Moroccan hammam. To cool down, take a contrast bucket shower and float in the circular plunge pool.
Optimal bathing time and ritual
Most people will be happy with an hour. You get 20 minutes extra for dressing, so an hour is really 80 minutes. Besides, overtime is cheap (30 tenge/minute last time we checked). Experienced relaxers can take 2 hours to explore all the options and get a really good soak. Prices are discounted before 5pm on weekdays. It is also less crowded at these times.
A full-on 2-hour ritual could go like this: start with the Finnish sauna (10 minutes at each level), move on to the Turkish steam bath (2 times 5 minutes) and only then to head for the Russian banya (as long as you can handle). After each exit, take 2-3 contrast bucket showers and cool down at the plunge pool for a while. Finish off in the Moroccan hammam, and do not forget to drink.
And don’t forget to discuss with your fellow bathers! If you still imagine public discourse happens on social media, you must be one of those pitiful ‘olde skool’ millennials. No no. Gen X, Y and Z know that the real forum for debate is perfumed with the smell of birch leaves. In the intimacy of the sweat hut is where you’ll hear contrarian political opinions and insider tips on the best nail specialists in town.
Massages and other services
Attendants will wonder if you want a massage. If you decide to go for it, be warned: it’s rough.
Other services include a full-on soapy extravaganza on the heated marble in the Moroccan baths downstairs and a professional beating with oak leaves (veniki) in the Russian banya (2000 tenge).
A professional veniki whipping of birch leaves is not for the faint of heart, and you might feel like you’re dying halfway through, but if you’re up to the challenge, it’s an experience you will certainly remember.
Oak leaves and the traditional felt hat are banya attributes no real Russian man can go without. Should you want to buy them before heading in, little shops and itinerant babooshkas are waiting for your custom outside, or you can buy them (more expensively) from the shop inside.
Location and opening hours
The Arasan Bath complex is located just west of Panfilov Park, in leafy Tolebaev Street at number 78. Formerly known as Karl Marx street, this was one of the most desirable places to live in Soviet times, and many of the houses on Tolebaev carry plaques of the famous writers, composers and politicians who lived there.
The house museum and former residence of Secretary Kunaev is just up the street at number 117.