No Photos Past This Point: Experiencing the Hammam

Whilst in Azerbaijan, there was talk of going to one of the hammams on ‘ladies day’ – these are the female only days, and men get their own days as well. I chickened out, I’d never had one and wasn’t sure I wanted to walk around with no clothes on around strangers.

The closest I’d ever come to one of these traditional bath house experiences was in a hostel in Korea. Unknowingly, I booked a hostel with a shared shower section. This meant that all the showers were like a swimming pool change room -and I was the only one who seemed to be embarrassed to flash my boobs and nether regions in front of all the Korean girls shamelessly shampooing their hair. I couldn’t do it, and went in with swimmers on, slightly jealous they were so comfortable with the whole thing. 

So after passing it up in Baku, we were given another opportunity in Samarkand. Perhaps it was the heat that had got me, after so many days of over 40 degree temperatures. Maybe it was the peer pressure, that 2 other girls said they’d go. Maybe it was just that we had some spare time, and it was a new experience to try in a foreign country. And maybe it was also because I felt like I hadn’t been properly clean for a long time, constantly alternating between sweaty and dusty for the past 2-3 wks, sometimes with the added factor of having no showers while camping. 

So off the three of us went, actually getting nervous and wondering what on earth we were doing. This particular day was another scorcher, and I think I seriously considered turning around, especially when the first hammam we went to turned out not be female only that day, but mixed – which we were most definitely not brave enough for! After wandering around, trying to Google map it, and asking for directions, we eventually found the correct backstreet. By this stage, it had taken us more than 20minutes of sweating in the afternoon sun, so there was no backing out now!

Above: Samarkand’s famous minaret from the 1100s – the hammam we visited was in one of the narrow streets behind it.

We found the place, and sort of huddled together in the doorway. Meanwhile, a few women were waltzing around in their undies, drying themselves off in the locker rooms. After a little bit of language-barriered conversation, a lady gives us slippers, towels and a locker. We were shown a wooden shed out the back for the toilet, then told to change. We were relieved when we were allowed our towels around us while we walked to the bathing rooms – only to be told to take them off 5 meters later.

So there we sat, in the sauna, while a mother washed her daughter, and another older lady doused herself in water. We were given one towel between the three of us to sit on, which we were squished together and all deliberately kept our eyes front. If we thought it was hot outside, it was near stifling in the sauna.We had no idea what was happening, just that we’d been told to sit on that towel, all three of us, and that we were laughing about suddenly being a little too well acquainted with each other.

Eventually, someone came to collect us, and this lady was also naked save for the undies. After a while, we understood why – it’s just too hot in the bathhouse! So all three of us were washed, scrubbed, rinsed, and then told to lie on the stone floor while some sort of body scrub was spread over our backs. The details of this hour will remain with each of us for a while, but are not to be shared! What happens in the hammam, stays in the hammam.

Even though I could really have appreciated not feeling quite so hot in there, I came out feeling so wonderfully clean. All the travelling dust had been scrubbed away. I was a little sceptical about how good my skin would feel afterwards, thinking it was like one of those beauty treatments that probably don’t work. But it certainly did!

The longer we were there, the less we cared about each other seeing anything. I suppose once you’ve seen it once, and you accept you’ll be seeing it again in the next hour, it is just a part of the process. Still a little awkward, but the kind you can get over. So, three relative strangers who had only met a few weeks beforehand suddenly bonded. After our hammam experience, there were very little barriers left that we couldn’t laugh about!