Photo credit to @mononthemove – I was not expecting this to be an experience worthy of a blog post
I’m not a naked person. I didn’t grow up in a naked house. I don’t get naked when changing in front of friends. Showers, smear tests and sex aside – I’m rarely in the nude.
So when I found myself baring all to a group of 15 women I’d met only a few days earlier, I was well and truly out of my comfort zone. And when I say baring all, I really do mean every nook and cranny. Bent over, bum to the sun, cheeks being slapped in front of a crowd like a shameful Cersei Lannister.
Why and how did I end up here? By agreeing to a hammam in Uzbekistan, naturally.
I anticipated a traditional experience. That I’d be washed, brushed and massaged over the course of an hour to cleanse the skin and rejuvenate the body. And no, I’m not naive – I expected some level of nudity – but as a group who’d shared a few hammams, we figured swimwear might be accepted. That we might get a disposable bikini of sorts (I’d worn the plastic kind in Egypt) or that in the very least, we wouldn’t have to see each others’ bits before we’d learnt what one another’s pets were called.
How wrong we were.
The activity was an optional part of a week-long tour through Uzbekistan, starting in the capital of Tashkent. After getting to grips with the country’s extraordinary architecture, somewhat enjoyable cuisine and mind boggling currency, each group member agreed a massage was just what we needed.
We’d been up at the crack of dawn the day before to catch a train to Bukhara, a striking town on the ancient Silk Road. Hours of exploring blue tiled Mosques and haggling in local markets had us aching and weary. Who wouldn’t say yes to an invigorating full body treatment? Probably you, dear reader.
It all took place at Hammom Kunjak near Kalon Minaret. As one of the oldest bathhouses in Bukhara, it’s been scrubbing Uzbek civilians and curious tourists since the 16th century. And the methods are still pretty medieval.
The more confident of our gal gang left swimwear in suitcases. The majority of us turned up in bikini bottoms. And we might as well have followed suit. On arrival, a firm Uzbek woman in a long t-shirt thrusted shawls at us to wrap around our naked bodies. A few of us optimistically kept pants on, some of which managed to stay intact for the entirety. But for the severe people pleasers like myself, we weren’t so lucky.
Seconds later, the shawls were thrown in a corner and in turn – hands awkwardly covering nipples and nether regions – we were led to the first room of this three part ritual.
In a humid, not dark enough to be naked room, we each clambered to the concrete floor whilst trying not to reveal our lady gardens. For the next 20 minutes, we sat in a state of hysterical shock. You had two choices; look dead set to the floor or keep serious eye contact so as not to subconsciously avert the eyes downwards.
As we addressed the vulvas in the room, discussing how boobs really are just mammary glands and isn’t it refreshing to see a bunch of perfectly imperfect bodies, we all slowly adjusted to this bizarre new normal. It was both one of the most mortifying yet empowering experiences of my life on Earth so far. But it was only going to get worse.
A handful at a time, we were chosen by a team of sweaty local women in an array of undress, each amused by our discomfort. As one of the last to be selected, I could only see glimpses of what was next; the washing room.
Some of the first group had made it out before our numb bums had even left the floor. Seated around a sacrificial stone table in the centre of the room, they were led two by two to top and tail face down for an aggressive massage that involved more slaps than a series of Eastenders. With us all crouching at eye height, it was hard not to catch an x-rated viewpoint.
At last it was my turn. I’d imagined the washing stage to resemble how a newborn receives its first bath. Instead we were scrubbed like a muddy farm animal. Arms up, face the wall, bend over and bare all – a rough mitt removed dead skin from every crevice.
Then out came the Herbal Essences. A quick hair wash was perhaps the most enjoyable part of the experience and by this point we’d all somewhat gotten used to seeing each other’s cat flaps.
Blinded by buckets of water that were spontaneously chucked over our heads, we were escorted by hand to be rebirthed back into the main room. Presented to the group, our naked bodies were then smothered in ginger paste like a pork joint ready for roasting.
At this point, a few other tourists had become trickling in, and our hosts were struggling to keep up. Massage tables (aka thin shawls draped over concrete slabs) popped up among us. And then it was me. Lying next to a new friend, a large lady in nude lace lingerie slapped and pummelled me whilst I tried hard not to stay tense, imagining how bruised I’d feel the next morning.
It wasn’t enjoyable. The sound of regular phones ringing (and being answered mid-massage) didn’t exactly set the most relaxing scene. And the lack of massage oil made for a rough ride. Thankfully it took less time than the amount of waiting around involved.
The only resemblance to a typical spa day was the offering of tea at the end. Back in our clothes, with wet hair to enter the cold Uzbekistan night with, it was a welcomed finish.
Weeks later and I’m still a little aghast it happened. But what bonds a group like a shared trauma? It was somehow my favourite and least favourite moment.
Safe to say, I won’t be recommending it in my ‘top things to do in Uzbekistan’. But if you fancy pranking your travel companions (or my review has somehow left you wanting a first-hand experience), you couldn’t ask for a better activity.
For now, I’ll be sticking to my aromatherapy massages thanks.