Getting naked in front of others is something I usually avoid at all costs. Exposing my sixty-year-old body intimidates me. Ten years ago, I envied the thousands who stripped off on the Opera House forecourt for photographer Spencer Tunick, wanting to join in, but too fearful to do so.
Much has changed. When walking the Camino de Santiago, a wise woman told me that “life begins at the edge of your comfort zone”. I’ve been pushing the envelope ever since.
Large picture windows looked out across a short stretch of pebbly beach to the edge of the lake from the guesthouse dining room. Small waves whooshed back and forth across the pebbles. The water was clear and as I later found out, icy cold.
After three days on the train with only a basin in the toilet cubicle for washing, I looked forward to the Russian banya (bath) experience and possible lake swim. Towel, swimming costume, shampoo and soap in hand, I entered the banya antechamber with four similarly aged women from our small group tour.
A slatted wooden bench ran along the length of one wall in the simple narrow room. Feeling very self-conscious, I took a deep breath and following the lead of the others I undressed, hanging my clothes and swimming costume on a peg above the bench.
Then my heart beating fast, I walked stark-naked into the washing room.
Lined with wooden panelling, coloured plastic basins lined up on a shelf provided some colour to the room. A large blue drum filled with cold water stood in one corner. On the opposite wall, steam rose from a metal vessel full of hot water being heated up on the stove.
In a small room full of naked women, I didn’t know where to look and avoiding the eyes of my travel companions busied myself with the task at hand.
Following instructions, I carefully filled a jug with hot water from the stove and poured it into my shallow maroon basin. Then I plunged the jug into the blue drum and mixed the cold and hot water. Soon, my water was at a comfortable temperature and I was ready for the next step.
By alternately dousing myself with water, soaping and then rinsing off with more water poured from above, the grime from the train and my inhibitions washed away.
We all relaxed into the experience, became comfortable with our nudity and began to chat amongst ourselves. We shared shampoo, exclaimed at the cold water and rejoiced at the opportunity for a proper wash after the train.
The steam room was next. The heat hit me as I entered the small dimly lit panelled room. Three tiers of wooden seating lined two walls and a stove filled with smooth grey rocks occupied the opposite corner.
My travel companions spread themselves out on the tiered benches. One rested a large bunch of dried birch twigs across her thighs.
Another stood up, walked to the stove, filled a jug with water and poured it onto the rocks. The water hissed as a cloud of steam filled the room.
It is customary to have a birch massage in the steam room. When my turn came, I lay face down on the bench. One of my new friends dipped the bunch of birch twigs into hot water and proceeded to ‘lash’ my back, buttocks and thighs.
A fragrant aroma filled the steamy room, and I felt progressively more relaxed.
After visiting the steam room, Lake Baikal, only 20 metres or so from the guesthouse banya was the ideal location to cool off.
Leaving my swimming costume hanging on the peg in the antechamber, I stepped unclothed outside, walking self-consciously across the stepping stone path to the edge of the lake. I couldn’t remember if I had ever as an adult been naked outdoors.
Apart from Kzenia our female tour guide and Natalia the guesthouse cook looking on through the dining room window, there was no one around. Natalia called out “No, No, No”. I hesitated and started to turn back. Perhaps swimming naked in Lake Baikal wasn’t allowed.
Then Natalia gesticulated urgently with both hands pushing towards the lake. This time I heard correctly “Go, Go, Go” and I continued on gesturing for the other women to follow me.
Dipping my toe into the water, I confirmed my fears. It was very cold. The only way to do this was quickly. I dived head first into the clear icy water emerging squealing and gasping for air.
With some encouragement the others followed, all exclaiming how exhilarating it was after the heat of the steam room. We ducked underwater and floated on our backs relishing the experience. When the cold became too much, exhilarated we picked our way back across the pebbles back to the banya.
Ksenia smiled when we returned to the wash room for a final rinse. Of all her tour groups ours was the first to swim in Lake Baikal in the nude. For my part, if Spencer Tunick ever returns to Australia to photograph another nude gathering, I won’t hesitate to be there.