Starkers in Siberia so cool

Skinny-dipping in Siberia can be cool

International travel
SCAREDY CATS: These visitors to icy Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake, opted to keep their gear on.

SCAREDY CATS: These visitors to icy Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake, opted to keep their gear on.

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Joanne Karcz bares her soul and lot more in a swim at Lake Baikal - and emerges refreshed.

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GETTING naked in front of others is something I usually avoid at all costs. Exposing my 60-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.

Much has changed. While walking the Camino de Santiago, a wise woman told me "life begins at the edge of your comfort zone". I've been pushing the envelope ever since.

Last year when travelling by train from Beijing to Moscow we spent a couple of nights in the village of Turka on the shores of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake.

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. Towel, swimming costume, shampoo and soap in hand, I entered the banya antechamber with four similarly aged Australian women from our small-group tour.

A slatted wooden bench ran along the length of one wall in the simple narrow room. Feeling self-conscious, I undressed with the others, 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 where a large blue drum filled with cold water stood in a corner. On the opposite wall, steam rose from a metal vessel of hot water 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.

By alternately dousing myself with water, soaping and then rinsing, the grime from the train and my inhibitions washed away. We all slowly relaxed into the experience, became comfortable with our nudity and began to chat. We shared shampoo, exclaimed at the cold water and rejoiced at the opportunity for a proper wash.

The steam room was next and the heat hit me as I entered the small dimly lit panelled room.

It is customary in Siberia to have a birch massage in the steam room. When my turn came, I lay face down on one of the tiered wooden benches while one of my new friends dipped the bunch of dried birch twigs into hot water and proceeded to "lash" my back, buttocks and thighs.

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, I stepped outside, walking self-consciously across the path to the lake's edge. I couldn't remember if I had ever, as an adult, been naked outdoors.

Apart from our female tour guide Kzenia and Natalia, the guesthouse cook, looking on through the dining room window, there was no one around.

A toe-dip into the water confirmed my fears. It was very cold. The only way to do this was quickly. I dived in head first emerging squealing and gasping for air.

With some encouragement the others followed. We ducked underwater and floated on our backs and later, exhilarated, we picked our way back across the pebbles back to the banya.

Kzenia smiled when we returned to the washroom for a final rinse. Of all her tour groups, ours was the first to swim nude in Lake Baikal.

For my part, if Spencer Tunick ever returns to Australia to photograph another nude gathering, I won't hesitate to be there.

Joanne Karcz writes a regular travel blog: For more of her stories, visit www.travelwithjoanne.com

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