One of the first items on the agenda that my family planned for me on my visit to Dalian was a trip to 蓝堡 (Lan Bao, or “Blue Castle”), a “relaxation club.” China has many of these outfits, where you pay for an all-encompassing ticket and thereby have access to amenities including a pool, steam room, sauna, massage parlor and spa, buffet lunch/restaurant, sitting room with TVs, and sleeping room. You could theoretically buy a ticket and live a life of luxury inside for weeks, because they have everything you could ever need. Lan Bao was a bit smaller than ones I’ve been in before, so it only (“only”) had a pool, hot tubs, sauna, steam room, spa, and sitting room.
The first thing that attendants do when you enter is swap your shoes for slippers (pink for women and blue for men) and hand you a small towel and a wristlet with your locker number. Then you’re separated by gender and ushered into a public bathing area, where the majority of the people that you encounter are in their birthday suits as opposed to bathing suits.
In the US, this would be a horrifying, but I actually rather like it as a communal experience. When you meet people in non-public bath situations, they’ve usually gone through great pains to put up a facade and craft every detail of how they’re presented to the world. But in a public bath, the clothes come off, whether they’re designer pieces or from street markets, the hair hangs wet and loose, and the makeup disappears; you’re the most natural you. Though I can’t say that I’m 100% comfortable stripping down in front of strangers (and family – talk about a bonding experience), I at least like to think that baring it all is a great equalizer, and nobody judges you for what you may or may not have. One definite downside to public baths, though, is that it’s quite difficult to communicate across genders. Even in the bathing area, I was having trouble keeping track of my grandma and aunts, and I barely saw any male members of my family the entire time we were at Lan Bao.
Though the stated intention was to “swim,” very little swimming actually occurred. This was partly because children in floaties occupied the entire shallow end of the pool, but mostly because it was crowded since it was the weekend (and China, nuff said). Instead, we headed back down to the bath area for spa treatments, which was probably the REAL reason why my family chose to go to Lan Bao.
All along the bathing area, there are rows of massage beds, each with a middle-aged masseuse wearing a black bikini. You line up by telling a scheduler your locker number, and once it’s called, the masseuse puts a towel and a thin sheet of plastic down on the bed and you lay down, stark naked and in the open.
The first service that I signed up for was 搓澡 (Cuo Zao, or a “scrub bath”). This entails your masseuse wrapping a regular towel or special scrubbing towel (which is as close to sand paper as your skin can withstand) around her hand and scrubbing every inch of your body, as if you were a particularly dirty and sticky table. Only a total of maybe one cubic inch of skin on my body remained untouched, and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out where. The entire process is fairly violating but also extremely gratifying, because you roll off the table and see exactly how much dirt and dead skin was coating your body. What’s left looks kind of like long, thin, black eraser shavings, and if all collected and rolled into a ball, all of mine would have been the size of two standard marbles. I don’t think I’ve ever been so clean in my life!
Next was a 奶浴 (Nai Yu, or “milk bath”), which is most concisely summed up as having hot milk poured over your body and then massaged and patted into your skin. To keep you warm while working on a specific area of your body, the masseuse wets you down with warm water and then lays a thin sheet of plastic over you, which effectively seals you in a plastic pouch. Simple and slightly uncomfortable, but surprisingly effective! I’m not sure about the health benefits of absorbing milk into your skin, but I guess I can’t see any harms that may come of it, either.
An afternoon of complete relaxation, all for about 25USD! I’ve never felt so pampered and clean, ironically in a country that on average ranks pretty low on hygiene. But that’s what I love about China, it’s a country of contradictions (and amazingly cheap services). Enjoying it all while I can!