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Article updated: 2/4/2014 5:36 AM

Sweatlodge's ethnic melting pot offers escape from winter

By Burt Constable

In efforts to escape single-digit temperatures and double-digit snow totals, some suburbanites spend thousands of dollars to travel to new worlds of 80-degree beaches and tropical waters. For a $25 entry fee, Wheeling's Igor Mikhno trades in Monday's chill to lounge in the Chicago Sweatlodge's old-world sauna with 210-degree heat before a dip in the 44-degree pool.

"It's kind of Russian tradition to go to sauna and go to cold water," Mikhno, 32, says in his heavy Russian accent befitting the guy who came in from the cold. "I used to do this with my father in Belarus."

With the outdoor thermometer struggling to rise above the teens Monday morning, Mikhno, wearing a towel wrapped around his waist and the traditional felt shapka bania, or sauna hat, on his head, relaxes in the stifling sauna heat with other regular customers at the Chicago Sweatlodge on the city's Northwest side. Watching the sand in the hourglass timer to make sure he doesn't stay in the intense heat too long, Mikhno works up a sweat just sitting in the Russian dry sauna where heat radiates off the Belgian granite and red stone.

"Here, it's very cozy," he says from the top row of benches, where the temperature rises above the 210-degree thermometer reading by the door. "I come from a country where we had cold weather, but I didn't really like cold."

The all-male Sweatlodge old-world sauna at 3500 N. Cicero Ave. also makes the suburban construction worker and truck driver feel warm inside.

"It's all about conversation and spending time together with people you like," says Mikhno, who runs into Andrey Pupkin, a 35-year-old construction worker and friend from Brookfield who grew up in Ukraine. While they grew up speaking different languages, they communicate easily in English or the traditional Russian taught in the old Soviet Union.

Sharing the sauna with two older men of Irish descent, Pupkin later gives Mikhno a traditional broom massage designed to stimulate circulation by swinging a bundle of water-soaked oak leaves against Mikhno's back. They cap off the morning with an early lunch of borscht soup and Svyturys Baltijos Dark Red Lithuanian beer at the Sweatlodge's eclectic restaurant. Having picked up some new tastes from the Spanish-speaking workers and customers at the Sweatlodge, Pupkin spices up his beet soup with jalapeņos and cilantro.

That "blending of cultures" just adds to the Sweatlodge's charms, says Bill Trotter, the Sweatlodge general manager. He tells stories of Eastern Europeans trying tequila for the first time while watching soccer on TV. He hosts a Schvitzmas party for a group of older Jewish men who come three times a week. His guests on this Monday afternoon include cast members from the "Chicago Fire" TV show. As general manager since the place opened in 2006, Trotter also has passed out towels to actors Colin Farrell and Laurence Fishburne.

Noting that virtually every culture -- from the Navajo and Inuit to Muslims and Jews to Finns and Swedes -- has a history of enjoying the heat of a sauna, Trotter says he has learned what his diverse clientele wants.

"Initially, we served pizza and burgers, and it just didn't last. No one wanted it," says Trotter, who says the most popular dish now probably is the chebureki, a fried dough pillow stuffed with beef and pork and topped with sour cream, which is a popular dish throughout Eastern Europe and is thought to have been invented centuries ago by the Tartar people. The general manager, however, is partial to his namesake, Trotter's Village Salad.

The place can be packed on Friday and Saturdays, especially when it is cold outside, Trotter says. Although entry to the Russian sauna, steam sauna, cold pool and lounge is $25, customers can buy massages and other spa treatments. Visit chicagosweatlodge.com for details.

Coming from the bitter cold to the oppressive heat takes a little time to adjust, but resisting the urge to escape the heat is good for the soul, says Mikhno, who knows how to pace his time in the sauna.

"The more you push your limit, the more rejuvenating, exciting, it is," Mikhno says. "And then, when you jump in the cold pond, you have a sense of relief, like a newborn child."

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