Unrefined therapy in Azerbaijan

On the road Bathing in crude oil is reputed to soothe the skin and boost energy levels. But at Naftalan, the process of immersion is a far cry from luxurious spa pampering.

The Naftalan Sanatorium offers long-stay packages for people to soak in crude oil for their health.
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Bathing in crude oil is reputed to soothe the skin and boost energy levels. But, as Luke Jerod Kummer discovers at Naftalan in Azerbaijan, the process of immersion is a far cry from the luxurious spa pampering that most of us enjoy "Why you come sanatoria?" the voice at the end of the phone asks. "Oil," I answer. I'm seated in the doctor's office at the Naftalan Sanatorium, near the battle-scarred territory of Nagorno-Karbakh in Azerbaijan. The health centre is famous for its crude oil baths, which are believed to have medicinal properties and be good for treating skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, easing joint pains; and generally calming the nerves. But as no one here speaks English, I'm none the wiser as to what the basis for these health claims might be. Rather, I'm talking to a stranger down a telephone line as banter ensues between my taxi driver, Emar, the "doctor", receptionist and nurses. People once flocked from all over the USSR to health centres in the small town of Naftalan to spend days soaking in the dark, heavy type of crude that's found in this area but is too expensive to refine. Today, western tourists like me are still an oddity.

Naftalan is 250km from the capital of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet state pinched between the Caspian Sea and the Caucus Mountains. This morning's view from the window of my taxi had been bleak. Outside of princely Baku, flush with cash despite a war in the 1990s that displaced more than a million people and crippled its economy, much of Azerbaijan appears rural, meagre and unchanged since the hard-living days of perestroika. The land is flat and dead, with spans of power lines between metal towers the only "scenery" to be found. So this is what a nuclear winter would look like, I'd thought. Shortly after the white peaks of the Caucus Mountains, the sight of the Naftalan Health and Therapy Centre had not inspired much cheer. The block-long, three-storey building is painted a jaundiced yellow. When I walked through the entrance, I was greeted by an overpowering smell of mothballs. A world further away from the soft lighting, wafting incense and white towels of western-style spas is hard to imagine.

Still in the doctor's office, I easily decline the offer of 15-day treatment package costing US$850 (Dh 3,122). "What your condition?" the voice asks. "Fatigue," I volunteer, somewhat uncertainly. This carries on like some sort of comedy sketch until I get what I want - a prescription of a single dose of hot crude oil. I don't know the doctor's final diagnosis, but since none of my vitals were checked it's probably the presence of an extended wallet. Eventually, I'm led to the waiting room by a nurse wearing leopard print beneath hospital garb and four-inch-heeled black leather go-go boots. I trust that I'm in good hands.

Twenty or so minutes pass before Emar leads me out the back door of the main building and into a separate office where two clerks peer out from behind stacks of papers. I hand one of them the written prescription the doctor gave me and ask how much I owe him. He mumbles a response and I produce what I think is the right price of 70 manat or about $87 (Dh320). Emar swipes it out of my hand and shoves it in my pocket - apparently the cost is actually seven manat and Emar figured the clerk would not correct my error.

From there I visit a woman with half a row of gold teeth who is dispensing sandals, shampoos, loofahs and brightly coloured towels. Emar buys me one of each for 12 manat. I wish he had chosen something other than a pink towel with a butterfly but I'm in no position to argue.  We follow the nurse down a dark, dank hallway until she points to door number 7, where a young, spindly Azeri man in a tracksuit is waiting. Once inside, Emar waves me to take off my clothes. I hang up my jacket on a hook and strip to my boxers. Then, both he and the attendant motion for me to remove those too. While I don't consider myself shy, I can't remember a situation where I've been forced to disrobe before my taxi driver, and I hesitate, which makes things even more awkward. It also occurs to me that it would be very easy to take a man's valuables while he is submerged in oil. Is Emar more honest than the police who stopped our car along the way here and extorted from him a bribe? It's clear I have no choice, however, and I shed my boxers and stand there naked before two strangers in the tiny, unheated room with a ceiling furry with green mould. So far the experience has more closely resembled a concentration camp than a day spa. Along one wall lies a stained-brown cast iron tub. The attendant pops a rubber plug in the drain and points for me to lie down. He turns a knob on a copper pipe extending from the wall and emptying into the basin. I hear glug, glug, glug and black liquid splashes onto my feet and soon covers every inch of me right up to my neck. Yellow froth and a rainbow sheen float on top. The attendant turns over a 10-minute egg timer and I wonder just how slowly those moments might pass.

"OK?" the mans asks, to which I raise a thumb and produce a weak grin. The oil is hot but not scalding. From it rise vapours that have the same mothball smell that I noticed earlier.

The stench is due to the high concentration of naphthalene, which is the ingredient in mothballs and gives them their distinctive smell. The substance is also a known carcinogen, though no one has concluded whether regular baths in Naftalan oil cause cancer.

The time in the tub actually goes by quicker than expected because the feeling is so completely odd. Rubbing one's toes or knees together is a slippery sensation. My torso and legs feel disconnected from my head, as if they are suspended in another dimension. After the 10 minutes are up the young attendant yanks a chain connected to the plug and the oil swirls down the drain. My body is left a shiny, dripping black mess, like an insect that has crawled out of a molasses jar.

The attendant motions for me to grab on to brass handles screwed into the side of the tub and the wall and to rise slowly. Eyeing the wooden spatula in his hand, I think: Dear God, what next? Limb by limb he scrapes the instrument against my skin, carefully guiding the liquid back into the tub where it washes down the drain. I know that the price of light sweet crude is hovering somewhere around $75 (Dh275) per barrel, but are they really going to recycle the oil with my hair floating in it? That's what you get for seven manat, I guess.

The man's spatula knows no bounds; he goes about running the cooking utensil between my hindquarters as if it were an everyday chore. Once he's finished with the spatula I step out onto a wooden grate. Next he uses an entire roll of paper towels to remove still more residue. He hands me a rag to clean my front while he scrubs my back. In my navel I notice a black well. The final procedure is for me to stand beneath a calcified shower head spraying lukewarm water in all different directions while he loofahs me up and down. When he turns the water off, drops bead on my yellowed skin like it's been weatherproofed. I realise that I just spent 10 minutes immersed in oil and 40 minutes trying to get it off.

For three days after the treatment, I still feel greasy, an appropriate side-effect of being dipped in oil. Happily - at least, I think I'm pleased - I notice no positive or negative effects to my health although I'm glowing. This yellowish tone to my skin hangs around just long enough to underline the fact that I smell as though I had been hanging in a wardrobe for the past seven years. lkummer@thenational.ae

While most local visitors to the Naftalan Sanatorium (00 994 255 2 30 38) will opt for packages that can cost as much as $850 (Dh3,122) for 15 days, single treatments are available for about $9 (Dh32). Since the hospital staff do not speak English, it is advisable to find an English-speaking driver to accompany you or to e-mail your requirements to info@naftalan-tour.com