Friday 22 May 2009

Soviet-era oil spa makes a comeback

Naftalan health resort uses local crude oil to treat skin diseases and other ailments, a treatment popular during the Soviet years.

To see derricks in Azerbaijan, tapping into large reserves of oil, is as natural a sight as trees in a wood.
But oil extracted in Naftalan, a town nestled in the heart of the country, is pumped solely to a health resort famous in Soviet times for its oil bath treatments.

According to one of the legends often told to visitors, the therapeutic properties of Naftalan oil were discovered in ancient times by a merchant travelling with his camel caravans on the Silk Road. Allegedly a sick camel got stuck in a reedy marsh and was cured. Today a reference to this legend can be seen in the resort's display cabinet.

The petroleum spas of Naftalan are not well known, but the resort was a popular holiday spot in the Soviet era, frequented by patients with various health problems to soak in the therapeutic oil baths.

Patients bathe in local crude oil once each day for 10 - 15 minutes.

The old fame of the oil baths is still remembered by some former Soviet citizens.

"I used to come here in Soviet times. I came here four times and now I have come to Naftalan for the fifth time. I had Osteomielitis which I could not cure anywhere, but I got rid of it here," said Aivars Baumanis, a patient from Riga, who used to come for treatment from the capital of the then Soviet Latvia.

The Health Centre doctor Gyultakin Suleimanova explained that Naftalan crude is different from other types of oil as it contains very little natural gas or other lighter compounds of petroleum and as a result is safe to use.

"For medical purposes Naftalan oil is used both in its natural form and after a purification process. The main method of treatment is an oil bath. We use a dehydrated, in other words dry oil for our baths in Naftalan. We warm it up to 37 - 38 degrees Celsius before filling our baths," Suleimanova said in her office, after checking a new patient who arrived for treatment.

Naftalan crude contains about 50 percent naphthalene, a hydrocarbon best known as an ingredient in mothballs. It is also an active ingredient in coal tar soaps, which are used by dermatologists to treat psoriasis, though in lower concentrations.

The management of the resort renovated several compounds in the complex and has even opened new ones, hoping to revive the capacity of the old times.

"About 70,000 - 75,000 patients used to come to Naftal for treatment until 1991. And all of them were satisfied with the results of treatment with Naftalan oil. More than half of the patients had resort vouchers and stayed in the resort compound. Others lived in the town and received out-patient treatment," said head of Naftalan Health Centre Medical Department, Khatam Gojaev, referring to the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The flow of visitors became a trickle after war broke out between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenians in nearby Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988, and after the Soviet Union stopped offering free trips and vouchers.

The resort is enjoying a revival as new guests hear about the powers of the crude.

"It is interesting. You plunge into a tub full of brown oil and get a certain pleasure from it. As people who came here for treatment were satisfied with the treatment results, I decided why not come and try it. And I feel some effect," said Vadim Samorukov from Kazakhstan after trying the petroleum bath for the first time.

New guests as well as the faithful are needed to keep the future of the Naftalan oil spa alive.

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