BATHING IN BLACK GOLD FOR HEALTH AND PROFIT IN AZERBAIJAN
by Andrew E. Kramer
December 4, 2006
An attendant scraped oil off Ramil Mutukhov, 25, as he bathed in pure crude at Health Center in Naftalan. “It’s wonderful,” Mr. Mutukhov said.
NAFTALAN, Azerbaijan — Outside this improbable spa in a remote part of the former Soviet Union, oil rigs bob on a hardscrabble plain of rocks, shrubs and rusting industrial equipment that could easily pass for a stretch of West Texas.
Inside, Ramil Mutukhov, a lanky 25-year-old, prepares to be pampered and preened, scrubbed and peeled — in a bath of pure crude oil.
He undresses, hangs his trousers and sweatshirt on a peg, pulls off socks and underwear and folds a wad of brown paper towels. He will need them later. Then he steps into a mess of what looks, smells and flows like used engine oil. “It’s wonderful,” he says, up to his neck in oil in a sort of human lube job.
The petroleum spas of Naftalan in central Azerbaijan, one of the little-known but once popular vacation spots of the Soviet Union, are making an unlikely return in a country so awash in oil these days that people are swimming in it.
Here in Naftalan, visitors can bathe once a day in the local crude. They and doctors here say it relieves joint pain, cures psoriasis, calms nerves and beautifies skin — never mind that Western experts say it may cause cancer.
Hoping to tap into the worldwide spa boom, Health Center, where Mr. Mutukhov took a dip recently, opened a year ago. Another spa is being built and two more are planned. “Two years ago, all this was ruins,” Ilgar Guseynov, the owner and director of Health Center, said in an interview. “Every day, every month, Azerbaijan is growing richer.”
At their peak in the 1980s, Naftalan spas had 75,000 visitors a year. That flow 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. Five of the six Soviet-era resorts were converted into glum housing for refugees. But this summer, about 350 people visited the Health Center, Mr. Guseynov said, up from 250 last summer. A 15-day course costs $450, including meals.
“Azerbaijan is standing on its own feet now,” Amir Aslan, the deputy mayor of Naftalan, said. The town is banking on growth tied to the oil spa, which he said would pull it out of poverty. He has plans for a $3 million, 20-bath spread and is seeking investors.
In her office overlooking the oil field that supplies Health Center, Gyultikin Suleymanova, the lead doctor, said the local crude was unusual because it contained little natural gas or other lighter fractions of petroleum, and as a result was safe.
Naftalan crude contains about 50 percent naphthalene, a hydrocarbon best known as the stuff of mothballs. It is also an active ingredient in coal tar soaps, which are used by dermatologists to treat psoriasis, though in lower concentrations.
The National Agency for Research on Cancer, an American government agency, classifies naphthalene as a possible carcinogen, though Dr. Suleymanova said that is not the case when people bathe in it. Baths are lukewarm and last 10 minutes.
The therapeutic benefits are a product of natural antibiotic and anti-inflammatory agents that seep into the skin, she said. Arzu Mirzeyev is the bath master. With a green frock, jeans stained with oil and a mustache, he looks for all the world like a gas station mechanic and has a job to match. He changes the oil.
Each bath uses about a barrel of crude, which is recycled into a communal tank for future bathers, given the cost of oil these days. Mr. Mirzeyev also uses paper towels to wipe bathers clean, a long, hard process that involves several showers.
He says he likes his job. Until Azerbaijan’s economy ticked up in the last two years, Mr. Mirzeyev, 40 and a father of three, was a seasonal laborer in Ukraine, where wages were higher.
“If we have visitors, then we have work,” he said.
Unlike the oil from Azerbaijan’s offshore deposits, sold internationally under the brand Azeri Light crude, Naftalan’s oil is too heavy to have much commercial value. Luckily, because most of the bath attendants and patients seemed to smoke, it is not particularly flammable, either.
The resort has 80 rooms and 10 tubs, 5 for women, 5 for men. The tubs are not scoured between baths and, as might be expected, have perhaps the world’s worst bathtub rings — greasy and greenish brown.
Oil has been Azerbaijan’s ticket for a long time.
Oil seepages have been noted in Naftalan since at least the 13th century, when Marco Polo passed through and, even today, a reedy marsh, about the size of a football field, has a black patina of oil on the water. The site was a stopping place on the Silk Road to China.
Later, Azerbaijan’s larger oil reserves on the Caspian coast were developed by the Swedish Nobel brothers, the rivals of the American oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller.
In a sign of the more recent past in Naftalan, a museum keeps a collection of wooden crutches left by Soviet-era visitors “cured” by oil at the peak of the Soviet oil spa boom in the 1970s and 1980s.
The museum also has a photograph of a sign that hung at the city limits back then, “He Who Has Naftalan Has Everything.”