Azerbaijan: At crude-oil spa, clients bathe in black gold

David Mdzinarishvili/Newscom
A patient bathes in Naftalan.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – Wrapped in a white bathrobe, Arkady Shabunin stares out the window of the Naftalan clinic at the carcass of a yellow Lada car balanced on four piles of bricks.

It is an unlikely place for a spa retreat, but Mr. Shabunin has traveled 1,800 miles from Siberia for 10 days of crude-oil “cure” here in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Here he will bathe in oil, enjoy oil-light therapies and, of course, be rubbed with it.

Clients like Shabunin flock here from all over the former Soviet states, and even from the Arab Emirates or Europe, according to Alif Zulfugar, the manager of this unusual spa. The special grade of crude oil that he uses, called Naftalan, is claimed to have a healing effect on the skin and the joints. “Over 100 problems in all,” Dr. Zulfugar says.

The oil gushes out of the earth of Naftalan, a small town 160 miles northwest of Baku that is named for the oil. “Naftalan is too heavy for the industry,” Zulfugar explains, “it is used only for healing purposes. It is untreated and comes directly from the source into our tankers and then into our basins.”

Naftalan is composed of approximately 50 percent naphthalene, a hydrocarbon commonly used as a moth repellent. The benefits are debatable, not least because the US National Institute of Health deems it a potentially carcinogenic substance.

Zulfugar retorts that millions of patients have used the Naftalan baths. Marco Polo himself mentioned the virtues of Azeri oil in the 13th century, he says. For the brave tourist willing to have a taste of this Caspian black gold, a 10-day treatment costs about $420, excluding accommodations. It will take three months for the bath attendant to earn this sum.

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