I can’t say that I ever imagined doing this.
BAKU, Azerbaijan- “We are also building our health industry,” the director of a major new logistics zone in Azerbaijan began. “We have salt caves that help with breathing problems and crude oil baths.”
The last part of his statement caught my attention.
“Wait, what? Crude oil baths? What’s that?”
“A bath in crude oil,” he replied simply.
“Like, real crude oil?”
“Yes, yes, it’s good for the health.”
I knew that Azerbaijan was bathed in oil but I didn’t know the people there took this so literally. But it was I who was ignorant. Even Marco Polo knew about this, claiming that, “This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab.”
This was my introduction to the crude oil baths of Naftalan. A few days later I would find myself out there.
The story goes that a Silk Road trading caravan discarded a sick camel near Naftalan and watched as it pathetically got marred in an oil pit. In those days there was much oil under the ground in Azerbaijan that it sometimes bubbled up to the surface. A few months later the trade expedition returned to find the camel not only alive but beaming with health. From that point on, people took to bathing in the crude oil here to cure a host of ailments, from heart disease to STDs.
I didn’t know what to expect. I guess I imagined some kind of hippie resort — a bunch of demented Russian health nuts swimming around naked in some kind of prehistoric tar pit. But what I found was the exact opposite.
It was a true medical procedure.
The baths were done in this nice hotel that was built over a place where oil naturally bubbles up to the surface. This oil is routed up through the bowels of the building and is pumped directly into tubs.
Before I could get one of these baths I had to take a full medical exam. I didn’t understand why at that point, but I wasn’t asking any questions — I was doing something that I had no idea even existed a few days before. So I got my heart monitored, my pulse taken, and everything else.
I was then declared fit to bathe.
There were people walking around the hotel in white bath robes. They were mostly older and were there to treat a litany of health problems. I was told that these crude oil baths could cure anything from skin conditions to cancer to impotence.
I was too inexperienced to be skeptical — what if? — but I was also too inexperienced to be a believer. I was open to trying it.
I went into my room and got into my robe and then walked down to the baths. Each bath was in its own room. In each room was an attendant who oversees the process — put more directly, this guy bathes you.
I took off my robe and got inside an empty tan tub that didn’t look much different from any other therapeutic tub. But then the attendant pulled a lever and I heard gears moving beneath the tub that made it shake. A few airy spurts like a whale clearing its blowhole emitted from the drain in the floor. But instead of water draining out, thick brown crude oil began spewing in.
It didn’t really look like I thought it would. I was imagining it to be black and look like hot tar. But it was brown and mottled, with some reddish streaks and coagulating swirls. It had a heavy, sharp smell to it that tickled my nose hairs. Kind of like huffing a new rubber toy.
I sat apprehensive and watched as the substance slowly crept out from the hole and moved towards my feet. I wouldn’t say that I felt fear — just the anticipation of unknowing that is one of the building blocks of such. I never touched crude oil before and I was soon to be covered in it, as though tossed in a 50 gallon drum.
I watched as it oozed towards my feet. It touched. It was slimy.
Soon my feet and butt were covered. It was hot. It moved up my body and stopped at the top of the tub — covering me to the tops of my shoulders. Only my head stuck out. It was hot and heavy. I was kind of floating in it. I felt my heart pumping faster and my entire body went flush. I felt weird in the head. It was at this point that I began to realize that it may have actually been doing something.
They only let you stay in for 15 minutes at a time. They say if you remain submerged for any longer that it could have a pernicious effect. When the sand finished flowing out of the hour glass that was set on the edge of the tub the attendant pushed up on the lever and the oil slowly drained out, leaving me sitting there naked, covered in a thick coat of oil. It hung off of me in clumps, a zillion dingleberries clinging to my body hair. The attendant helped me out of the tub.
I felt lightheaded, the room was spinning a little. The attendant produced a flat steel stick that was curved like a shoehorn and began scrapping the oil off of my body, flinging the extracted clumps on the paper that covered the floor below. He scraped everywhere.
I then showered, put my robe back on, and returned to my room. You’re instructed to sleep for one hour afterwards. I laid down on the bed. An oily film still covered my body. I felt weird, kind of shaky, as though I’d just received some kind of shock.
I laid in bed and looked up at the ceiling. I wasn’t sure if the crude oil bath worked, but I was fairly confident that it at least did something.