It had been over a year since I last set foot in oil bath country (more info can be found in Part One
of a previous post). And what a glorious return it turned out to be. The village of Naftalan may be my favourite place in Azerbaijan. It has the truly unique combination of natural beauty, old timey Soviet-ness, and something that cannot be found in most other parts of the world: oil that you can actually bathe in.
The Colonel rolled up around 9:30 in all its resplendent glory. We took the requisite pictures at the city sign and then headed into town. For such a small place, there is a lot to do in Naftalan. On our list was: 1) Check out the old Soviet sanitarium, 2) Go by the new sanitarium and by some of the special oil, 3) Go out into the oil fields looking for pools of oil, and 4) Swing by the abandoned airport and bus station (which once brought people in from all over the Soviet Union).
First stop was the Soviet sanitarium. It stands near the centre of the village and overlooks what used to be some sort of athletic complex-cum-culture hall (it has no been converted into a tea house). An atrium complete with fountain and tile awaits you upon entrance into the building. It may not have the lustre it once did, but it speaks to the elegance that was no doubt prevalent at the time. We looked around, talked to some of the staff members, and then I stumbled across an epic discovery (moreso in my eyes than the rest of the roadtrip crew). Hidden away in a dark hallway was a coin-operated Soviet table hockey game! I had hoped for a Canada vs. USSR 1972 Summit Series edition, but it turned out to be just white vs. red.
We left the Soviet sanitarium in search of the new government sanitarium. It was there that I was acquainted with the oil bath phenomenon some fifteen months prior. One of our crew was interested in buying some of the oil, while the others wanted to see how the actual bathing process went down. To accomplish the former, we were led into the depths of the brand new building, along a dark, institution-white corridor. A small nook of an office awaited us, where sat a woman in her standard issue uniform. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about the many "healthy" uses of the magical oil, and then watched as she poured the liquid (the naphtalene had at that point been separated from the crude oil) from one plastic water bottle to another. The buyer was a happy man.
Next we made our way out into the fields surrounding the village looking for giant pools of oil. Rumour has it that a few years back, a group of Russians showed up to one of the small pools, got out of the van they were travelling in, stripped naked, and then jumped in the black oil. We were not so adventurous. Instead, a couple of the crew contented themselves with lobbing rocks into the crude, while myself and another dealt with a local who had come down the mountain trying to figure out what we were up to. At one point he received a call from someone who was obviously looking at us through binoculars. "They are just tourists!" we kept hearing the guy shout.
On our way out of town, we made a quick pass by the bus station and then headed on to the airport. For whatever reason the barrier to the road had been removed, so we decided to drive right up to the abandoned terminal. As we arrived, another car arrived in the parking lot. The driver made some motions for us to stop and get out of the car. We disobeyed, so he got out of the car and came to the window. "What are you doing here?" he inquired. "I don't understand," I replied. He attempted exert some sort of influence, which was the cue to get out of there. In the rearview mirror, I could see the guys 13 year old son getting in the driver's side. Looks like driving school was in session.
A glorious few hours in Naftalan, indeed. Next stop: Genje, the second largest city in Azerbaijan.