Of all the treatments I receive during my three-day stay at Ai Petri, the carbon dioxide bath is one of the most unusual. It involves climbing into a large, white plastic bag that covers my entire body and is tightened around my neck, leaving only my head exposed. It’s the kind of getup that you could imagine seeing on a Japanese game show, except that instead of battling an opponent I am told to lie down, and the bag is pumped full of carbon dioxide.
When I ask the nurse about the purpose of the treatment, the attendant regales me with a long list of health benefits, from weight loss to a cure for insomnia and infertility. The carbon dioxide bath, it seems, is a panacea for all ills. But at Ai Petri, this same exhaustive list, I soon learn, is trotted out regardless of the treatment.
Winter in Crimea lacks the scorching sun and clear blue sky that draws most visitors the rest of the year. But Ai Petri sanatorium, the Soviet-era health spa where I am staying, is bustling. A stone’s throw from the jagged peak of the same name, this concrete high-rise with crescent-shaped balconies has been offering a variety of treatments from leech therapy to salt caves for several decades. But I’m not exactly here for that. I traveled to the south of the Crimean peninsula to make a film for a crowdfunding campaign I’m launching for a photography book project.
A woman holds a jar full of leeches at Ai Petri sanatorium. Video by Gaetan Nivon.
In addition to customized therapy programs, some guests at Ai Petri are also assigned specific dietary regimes in accordance with their medical requirements. Diet Number Nine, one of the most common here, is prescribed to diabetics and includes foods such as buckwheat, boiled vegetables, and plain salads. Others treat a variety of ailments from obesity to hypertension. It’s a throwback to the Soviet Union, where an annual sojourn at a sanatorium was not only encouraged, but also subsidized by the State so that workers could rest and re-energize on a pseudo-futuristic health regimen in preparation for the working year ahead. Health, not hedonism, was the order of the day.
Apart from the Wi-Fi offered only in the lobby, there have been few changes to Ai Petri and many other sanatoriums throughout the region. Guests today can enjoy the same treatments as Soviet holidaymakers. When I later tell a friend about the oxygen foam I consumed at Ai Petri, she turns nostalgic, describing it as “a taste of her childhood.” The décor, too, remains mostly unchanged. Muted colors, unintentionally distressed furnishings, and potted plants of every size and shape are a staple of sanatorium interior design, resulting in a kind of “granny chic.”
The interior of Jantarnij Bereg sanatorium in Latvia.
I first became interested in Soviet sanatoriums thanks to the Sochi Project, which sought to document the changes taking place in the Russian city in the run up to the 2014 Winter Olympics. I was captivated by photos of the Metallurg sanatorium: the grand, neoclassical architecture; the unusual-looking contraptions and treatments; and the portraits of guests, simultaneously foreign and familiar. I began reading up on the history of sanatoriums and their place in Soviet culture. When I travelled to Central Asia in early 2015, I had to stop at Khoja Obi Garm, a giant, brutalist block on top of a mountain in Tajikistan, where I hoped speaking Farsi, a language related to Tajik, would enable a more meaningful experience.
As a Londoner, I’m reminded of home by such brutalist architecture, which was once the go-to style for social housing. Yet instead of the usual urban context, here was a building that resembled a council estate nestled among snow-capped peaks, with a picture-perfect blue sky as its backdrop. Located on a rock fault about 2,000 feet above sea level and a short drive from the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, Khoja Obi Garm is famed for its curative, radon-filled waters, which draws visitors from across the country looking to relax and recharge. As with Ai Petri, all meals and treatments are included in the daily price, which, in the case of Khoja Obi Garm, is $18 a night. It’s more Center Parcs than a Four Seasons wellness resort, but the price is not insignificant when you consider the average wage for Tajiks in 2012 was $2,700 a year.
Khoja Obi Garm sanatorium in Tajikistan.
On arrival at Khoja Obi Garm, as is the custom at any sanatorium, I had met with a doctor to receive my tailor-made program of treatments. Assuming he was just making small talk, I had answered “no” to his questions about me being married or having children. A week in Tajikistan had taught me that a person’s marital status was their defining characteristic, and far more important than details such as name or profession. When I said I was single, a look of pity inevitably followed, which turned into horror as soon as I divulged my age. Most Tajik women are married by the age of 20.
“That means you won’t be able to have certain treatments,” the doctor had continued. “For example, one which involves a high-pressured jet of water between your legs.” For Tajiks, any treatment that risks compromising an unmarried woman’s virginity is a no-no. Later, I looked up the treatment in the sanatorium’s brochure, where it was described as “hot treatment radon water sprinkling method between legs.” Descriptions of other treatments were similarly lost in translation, with names such as the “electrical hot chair” and “friction and shaking with medical electrical equipment.”
A guest receives treatment at Ai Petri sanatorium. Video by Gaetan Nivon.
Apart from another Iranian woman and two Afghan men, I was the only foreigner at Khoja Obi Garm. I was stumped. Why weren’t there more visitors? People traveling to Tajikistan often head straight to the Pamir Mountains, but I couldn’t help but feel that trekkers in the Pamirs were missing out. Not only is Khoja Obi Garm visually striking, but it’s also an opportunity to spend time with locals in the most intimate of environments. The richness of that experience stayed with me. When I returned to London several months later, I pitched a book to the London-based publisher Fuel and received an enthusiastic reply: if I could gather the content for the book, they would cover its design and publication.
I embarked on an adventure to explore these places in more depth, both through the lens of guests who stayed there during the Soviet Union and through the stories of current visitors and employees. I enlisted a team of six photographers—Claudine Doury, Michal Solarski, Egor Rogalev, Dmitry Lookianov, Rene Fietzek and Olya Ivanova—who will be documenting the sanatoriums visually while I write about them. Our plan is to create a book that will inspire and inform readers not only about sanatoriums, but also the post-Soviet space in Central Asia, an under-reported part of the world.