belarus dispatch: Want to Relax? Try the Spa in a Salt Mine in Belarus

SALIHORSK, Belarus — Yury Lukashenia, a 40-year-old manager in an Austrian company in Belarus, a country often described as Europe’s last dictatorship, earns enough money to take his family on regular holiday getaways to sunny places like Spain and Greece.

But the trip he really looks forward to each spring is a two- or, if he is really lucky, three-week stint in a Belarus salt mine in Salihorsk.

“Of course, the first time, it was a little scary,” he said, recalling his debut journey on a rickety, unlit elevator that rattled 460 yards underground into a dimly lit warren of caves and tunnels gouged from one of the world’s biggest deposits of salt and potassium.

But now on his sixth trip to Salihorsk, the jewel of the former Soviet Union’s salt mining industry, Mr. Lukashenia, who suffers from allergies that make it difficult to breath, said he wouldn’t miss his annual trek for anything.

“I feel better as soon as I get here,” he said. “It is much better to spend two or three weeks in a salt mine than sitting on a yacht.”

Waiting to descend into the salt mine.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times
Belarus salt mines are being rebranded as having health benefits.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times

He has tried getting his wife to join him but she suffers from claustrophobia so is not interested. She prefers a sunny beach to a dark hole in the ground.

Nor are any of his friends eager to tag along.

“When I tell my friends I’m going to the salt mines, they always ask: ‘What did you do wrong?’”

In Belarus and across the former Soviet Union, the suggestion of a visit to the salt mines generally evokes grim memories of prison camps.

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Baltic Sea

By The New York Times

Today, however, the Belarus mines have been rebranded as a health cure, an idea supported by the country’s longtime authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

The notion that salt mines can be curative is not new: The phenomenon started in neighboring Poland in the early 19th century at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which still operates a health resort.

Around 4,000 people a year, including Mr. Lukashenia, now visit the National Speleotherapy Clinic, a hotel-like compound in Salihorsk, a mining town 80 miles south of the Belarus capital, Minsk.

Making up a bed in one of the sleeping areas at the clinic for visitors who try the overnight shift.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times
Around 4,000 people a year visit the clinic.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times

The clinic first opened just months before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union but has grown steadily since.

Half its visitors are from Belarus, whose stay is covered by the country’s national health system, and the other half foreigners, mostly Russians, who pay their own way, around $1,000 for a two-week stay.

Other places, including a recently opened nearby spa, offer rooms pumped with salt-infused air but only the clinic provides daily visits deep into the still-active salt mine, said Natalia Dubovik, the deputy director.

Buses shuttle visitors, dressed in heavy coats and hard-hats, to the mine head for a six-hour afternoon shift underground and, for the really hard core, a longer overnight shift. Miners and patients cross paths in the waiting area for elevators and on the walk to the sleeping chambers.

Lights go out in the mine at 10 p.m. and then come on again at 5:45 a.m., when the salt catacombs start trembling with jaunty polka music, somebody’s idea of a soothing wake-up call.

To help visitors pass the time, cavernous corridors in the salt mine contain Ping-Pong tables, a volleyball court and a jogging track. There is no television or internet.

CreditCreditVideo by James Hill

“We offer total isolation from the world,” Ms. Dubovik explained. “But like any treatment, it is important to get the dose right. You can’t overdo it.”

The salt mine used by the clinic belongs to the state-owned Belarus Kali, the country’s biggest company and one of the world’s largest producers of potash fertilizers, which are made from potassium. Mountain-like mounds of salt and potassium ring the town.

Even on a beautiful spring day, the place looks more like a Soviet industrial wasteland than a health resort.

The streets are eerily clean, as they are across Belarus. Concrete apartment blocks are painted with murals celebrating miners, and the only advertising billboards are for cement.

But salt treatment for asthma, allergies and various respiratory ailments has proved so popular that Belarus Kali, the mining company, recently opened its own for-profit spa next to the clinic.

Exercising in the swimming pool in the main building of the clinic.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times
Yury Lukashenia is on his sixth trip to Salihorsk.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times

Pavel Levchenko, a Minsk surgeon who runs the clinic, insisted that his own establishment is not a spa or a sanitarium but a serious medical facility. Staff members wear white medical coats and have qualifications as doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. Visitors are called patients, not guests.

“We don’t want tourists,” he said. “People who come here have to be motivated. They have to be sick. We don’t want healthy people.”

Mr. Lukashenia, the salt-mine regular from Minsk, said he certainly qualified on that score, explaining how he had suddenly developed ferocious allergies after gorging himself on cherries. He had to stop eating fruits and had so much trouble breathing he often could not sleep.

“Here I sleep like a baby,” he said.

Being totally cut off from sunlight, cellphones and the internet relieves stress and helps his condition, he said, but most important is the tangy air.

To help visitors pass the time, cavernous corridors in the clinic’s salt mine contain Ping-Pong tables, a volleyball court and a jogging track. There is no television or internet.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times
Being totally cut off from sunlight, cellphones and the internet relieves stress and helps his condition, one visitor said, but most important is the tangy air.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times

It is saturated with salt and potassium but free of all contamination by pollen and other invisible harbingers of spring that delight most people after a long, cold winter but make his life above ground a misery of allergic reactions.

“I hate spring,” Mr. Lukashenia said.

After trying pills, cold showers and assorted quack remedies to control his debilitating allergies, he decided in desperation to visit the salt mine.

“I was looking for something more intense,” he said, explaining “not many people know about this place, even here in Belarus.”

In town, concrete apartment blocks are painted with murals celebrating miners.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times
The salt mine used by the clinic belongs to the state-owned Belarus Kali mine, the country’s biggest company and one of the world’s largest producers of potash fertilizers.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times

He acknowledged being initially “really skeptical” but was amazed how quickly he started breathing normally again.

The scientific jury is still out on whether salt mine therapy really works, but health authorities in Belarus are convinced that their country, despite its reputation for retrograde politics and repression, is on the cutting edge of medical innovation.

Dr. Levchenko, the clinic’s director, acknowledged that he was not initially a believer himself.

“I meet lots of people who think this is all fake,” he said, “I was very skeptical myself at first.” But, he added, “I have seen how well it works.”

Time in the salt mine, he added, does not cure visitors of their ailments but “puts them into remission.”

CreditCreditVideo by James Hill

So far, the only regular foreign visitors are Russians, though an American is said to have stayed once and left satisfied.

Nadezhda Vasilenko, 58, a Russian woman from the southern region of Krasnodar who suffers from asthma, said she visited the mine last year after hearing about it from her son, who works in Minsk.

“I felt so much better so decided to come again,” Ms. Vasilenko said, sitting with a group of other women in a cavelike sleeping compartment deep underground.

As well as the pure air there is also camaraderie.

A nighttime visitor doing Nordic walking.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times
Patients leaving the mine as miners on the morning shift wait to descend.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times

Friendships forged underground are very strong, said Zhanya Sakanchuk, an asthma sufferer from the Belarus town of Pinsk, who has visited every year since 2012, when she saw a television report about President Lukashenko visiting the facility.

She said she was desperate for help, having lost her only child to illness, which sent her into a deep depression and shattered her health.

Bubbling with enthusiasm for the joys of sleeping in the salty catacombs of Belarus, she said she was not really sure why she felt so much better but would definitely keep coming back.

“Maybe it is all just the placebo effect but the salt mine saved my life,” she said.

Source: NYT

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