Neftchala

As you head south, the villages scattered along the Kura River all the way to the Caspian coast look very quiet. You can’t surprise local people with oil, gas, iodine, fish or caviar. The place is said to have been part of the Great Silk Way. At first sight, there is nothing to remember it by. In fact, it looks so depressing that you may start thinking of going back. But don’t jump to conclusions. Be patient and as you look around you will notice a few things of interest.

Note

180 km from Baku, it is located on the right bank of the Kura River. The district in the Salyan Valley was established in 1940. Although it was abolished in 1959 to become part of Salyan, in regained the status of an independent district in 1973. It is situated in the south-west of the country, 20-25 m below sea level. It has a semi-desert dry climate. Key minerals are oil, gas and iodine-rich salt. The district is ideal for the treatment of goiter.

Iodine factory

The sea on the Neftcala coast of the Caspian where the iodine and bromide factory is located is red and has an acrid odor. This is the smell of iodine. Due to its abundance, an iodine factory has been established here. Although the district is considered a resort for people suffering from goiter, a thyroid gland disease, there are no specialized sanatoria here.

Musfiq settlement

Known for its clean environment, the settlement is located 16 km from the district center. Seawater here is transparent, while the sandy seafront is full of shells. Many on the Absheron Peninsula, where the condition of the sea is a major problem, are not even aware that seawater in this part of the sea is so transparent. There is no tourism infrastructure here. Neftcala is part of the Sirvan National Park. There are remains of an ancient city in Musfiq settlement and at the bottom of the sea.

Ancient city

Archeologists say these are the ruins of the ancient Sabayil city which existed until 1250. There are different legends about the subsequently flooded city. Since no archeological research has been carried out, it is difficult to provide exact information about that.

Place-name

Sheep from a nearby mountain khanate used to be brought here over the winter, hence the name Xanqıslagi (khan’s winter camp). Afterwards Neftcala received its name from the word “oil” due to the numerous oil and gas fields. The place-name means an oil hole. Indeed, there are many holes filled with oil here. At the same time, Neftcala is known for different fish dishes. And the reason for that is obvious: the Kura River and the Caspian Ana …

Mother Kura

Two biggest rivers of the Caucasus, the Kura and Aras, converge in Sabirabad District. From here onwards the river is called Mother Kura. After covering about 10-12 km in Neftcala, Mother Kura enters the Caspian Sea. One can observe an unusual scene here as fresh and salty waters mix. This brings about a stain of somewhat reddish color. One can see a straight line on the water surface separating the waters. It is also possible to hire a boat to take you to the line. It takes 45 minutes to get there and at least an hour back due to the reverse current. One can also go there by car. This uniquely wide and so far empty area can certainly be turned into a tourism paradise.

Historical occupation – fishing

There are medieval sources pointing to fishing as the main occupation along the Kura River. Musa Kalankutlu wrote in his “Agvan history” that Albanians were paying customs duties with the fish they caught in the Kura and Aras rivers:
“The quiet Kura River brings along a lot of small and large fish. The fish is salted, dried and jerked.”

In the late 18th century traveler Bibenstein said fishing in the Kura was very profitable. The river usually burst its banks in April-May causing pits around it. These looked like fisheries. The river returned to its riverbed in June-July, while a year later the situation was repeated. During the year a lot of fish was grown in such pits. Arab sources point to the development of fishing around the Kura. This is the description provided by Yaqut el-Hamavi in the “Encyclopedia of countries”:
“The ash-shurmah (shemaya) is salted and taken to other places. This is a fish type. Other fish caught in the Kura is also exported. Every month new fish can be found in the Aras river.”

According to another author, since the shemaya caught in the Kura and Aras rivers is so delicious, it was taken to Rey, Ardebil and Iraq. Here is some information about shemaya…

Shemaya

It is known as shamayka. Its Latin name is Chalcalburmis chalcoides. The fish has been caught in the Kura river since ancient times. It has a protruded shiny body and a small head. Shemaya is very greasy and tasty. It is 20-40 cm long and weighs 150-180 grams. It lives for five years. Local people say the fish is related to salmon. Although shemaya is considered the main dish in Mugan region, it is traditionally eaten in winter and before the spawning season in March. Its taste is truly irresistible. It is worth visiting Neftcala and other riverbank districts in winter to try shemaya.

Lighthouse settlement

The main reason for the establishment of a seafront settlement in a place where Mother Kura flows into the Caspian was the sturgeon fishery. When the enterprise is not in operation, the main occupation of the local people is fishing. Almost everyone here has a small boat and a three-wheel motorcycle. These are the key instruments for earning money. If something breaks down, it is immediately fixed. It is said that every home in the settlement had caviar in the fridge, but now many complain over a significant reduction in fish numbers. The settlement is quite poor. Local people are warm-blooded. On seeing a visitor, they get out of their way to please you and cook delicious fish dishes. They handle the fish with such skill that one can’t help watching in admiration.

Eel

This is an irresistible winter delicacy. As soon as the weather gets cold, the riverside population indulges in eel rush. The very sight of an eel makes one’s hair stand on end. The fish was given this name (it translates into Azeri as snake fish) for its resemblance of snake. In fact, many start panicking when seeing it. Eel is a highly calorific dish. In some places its interiors are cleaned out, but not in Neftcala – it is strung on a rod and cooked in the Tandir. The Tandir is covered with a lid to make makes eel less greasy. There are also many people fond of roasting eel on the stove. Again, to make eel less greasy it is served with cherry-plum juice and onion rings. It is said to be delicious.

The process of fishing for eel is also quite difficult. In the early hours of morning, fishermen drop meshed baskets into the water and wait for a school of eels to enter the baskets. The fishing ends in the evening as people come back to the baskets to collect and sell the catch. The price is so cheap that one can’t help wondering whether it is really worth getting into the cold water in such weather for that. While it may cost 30 gapiks on the spot, in Baku the price may reach 1 manat.

Economy

Residents of Neftcala say their only income comes from water. They have become famous for producing the caviar of long-nosed fish, salmon and white sturgeon. Until recently, caviar was the main dish for breakfast in the settlement. Ancient sources provide information about sturgeon fishing in the Caspian. Claudius Elian wrote for example:
“I hear that there is a lake where the Caspians live and there are long-nosed fish in the lake. Their length reaches 12 meters. Caspians catch, salt, dry and load it onto camels. The fish fat is cut off to be used as lubricant or salted and sold. This fat does not have a smell and is often rubbed in the body.”

Nefcala sturgeon fishery

The Caspian Sea accounts for 80 per cent of the world’s sturgeon reserves. The first factory for artificial cultivation of sturgeons in the USSR was established in Neftcala. In 2004, the US Service for the Protection of Wildlife and Fish included sturgeons on the list of endangered species. The recent construction of dams leading to riverbed changes in the Kura and Aras has had an adverse impact on natural spawning places of sturgeons. About 90 per cent of all existing sturgeons are raised in the said factory. A Siberian sturgeon can weigh 1 ton and live for 100 years. Other sturgeons can weigh 25, 30 and 50 kg. Relatively large fish are released into the sea. Although fishing for sturgeons is prohibited, they are served in all restaurants of the south, including Neftcala proper, and in Baku. Considered a delicacy, it is very expensive.

Banka settlement

This best-known settlement of Neftcala is noted for its black caviar. It is said that the local canned black caviar was sent to Stalin, Thatcher, Gandi, etc. Banka is a fishing center and a settlement with a long history. A settlement was established here in 1935: it includes I and II Lighthouse, Yenikand, Qirmizi Safaq, Subh residential settlements and the Nord-Ost village. The history of Banka dates back to the early 19th century. The development of fishing in the settlement in the 19th century was prompted by the establishment in 1842 of a place called Bozhiy Promisel in the Tatar village.

Those believing that the place-name relates to the cannery (Banka means a can) located here are wrong because Banka also means a hill in the water. Banka also means a shallow part of the sea. Such places are very dangerous for shipping. The settlement used to be surrounded by water on all sides, while afterwards the water started receding. As the water level dropped, the ground underneath it surfaced. Banka resembles an island in Neftcala.

Cuisine

Fish is the key element of cuisine in Neftcala, located on the Kura riverbank and on the Caspian coast. Men and women know how to cook fish here. In fact, it is worth watching them clean, fry and smoke the fish. Depending on the season and taste, fish is fried on a pan, barbecued or cooked in the Tandir. In all cases it is very delicious. However, there is one dish one cannot resist – the fish dolma. Fish is mixed with onions, pomegranates, different greens and vegetables, and wrapped in fig leafs and baked on charcoals. Fish dolma is made only of large-scaled fish.

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