The Not Quite Dead Sea

PHOTO by Pixabay
When a Russian resort stands in for a popular world-famous destination

The water in Lake Razval, the most famous destination in the town of Sol-Iletsk, is similar to that in the Dead Sea. This summer it seems to have come close to the world-famous resort in terms of the number of tourists too. It would have been great, but for one tiny detail: the area of Lake Razval is about a thousand times smaller than that of its Middle Eastern counterpart. As a result, the Razval beaches now look like old photographs of the Crimean resorts: there is so little room that some holidaymakers have to stand. Lenta.Ru decided to take a closer look.

The Resort Town

Sol-Iletsk, a small town with a population of slightly over twenty thousand people, is located in the Orenburg Region, close to the Russian-Kazakh border. It is a typical border town with lots of temporary residents and an ethnically mixed demographic. And now it’s a resort, too! Anyway, the arrival of thousands of tourists did little to change the look of the town itself: there are still many dirt roads; pavements are crumbling, and the only positive change comes in the form of the new supermarkets popping up here and there and new siding panels appearing on some of the houses.

Most tourists end up staying in those newly-panelled houses. A comfortable double room with a private bathroom and kitchen, a fifteen-minute walk along a dirt road—good luck if it rains!—away from the beach costs about $30 per night. The demand is very high, so it’s best to book in advance. If you are not using a specialist booking company, there is a chance that your hosts might change their minds at the very last minute: “They let us down, so we let them down!”

Not Just Razval

Actually, there is more than one lake in Sol-Iletsk; there is a whole chain of them. Lake Razval, the most well-known of them all, has high salt concentration and takes up approximately seven hectares. The water lifts you up and leaves a thick salt crust on your skin—which you can very conveniently rub cucumbers on before eating. Anyway, watermelons and melons are more popular as beach food, as the region is famous for them.

Lake salt

Near Lake Razval, there are Lakes Dunino, Tuzluchnoe, and Golodnye Voronki. They have medium-level salt concentration, also aiding the swimmers’ buoyancy. After swimming, your skin is covered with salt dust and you can gather medicinal mud right on the lakeshore. Some of the holidaymakers like to cover their whole bodies with mud, and some only put it on their problem areas. The mud and the mineral lake water is supposed to have a healing effect on the nervous system, joints, skin, and reproductive system.

There are two more lakes: Bolshoe Gorodskoe and Maloe Gorodskoe. The salt concentration is that of regular sea water and, compared to the rest of the lakes in the area, it is almost fresh. Holidaymakers normally go there to rinse the salt off their skin, which is especially handy, since finding a beach shower is quite an issue. There are some, but the water is ice-cold and, more importantly, you have to wait in an huge queue to use them.

Long Queues for the Dead Water

Queues are everywhere. First, you have to queue for the tickets. Yes, that’s right: you have to pay to get near the lakes! In August, the entrance fee was $1.50 during the week and $3 at the weekend. Children over seven have to buy a ticket, too. Tickets can only be used once to access the beach.

Sol iletsk russia 1
View of Lake Razval, 1996

Once you’ve bought your ticket, you queue to enter the beach area. The entrance fee buys you a relatively clean beach, a few umbrellas, changing rooms, and bathrooms—you queue for those too!

For an extra fee, you can get a massage or a session in a salt chamber—the advertisement tells you that simple lake bathing is not enough to achieve any healing effect. There is a fun park with water slides and trampolines. You can get a snack at a café with a very limited food choice: pilaf, samosas, meat pies, and beer. The coffee is instant, and the tea is brewed in bags.

The atmosphere at Sol-Iletsk is far from the relaxation promised by the Dead Sea resorts. The music is loud and so are the public announcements. There are begging gypsies, night discos, and too many people. Vacationers mostly travel from Perm, Bashkiria, Chelyabinsk, and Samara for the hot weather, watermelons, and noisy entertainment. Twenty years ago, everything was very different. There was no fence around the beach, no cafes, and no music. There were no holidaymakers, either. Lake Razval was considered dirty and unsafe. Well, that has all changed now.