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Turkmenbashi’s Land of Fairy Tales
I got lost on my way to the land of fairy tales. I had confidently followed the road to the Promised Land, only to find that it led to ruins. All over Turkmenistan’s capital city Ashgabat, the run down, rambling houses of the poor were being knocked down and replaced by strangely isolated tower blocks.
In this city of constant destruction and construction, no map would stay up to date for very long. I walked back and up around the building site, in search of a road or a landmark that would help me to get my bearings. I found myself at a crossroads and yet again checked my map. Either side of me, bored, young military police men loitered inconsolably. Everywhere you went in Ashgabat they would be standing around; guns in their holsters, heads in the clouds.
The night before, I had come across a young soldier in the park, parading backwards and forwards, stiff legged, between the illuminated fountains and the well-kept shrubbery. Half way through his solo procession, he started goose-stepping like a demented Nazi storm trooper. I was sure that he was about to stick his finger over his lip and execute an extravagant leg swinging turn-around in the style of Basil Fawlty, when he noticed me watching and abruptly came to a halt. As I walked past, he said something. I didn’t understand, so he pointed at my watch. When I showed him the time, his face dropped even further – it was clearly going to be some time before he finished his shift of pointlessly waiting. Even the funny walk couldn’t cheer him up.
||I decided not to ask directions from these bored young men with guns and instead, opted for the most likely looking road to Turkmenbashi’s Land of Fairy Tales. ‘Turkmenbashi’ was the title that the now deceased dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, awarded to himself – it translates as ‘leader of the Turmen’.
In order to build the $50,000,000 amusement park, Niyazov ordered the bulldozing of the homes of hundreds of ordinary Ashgabat residents who were never properly compensated. I hoped it would be worth it. I traipsed down a long, straight boulevard, with sparsely spaced out white tower blocks on either side. They looked like Vegas hotels but I assumed that they were blocks of flats built to house Ashgabat’s displaced residents – except that nobody seemed to be living in them.
There was the occasional gardener and plenty of cars were passing by, but there was little evidence of life or occupation within the gleaming, white towers. If the bubonic plague were to desolate Las Vegas, it would look like this. There had been a bit more going on in the city centre – a few restaurants and a couple of night clubs – but there was a strict curfew and anybody found walking around after ten at night, would risk arrest from the hordes of bored young soldiers. There used to be cinemas but Niyazov forced them to close as he considered movies to be un-Turkmen. He had them changed into puppet theatres as he considered puppetry to be more in keeping with the Turkmen culture. He also banned opera, ballet and most theatre but was quite keen on traditional song and dance, providing it was used to praise the many virtues of their glorious leader. Still, at least he had built a big theme park to keep them all amused. At $50,000,000 it was bound to be brilliant.
||I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to this Turkmen wonder land. I’d found a few people who seemed to understand a bit of English but they weren’t much help. They were all very nice but seemed a little concerned that I was looking for a fairyland. My attempts at miming a roller coaster only added to the confusion. As I had already been walking for about forty minutes and all I could see ahead were yet more miles of the sparsely spaced Vegas tower blocks, I decided to head back.
After another mile or so, I had the idea of getting up around the back of the tower blocks on the other side, to get a better view over the city. I couldn’t be sure but I thought I had spotted the top of a giant plastic mountain. Between the Promised Land and me, lay yet another building site. I couldn’t be bothered to walk all the way back again along the official footpath, so decided to just walk straight through the construction zone. Strangely enough, loads of other people seemed to be doing the same thing. Everybody seemed to avoid walking along the wide, clean, official footpaths that seemed to lead you nowhere and left you feeling far more exposed than if you were stood out in the middle of a desert (until fairly recently this is exactly what much of it was). They seemed far happier to be squelching through muddy tracks and dodging industrial machinery. At least there was some human life to be found amongst the noise, dirt and chaos. I emerged onto some scrappy grassland and stepped through a broken fence towards a narrow, blue rail track. I could see the mountain now and it was definitely plastic. I had made it to the land of fairy tales.
As the grass was so overgrown, I headed off along the rail tracks, towards a huge brown lizard. There was a door in the side but it seemed to be locked and there were no signs or pictures to indicate what lay within the belly of the beast. It didn’t seem like a ride. I thought it might be a small zoo for snakes and reptiles. Maybe it was where people had to live after their houses were demolished? I still wasn’t sure if the amusement park was actually open. A few people were wandering around but the pedalos on the lake were still bound together and the train had yet to join me on the tracks. As I ducked around the lizard’s head, I caught sight of a small blue roller coaster. It was running and there were people on it. Their screams drew me closer.
I had been hoping for a kind of Central Asian Disney Land but it looked more like the kind of run down amusement park that might still open up for a few months in the summer at one of the smaller British seaside towns. The rides were small, tired looking and mostly closed. There were a few stalls selling soft drinks and snacks, some operational dodgems and the small blue roller coaster. I needed some vouchers before I could go on any rides and was directed to a woman in a headscarf at a drinks stall. She looked too young to be wearing a headscarf.
Contrary to Turkmenbashi’s preference for traditional Turkmen costumes, most of the young people at the land of fairy tales were just wearing jeans and t-shirts. She was probably a poor person. After buying some vouchers for about 80 cents each – the other rides only cost one voucher but the roller coaster cost two as it was the biggest and the best – I got into the front car and sat there on my own, feeling a bit silly. After a while, two middle aged Turkmen women got in behind me. A few minutes later, the operator realised that this was about as busy as it was going to get, and sent us trundling on our way. Every time we sped up or spun around a corner, the two women screamed. I clutched my bag between my legs and held on tight. A minute later it was all over. I needed more. The dodgems didn’t tempt me – they were full of little kids and even I would have felt a bit silly as the only adult in amongst them. Instead, I went on the spinning tea cup ride. I was their only customer. It wasn’t that great.
||There seemed to be some kind of log flume that came out of the big plastic mountain. I followed a Turkmen family who had also spotted it. As we wound up the steps through the moulded plastic boulders, I became infected with their enthusiasm. Maybe this was where all the $50,000,000 went. I felt far more disappointed for them, than for myself, when we came up against yet another locked gate. Who knows how far they had come and how long they had saved for their big day out? Their faces dropped and we all trudged back down the plastic hill, in search of more fun.
|There was an opening – a way into the plastic mountain! Who knew what lay within? It turned out to be monsters. It looked like a kind of ghost train ride but without the train. The three young women at the desk seemed a bit surprised to see me. I’m not sure how much they understood me, but I pointed at the door and waved some vouchers at them. One of them took a voucher and led me into the darkness. As we walked into each room, she would stand to the side and press a button on the wall.
A low, dramatic voice would then start to say something in Turkmen, while I stood admiringly in front of some paper mache mythical creatures. I guessed that the voice was telling some kind of Turkmen fairy tale. She made me wait until the whole recording had finished before letting me go through to the next room where the whole process was repeated. This next one seemed to have some big cauldrons in it and what may have been wizards. I couldn’t understand a word of the accompanying sound recording, but felt obliged to stand there looking respectful.
In the room after, she offered to take my picture in front of some trolls (or at least the Turkmen equivalent to a Troll – I’m not really up on Turkmen myths and fairy tales). As monsters go, they seemed quite nice. We emerged from the darkness, towards soviet style strip lighting, and I thanked my guide for my visit to the underworld. Everything else in the magic mountain appeared to be locked up, apart from a small amusement arcade – only about half of the machines seemed to be working – and a cavernous but empty cafeteria. The women at the serving hatch were equally surprised to see me. A few tired offerings were on display on the counter but they looked like they had been laid out there for rather a long time. I opted for some cake that was safely sealed in a packet and attempted to order a coffee with milk. By saying ‘coffee’ and ‘café’ in various ways I could get across the first part but I couldn’t get her to produce any milk. I was about to start miming the milking process when I remembered that the Russian word for milk was ‘moloko’. She crawled under a table and started rummaging through cardboard boxes. She emerged triumphantly holding high a single packet of Nescafe 3 in 1. We were both delighted.
I took my coffee and cake and sat down next to the stream that ran through the cafeteria. Under the dim strip lighting I had thought the stream was also plastic and was about to walk straight through it when I noticed a sign – in English – that instructed me not to step in the river! Sometimes they can be very thoughtful. Thankfully, the submerged crocodiles were actually made of plastic. I think. After dropping my mug and wrapper back at the counter, I went in search of the toilets. They were huge and had clearly been designed to deal with crowds of hundreds. At first glance, they looked surprisingly posh but on closer inspection, it became clear that most of the toilets were now locked up or broken. I eventually found one that seemed usable but then I couldn’t find the flush. There was a button on the side of the cubicle so I tried pushing that. Water squirted up through a hose and over my leg. As the back of the toilet seemed to have caved into the back of the wall, I reached through the hole and tried pulling something. This seemed to work and the toilet flushed. My next challenge would be washing my hands. Dozens of sinks were lined up in rows through the centre of the bathroom but none of them actually produced any water. Eventually I found a single working tap but as the sink below had been shattered, the water sprayed back over the front of my trousers. I pulled down my t-shirt as low as it would go and hoped that the gloom within the plastic mountain would help to hide the wet patches around my crotch. The grand opening to Turkmenbashi’s Land of Fairy Tales had only been five years ago. What would it be like in another five years time?
I still had some ride vouchers to use so emerged from the mountain to see if any of the other rides had opened up. A crowd of teenagers were queuing up for what looked like a revolving disk with benches facing inwards from the outer edge. I joined the queue and handed over the last of my vouchers. The kids at the front were urging their mates to join them but several refused. I should have wondered why. We walked up the steps and through a gate at the side on to the circular platform. We slowly spread out over the lightly padded benches, and faced each other in anticipation. Two of the girls, jammed their legs through the side of the entrance gate as if attempting to lock themselves in place. The disk started spinning and tilting and bumping up and down. I awkwardly grabbed the metal bar behind so as not to be thrown off the bench and down on to the kids across from me. As we spun into an almost vertical tilt we suddenly stopped. On the other side of the circle they lay on their backs looking up while on my side we held on to the metal bar at the back with all our strength. I couldn’t believe that there were no safety barriers or seat belts. If we were to fall or to slip we would crash down on those below, leaving cuts, bruises and broken bones in our wake. This would never be allowed in a civilised country! The health and safety people would go mental! In most countries they would be terrified of being sued for millions if anybody was injured but I couldn’t see that happening in Turkmenistan (not many dictators get taken to court in their own countries for negligence).
Just as I was losing my grip, we dropped down and stared to spin around again. I followed the local’s example and locked my arms around the bar above the bench – my arms might get dislocated but at least I’d have less chance of falling. I could see now why those two girls had locked their arms and legs around the bars at the entrance. I was starting to relax a bit when the real bumping kicked in. It was like being given the bumps by a hyperactive Turkmen troll while being spun around. As I started to slide off the bench, the pummelling intensified. The edge of the bench pounded into the small of my back again and again. As I already suffered with back problems this really wasn’t good. I willed for it to stop but the battering was relentless. Even the teenagers seemed shocked by the intensity of the assault. I couldn’t be sure but I think the operator might even have let out an evil cackle before finally letting up on the bumping for more spinning and tilting. Just as we had almost slowed to a halt and some were heading towards the exit gate, he turned it up again and sent them sprawling across the floor. He eventually let us out and we hobbled back down the steps, nursing bruises and strains. Some of the survivors got back into the queue to have another go.
I staggered towards the exit, which actually turned out to be the grand entrance. It was a great hall with statues of Turkmen folk heroes and murals depicting their fairy tales. It pretty much looked like a low budget Disney land attraction that had been adapted to seem more ‘Turkmen’ - except that it hadn’t been done on a low budget at all. In a country where most ordinary people are still dirt poor, it had cost a fortune. Where had all the money gone?
||I need a view of the city then I would know how to get back to my guesthouse. I scanned the skyline for The Arch of Neutrality, the space ship like monument that Turkmenbashi had erected in the very centre of Ashgabat, to celebrate Turkmenistan’s glorious policy of neutrality. At night it was lit up like a giant children’s toy encased in neon.
It was like something that a drunken five year old would come up with if they were let loose in Las Vegas with a multi-million budget - only not as classy. I caught a sparkle in the sky. I now knew where I was heading. I could see the sunlight glistening off the 12 meter gold statue of Turkmenbashi that majestically topped the mighty Arch of Neutrality. I was no longer lost. I limped towards my saviour. I didn’t know where I was and I wanted to go back.
© Tom Coote 1.12.2010
Web Site: www.tomcoote.net
Tearing Up the Silk Road by Tom Coote
Publisher: Garnet Publishing
Sam North review
Tom Coote set himself a target of going the whole distance of the ancient Silk Road by public transport in just nine weeks... one needs determination and fortitude and a very strong stomach - and that's just for the many scary toilets experienced on the way.
There are a few direct flights from Europe but to fly there directly as a tourist, you would have to be booked onto an expensive guided tour. Most backpackers come overland from Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan or Iran. There are probably less than ten independent travellers in the country at any given time.
If you are on an organised tour, then the travel company will sponsor your tourist visa application. If you are travelling independently then you can only get a five-day transit visa. These cost between fifty and a hundred dollars, depending on your nationality, and can be applied for in London, Tashkent (Uzbekistan) and Mashad (Iran). This will take at least five working days but you might get turned down for no apparent reason. They don’t go out of their way to encourage tourism and can’t understand why anybody would want to go there.
Most of the hotels are quite expensive and aimed at business travellers. They also have a reputation for being empty, isolated and a bit rubbish.Most backpackers stay at Aminov Homestay at 2028 Kocesi 106. It’s reasonably clean, and sociable, and only about ten dollars a night (you can only stay there if you’re on a transit visa as it isn’t an official hotel). They also keep pigeons so you have to be careful that they don’t crap on you when they let them out.
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