Turkmenistan: 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. Halfway 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 center – a few restaurants and a couple of nightclubs – 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 wonderland. 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 I 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 Disneyland 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. Read more
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