By Tom Coote
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.
A Turkmen Fairy Tale
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.
Sitting by the Stream
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.
Dozens of Sinks
My next challenge would be washing my hands. Dozens of sinks were lined up in rows through the center 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?
Leftover Ride Vouchers
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 was 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.
No Safety Concerns
This would never be allowed in a civilized 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 started 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 from 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 Disneyland 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 didn’t know where I was and I wanted to go back. If I could make my way to the center of the city then I would know how to get back to my guesthouse.
I scanned the skyline for The Arch of Neutrality, the spaceship-like monument that Turkmenbashi had erected in the very center 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 savior.
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 travelers in the country at any given time.
If you are on an organized tour, then the travel company will sponsor your tourist visa application. If you are traveling independently then you can only get a five-day transit visa. These cost $70, 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 travelers. 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.
Tom Coote has recently returned to the UK after traveling along the Silk Road from China to Istanbul, through Central Asia, Iran and The Caucasus. He has now visited over a hundred countries but intends to visit many more. Visit his website, TomCoote.net.
Read Tom Coote’s story: From Camels to Cows: An Overland Trip Through Algeria