There are seven countries in central Asia with the suffix of "-stan", an ancient Persian word meaning land of. Afghanistan, the land of the Afghans, is essentially off-limits to tourists at the moment, with the US State Department recommending that would-be visitors draft a will and designate appropriate insurance beneficiaries. Pakistan is somewhat more open, though there remain many areas of the country that are best avoided (and a coaster enthusiast trip there wouldn't be complete without the Schwarzkopf Doppel Looping that disappeared off the proverbial radar almost a decade ago; if anyone knows where it is please let me know). Our group decided to travel to the remaining five, all of which are considered safe: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Our routing was compiled by me over the course of a few evenings using Google Earth, RCDB, and numerous flight search engines. The rough draft was forwarded through to Musa Babajanov at Ayan Travel, who fleshed out the detail and made bookings on our behalf. Though we generally prefer to make arrangements on our own Musa's assistance was invaluable; he helped us shoehorn in a whole bunch of roller coasters into our itinerary that were discovered during last minute research, and moved mountains to get new paperwork arranged after one of our group members had their passport stolen. His assistance made the trip possible, and to that end we have no hesitation in recommending him and his company to those seeking to retrace our steps.
All foreign citizens require visas to visit Turkmenistan. These can be issued on arrival in Ashgabat International Airport on presentation of a letter of invitation, which must be obtained in advance through an accredited local tour agency. Uzbekistan now offers electronic visas, though at the time of our trip it was necessary to apply by mailing our passports and supporting documentation to the embassy in London. Tajikistan also offers electronic visas that are generally approved within a few days. Most western nationalities have visa-free entry to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Turkmenbashi Fairy Tale World
8th July 2018
Flight schedules and a time-consuming arrivals procedure meant that it was almost 3:00am local time when we arrived at the Ak Altyn hotel in Ashgabat. Under ordinary circumstances we'd have chosen to sleep late in order to recover equilibrium, but we decided that catching the end of the breakfast buffet was preferable. The selection on offer was limited by western standards, but Megan had thought ahead and was able to supplement it from her own personal stash of Panda peanut butter. Her abstemious approach to local food probably explains why she was the only member of our group to not fall victim to food poisoning over the course of our holiday, a situation variously described as winning the lottery and the Game of Thrones.
Our guide had arranged to pick us up in the evening for our trip to the Darvaza Gas Crater, and with several hours to kill we set out on foot to explore Ashgabat. The mercury was hovering around 40°C, which Megan declared to be "hotter than Satan's butthole on vindaloo night", and perhaps unsurprisingly we were the only pedestrians in sight. We had no particular aim in mind, and it was only part way into our wandering that someone suggested we go to Turkmenbashi Fairy Tale World, which my trusty GPS told me was about three kilometres away. Musa had made a number of unsuccessful attempts to contact the park by phone and had concluded that it was closed, but we figured we'd go have a look at it anyway in the hope of taking a few photographs.
In due course we arrived at a maintenance gate that was wide open, which we took as our cue to look around. There were no people in sight, but it was quickly apparent that we'd stumbled into a park whose death had been greatly exaggerated; a fridge full of drink bottles had power, the grass had been trimmed in the very recent past, and the grounds looked clean. Moments later we found a member of staff filling a popcorn machine, and though the language barrier proved insurmountable we figured this to be a positive sign. We continued with renewed vigor past a freefall tower, bumper cars, a wave swinger, and a pristine SBF Rides Dance Party, and in due course reached Turkmenistan's largest roller coaster.
Rolling Hills (#2455) was the fifteenth version of the 335m Junior Coaster from Vekoma, opening to the public almost five years after units twelve, thirteen, and fourteen premiered within a few weeks of each other back in 2001. Though outwardly identical to its siblings it was the first of its size to feature the redesigned individual lap bars that premiered on Oki Doki in 2004, allowing for a more comfortable and secure ride than the previous two-seat design. There was no operator in sight, but in due course we found a lady in traditional dress in the control booth of the nearby Tagada. She spoke no English, but indicated by gesticulation that she was responsible for all the rides in that area of the park, including the coaster, which she agreed to run on our behalf.
We climbed up to the station with considerable excitement that metamorphosed into trepidation at the sight of the sixteen seat train, which was clearly in need of significant attention. A number of lap bars were completely missing, and virtually all of those present lacked rubber padding. To make matters worse the ratcheting system had apparently failed in a number of seats, replaced with a slapdash backup seatbelt reminiscent of Golden Horse spinning coasters. I took my front seat stoically, as a coaster counter must, though about one picosecond later I aborted with the realisation that my shorts were entirely incapable of protecting me from a black seat cushion that had absorbed several hours of blazing sunshine. The only defense I had against second-degree burns was my extremely fashionable bucket hat, and with no other options I sat on it.
Our new friend checked our restraints then did something at the operator controls. Nothing happened, so she detoured to a nearby electrical panel and tried something there. This similarly had no effect, but fortunately another member of staff turned up who knew what to do. Moments later there was a gentle pop followed by the chugging sound of a compressor that is music to the ears of every enthusiast. Two minutes passed, presumably to allow the various control systems to fully start, after which we were sent on our merry way. I wasn't expecting much given the state of the train, and as such it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the ride quality was excellent, with perfectly smooth tracking and even a little airtime along the way. It was necessary to brace for the final brake, but only because the missing padding on the restraint exposed a a sharp piece of hot metal that was perfectly placed to skewer; aside from that the experience was perfect. We relocated towards the back of the train for a second cycle, which was equally enjoyable.
The coaster is in the south-eastern corner of the park next to what was presumably intended to be the main entrance walkway, a dramatic avenue with a shaded awning supported by ten metre high white marble plinths. Today however this gate was locked and the surrounding area deserted, the only sign of life being a sprig of green poking through the footpath. Instead the official access route was an understated gate next to the giant slide, which had a few abandoned cash desks, a picture of Pinocchio, and a sign listing opening hours as 10:00-22:00 on Tuesday through Sunday. Nearby stood a faded map and one of many static renditions of the park mascots, a pair of smiling white bears who we saw engaged in activities as diverse as basketball, chess, snooker, and wrestling.
As we continued to explore we happened across a reasonably-sized log flume routing through an artificial mountain that had the potential to be absolutely wonderful in the heat, but sadly it was out of service. There was a sign in the control box stating that it would be available from 13:00-14:00, but this was almost certainly a relic from times past; the water had a dark green hue and a slightly unsettling odour indicative of a lack of recent filtering, and its level wasn't high enough for boats to float. Similarly the trough for the nearby rapids ride could have provided hours of study material for marine biologists, a huge shame if a somewhat inevitable one given how much it costs to run water pumps continuously.
When the park first opened its gates in 2006 the landmark attraction was a dark walkthrough from ANM Group International that featured animatronic scenes from various Turkmen fairy tales, described as charming by an enthusiast trip report from 2011. Today however we were unable to find it despite our best efforts. We concluded that it was almost certainly behind a locked door near to the log flume, as there was a small cash window nearby with a closed security shutter. There were no members of staff to ask in the vicinity, and even if there had been our lack of spoken Turkmen would made things impossible.
There were no other significant rides available, and as such we concluded our visit with lunch in the park restaurant, which was fully operational (with a lengthy menu) despite being almost completely empty. The room we ate in was what you'd get if you took a school canteen with no windows, reduced the lighting level to minimum, and added a few palm trees and an animatronic crocodile. The food definitely wasn't Michelin Star quality, but it was more than adequate for the price, which was about a quarter of what I'd expect to pay for fast food at home. (A few hours later we admitted to our guide that we'd eaten there, earning a response that blended horror with incredulity at our survival.)
Darvaza Gas Crater
8th July 2018
One of the essential stops on any trip to Turkmenistan is a place known locally as the Gate of Hell, a crater spanning almost seventy metres that is thought to have been burning continuously since 1971. The exact history of the site has been lost over the years, but it is generally accepted that an attempt to drill for oil caused the ground in the area to collapse. Soviet engineers deliberately set fire to poisonous gas leaking from the pit in the hope that it would burn out in a few weeks; one doubts that they even dreamed that it might still be going almost fifty years later. Pictures do not do the place justice; visitors to the area should not miss it.