Dark tourism I kid around about Turkmenistan on Radio Derb, but perhaps I shouldn’t. It’s a pretty awful place: not as bad as North Korea, but bad enough to attract the practitioners of “dark tourism” — travelling to the most awful places you can think of, in the footsteps of Tony Daniels and P. J. O’Rourke.
Ashgabat already boasts a “Ministry of Fairness,” a “Ministry of Carpets,” as well as a “Ministry of Horses.” Many of the white-marble buildings are shaped to represent the purpose of the building. The one that houses the national library is shaped like a giant book. The “Ministry of Health” building resembles a giant cobra, while the “Ministry of Energy” building looks like a giant cigarette lighter.
Arthur Koestler got there first, though — 80 years ago, when the place was newly Sovietized:
The most out-of-the-world place to which I have ever been is a village near the Soviet-Afghan frontier, called Permetyab. It is inhabited by Afghani and Baluchi tribesmen, compared to whom the Turkomans are a nation of sophisticated intellectuals . . . Led by the Kultprop [Communist Party propaganda specialist], we all flocked to one of the tents. At the entrance of it squatted a huge, savage-looking, bearded figure in a striped caftan, with a large dirty turban on his head. He was smoking a hookah made out of a hollowed marrow. In the dim interior of the tent we could see the shape of a woman clad in rags . . .
— The Invisible Writing, Chapter XI.
I wonder how things are today in Permetyab? (Which, like Koestler, I can’t find on any map.)
Later I discovered Slavomir Rawicz’s book The Long Walk, which describes how the author with six companions escaped from a Soviet labor camp in 1941 and walked across Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, and the Himalayas, down into British India and freedom. Current critical opinion is that Rawicz made most of it up, but it’s still a great story.
Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History and a consultant on The Way Back, notes: “[Director Peter] Weir told me that many in Hollywood were surprised by the story: They’d never heard of Soviet concentration camps, only German ones.”