Turkmenistan Capital Claims Guinness Record For Most Marble Buildings

Ashgabat University, Turkmenistan
Neil Melville-Kenny, Flickr

The capital of Turkmenistan has been recognized by Guinness for having the highest density of white marble buildings in the world. Ashgabat boasts 543 new buildings clad with over 48 million square feet of marble, according to Guinness.

The former Soviet satellite state underwent a dramatic architectural transformation after independence under the leadership of the authoritarian “President for Life” Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006. Concrete soviet blocks were razed and replaced with marble-clad government buildings and housing complexes in a garish display of Turkmenistan’s immense natural gas wealth.

Niyazov’s successor, Gurganguly Berdymukhamedov, attached himself to the record by adding the honorific “Distinguished Architect of Turkmenistan” to his current list of titles.

The Guinness website says that if laid out flat there would be over 10 square feet of marble for every 50 square feet of land in the city. In 2013 Turkmenistan was ranked the fifth most miserable country in the world.

This isn’t the first time that the closed-off country has won itself a new record. It previously won the record for the world’s tallest unsupported flagpole (a record now held by Tajikistan), the largest architectural star and the largest indoor Ferris wheel. Its other conspicuous projects include a $1 billion resort complex on the deserted shores of the Caspian Sea.

Chasing The Estonian Army – And Finding A Different One

Estonian Army
Machine gun fire thudded through the snowy woods. Mart looked up from the missile shelter we were inspecting; an excited look appeared on his face.

“It came from that way, let’s go!”

He started running through snow up to his calves. I followed. The snow immediately trickled down the tops of my hiking boots, melted and gave my feet a cold bath. I kept running. At least I wasn’t wearing regular shoes like Mart.

We heard another burst from the machine gun. It sounded closer and a bit to the left. We changed course.

“Maybe it’s the APC that left those tracks we saw on the road,” Mart said.

I hoped so. I’ve ridden on an APC but never seen one in action.

Mart was my guide from Tallinn Traveller Tours. He was supposed to be showing me the west coast of Estonia and the old Soviet military town of Paldiski. Instead, we’d been chasing scattered gunfire through some lonely winter woods for the past hour. Mart is an Estonian college kid half my age, but we share something in common – our natural reaction to gunfire is to run towards it instead of away from it.

Not that we really had anything to fear. We were chasing the Estonian Army on their winter maneuvers, and they didn’t usually use live ammo. Technically they could arrest us if we got in the way, but chances are all they’d do was tell us to beat it. That’s what the Bulgarian Army did when I pulled the same stunt with them.

%Gallery-180122%The snow hampered our movements and we had to weave our way through the half-buried remains of abandoned Soviet military installations. The missile shelter we’d been inspecting was one of many in the area, basically a big tubular garage from which a short-range nuclear missile could be wheeled out and prepared for launch. Mart says that the Soviets built far more than they needed and moved the missiles around so NATO would never know where they were.

Eventually we gave up crunching through the snow and got back in the car. We drove around for a time and saw more tracks, but never caught up with the Estonian Army. Too bad. Back in 1918-20, the previous Estonian army managed to beat the Bolsheviks and establish Estonian independence. Estonia got swamped in World War II but became independent again in 1991. Since then they’ve joined NATO and served in Afghanistan. They currently have 150 troops there making them a small country punching way above its weight.

While the Estonian Army was nowhere to be found, detritus from the Soviet army was everywhere. One of the most disturbing stood just outside of Paldiski. This town was used by the Soviet Navy for nuclear submarine training. In one building they had an entire mockup of a sub for the cadets to work with.

In another building – a grim looking, windowless place that we studied from outside a chain-link fence – were two nuclear submarine reactors. The first was installed in 1964 and the second in 1982. The reactors were shut down in 1989 but they’re still in there. We didn’t see any guards, but I bet they were watching us through a hidden camera somewhere.

This made me think of all the military trash spread across the planet. In an earlier post, I talked about how my kid loves using Google Maps and discovered the remote Johnston Atoll. He’s obsessed with going there. I’m not. The United States used it for aboveground nuclear tests in the 1950s and ’60s, and later as a chemical weapons dump. A landfill on the atoll contained plutonium dust, sarin nerve gas, Agent Orange and various other nasties. I’m not taking my son there anytime soon. I want my grandkids to have ten fingers.

I wonder how many places like this exist in the former Soviet territories, places that Moscow never bothered to mention as the Soviet Union fell apart. I also wonder about the planet’s carrying capacity for heaps of radioactive and toxic waste.

Not all trash from the Cold War is harming the planet. Some of it has been recycled to better uses. After giving up on the Estonian Army, Mart drove me down a country lane for a surprise. Sitting on some private property was an old Antonov 12 cargo plane. Introduced in 1959, these planes did the heavy lifting for the Red Army for many years. This particular one was left behind when the last Russian troops left Estonia in 1994.

Somehow a local guy was able to buy it. He’s an avid model airplane hobbyist and he and his friends turned it into their clubhouse – a boy’s dream come true. We were greeted by the owner, a quiet man whose entire conversation with me consisted of “hello,” followed by half an hour’s silence as Mart and I explored his plane, and ended with “goodbye.”

The Antonov is in remarkably good shape. The cargo area is stuffed with model planes, a worktable and files of modeling magazines. The cockpit is still as it was. I got in the pilot’s seat and Mart acted as copilot as we fiddled with the switches, talked about what it would be like to fly this thing and basically acted like two overgrown kids with a wonderful toy. After that we headed to the rear of the plane where I squeezed into the gunner’s turret. My only disappointment was that the machine gun had been removed. I wonder where it ended up.

Mart also took me to see more peaceful sights such as the frozen waterfall pictured below and a stretch of coastline where swans fished in the chilly water.

“They’re taking a risk,” he said. “Usually they migrate away from the sea in winter because it freezes and they can’t fish. They’ve stayed this year because it’s so mild. But if it freezes, they won’t be able to eat.”

We talked about Estonia’s natural beauty for a time, and visited an old lighthouse that was on the verge of teetering into the sea because of erosion. Time and again, our mutual enthusiasm brought the conversation back to the Cold War. The Soviets didn’t just leave behind material and hazardous waste; they left behind people too. During the old days the central government tried to “Russify” outlying areas by sending Russians to live there. About a quarter of Estonia’s population speaks Russian as their native language.

These folks got caught in the middle during the independence movement in the 1990s. During the transition people were asked to get an unofficial Estonian identity card – unofficial because Estonia wasn’t a country yet. Many Russians didn’t, either because of loyalty to the homeland or fear that Estonia wouldn’t become a nation and anyone with a card would get in trouble.

When independence became official, the identity cards were used to establish citizenship. Many Russians in the nation were left without a state. They got “gray passports” that designate them as resident aliens. They don’t get to vote in national elections, hold government jobs, or enjoy many advantages of the European Union. Now the public schools are switching to teaching mostly in Estonian. Sounds like a good way to create a disaffected underclass.

Reactions from Estonians vary. Mart is sympathetic. Others are less so. One Estonian woman said of the Russians in her country, “We hate them.” Steps have been taken to give more Russian Estonians their citizenship, but official figures still show about 8 percent of the national population to lack citizenship.

It’s a messy business and while I see the problem, I don’t see an easy answer. What is surprising about the collapse of the Soviet Union is that many areas managed to get through it relatively unscathed. Back in the early 1990s, a guy I know in college who everyone called “Stalin” because of his hardcore Communism predicted that, “These countries will be lucky if they survive with half their populations.” At the time I thought he might be right.

For Estonia at least, they survived with a lingering social problem, some dodgy nuclear sites and one really, really cool clubhouse. If only every former Soviet republic had been so lucky.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: A Medieval Abbey In Estonia!

[Top photo by Mart the Psychotic Yet Well-Informed Tour Guide. Bottom photo by Sean McLachlan]

Estonian Army

Estonian Art And Literature: Big Ideas In A Small Country


For a country with only 1.3 million people, Estonia has a hell of an art scene. There are several good museums and galleries and a lively round of readings and exhibition openings.

One of the biggest names in the Estonian art scene is Raoul Kurvitz. He’s been big for a few decades now, producing a steady output of installation pieces, experimental films and paintings. Right now KUMU, the Art Museum of Estonia, has dedicated an entire floor to his work.

While I’m a hard sell with contemporary art (see my ambivalent response to Damien Hirst) I found Kurvitz’s work consistently challenging and innovative. He ranges from accessible videos like this cover of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness to weird art happenings that leave the viewers scratching their heads and feeling slightly disturbed.

This is an artist that takes risks for his art. In the 1989 experimental film “When Lord Zarathustra was Young and Polite,” he gets flogged by two female assistants and then washed into a Finnish river by an opening sluice gate. In another video he’s surrounded by fire. And I have to wonder what that blue paint tasted like when it came out of the fish’s belly.

KUMU is an ultramodern building chock full of Estonian art of all periods. What’s interesting is how they followed all the great Western traditions such as Impressionism, Cubism and the rest but put their own twist on it. And then there are the mavericks like Edvard Wiiralt who veered off into their own high strangeness.

The literature scene is doing well too. I was lucky enough to meet Piret Raud and Kätlin Kaldmaa, two Estonian authors who gave me the lowdown on writing in a language that only a little more than 900,000 of their countrymen speak. The rest of Estonia’s population are native Russian speakers and tend to look eastward for their reading material.

%Gallery-179740%Given such a small readership, you’d think publishing would be all but dead in Estonia, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fall of Communism led to an explosion of publishing houses. Where once there had only been a couple of official state-run publishers, now there’s more than a hundred indies. Many are micropresses with only one or two titles, while others are major houses with long lists.

That breath of freedom must have been a relief after decades of Soviet occupation. During those times many Western books and magazines were banned and sailors made a good side income smuggling them in. One of their best sellers, I’m told, was Playboy magazine. Pornography was banned in the Soviet Union. They saw it as Western decadence, I suppose. So admiring the Playmate of the Month became an act of political defiance. The world is a weird place.

Besides reading illegal imports, some Estonian writers bucked the system by participating in the Samizdat movement, writing subversive books and distributing them through a postal network to like-minded individuals. Since the Soviets didn’t exactly dole out printing presses with the ration cards, most of these books weren’t bound. They’d be typed out with a couple of carbon copies or simply handwritten. Kaldmaa told me some books were even photographed page by page and you’d get a stack of photos in the mail.

I would have loved to meet one of these writers. I write what I feel and all I have to risk is some anonymous coward giving me shit in the comments section. Say what you felt in the Soviet Union and you could end up in a KGB torture chamber. Writers back then had balls.

On my last night in the capital Tallinn I was invited to a poetry reading at Kinokohvik Sinilind, a rambling cafe/bar/arthouse cinema in Old Town. Several poets and a band took turns on the weirdly lit stage doing their stuff while a large crowd listened and chatted. The poetry was all in Estonian, of course, so I listened to the cadence of the words rather than their meaning. An odd experience but a rewarding one.

There were a lot of prominent writers there. Kaldmaa introduced me to a poet who specialized in translating poems from Japanese, Chinese and Korean into Estonian. He spoke French and English too. Scary. I met a whirlwind of others too, at the table or at the bar. Everyone seemed to have their latest book tucked under their arm, all cleverly designed by local talent.

I’m jealous of poets; they always get nicer covers.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Eating and Drinking in Estonia!

A Vintage Submarine And Icebreaker In Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour

Tallinn
Tallinn has been an important port and Estonia’s connection with the world since before recorded history. Because of this, the city has not one, but two museums dedicated to the sea. The Maritime Museum is housed in Fat Margaret, an old cannon tower that once protected the harbor. It has the usual assortment of old photos and gear, along with a very cool exhibit on sunken ships.

The other museum is far more interactive. Housed in an old seaplane hanger dating to World War I, Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour Museum is filled with old ships and other maritime bric-a-brac.

Estonians seem to favor odd lighting in their museums. The Bastion Tunnels have a weird combination of red, yellow, and purple lights. At the Seaplane Harbor museum they seem to favor purple and blue. It gives the place a spooky under-the-sea feel.

Dominating the exhibit is the Lembit, a submarine built in 1936 by the English company Vickers and Armstrongs for the Estonian Navy. When Estonia fell to the Soviet Union in 1940 it was incorporated into the Red Banner Baltic Fleet of the Soviet Navy and saw action against the Axis powers. It managed to sink two ships and damage another.

Climb aboard and you’ll see an almost perfectly preserved submarine that was the cutting edge of technology of its time. You can visit the control room, periscope, radio room, torpedo tubes and cramped crewmen’s bunks all pretty much as they were. It didn’t feel too cramped to me until I read that it housed a crew of 32. Then I decided to enlist in the Army. Check out the gallery for some photos of this fascinating sub.

%Gallery-179305%As you walk around your eyes will be drawn upward by the two giant rotating propellers hanging from the ceiling. They’re so big you might miss the seaplane fitted with skis suspended nearby. A walkway takes you past other historic ships and an extensive collection of mines, presumably defused.

This is a fully interactive museum with touchscreen displays to teach you more about what you’re seeing. You can also man an antiaircraft gun and see how good you’d be defending Tallinn from an enemy air force. Then hop aboard a reproduction Sopwith Camel and try out a flight simulator. While I managed to save Tallinn from the bad guys, my flying skills showed that I should keep my driving on the ground.

Once you’re done with the indoor exhibits, head out back to visit the Suur Tõll, an icebreaker built in 1914 that saw service for several decades, clearing the Baltic Sea lanes during cold winters. Like with the Lembit, it’s well preserved and you can wander all over it. It seemed vast and luxurious compared with the submarine. The officer’s mess looked as big as a ballroom (it wasn’t), the quarters for the crew felt sumptuous (not!) and the engine room was like some Industrial Revolution factory. It takes a pretty tough person to be a sailor, and someone twice as tough to work in a submarine.

If you are at all interested in technology or the sea, don’t miss this place. Your kids will love it too. The museum has an excellent and reasonably priced little restaurant overlooking the hanger in case you get hungry.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Estonia’s Rich Art and Literature Scene!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Tallinn

The Secret Tunnels Under Tallinn

Tallinn
Tallinn is an old city, and like many old cities it has its share of secrets. Stories of ghosts, buried treasure and hidden tunnels add to the atmosphere of the medieval streets.

For a couple of years, one of those secrets was revealed when the city opened up the Bastion Tunnels. These corridors were built by Estonia’s Swedish rulers in the 1670s and ran under the earthen bastions that protected the city. These bastions were an improvement over Tallinn’s stone walls, which were now outdated in the age of artillery. The tunnels allowed for the rapid and safe transport of troops from one part of the defenses to the other.

The Bastion Tunnels were used by the soldiers for a time and then were abandoned to the rats and spiders. Abandoned, but not forgotten. The entrances were still visible yet few dared to go down there. Rumors of buried treasure arose but most people were too afraid to venture into the dank, dark tunnels to search for it.

In the more practical 20th century the tunnels got new life. In the 1930s everyone could see that war was coming, and Estonia’s uncomfortable position next to the Soviet Union made it an obvious target. The government reopened the tunnels as bomb shelters. Today, a section of the tunnels is preserved to commemorate this era, with vintage posters showing what to do in case of an air raid, and some frightened dummies set up in period clothing.

The Soviets occupied Estonia in 1940, only to be kicked out by the Germans the following year. They were hardly a liberating force, however, and the partisans who had been fighting the Soviets soon turned their guns on the Nazis. Meanwhile the Soviets launched bombing raids and the citizens of Tallinn hid in the tunnels for protection. Luckily most of the historic city was preserved, but as you walk around you can spot patches where all the buildings are new. This is thanks to the Soviets.

%Gallery-179163%The Estonian resistance actually took advantage of the bombings to strike a blow against their occupiers. Estonians tell the story that the German high officers all stayed at a particular posh hotel. The resistance hoped it would get hit by a bomb and preeminently smuggled ammunition into the cellar. A Soviet bomb hit the hotel and BOOM … no more Nazi officers.

The Soviets eventually retook Estonia and it would remain under Soviet rule until 1991. During that time the tunnels were used again as a bomb shelter. Visitors can see period equipment like radios, air circulation machines and radiation suits. There’s even an old Soviet latrine that still stinks. The photo above shows an Estonian family hoping their suits will stop the radiation from an American nuclear strike. That green bag between the mother and her child is for a baby. I’ll leave it to you to guess whether that contraption would have actually worked.

Eventually the Soviets, too, abandoned the tunnels. Estonia had nuclear missiles positioned all over the country so it was on the U.S. shortlist for bombing. The Soviets must have realized that some 17th century tunnels weren’t going to protect anyone from a direct hit, so the tunnels once again reverted to a home for rats and spiders.

Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, a new group took over the tunnels – the punks. Punk rock was illegal in the Soviet Union. That whole defy-the-system ethos didn’t sit too well with the Communist Party. So the punks went underground, literally. They spray painted the walls, threw parties, drank, took drugs and generally had a good time while thumbing their noses at authority. The police harassed and often arrested punks on the street but never chased them into the tunnels. Our tour guide told us that the tunnels had become infested with fleas and the cops didn’t want to catch bugs along with punks.

Independence came in 1991 and the punks could enjoy sunlight again. The economy wasn’t doing so well and the homeless population swelled. They took over the tunnels and made them as comfortable as they could. Eventually, of course, they were kicked out so the tunnels could be restored and opened as a tourist site. Our tour guide didn’t know what happened to the homeless people.

The Bastion Tunnels make for an interesting tour, yet I feel that the city missed a great opportunity. The punk graffiti was all painted over and eventually replaced with faux graffiti in the punk style. I would have much preferred to have seen graffiti written by some crusty old punk from the days when defying authority could land you in jail instead of just angering parents. It would have also been nice if they could have employed some of the homeless people as tour guides. This would have given them work and given visitors an insight into what it was like to live underneath the city.

And the “Time Machine” ride they have is just too cheesy to waste bandwidth on …

Still, the Bastion Tunnels are one of the most interesting attractions in Tallinn. They’re entered through the cellar of the Kiek in de Kök tower. The name means “peek into the kitchen” because the tower so dominated the town that it was said the watchmen could look down the chimneys of the houses and see what was cooking! The tower has a collection of arms and armor as well as a space for photographic exhibitions. From the top you get a fine view of Tallinn’s Old Town.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: A Vintage Submarine and Icebreaker in Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbor!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]