Dark Tourist (2018) s01e04 Episode Script

The Stans

I'm David Farrier, a journalist from New Zealand, investigating dark tourist hot spots around the world, places made famous by death and disaster.
This expedition takes me to Kazakhstan, where I team up with a hardcore dark tourist - I don't want you to die.
- I'm hoping we both get to the other side completely alive.
to check out one of the most nuclear-bombed places in the world - Are you sure this is okay? - Just make sure you don't inhale anything.
Jesus, this is real.
to the closed city of Baikonur, top-secret headquarters of the Russian space program.
And I go undercover to get inside the weird and paranoid republic of Turkmenistan.
If I say something critical about the regime or government You'd better not.
You don't say anything negative, in case you'll be listened to.
There's journalists there that are in prison.
That is scary.
But not everything goes to plan.
I'm traveling to central Asia to a group of five countries known as "The Stans": Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.
Once part of the Soviet empire, these countries are now known for their eccentric leaders, extreme corruption, and secrecy.
Perfect for any dark tourist.
I start my trip in the big "Stan," Kazakhstan, a place with a deadly nuclear past.
Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world, the size of western Europe.
It's also one of the most atomic-bombed places on Earth.
Between 1949 and 1989, the former Soviet Union detonated hundreds of nuclear weapons here.
The tests were carried out in top secret during the Cold War, in an area ominously known as "the Polygon.
" I want to see what's happened to this nuclear-ravaged landscape 30 years on, and to find out what decades of atomic testing has done to its inhabitants.
On this trip, I'm teaming up with a hardcore dark tourist.
Andy! Andy Drury's a builder from England with a wife and two children.
It was really good.
But Andy has a double life as an adventurer.
He's spent the last 25 years holidaying in combat zones all around the world.
What is it about going into war zones that, I guess What is it? The last war zone I went to, when we got attacked by ISIS, was a pretty intense situation.
You know, on the front line in Kirkuk.
And it just turned into a mass attack.
And that, for you, was like, sort of - I didn't want to be killed.
- gives you a buzz.
But the adrenaline became a little bit addictive.
Andy's addiction to danger has taken him to war zones in Somalia, Pakistan, Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Here, we could be targets for snipers at any time.
Wow! Head down.
On this trip, the danger is just as real, but we won't be able to see it.
That's the joy of radiation.
Despite the threat, Andy and I are heading towards ground zero, in the middle of the testing site.
- It's more than a day's drive away.
- I've researched a bit about it.
Even knowing the name of the first bomb.
Joe One, after Joseph Stalin.
Little bit of history there for you.
It's on my list.
I've been reading about it.
It's an entirely different thing to actually come.
But that's the thing, you know, because I don't want to see it in a documentary.
It's the same thing, curiosity.
You want to see it first-hand.
- God - Ooh, ay up.
This I'm not going straight anymore! Don't drive off the edge, please.
This road is pretty horrendous.
- I don't want you to die on it.
- Thank you.
I'm hoping we both get to the other side of this completely alive.
- See, this is your classic Kazakh problem.
- Right.
After a mammoth drive, we finally arrive in Kurchatov.
Home sweet home.
This town is close to the nuclear test site, and previously one of the most top-secret places in the Soviet Union.
There aren't a lot of hotel options in this part of the world.
We're here to check in.
Just through here? I didn't expect the Ritz This hallway's not at all foreboding.
but I didn't exactly expect the Bates Motel either.
It's quite it's quite good.
Good decor.
- Modern TV.
- Ahh! - What more could you want? - It goes up a bit.
- It's got a few stains there - It's really good.
- from a previous - Let's not talk about the stains.
For a man who casually visits war zones, Andy seems remarkably well-groomed.
I discover he has a secret.
You've got a few products going on.
So the hair's quite an important thing for you.
- Yeah.
- And do you blow-dry it? What, like, first thing? - Every morning.
- Every morning.
And then there's just different hair products.
That's wax before your hairspray.
- So that goes in first? - First, yeah.
Um No, it's important to look good! Andy clearly likes to be in control of everything, from his hair to the scheduling.
This is just a thrown-together thing, but it don't take much to do, it's just a brief idea of - So you know what you're getting into.
- Of course.
And his low-tech way of organizing things seems totally in tune with the local conditions.
I love your system.
I like how old-school it is, you know? Some people would have this on a computer.
You have it in a binder.
The next stop on our radioactive road trip is 120 kilometers away in the middle of nowhere.
The Soviets blew up nukes all over this area, hundreds of them.
But it wasn't just done to develop weapons.
Some blasts were just used to dig really big holes.
Like this one.
- See, that is a lake.
- That is a lake.
In 1965, this lake was created by an underground nuclear explosion.
With a blast ten times bigger than Hiroshima, the bomb left a crater 400 meters wide and 100 meters deep.
They decided to call it "Atomic Lake".
- It's an extreme way to do it.
- To have an atomic bomb.
It's just a name! We picked up a local guide to show us round.
Konstantin tells us the explosion left the banks and water contaminated.
This water is a hundred times more radioactive than normal drinking water.
And, of course, Andy suggests we go for a swim.
I've got these.
Is it all right to swim on the top? Yeah.
It's safe.
- It is safe to swim in? - Yeah, but don't dive too deep.
Why don't you want to dive too deep? Is it more nuclear down there? Yeah, that's a problem.
It's a problem! Surprisingly, fishermen are casually casting their rods into Atomic Lake.
It's a strange question, but there's a rumor there's been fish with two heads - Is that not true? - That's not common for our region.
So no two-headed fish in here? Nothing here.
Andy's still keen to go for a swim, but before we do, the locals invite us to share some delicious, and potentially highly toxic, fish.
Are they good for eating? - Nothing bad about it.
- "Nothing bad about it.
" Oh, God.
I'm just not certain I want to be eating mutant, three-eyed fish.
I'd take a sausage over a fish, I'll be honest.
But it seems that's not an option.
Get some of that atomic fish into you.
Oh, vodka with it.
So this gets rid of any potential radiation.
Killed by vodka.
- I'm having another one.
I don't drink.
- You like it? No! I'm going swimming, and I'd rather not remember it.
This is like Dutch courage.
Oh, man.
Finally Andy, or more likely the vodka, persuades me to go in with him for a swim.
You're making a right meal of this.
This is nervous excitement.
David why are we doing this? I think because we can.
Mindful of Konstantin's warning, we're careful to stay near the surface, away from any radioactive sludge deeper down.
This is nice! Woohoo! We've done it, man High five.
I'm not sure if we're having an adventure, or just being incredibly stupid, but, floating here, I'm overcome with a feeling of exhilaration and, just for a moment, a sense of peace.
I guess this is what dark tourism is all about: escaping normality to stumble onto something beautiful and unexpected.
Armed with a new sense of bravery, Andy and I head to the next site on our atomic tour, the very center of the Polygon, ground zero, where the Russians exploded all those atomic weapons.
If I didn't wear these what's the danger? Is it If you have dust on your shoes, you can inhale it.
Then what does the dust do? The dust's then inside your body? If it penetrates through your lungs, it can cause some cancer.
Yeah, I've heard dust cancer, radiation c - They are connected.
- Am I going to die out there? Just make sure you don't inhale anything.
Mhm! My head's too big.
And I've got quite a bit of hairspray on.
So, you're really sure it's okay? - Yeah.
- What could go wrong? It doesn't feel at all dangerous, right? - You're sure this is okay? - Yeah.
I'm not at all reassured by our paper protective suits as we head into ground zero, especially as this is exactly where the first atomic detonation was.
The explosion was as powerful as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, but that was just the start.
The Soviets detonated 456 nuclear devices here, equivalent to more than two and a half thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs.
Not surprisingly, the area became one of the most radioactive places in the world.
All that remains now are these alien-looking, concrete structures which were used to monitor the blasts.
- You say this was the epicenter - Right.
What was? That lake? That's the crater.
I can't believe it's so green round here.
I know we've got water, but it doesn't seem right.
It just I expected everything to be dead.
It's like an oasis in the desert, isn't it? Andy, armed with a Geiger counter, is keen to push to the limits and see how high the radiation gets.
And it's gone way up now.
Six point five.
Six two nine.
It's going up! Up and up.
A reading of six is 20 times the levels in the exclusion zones around Chernobyl.
He seems to be getting high on the possible danger.
Andy, he loves it.
And it's up to 14.
So this maxes out here.
Fourteen! While Andy's on atomic cloud nine Fourteen! I'm beginning to feel anxious.
That's more like it, isn't it? - That's what you came here for.
- Did you see me excited? - Yeah, I saw you perk up.
- Why? - Like a kid at Christmas.
- Was I dancing? - You were.
- Oh, sorry.
I can't dance.
We head back to relative safety and out of our paper suits.
But there's a part of this puzzle that's missing for me.
What happened to all those people who used to live here? I've read that many villages were affected by the fallout of radiation.
Some people were even used as human guinea pigs during the tests.
There were definitely people that got radiated from the tests, that led to birth defects and all sorts of things.
That happened.
I normally don't have such experience.
You read stories about, when the explosions took place, they were encouraged to look at the explosion to see what would happen.
Is that not true? I personally don't have such information that people directly suffered from radiation or some defects.
I think they definitely did.
- Yeah.
- They'd have to.
I'm not sure if it's the language barrier or because he's an official guide, but Konstantin seems reluctant to admit that anyone's been affected by the nuclear testing.
We've heard stories that radiation from the blasts caused serious health problems round here.
Konstantin's denials spark our curiosity and the journalist in me wants to know more.
I track down Dr.
Toleukhan Nurmagambetov, head of the local maternity clinic, who has a very different point of view.
When they opened the Polygon, they counted on wind patterns.
Therefore they thought that neither the nuclear clouds nor emissions would stay here.
But they have radiated all surrounding areas.
The frequency of radiation related diseases is overwhelming.
The doctor says radiation killed his wife and child, so I understand why he wants people to know the truth.
But this is still going on, and that makes him just as angry.
Now when you visit the orphanage, you will see and understand.
The doctor insists we visit a local orphanage that takes care of abandoned children.
He says that many of them are affected by radiation.
I feel a bit uncomfortable, kind of emotional, I think, at the moment.
Andy and I are feeling apprehensive.
This dark tour has suddenly taken us somewhere entirely unexpected.
Seeing the scarred landscape was one thing, but being face-to-face with the continuing human consequences is heart-breaking.
She's five years old.
Can't walk.
She's beautiful.
Hey! This place is really getting to me.
And I notice it's also affecting Andy.
How's this for you, Andy? What are you feeling right now? Upset.
I just don't like children suffering.
That was my biggest fear, seeing children that were unhappy and maybe treated badly, but they're beautiful here.
I mean, this home is what you'd consider probably fantastic.
Why was it important for you to see this, do you think? Kind of swimming in the lake and having a little joke and a pop around, which is fine.
I don't think you shouldn't do that.
But, kind of, then coming here and seeing what the effects It's like a big lesson.
See ya! I've never seen anything like that orphanage.
We came to the Polygon looking for adventure and to see what had happened to the place 30 years after nuclear testing ended.
What we didn't expect was to see the terrible consequences that the tests are still having on people today.
What I've seen here will stay with me forever.
My next destination is still in Kazakhstan, but 2,000 kilometers west of the Polygon.
Baikonur was the heart of the Russian space race.
This place was so hush-hush, it didn't appear on any maps until the fall of the Soviet Union.
Even now, it's still a closed city and very hard to get into, guarded by special forces.
The perfect destination for a dark tourist.
I want to get in and see this top-secret facility for myself.
Baikonur is now leased from Kazakhstan by the Russians, and it's still home to their space program.
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launched here in 1961, becoming the first man to orbit the Earth and catapulting the USSR ahead of the USA in the international space race.
After years of absolute secrecy, incredibly, Baikonur has now opened its doors to a small number of seriously cashed-up tourists who are happy to pay thousands of dollars to watch a 300-tonne projectile fired into space.
- How's it so far? - This is great.
This is the front row seat.
There's only maybe a hundred people here at most.
Lance, a businessman from Ohio, has been waiting five years for this moment.
What is it about this rocket and what we're seeing now that gets you going? I remember back in the Cold War days, everything was so secretive about their rocket technology, and to have a front row seat, and see it now, is just something I never imagined I'd be able to do.
Here we go.
- Are you seeing this? - You can feel that.
Yeah, now you see why I've been thinking about it for five years.
Got to get there.
The massive Soyuz rocket is being moved to the launch site, ready for its manned mission to the International Space Station.
And Lance isn't the only space geek watching.
A lot of people taking selfies.
The technology is awesome.
This rocket looks like something out of a science fiction movie from the 1950s, which is maybe not so surprising, because Lance tells me that these rockets are based on 50-year-old designs.
This sounds technologically prehistoric to me, and I wonder if it's safe using them to blast people into space.
Think you'll be nervous when it takes off? 'Cause I always worry.
A lot of fuel.
Three people strapped in.
I feel anxious already.
It's old! It's 50 years old.
I think that, if you're an astronaut, then you're very much at peace with "If I go, this is the way I was meant to go.
" What a way to go.
But being so close to the rocket only makes me more nervous about something going wrong.
The Russian space program has been plagued by a succession of accidents in recent years.
The Proton-M rocket has failed nine times in the last decade.
So the dark tourist in me wonders whether we'll all be witness to a rocket explosion rather than a rocket launch.
After all, the world has had its fair share of space disasters.
My God, the shuttle Challenger has exploded.
Our official tour includes a visit to a local exhibition on the space program.
One thing I learned here is how small cosmonauts have to be.
You are too tall.
Yeah, it's so small.
Jesus! - It's very small.
- This is impractical.
My lanky six-foot-two frame means my chances of making it into space are zero.
I'm told that the cosmonauts would have spent two days crammed into this tiny tube.
You have to be tiny to be an astronaut.
Who would be mad enough to want to do this job? These guys.
I discovered there's a press conference with the astronauts.
Baikonur is the only place on Earth right now, where manned rockets can take off from.
So American and Russian astronauts sit side by side.
and a fourth US Orbital Segment crew member, enhance not only scientific research capability but the other activity capability on board.
Everyone else's questions are scientific and very technical.
I start to feel out of my depth.
But I'm handed the microphone and there's no time to bail out.
the work we'd like, to accomplish science objectives, than we normally can.
Hi there, my name's David.
I'm from New Zealand.
I apologize.
Can we keep going with this question for my friends? - I'm so sorry.
- Thank you.
It's fair to say that this is not my finest moment in journalism.
I'll spend as much time as I can doing that, just chilling out and looking at the Earth.
Hi, it's me again.
I'm sorry to interrupt.
I was worried I'd mess it up.
Space, it's a bit of a mystery to me, to be honest.
I was wondering, what do you see as the main point of going to space? We've been going to space for a while, it's exciting, I saw the rocket, it's amazing but what's the point? Thank you for your question.
This is a profound question.
My favorite movie about space is Apollo 13.
Tom Hanks played the leading character in this film as an astronaut.
He is asked a question similar to yours.
Why are we continuing this program now that we've beaten everyone to the moon? And his great answer is: Imagine if Christopher Columbus had come back from the New World and no one returned in his footsteps.
This is good enough motivation for me.
They've won me over! My question sounded totally naive, but they called it profound.
We've yet to watch as the cosmonauts say final goodbyes to their families.
Seeing them in their spacesuits for the first time, and just meters away, I realize these guys are brave and real heroes, especially to their kids, as they say goodbye through the glass.
It's quite lovely, the family there, doing this.
It's beautiful.
I think you have to be a pretty amazing person to get into an ancient rocket with over a million pounds of burning fuel under your seat.
Five minutes till liftoff.
Please copy, Baikonur lead.
Even though we're a kilometer from the rocket, it still seems terrifyingly close.
The tension is huge.
Baikonur one minute to readiness.
Everything is great on board.
They are ready for launch.
Booster propellant tank pressurization was initiated.
Internal power.
The launch is epic and bone-shakingly loud.
It really feels like a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
I've never heard anything like that in my life.
God, it gets small quickly.
I came here wanting to see what the attraction was in this obscure and off-limits place.
And now I think I know.
It was better than I even imagined.
My fear was that the whole thing would blow up.
So I'm glad no one died.
- Yeah.
- Everyone's alive.
They're in space, in orbit.
There you go.
I wasn't fully sold on why you'd travel so far to see a rocket but I think I get it.
- Cheers.
- Cheers.
My final stop is a four-hour drive and two plane rides away to the country of Turkmenistan.
The former Soviet republic is infamous for being one of the most isolated and repressive regimes on the planet.
It's up there with North Korea.
It's usually closed off to the rest of the world, and foreign journalists are unwelcome.
But I've planned my trip to coincide with it hosting an obscure Olympic spin-off, the Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games.
The only way into this closed kingdom is for me to pretend to be a sports reporter from New Zealand.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Ashgabat International Airport.
I want to see what it's really like inside this hermit kingdom.
And it's a long shot, I know, but I've applied to interview the president.
The city of Ashgabat has been described as Las Vegas meets North Korea, and, architecturally, it's certainly looking the part.
But there's something especially strange.
The city is supposed to be hosting a major sporting event, but it looks almost empty.
Even the lavish sports village is a ghost town, apart from security men and black-suited officials that seem to be monitoring our arrival.
I start to feel a little paranoid as I get to my hotel.
A little click on the microphone.
And another click off.
That's really, really Yeah, it was a distinct click on and a distinct click off.
Just so weird! And paranoia is kind of justified when you're in a country with a leader like President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.
A man of many talents, the former dentist turned dictator controls the press, and his image, closely, whether it's showing the army how deadly he is with knives, or demonstrating his love of animals.
He's also a musician who writes and performs his own songs, and his guitar solos are so epic, they shouldn't be seen by human eyes.
But he doesn't like criticism.
Over the last 20 years, people who have spoken out here, even journalists, have been jailed, persecuted, and allegedly tortured.
The president is a scary but fascinating character.
He's terrifying, but I hope he'll be at the games.
My Russian guide Aziz has come along to help me make sense of the place.
He's been here before.
If we're filming there and I want to talk to someone in the street or something, and I say something critical about the regime or the government You'd better not.
If you say something critical, it can bring some problems to those who were with you out there - At the time.
- locals, yes, at the time.
I was reading that rooms and phones can be bugged? I also have had the same warnings.
With my paranoia growing, I just hope I don't sleep-talk anything tonight that could offend the president.
The next morning, I decide to do something I've never done before.
Sweep my room for bugs.
My technique is inspired by bad spy films I've seen.
I especially love the president of Turkmenistan.
He's a very handsome man.
I can't wait to see the president at the opening of the games.
And, oh boy, these beds are so comfortable.
I've dismantled my room, but there's no bugs that I can find.
Good to know.
I've failed as a spy, so it's time for me to assume my role as a sports journalist and venture out.
This complex was built just for this event.
It cost a cool $5 billion, which, incredibly, is more than the Rio Olympics.
Rio had 400,000 foreign tourists attending.
That's clearly not the case here.
This place is almost empty.
It feels like I'm the only overseas visitor here, which is a bit unfortunate considering the games have already started ahead of the opening ceremony.
I'm worried that the other reporters will easily spot my lack of knowledge of traditional belt wrestling.
I needn't have worried.
There's no press here either.
With no media in attendance, I'm wondering how many spectators will actually turn up.
They said they're expecting 100,000 people? Then they downgraded it to, I think, 30,000.
It feels like they're filling up the stands with some, like, schoolchildren.
They all have the same uniform.
I also notice lots of women in the crowd.
Obviously belt wrestling has a particularly strong female fanbase in Turkmenistan.
Or maybe something else is going on.
You don't want to say anything negative in case you'll be listened to.
I've decided to get out of Ashgabat and its tight security to see if things are more relaxed outside the city walls.
And what better excuse than going to a famed tourist destination? The Gates of Hell is a spectacular flaming pit.
It's the result of a Soviet oil drilling accident that was meant to be extinguished by setting fire to the oil.
But 40 years later, it's still burning.
It turns out that Aziz is keen to visit and has a well-engineered, if slightly bizarre plan for when we get there.
Are you excited about going? Yeah, I was dreaming to cook on the Devil's fire, for years.
Next step is fulfill the dream.
What do you think is the best for us to cook in there? Omelette? It's up to you.
We don't have eggs, but Aziz has some stale snacks for the dry run.
So, they're in the pit Oh, God - Yes.
- Mind the pit.
Wow! It's not a fish! Down.
I can hold it up for about five seconds.
But to cook an egg, that's at least, - what, two minutes? - Yeah.
I don't know.
But our plans come to a grinding halt when we board the tour bus.
- That would be a problem.
- I spoke with my manager We're informed the President has closed off the entire city of Ashgabat from the rest of the country, and journalists are not allowed out.
As a consolation, officials offer us a tour of the inner city, a chance to see some of the President's prized memorials and statues.
You can take video, but - without me.
- Without you in it? Without me.
It turns out we're not even allowed to film any locals, including our driver.
You can take video of the places.
All the buildings are so impressive.
Every new building we make with white marble.
- White marble? - Yes.
As well as his love for white marble, the president has a childlike obsession with collecting Guinness world records.
Unsurprisingly, Ashgabat holds the record for highest density of buildings with white marble cladding.
- That was the TV building.
- TV building? It also entered the Guinness record.
This tower won a world record for "largest architectural image of a star.
" It's ridiculous.
What is it? Like London Eye.
Our Turkmen Eye.
Again, a Guinness record for the hotly contested title of "world's largest indoor Ferris wheel.
" Was all this stuff built for the people that live here? - This is the - Why is all this Oh, my God.
Like, why is all this stuff built, even? Yeah, it's like no expense spared, right? It's a sign of power.
Yeah, it's all power, right? Fountains in a desert may show power and wealth, but nothing says it better than when the president erects a giant golden statue of himself riding a horse at the top of some sort of iceberg.
It's just a lot to take in, isn't it? You know? There's no one here.
It's like all this stuff gets built but who's here to enjoy it? I came here to get a look at the hermit kingdom and I've become imprisoned in an empty marble city.
Tonight is the opening ceremony of the games, and my chance to finally get a glimpse of the man who built all this.
But back at the hotel, everything turns to total shit.
It's really fucking sore.
I'd leaned on a mirror in my room and it shattered, tearing a four-inch gash in my palm.
It's really sore.
My hand is gushing blood and I'm in agony.
So I'm sent to hospital, with Aziz translating.
My one chance to see the president in the flesh and I'm in a hospital.
And then things take a surreal turn.
I thought I was going to get a local anesthetic, but they inject me with ketamine, a horse tranquilizer and party drug, and then they simply discharge me.
- How do you feel? - I feel I feel fine.
I've gone from agony to ecstasy.
The ceremony starts in six minutes.
It's my last chance to catch the opening and maybe see the president in person, if I can find my way in.
It's over here? Thank you.
I make it just in time for the president's speech.
And there he is the man himself, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the man in charge of all this.
Dear friends, I declare the fifth Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games open! The opening ceremony is really over the top and, surprise surprise, even more expensive than the one at the Rio Olympics.
I don't know if it's the medication kicking in, but this seems totally crazy.
It's all completely mad.
And after three hours yes, three hours we finally get to the finale, an elaborate flame-lighting ceremony on horseback.
Up you go, horsey.
You've got to go up.
It's a disaster.
Oh, God, it doesn't want to go up.
I can't handle this, this is horrible.
I'm worried for the future of the horse and its rider.
Oh, Jesus! It's taking so long, and they have to set it off without him.
Wow! Thank God.
Whoo! The games are open! But I'm on a massive comedown.
It seems to me that all this money could be spent on five million better things, and 40,000 of them are sitting in this stadium.
I have to cut my trip short and leave Ashgabat the next day to get my hand seen to.
I've given up any hope of interviewing or even meeting the president.
But my short stay in this strange, secretive, indoor Ferris wheel obsessed regime has made a real impression.
And a few days later, Aziz sends me some video.
He'd smuggled himself out of the city and into the Gates of Hell and managed to cook those eggs.
Aha! I consider myself lucky just to have visited, and been able to leave.
I'm learning sometimes the real pleasure of dark tourism is the simple realization of just how good I've got it back home.