Dark Tourist season 1, episode 4 recap: ‘The Stans’


Episode 4 of Netflix series Dark Tourist takes us to Kazakhstan for nuclear tourism, and Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most paranoid governments.

Central Asia is known for its eccentric leaders, extreme corruption, and secrecy. As our Dark Tourist guide, David Farrier, tells us, it’s perfect for any dark tourist. His first stop is Kazakhstan, which many Americans will only recognize due to Sacha Baron Cohen’s character, Borat. However, it’s a place with a fascinating history, including its links to the old Soviet Union.

Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviets regularly tested nuclear bombs in a place called “the polygon,” in Semey, Kazakhstan. David intends to go right into this area. Along with David is another dark tourist named Andy Drury. David considers him hardcore and addicted to danger. He visits war zones on a regular basis, and not really as a ratings-driven war correspondent or anything like that. He gets a bit of adrenaline rush from it.

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While one may question his motives or even his character, he actually seems like a really nice guy who just wishes to see the world for himself (as opposed to reading about crazy events in a newspaper). In other words, his reasoning is understandable to an extent, even if it’s not something we’d all be crazy about.

After leaving their foreboding hotel, the two set off to a place called Atomic Lake. Why is it called that? Well, it’s actually quite simple. In 1965, a lake was created with an underground nuclear explosion. Wanting to be on-the-nose, people called it Atomic Lake. It’s also a cool-sounding name, right?  Their tour guide, Konstantin, tells them that the water is 100 times more radioactive than normal drinking water. Still, they all eat fish from Atomic Lake, and later even go swimming. When Andy asks David, “Why are we doing this?,” David’s answer is both beautifully simple and funny (in the Yogi Berra sense): “I think because we can.” David also remarks, “I’m not sure if we’re having an adventure or just being incredibly stupid.” Either way, there is a thin line between courage and stupidity. Dark Tourist walks that thin line, then crosses it, and we can all watch and wonder why.

The Epicenter

Then the 3 men head off to the epicenter of the Polygon, where at least 456 nuclear devices were detonated. David says it’s one of the most nuclear places on earth, but it could very well be the most nuclear place. Andy’s Geiger counter maxes out at 14, which is even higher than the counters were when David visited Japan’s Fukushima disaster sites.

This is where Dark Tourist takes a very dark turn. Konstantin, who is an officially sanctioned guide, doesn’t want to admit the nuclear tests have had negative health effects. However, a local Pediatrician urges David and Andy to visit a local orphanage to see the actual effects. The two do just that and see firsthand some children with disabilities likely caused by radiation. While some viewers will call it exploitative (and maybe it even is), Andy states that it’s a big lesson for him.

So, yet again, we see the complex dynamics of a show on the dark aspects of life, which can be both humorous and genuinely unsettling. In a way, a show like this is almost obligated to show such things, lest people think these slices of history are all just fun and games. We may be squeamish and may question motives, but we can’t say that Dark Tourist totally ignores reality.

Baikonur Rocket Launch

To add much-needed levity, David Farrier then goes to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, to see a rocket launch. There he meets Lance, a tourist from Ohio who’s waited 5 years to see the Soyuz rocket launch. According to David, Baikonur is the only place on earth where people are still being launched into space. It’s quite a historical location, too.

It’s where Yuri Gagarin was launched, to become the first human to enter space. It is the world’s first space launch facility, so it’s not something only important to the Russians. In fact, it’s a bit reassuring that, at a press conference about the launch, it’s treated as an international event. Spaceflight is a human achievement, rather than something belonging to any nation. When the launch occurs, it is still a sight to behold all these years later.

Turkmenistan’s 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games

According to David, Turkmenistan as one of the most secretive, oppressive regimes in the world. This only makes him want to visit the place more. It turns out to be difficult. The only way he can get in? He pretends to be a sports reporter from New Zealand. When he arrives where the games are held, he described Ashgabat as “Las Vegas meets North Korea.” Indeed, the city is eerily empty, and David says that critics are often jailed, persecuted and allegedly tortured. So, when David’s guide, Aziz, tells him not to criticize anything, he takes it seriously. He does hope he doesn’t “sleep talk” anything that might offend President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

He notes how, despite their spending $5 billion, hardly anyone is on the city streets. David is allowed to film buildings, but filming people is considered off limits. It gives him the opportunity to film a golden statue of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, depicted riding a horse atop an iceberg.

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After an accident where David leaned on the glass and injured his hand, he had worried about missing the ceremony, and Gurbanguly’s speech. Fortunately, he does make it there in time, and the ceremony is ridiculously over the top and extravagant. He does remark, however, that the money could have probably been spent better on the people’s needs.

Finally, David regrets that his injury preventing him from visiting the Darvaza gas crater (AKA “The Gates of Hell”]. However, Aziz sends pictures of himself cooking some eggs over the Gates of Hell, which is simply comedic gold, no matter who you are or what you believe. While David missed this chance to see the Darvaza gas crater, it should be noted that he could find similar locations. While the Gates of Hell have burned since 1971, the “Eternal fire” in Baba Gurgur, Iraq, is said to still be burning after 2,500 years. Keep on burning, baby!

That’s it for this Dark Tourist recap. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!