In September this year, Turkmenistan will be hosting the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in their show-piece capital of Ashgabat. Think of it like a mini Olympics for people who get sunburnt easily. Unless you happen to be from an Asian country which is participating, but even then, unless you’re very much involved in one of the obscure sports they hold events in, you would have never heard of it. And why would you have?
The Indoor Games has been held 3 times before, thus this is the 5th edition, makes sense right? Previous hosts were Bangkok in 2005, Macau in 2007 and finally Hanoi in 2009 and always on a very small scale. There was then an event called the Martial Arts Games held in Incheon, South Korea in 2013, the first edition of that event. Now in 2017 these two sporting Meccas will join together to become one event.
We have been taking tours to Turkmenistan for 3 years now (not to mention our guides have been going their on a personal level even longer than that) and for those 3 years the entire city and even country has been preparing for this event. Signs and billboards on every corner advertising the event, the logos appearing on newspaper mastheads, on clothing sold at shops. I remember the hype surrounding the 2000 Sydney Olympics, growing up in Australia. It changed everything for us, from public and school holidays to road closures, to changes in school curriculum, but that still doesn’t compare to the tour de force we have seen in Ashgabat.
The events that will take place are a sports lover’s dream. Even the most harden football hooligan is surely looking forward to such events as Chess, 3-on-3 Basketball, 10 Pin Bowling, Dancing, Pool/Billards and Futsal. They are even going to have an event called ‘Electronic Sports’. I kid you not, we’ve been told this will be people competing against each other in computer games such as Counterstrike. There will be some more regular sports as well: Indoor track cycling, wrestling, short course swimming (25m pool instead of 50m), weightlifting and of course as the name suggests, lots of martial arts, some of which I guarantee you’ll never have heard of.
You’re probably reading this thinking, “but why would I want to see the types of games which are used to fill in time on rainy days?” Because there’s a twist. Ashgabat has spent billions and billions of dollars on stadiums and arenas and the opening and closing ceremony are most likely going to put the Beijing Olympics to shame. The Olympic village they’ve built with restaurants, shops and even a monorail to entertain guests cost USD$5 billion alone. The opening ceremony has some supername starts performing such as South Korean girl group 2NE1, Australian opera singer Monica Oriel, Japanese jazz band JABBERLOOP, Britsh electropop band Years & Years, Filipina soprano Gerphil Flores and Turkmen pop stars such as Maral Ibragimova, Hamra Hasanov. No, we’ve never heard of them either, but we’re excited!
This is why we can’t wait to go to these Indoor Games, because they are going to be huge, they are going to be strange but most of all they are going to be very entertaining. The local supporters will be filling every seat that isn’t occupied by a paying foreign guest, and they will be encouraged to cheer as if it’s a Superbowl, not a chess tournament.
The final weird twist is seeing Ashgabat with lots of foreigners. The organises predict at least 30,000 guests for the two weeks. Let’s assume that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but even a third of this amount is crazy. Turkmenistan currently gets around 6,000-7,000 foreigners per year, much less than most other countries in the world including North Korea, and that’s spread over an entire year. Even if they get 10,000 tourists for the 2 weeks it’s going to be an amazing experience to see the local bars and restaurants actually with foreigners in them, and it’ll be wonderful to see the reactions of the locals. There are also particular areas of the city, such as the front of the President’s Palace where it’s forbidden to take photos or even walk. But it’s easy to enforce these rules when its one group of 20 foreigners, with thousands walking the streets aimlessly, it’s going to be a lot harder to control everyone, and we’re pretty excited to be part of it.