​This Creepy, Abandoned Soviet-Era Amusement Park Is a Haunting Step Back in Time

Fodors Travel
Oct 25 2021

This Creepy, Abandoned Soviet-Era Amusement Park Is a Haunting Step Back in Time

Steve Madgwick |

During the pandemic's "Great Travel Hiatus," travelers have found solace and hope in strange and unlikely places.

Shackled to our neighborhoods by a foe we couldn’t see, the darkness seemed darker because, among all the other things that this virus stole from us, it pilfered the purely random moments that adventure travelers live for.

In the bowels of the “Great Travel Hiatus,” you might have dreamed about late-July afternoons in Cinque Terra or slurping margaritas and Mexican mules down in Cabo, but my visions had had no such glow nor form. I’ve always pined for things I haven’t yet seen, in person, print or pixel. For 18 months, I’ve yearned to flight-mode my iPhone and follow my nose again, trusting it to lead me enchantingly astray.

I’ve subsisted on one vivid flashback, of the last time I went full free-range, just before we were slammed into our proverbial cages. The time I stumbled on a tacitly forbidden space, recommended by no one and remembered by few, on the shadowed fringes of a Middle-Earthian town in northern Armenia.

I’ve long wondered why this dark, creepy place became my pandemic light. Finally, I’m ready to answer the question: Why did I part through long grass to wander among the sinister shadows of an abandoned Soviet amusement park? 
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The forest-green gates seemed like the precise frontier between contemporary Armenia and the three-decades-dead Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Where now morphs into then. The roughly welded gates stand weakly where the townscape of Dilijan and the Dilijan National Park join, about 90 minutes drive north of Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. I had bumped into the gates on an afternoon stroll away from Dilijan’s endearing town center, destination unknown. Somewhere across the gurgling Aghstev River, down red-gravel paths marked by topiary hedges that pardon their way through sprawling, anonymous modern parklands. Curious vintage contraptions in fun-fair hues beckoned. Oxidized padlocks whispered “no entry” but the abandoned space spoke with more conviction. Naturally, I found a way into this erstwhile somewhere else. 

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The chemically bright pastels of these fiberglass love-swings looked recently shined–perhaps polished by the derrieres of Dilijan’s teens as they polished off ma and pa’s ill-gotten brandy. Up close, the deterioration and the splinters soon sharpened into focus. Coat after coat of industrial-grade paint flaked from 20th-century iron like so many shedding serpents. The same paint camouflages other stubborn engineering relics from Soviet times, best embodied by the ubiquitous, boxy, and bulletproof Lada cars that still dominate Armenia’s pock-marked B-roads. They built Soviet cars before they built Soviet roads, so the legend goes …     
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Broad and tall metal billboards muralled in faded fairy tales mark every attraction at Dilijan’s Children’s Amusement Park (a beige name for such a bewitching place). Initially, I interpreted this mural as a rather unsettling Marxist-Leninist critique of Pinocchio–his skywards eyes and forlorn face perhaps marking the moment he rejected the self for the collective good. Well, it turns out to be a little more nuanced and nastier than that. The Adventures of Buratino is actually a Russian version of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 classic. Unlike Pinocchio, however, the puppet in Aleksey Tolstoy’s 1936 reboot never transforms into a real boy. Quite a hard lesson to learn at a theme park.   
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While the comrades of the USSR were relentlessly characterized and caricatured as unfeeling, unsmiling robots, I’ve found plenty of proof that they appreciated visual splendor when they saw it. On the cusp of Dilijan National Park’s thick beech, oak, hornbeam, and pine forest, this could be the most exquisite amusement park setting on earth. At the juncture of five timbered mountain ranges, the greater Tavush province is well known as “the lungs of Armenia”. Dilijan itself has variously been a spa-town for privileged Sovyétsky, a retreat for painters, writers, and composers (perhaps seeking fresh air from the controlling powers that be), and a summer sanctuary for Armenian kings.

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A couple of dark thoughts wandered in behind me as I gingerly maneuvered into a ride’s sketchy control room. First, I noted how worn and scratched the bottom row of “panic” buttons were (including “siren” and “stop”). Did that missing button play a part in the park’s demise? Come nightfall, do the wraiths of fun-fair carnage haunt this place, I wondered? After reading some local history, I also speculated that the amusement park may have been an elaborate front for more nefarious happenings. Dilijan housed a large, mostly female cohort of engineers who worked at a now-defunct factory producing communication equipment for top-secret Soviet agencies. Naturally, I pressed all the buttons, to no obvious avail.
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Nothing fertilizes unquiet imaginations like the noiseless vacuum of abandoned spaces. Given the massive counterweights towards the top of this particular gismo, my best guess is that, at least officially, it was a pendulating pirate-ship-style ride, of the type you see the world over. Unofficially, however, I imagined its seven ship-shaped iron chambers once furiously spun around 360 degrees, so fast as to be a perfect G-force tester for aspiring cosmonauts … Either way, the mangled rusting wreckage in the long grass in the foreground is a troubling development.

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For an open-air facility with no security presence (that I came across), the four-decades(ish) old theme park is actually relatively unharmed by human hands. In my hometown, it would have been graffitied, pillaged, and burned to the ground two decades ago. But time has claimed some victims, such as the Giant Yellow Dragon, who lies immobile in a weedy, nettled grave, just below her amusement. I deduced that GYD died more or less of natural causes, judging by the lack of wounds, fractures, and punctures. Although judging by the deathly stare frozen onto her face, perhaps she was a genuine challenge to the actual food chain here, mercilessly dragged down from her perch by one of the lynxes, mountain lions, or brown bears that frequent the bordering national park.

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Exploring abandoned spaces comes with risks, but the challenges of tip-toeing on decaying wooden gangways and perpetually sidestepping tetanus-rich nails is actually a refreshing, life-affirming obstacle course; thoroughly recommended to sharpen the mind and reflexes. While I cannot in all good conscience recommend that you trespass in such spaces, if you choose to do so, ensure you pack your common sense, wear thick-soled shoes, and walk ‘where the nails are’, on boards supported by beams. Oh, and you might want to don a pair of long pants–a single layer of defense against Armenia’s four deadly vipers, which may or may not be lurking in the feral shrubbery. 

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Humankind arrogantly assumes its control over nature is absolute, but eventually, inevitably, the abandoned is always usurped. When I visited Dilijan, the forest around the park’s perimeter was budding ferociously with Caucasus wildflowers yet strangely, few seemed to hop the fence, unsure of whether this eerie garden was fertile or foe. Then, early in the afternoon, when the sun rose above the valley walls, shafts of sunlight illuminated advancing swathes of these sweet little floral vanguards that I had missed. Encircling the rusting steel, they were re-staking nature’s claim, one apparatus at a time.

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Soviet thrill-ride engineers subscribed to the “what doesn’t kill you makes you happier” school of theme-park design. Clearly, these amusements were forged in an era before minimum heights and safety bars as evidenced by the alarmingly sharp edges of the segmented citrus-fruit centerpiece on this rotor ride. And only chicken-wire and centrifugal force would have stopped Armenian children from being flung into the wild fruit trees beyond. The under-jungle-gym rubber-matting in the nearby modern playground provides a historical juxtaposition between then and now.

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As daylight ducked under the ridgetops, the murals’ moods darkened. I wrongly assumed this to be a creepy Sovietisation of Humpty Dumpty – perhaps being shamed as a fat-cat capitalist. But this is actually Italian writer Gianni Rodari’s anhomomorphic onion Cipollino (so cherished in Russia that he even scored his own opera). Some say the Adventures of the Little Onion is simply a tale of good versus evil. But in this ominous space, the allegory–at least in my mind–strays into dystopian political propaganda; Comrade Onion, representing the oppressed underclass, feels the full fruity fury of tyrannical Prince Lemon and his cohort. Even stray dogs are against him. Enough to make a grown vegetable weep.

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At some angles, the 1980s Soviet engineering exudes a timeless solidity that, left undisturbed, could last for generations. As solid as it might be, however, in the minds of locals this theme park is long dead–a pariah from an era of Armenian history that people are actively trying to forget. Even those old enough to recall, struggle to remember the exact year when the park was built (“sometime in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s” was a common refrain). However, Dilijanians are happy to direct visitors to the area’s plethora of ancient monasteries and fortresses that fan far into the forest. They still “hear God whistle through the trees”, as a local saying goes, but metaphorically stick their fingers in their ears when Stalin opens his big steel trap again.   

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Watching too many terrible 1980s Cold War thrillers has tainted my estimation of the Russian language. Viewed through that filter, the Cyrillic script is the ominous natural enemy of English, only existing to warn of incoming menace, on the flanks of ballistic missiles and advancing MIG fighters. This rust-and moss-eaten sign intrigued me, especially as the cloud shadows scudded over it. What could it possibly say? Was it a warning? No, it was actually a pleasant surprise, quite literally–translating simply as “surprise.”

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Across the gloam, 100 feet away, this tiny red button pleaded for my attention, supernaturally contrasting with the intense Caucasus greens more than this photo shows. Older Armenians and Americans might associate the color red with the oppression of the communist era. Buttons had a negative symbolism back when this place was amusing the oppressed. Leaders of both the USSR and USA were said to have their fingers hovering over nuclear-missile buttons. However, this intense red swatch is a universal force for good; simply, a Ferris wheel’s emergency stop button, which perhaps prevented an untold number of young Armenians from plunging to their deaths.   

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To me, this imperfect snap sums up the delight of forbidden adventures in abandoned spaces. The scene drips with unanswered questions. What or who hides behind the trees or in the mysterious buildings? Most importantly, there’s no one around, at least that I can see, making this my adventure alone to re-tell. But this story was never really just about this one amusement park. You’ll bump into relics like this all over former Soviet countries, always in the shadows on forgotten peripheries. This is an ode to the unforeseen joys of these places or whichever spaces pique your dark curiosities. As borders gradually yawn open, it’s time to wander in again. Just make sure to mind your step.

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