We were driving along under the relentless Hungarian sun, past clumps of holidaying Germans and well-oiled Gypsies lurching along on rusty bikes, dirty yellow hi-vis donned askew across their shoulders. It was yet another picture-perfect day in the rolling hills around lake Balaton, one of those days that reminded me of childhood, when summer seemed infinite and the calendar made only of sunny days and games of football.
Then, all of a sudden, I captured a glimpse to my left, a brief shimmer of light where the sun was reflected by an arched piece of glass. It was a moment, then it disappeared again behind a hedge. I slowed down, craning my neck to eyeball it again.
And there it was, shining in the afternoon light, the delightfully retro canopy of a MiG-21 fighter jet.
We stopped in bewilderment, while German families, blissfully unaware, kept on peddling along. I knew the MiG-21 from my computer gaming years, where its role – in the Combat Flight Simulator-like games I used to play -was to be shot to pieces by the missiles of whatever I happened to be piloting. It looked gentle, a single-engined airplane with an unusual nose cone giving it an expression of perpetual surprise and graceful, old-fashioned wings. A big back fin stretched below the engine exhaust, making the fuselage look like the body of a metallic catfish.
The MiG-21, though, wasn’t alone. Around it, basking under the sun, was a selection of what must’ve been the USSR’s finest military output when Nikita Krushev was hammering the desk with his shoe. Tanks. Artillery howitzers. A surface-to-air missile, menacingly pointed skywards as if ready to intercept Gary Powers’ nephew miles up above.
Another couple of Russian classics completed the ensemble, this time helicopters. The Mil Mi-24 and Mi-8 are, without a shadow of a doubt, the best supporting actors of Rambo’s third movie, until they get blown into massive fireballs that is. Anyway, as the useful placards – in Hungarian – pointed out, the Mi-8 is a fat, slightly odd-looking utility helicopter used to transport troops and goods almost everywhere from Peru to Vietnam, while the Mi-24 is the much leaner, and meaner, attack helicopter that used to hunt Rambo riding horseback through the lunar Afghan landscape. (No, the placard didn’t say that).
This exposition of military surplus, we learned, formed part of the Zankaland activity park and apparently, existed to provide Western European tourists a close look at what lied, waiting, on the other side of the Fulda pass for many years. It was only after I calmed my inner nerdy 5-years-old self that the extreme absurdity of this place dawned on me: there I was, at the entrance of an activity park where you can learn how to zip-line from trees, drive go-karts or swim, looking at stuff that was designed with the precise purpose of dismembering people in teeny tiny pieces.