Luxury Vacation Guide 2012: Baku, Azerbaijan

Alternately called the Paris of the East and the Next Dubai, Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is poised to become the Middle East’s next big luxury travel destination.

Once the busiest harbor on the ancient Silk Road, Baku is the largest city on the Caspian Sea and in the Caucasus region. A recent flood of oil money has led to massive development in anticipation of a 2020 Olympics bid, and early 2012 will mark the opening of the Flame Towers, an iconic complex which will significantly alter the Baku skyline. With a design inspired by the natural gas-fueled fires that once sprung spontaneously from the Azerbaijan landscape, the towers will house offices, high-end apartments, and a new luxury property from Fairmont.

As a country, Azerbaijan is no stranger to progress, having been the first Muslim country to build operas, theatres, and a democratic republic. Baku’s walled inner city, which contains Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, and the city’s cultural agenda includes world-class ballet performances and philharmonic concerts. To boot, Lonely Planet recently ranked Baku one of the world’s top destinations for urban nightlife, alongside Buenos Aires, Dubai, and Cape Town.

[flickr image via teuchterlad]

Introducing Far Europe and Beyond

far europe and beyond

Far Europe and Beyond, a Gadling series in partnership with bmi (British Midland International) launches today.

Europe’s eastern borders cannot be defined simply. The western, northern, and southern perimeters are easy: The Atlantic, the Arctic, and the Mediterranean provide those boundaries, respectively. It’s the eastern border that is more difficult to pinpoint. There are two basic definitions of the eastern border of Europe: the Bosphorus, which divides Istanbul; and the Ural Mountains. The problem here is that there is a gap of around 1200 miles between the point where the Ural River hits the Caspian Sea and Istanbul.

The former definition leaves most of Turkey outside of Europe and makes it difficult to draw a continental border from the Bosphorus northward. If one assumes the latter definition, then a piece of western Kazakhstan is in Europe, but the continent’s Eastern flank fails to have a fixed boundary once the Ural river empties into the Caspian Sea. Does Europe’s border then get drawn along Russia’s southern edge or does it include the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, along the Iranian border? Increasingly, this is the working definition of Europe, with inclusion of the Caucasian trio; it is the definition, more or less, that the BBC and the Economist endorse.However we define Europe’s eastern borders, there are a number of national capitals that are clearly in the farthest reaches of Europe or just beyond them, all of which are included on bmi’s route map: Tbilisi, Georgia; Yerevan, Armenia; Baku, Azerbaijan; Beirut, Lebanon; Almaty, Kazakhstan (not the capital, admittedly, but the country’s most important city); and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. These capital cities are naturally very interesting to veteran travelers for whom Europe is old hat, but they’re also fascinating places for less seasoned travelers. For the most part, they’re off the beaten path, teeming with local culture and opportunities for many different types of tourism.

This week and next, I’ll write a series of posts on the first two cities on the above list: Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia; and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I’ll look at some of these cities’ most captivating characteristics, some culinary highlights, interesting quirks, and the best easy day trips beyond city limits.

[Image: Flickr | sara~]

10 countries Americans need advance visas to visit

advance visaWe live in an increasingly borderless world and we have access to many countries that were closed (or non-existent) 20 years ago. As reported earlier this week, Americans are especially lucky with access to 169 countries visa free. Still, there are still many countries that Americans need advance visas to visit. Visa applications and processing services can cost several hundreds of dollars and take a lot of time and energy to obtain, so figure in that into your travel planning but don’t let it discourage you from visiting.

Nearly all countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Western Europe, and the Middle East will give you a visa free or for a fee on arrival. See below for our guide to countries you will need to apply for advance visas, along with fees, useful information and links to consular websites.
Asia

  • China: US citizens pay $130 for tourist visas, single- or multiple-entry up to 24 months from date of application. Keep in mind a trip to Hong Kong or Macau counts as an exit from China, so plan on a multiple-entry visa if you’ll be in and out. You’ll need to send your actual passport in for processing and ideally plan 1-2 months in advance of travel.
  • India: Fees from visa contractor Travisa start at $50 and visas can be valid for up to 10 years, but note that you must have a gap of at least 2 months between entries.
  • Vietnam: Single-entry visas start at $70 and multiple-entry visas are valid for up to one year. Another option for Americans is a single-entry visa on arrival, apply online and pay another stamping fee at the airport.
  • North Korea: Not an easy one for Americans as there are no consular relations between the two countries, but it is possible if you go through a specialist travel agency such as New Korea Tours and realize you’ll be visiting only on a highly-restricted and guided group tour. Note that you’ll have to go through China, requiring another visa of course!
  • See also: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan

Eurasia

  • Russia: Russian visa rules are quite strict and complicated, so you’ll need to have a solid itinerary set up before you apply as visas are valid for specific dates and not extendable. You’ll need a sponsorship for your visa, typically provided by your hotel or tour operator for a small fee, and you’ll register your visas once in the country. Fees start at $140 and applications should now be filled out online. Tourist visas are generally only valid for two weeks and even if you are just traveling through Russia, you’ll need a transit visa.
  • Belarus: Similar to Russian rules, a letter of invitation must be provided from an official travel agency in order to get a visa. You also have to show proof of medical insurance and financial means (about $15 USD/day, can be demonstrated with credit cards or paid travel arrangements). Tourist visas start at $140 and $100 for transit visas. Gadling writer Alex Robertson Textor is currently planning a trip, stay tuned for his report next month.
  • Azerbaijan: The country changed its visa policy last year, and now Americans must obtain an advance visa. You’ll need an invitation from an Azerbaijan travel agency, then a tourist visa costs $20 and takes 10 business days to process. Transit visas don’t require an invitation letter but should still be obtained in advance of travel.
  • See also: Turkmenistan

Other

  • Australia: Getting a tourist visa is simple and cheap ($20). Apply online at any point in advance and you’ll be verified at the airport. Valid for as many entries as needed for 12 months from date of application.
  • Brazil: Tourist visas are $140 plus $20 if you apply by mail or through an agency. If you are self-employed or jobless, you’ll need to provide a bank account balance, and all applications should include a copy of your round trip tickets or other travel itinerary.
  • Iran: There’s a current travel warning from the US state department, but Rick Steves is a fan of the country and several reputable travel agencies provide tours for Americans. The US consulate notes that some Americans with visas have been turned away, so your best bet is to visit with a group.
  • See also: Nigeria, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, Suriname

The good news for expats, students studying abroad, and other foreigners with residency is that many countries will allow you to apply in a country other than your home country for a visa. For example, I traveled to Russia from Turkey, getting my visa from a travel agency in Istanbul without sending my passport back to the US. Always check the US state department website for the latest visa information and entry requirements.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Thomas Claveirole.

Five ways to get more European stamps in your passport

european passport stamps
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that European passport stamps have become harder and harder to get. The expansion of the Schengen zone has reduced the number of times tourists are compelled to show their passports to immigration officials. For most Americans on multi-country European itineraries, a passport will be stamped just twice: upon arrival and upon departure.

Where’s the fun in that?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your passport’s stamps. They’re souvenirs. So ignore the haters and treasure them. You won’t be the first to sit at your desk alone, lovingly fingering your stamps while daydreaming of your next adventure. You won’t be the last, either.

And if you are a passport stamp lover with a penchant for European travel, don’t despair. There are plenty of places in Europe where visitors have to submit their travel documents to officials to receive stamps. Some countries, in fact, even require Americans to purchase full-page visas in advance.

The Western Balkans remain almost entirely outside of Schengen. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all require visas for Americans, while Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia do not. Immigration officers at the borders of all of these countries, however, will stamp your passport when you enter and when you leave. Turkey provides visas on arrival. These cost €15. Among EU countries, the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus remain outside of Schengen for the time being, while Romania and Bulgaria will soon join it.
european passport stamps
Pristina, Kosovo.

Ok then. How to maximize the number of stamps in your passport during a European jaunt? Here are five ideas.

1. Fly into the UK or Ireland and then travel from either of these countries to a Schengen zone country. You’ll obtain an arrival stamp in the UK or Ireland and then be processed when entering and leaving the Schengen zone.

2. Plan an itinerary through the former Yugoslavia plus Albania by car, bus, or train. Slovenia is part of the Schengen zone but the rest of the former country is not. Traveling across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania will yield all sorts of passport stamp action.

3. Visit the following eastern European countries: Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and/or Azerbaijan. Unavoidable passport stamp madness will transpire.

4. Visit San Marino and pay the tourist office for a passport stamp. The miniscule republic charges €5 to stamp passports. The bus fare from Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast is worth it for the bragging rights alone.

5. Visit the EU’s three Schengen stragglers, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the case of the latter two, visit soon.

Travel then and now: Travel to the USSR and GDR

travel to the USSRThis year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and 21 years since the reunification of Germany. While citizens of the USSR and GDR were unable to travel abroad and restricted in domestic travel, foreign travelers were permitted under a controlled environment. In the early nineties, if you were a foreigner looking to go abroad to the Eastern Europe or Central Asia, you called your travel agent and hoped to get approved for a visa and an escorted tour. After your trip, you’d brag about the passport stamps and complain about the food. Here’s a look back at travel as it was for foreigners twenty years ago and today visiting the biggies of the former Eastern Bloc: the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Soviet Union/USSR (now: independent states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldovia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.)

Travel then: Before 1992, most tourists were only able to enter the Soviet Union with visas and travel itineraries provided by the state travel agency, Intourist. Intourist was founded by Joseph Stalin and also managed many of the USSR’s accommodations. Like North Korea today, visitors’ experiences were tightly controlled, peppered with propaganda, and anything but independent, with some travelers’ conversations and actions recorded and reported. Read this fascinating trip report from a Fodor’s community member who visited Russia in 1984 and a Chicago Tribune story with an Intourist guide after the glasnost policy was introduced.Travel now: UK travel agency Thomas Cook bought a majority stake in Intourist last year, gaining control of their tourist agencies, and many of the old Intourist hotels can still be booked, though standards may not be a huge improvement over the Soviet era. In general, the former Soviet Union now welcomes foreign and independant visitors with open arms. Even Stalinist Turkmenistan is softer on foreigners since the death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. Russia now receives as many visitors as the United Kingdom, the Baltic and Eastern European states are growing in popularity for nightlife and culture, and Central Asian states have a lot to offer adventurous travelers (including Azerbaijan’s contender for New 7 Wonders, the Mud Volcanoes). This year, Estonia’s Tallinn is one of the European Capitals of Culture. While a few FSU countries are now EU members, several still require advance visas, letters of invitation, or even guides; check the latest rules for Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan before you make plans.

German Democratic Republic/East Germany/DDR (now: unified state of Germany)

Travel then: After 40 years apart, East and West Germany were reunited in 1990. Like the USSR, travelers to the GDR had to deal with visas and an official state travel agency, the Reisebüro. Western tourists in West Germany could apply for day visas to “tour” the Eastern side but were very limited in gifts they could bring or aid they could provide (tipping was considered bourgeois and thus officially discouraged). Read this Spiegel article about the East German adventure travelers who snuck into the USSR to see how travel to inaccessable is often the most exciting, no matter where you are coming from.

Travel now: November 2009 marked the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Berlin is now consistently lauded as one of the world’s hippest and most vibrant cities. The city is full of museums, monuments, and memorials to document the time East Germany was walled off from the rest of the world, from the sobering Berlin Wall Memorial to the tongue-in-cheek DDR Hotel. Outside of Berlin, Leipzig’s Stasi Museum documents the gadgets and horrors of the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. For more on life in the GDR, Michael Mirolla’s novel Berlin deals with cross-border Germany travel and the fall of the republic, and film Goodbye Lenin! is a bittersweet look at life just before and after the fall of the wall.

Gadling readers: have you traveled to the USSR or GDR? Have you been recently? Leave us your comments and experiences below.

[Photo credit: USSR flags and GDR ferry postcards from Flickr user sludgeulper, Berlin Wall by Meg Nesterov]