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]

Ten most corrupt countries of the world

You spend every holiday weekend annoyed that you can’t talk your way out of a speeding ticket. If only there were some way out of that predicament … aside from taking your lead foot off the gas, right? You may be out of luck on the New Jersey Turnpike, but there are plenty of places in the world where money talks, according to a new study by Transparency International. So, if you tend to disregard local laws and customs, you may want to pick one of the 10 countries below for your next vacation.

WARNING: You may need to bring a bit of fire power for some of these destinations.

1. Somalia:
Is this even a country? It has no real government to speak of, not to mention a history of piracy, mob violence, warlord brutality and kidnapping. So, chew a little khat to take the edge off.

The Good News: You can’t really break any laws where there aren’t any.

2. Myanmar: Okay, the human rights issue here is pretty severe, and the military regime is known for being among the most repressive and abusive in the world. So, don’t complain about the thread-count in your hotel.

The Good News: There’s plenty of wildlife to enjoy as a result of slow economic growth. A bleak financial outlook is good for the environment!

%Gallery-106020%3. Afghanistan: Ummmm, there’s a war going on there – you may remember that. So, you’re dealing more with warlords than conventional law enforcement officials. This takes some of the predictability out of your mischief, and it does amp the risk up a bit.

The Good News: There are several options for civilian flights. Also, fishing is fine, but you can’t use hand grenades.

4. Iraq: Again with the war … The easiest way to get there is to wear a uniform, but that will make bribing your way out of trouble far more difficult.

The Good News: Prostitutes may not be in abundance, but if you have an itch in Baghdad, you’ll probably find someone to help you scratch it.

5. Uzbekistan: The CIA describes the government as “authoritarian presidential rule.” Is there really anything else you need to know? Yes, there is: Uzbekistan has a nasty human trafficking problem.

The Good News: Uzbekistan’s currency is the Ubekistani soum – that’s what you’ll use to bribe your way out of trouble.

6. Turkmenistan: Uzbekistan’s neighbor is no prize, either. Instead of trading in skin, though, Turkmenistan prefers drugs. It’s described in the CIA World Factbook as a “transit country for Afghan narcotics bound for Russia and Western European markets.”

The Good News: If you’re in the heroin business, this is a crucial stop in your supply chain. If you’re not, well, there isn’t a whole lot of reason to care about the place.

7. Sudan: The global financial crisis of 2008 actually affected this country. Until then, money was flowing in just as fast as oil could flow out. Then, economies crumbled around the world, which dealt a nasty blow to the country.

The Good News: There’s at least one form of equal rights in Sudan: both men and women can be drafted into military service.

8. Chad: Why is Chad so corrupt? Well, this may have something to do with the human trafficking problem, which the country “is not making any significant efforts” to address. Rebel groups in the country add to the likelihood for mayhem.

The Good News: Chad ranks 190 worldwide in terms of GDP, which means your bribe dollars will go much further than in more developed nations.

9. Burundi: A dispute with Rwanda over sections of the border they share has resulted in various conflicts and a spirit of lawlessness that will make your own nefarious plans pale in comparison.

The Good News: Though landlocked, there is probably some great real estate alongside Lake Tanganyika.

10. Equatorial Guinea: Any country that has failed to try to combat human trafficking is probably a top spot for corruption, so it isn’t surprising that Equatorial Guinea made the top 10.

The Good News: Government officials and their families own most of the businesses in the country, so any broad complaints can be addressed by a handful of people.

[photo by The U.S. Army via Flickr]

Mother attempts to flush newborn baby down airplane toilet

A 25-year-old medical student has been arrested in Northern India after attempting to flush her newborn baby down the toilet.

The woman was flying home from Turkmenistan when she gave birth in the bathroom. Upon landing, she left the plane, leaving the baby in the toilet.

The entire toilet had to be removed, and surgeons at a local hospital used a saw to remove the newborn from it. According to doctors, the baby is in critical condition.

The mother was arrested in the airport and has been transferred to a local hospital where she was reunited with her baby.

Once doctors declare her fit, they’ll investigate her motives, but it appears she had been studying medicine in Belarus and did not want to return home with a baby.

[Image from Flickr/dpstyles]

Cycling the Silk Road

Cycling tours have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially amongst adventure travelers who are looking to explore the world from the seat of their bikes. One of the leaders in organizing these kinds of adventure cycling trips has always been Tour d’Afrique Ltd, the creative minds behind such epic rides as their namesake Tour d’Afrique and the Vuelta Sudamericana. The company has even launched a website called DreamTours that allows us to design and plan our own cycling adventures, leaving all the logistics to their travel experts.

As if that wasn’t enough to keep us happily peddling our way around the globe, the Tour d’Afrique team is busily preparing for another long distance ride for 2010 that will cover the entire Silk Road, starting in Istanbul, Turkey and ending in Xi’an, China. The ride will cover more than 6650 miles over 16 weeks time, crossing through Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, as riders follow one of the most famous and important trade routes of all time, a route that was also explored by such historical figures as Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, and Genghis Khan.

Some of the highlights of the journey will include passing through an amazing variety of landscapes, from including snow capped mountains and desolate open plains. Travelers will get the opportunity to camp below sea level in the arid deserts of the Xinjiang Province in western China, while also ascending to dizzying heights as they climb along the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, which rises well above 15,000 feet, offering a challenge for both the heart and the legs. The ancient cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, and Merv will be stops along the way as well, offering refuge from the road and a chance to explore marketplaces that have been bustling with shoppers for centuries.








All told, this cycling tour will put riders in the saddle for a total of 92 days, covering an average of roughly 70 miles per day. There will also be 22 rest days, and one day of travel by ferry across the Caspian Sea, bringing the total number of days on the Silk Road to 114. That’s quite a commitment for any traveler, but fortunately the route is broken down into seven stages, so even if you can’t make the full ride, you can still have the opportunity to experience part of the adventure by riding one of those sections instead. The cost for the full trip is €8500, but the company is currently running an early-bird special that cuts €400 from the price when you book the trip before November 15th. Pricing for the individual stages can be found on this web page near the bottom.

The Silk Route Tour is an amazing cycling tour that combines culture, history, and adventure into one spectacular trip that is sure to be a life altering experience. The ride gets underway on May 22nd of next year, so get training now and prepare to join in on this once in a lifetime experience

Visiting Turkmenistan

Add former Soviet satellite Turkmenistan to the growing list of countries that were once off limits to visitors from the West, who are now opening their borders to tourists for the first time. According to this story from the Wall Street Journal, the Central Asian country is making a concerted effort to market itself to travelers who have “been there, done that” and are now looking for a new experience.

Governed by an iron fisted ruler named Saparmurat Niyazov for many years, the country was effectively cut off from the outside world by his Stalinist approach to ruling his people. But Niyazov passed away back in 2006, clearing the way for Turkmenistan to rejoin the international community, and opening its doors to visitors. Visas that once tooks hours, and lots of dollars, to obtain, are now easily acquiried, whisking tourists through the process in no time.

And what does Turkmenistan have to offer to prospective visitors? The country is an interesting mix of ancient history, strange natural wonders, and a Soviet style cult of personality. Statues of Niyazov are everywhere, although many are being taken down or moved to other locations, giving travelers a look back into an era of communist dictators. And for those wanting to look even further back in history, there are remnants of the old Silk Road that still remain in remote regions of the country.
Perhaps the oddest draw for tourists though is a giant crater found in the Karakum Desert that is perpetually in flames. Reportedly the Turkmens were once searching for naturl gas in the region when an accident occurred causing the ground to collapse, forming the creater, and igniting the gas. The result is a 200 foot hole in the ground that burns day and night, and has caused many to compare it to the Gates of Hell.

Of course, Turkmanistan could have picked a better time to open those doors. Economic conditions will probably keep tourists from really finding the place for a few more years, But for those that do, they’re in for a unique experience. A place that has truly been untouched by the outside.