Travel then and now: Travel to the USSR and GDR

This 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]

Passenger prevents lengthy delay – fixes faulty plane

A passenger on a Thomas Cook flight became the hero of the day when he was able to fix a fault on the plane that was scheduled to bring him and his fellow passengers back home from Menorca.

The plane had developed a fault and was destined to be stuck at the airport for 8 hours awaiting the arrival of a UK based mechanic.

Instead of waiting for this, the passenger identified himself as a licensed mechanic with an affiliate of the airline, and was cleared to perform the maintenance work.

After a brief repair, the plane was on its way back home with just a 35 minute delay, instead of the 10 or 11 hours it would have taken if the plane was made to wait on the UK mechanic.

From now on, I’d like the airlines to load a mechanic on any of my flights, along with a doctor and a decent chef. The airline announced that they were “very grateful he was on the flight that day”. I’m sure the passengers share that sentiment.



Scared passengers boycott airline after being asked to help “balance the plane”

Seventy terrified passengers refused to board their Thomas Cook plane in Mallorca, Spain this week because the airline had asked them to all sit in the back of the plane.

During its time on the ground, baggage workers were unable to open the rear cargo door of the plane, and had to load all the luggage in the front – requiring passengers to act as ballast in the rear to keep the plane balanced.

The seventy passengers were afraid that the stuck cargo door would pop open during the flight, and many of them paid 100’s of pounds to fly home with other airlines. One passenger paid $1000 to fly his family home.

Adding to the “horror” of the incident were passengers who had arrived on the same plane, who told departing passengers that they had just experienced “the worst flight of their lives”.

The airline said it was a normal operating procedure and that it was disappointed to hear that passengers decided not to travel, despite reassurances from the crew and captain.

Planeload of drunk Irish passengers creates havoc on Cuba bound flight

In what can only be described as Déjà vu, 40 Irish passengers bound for Cuba created a riot on their Thomas Cook flight.

The group filled up on booze, harassing and punching fellow passengers, and one of them even went so far as to attempt opening the emergency exit mid-flight.

One terrified passenger ended up sitting with the flight attendants in the galley for 5 hours just to get away from the ruckus.

According to the (sketchy) report, the hooligans continued their drunken rioting at their resort, and even on the return flight. 17 of them were actually barred from boarding the flight back home to London Gatwick, but the article does not mention what their fate was, so for all we know, they are still stuck in Cuba.
After reading the story, and the reports from passengers on the flight, I’d say the group was lucky they were not on a US flight carrying federal air marshals. If a drunk fool started smoking and punching fellow passengers on a commercial flight in this country, I’d hate to think what would happen to them, but I’m fairly sure it would not be the weak “investigating events with a view to a possible complaint to police” reported in the source article.

(Via: Daily Mail)

More troublemakers in the sky