Observe the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl searching for radioactive beasts with VBS

25 years ago today, a catastrophic nuclear disaster took place at the Chernobyl power plant in the city of Pripyat. Haunted by the specter of radiation, the one time city transformed into a spread of creepy abandoned buildings and one of the most poisonous places on the planet – the Red Forest. With humans gone, the town has been taken back by wildlife. Today, wolves wander abandoned schools with kitschy Soviet propaganda peeling from the wall and bears lumber through the overgrown amusement park that opened the day after the disaster, April 27, 1986.

In this video by the crew at Vice, Shane Smith goes on a tour of Pripyat to hunt for mutant beasts and explore derelict buildings. The abandoned radioactive town is an eerie ghost-scape, but many travelers have been making the 100km journey from Kiev to visit this strange example of an abandoned modern town. The video is an interesting and somewhat humorous look inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

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]

Knocked up abroad: getting pregnant in a foreign country

pregnant in a foreign country My first clue that something was different came when I woke up one night on vacation in Kiev at 3am, proceeded to eat 3 slices of toast with caviar spread, went back to bed and woke up a few hours later wondering if they made blueberry muffins in Ukraine (tragicially, they do not). That “time of the month” hadn’t happened but flying tends to always mess with your body, so I didn’t give it much of a thought. Since moving to Istanbul from New York in May 2010 for a work project, my husband and I take frequent trips around Eastern Europe (see my Weekending posts) and that week we spent exploring Kiev and Warsaw while Turkey celebrated Kurban Bayramı (the Muslim festival of sacrifice).

When we arrived back home in Istanbul a few days later, I dug out the Turkish pregnancy test I had purchased a few months earlier after a previous false alarm. Though the instructions were in Turkish, peeing on a stick is fairly universal, and the “POZITIF” results were hard to misinterpret. Excited and nervous to be pregnant in a foreign country, my husband and I wondered what a mountain of paperwork we’d have to provide U.S. Customs in 9 months, what the medical system in Istanbul would be like, and if we could get away with having a baby in Turkey not named in some way for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey and namesake for millions of Turks. Being pregnant in a foreign country is the ultimate way of “going native,” the most “authentic” travel experience you can have. It’s also challenging, sometimes scary, and limits where you can travel, but can be a great way to discover a culture, their hospitality, and traditions.Once I confirmed that I was in fact hamile with bebek, I noticed how child-friendly Turkey is, though not without challenges for the expecting expat. I could only find one English-language pregnancy book (co-written by Oprah’s fave, Dr. Oz, who is of Turkish descent), I’ve heard C-sections are pushed on many women as the only option for childbirth, and I’ve found maternity clothes are mostly limited to childish t-shirts and denim overalls. Turkey’s also a dream for the pregnant traveler: fresh fruit juice is cheap and easy to find at most cafes, vaccinations aren’t needed to visit, and Turks treat pregnant women with the utmost respect and care.

Having a baby, especially a first, in a foreign country isn’t for everyone. My family and support system is far away and I don’t know where to go for things I can find easily in my hometown. My doctor speaks excellent English but many of the nurses and hospital staff do not, and my Turkish is hardly fluent enough to cover every situation. Though the cost of domestic help is low, I’m not sure I want a lady with whom I can’t fully communicate telling me how to raise a baby.

Pregnancy also changes how you look at travel, both where you go and how you do it. I’ve been fortunate not to have morning sickness, but I’m just as at risk for disease as other pregnant women and have to weigh the risks of visiting countries with suggested vaccinations or food- and water-borne illnesses. Growing a baby is tiring work, and it’s hard to reconcile my usual travel self (lots of walking, few breaks) with my pregnant self (tired and hungry almost all the time). The best part about pregnancy travel is learning how each culture values pregnant women and mothers, hearing childbirth experiences from locals and foreigners, and seeing how kind strangers really can be. And all the food cravings help you discover the local cuisine, too.

Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, the lowdown on prenatal medical care in Istanbul, where to travel in each trimester, what to eat when pregnant abroad, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.

Aquarium crocodile swallows cell phone

crocodileA visitor to an aquarium in the Ukraine was trying to take a picture of a crocodile with her cell phone when she dropped it right into the creature’s mouth, the BBC reports.

Last month at an aquarium in Dnipropetrovsk, Rimma Golovko reached her hand towards Gena the crocodile in order to get a good shot as it opened its mouth. She fumbled and the phone fell right into the Gena’s gullet. The reptile then gulped it down. She told the aquarium staff but at first they didn’t believe her. It was only after Gena’s tummy starting ringing that they realized the crocodile had, indeed swallowed the cell phone.

Funny? Well, yeah, but not for the croc. Gena has since lost its appetite and energy. Considering all the harmful chemicals involved in making a cell phone (they’re considered hazardous waste, after all) it’s not surprising the critter is feeling a little under the weather.

The aquarium’s vet has tried giving Gena laxatives-laced meat, but the it didn’t take the bait. Now he’s considering an operation.

And Ms. Golovko? She says she wants her Sim card back. Well, too damn bad, Ms. Golovko. I’m sympathizing with the giant predator on this one.

[Photo courtesy user MathKnight via Wikimedia Commons]