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]

Archaeologists discover world’s oldest wine press in Armenia

wine, armenia, ArmeniaArchaeologists in Armenia have discovered what they believe to be the world’s oldest wine press. The press is inside a cave, where they found the remains of grape seeds, pressed grapes, and vines of Vitis vinifera vinifera , the same type of grape still used in winemaking today. The site is dated at 4,000 BC, about 900 years older than the previous record holder–wine from the tomb of King Scorpion I, a ruler of Upper Egypt before that country became unified.

This isn’t the first time Armenia has broken an archaeological record. Last summer archaeologists found the world’s oldest leather shoe in the same region. These discoveries are hardly surprising. Armenia is an ancient land with a rich history. It had a complex prehistoric culture that culminated in the Kingdom of Urartu in the 9th century BC. Urartu was one of the greatest ancient civilizations of the Near East.

Armenia suffered from its position between several empires, and while it was often independent it also changed hands between the Romans, Persians, Byzantines, and other powers all the way down to the Soviet Union. Now it’s an independent nation again. It also has the distinction of being the world’s oldest Christian nation, having converted in the early 4th century AD.

During all this time they never stopped making wine. They were one of the main wine producers in the Soviet Union and have since started exporting their wine worldwide. Armenian wine even spread to Africa. During the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during World War One, some Armenians fled to Ethiopia, where they cultivated vineyards. Many Armenian reds are very sweet and rich, and Ethiopian wine has a similar quality.

All of these past cultures and the Armenians’ own rich heritage has created an interesting destination for adventure travelers. Sadly I’ve never been there, but it’s been on my shortlist for years. Poring over maps and books, it’s easy to see that I’d need to spend a lot of time. The mountains offer remote trekking, there are medieval buildings to explore such as the Saghmosavank monastery pictured below, and there are even wine-tasting tours. People who have been there tell me it’s still pretty cheap, making it an attractive budget travel destination.

Maybe 2011 will be the year for me to finally get there?

[Wine photo courtesy Arthur Chapman. Saghmosavank photo courtesy Olivier Jaulent]

Armenia, armenia

World’s longest aerial tramway opens in Armenia

On October 16, Armenia became home to the longest aerial tramway in the world. The three-and-a-half mile track consists of just two stations – without any other supporting tower structures.

The new tramway takes passengers from the village of Halidzor to the Tatev Monastery. In the past, visitors had to make a 40 minute drive up the side of the mountain, but now they’ll be able to make the same trip in just 11 minutes.

The aerial tramway was built by Swiss-Austrian firm Garaventa-Doppelmayr, who are the engineers behind other famous tramways like the Jackson Hole Big Red and the new Peak2Peak ropeway in Whistler.

Construction of the new Wings of Tatev ropeway cost $18 million, and was fully funded by benefactors.

To learn more about the Tatev Monastery and its importance to the nation, head on over to Armenia Now.

[Photo credit: AP/Hayk Badalyan]