Journey to the dark side of the moon

On this day fifty years ago, humanity got to see something it had never seen before.

On October 7, 1959, the Soviet space probe Luna 3 orbited the moon and took photos of the “dark side”.

Of course, everyone already knew that the dark side isn’t really dark. It gets just as much light as the side we see, but since it always faces away from Earth we’ve spent the last hundred thousand years wondering what’s over there. Luna 3 gave us the answer.

Some of Luna 3’s ghostly images and those from later Soviet probes can be seen here.

If you go to Moscow, you can learn the story of the Soviet space program at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, located in the base of the Monument to the Conquerors of Space, pictured here in this striking photo taken by AlphaTangoBravo and put in our Flickr photo pool. The museum has one of the most impressive buildings of any museum anywhere, being incorporated into the base of a 107 meter (350 ft.) depiction of a rocket and its contrail. A poem on the side of the monument declares, “And the reward for our efforts was that, having triumphed over oppression and darkness, we have forged wings of fire for our land and our century!”

Besides a bit of Soviet-style hypocrisy about “oppression and darkness” this poem is spot on. The Soviet Space program achieved a whole series of firsts–first satellite (1957), first animal in space (1957), first probes to Mars (1960) and Venus (1961), first man in space (1961), first woman in space (1963). . .the list goes on and on.

The museum has undergone three years of renovations and reopened on April 12 of this year, which happens to be Cosmonautics Day, celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s historic 1961 flight, the first time a human being ever left Earth. The Soviets put up a very cool statue to him in Moscow’s Gagarin Square, but sadly there’s no photo of it in the Gadling Flickr pool. The first person who puts one up there and tells me by leaving a comment will get a Soviet-era space program postcard as a thank you. You’ll also see the photo on Gadling, so upload your best!

If you want a sneak peek inside the renovated museum, this article (in Spanish) has an interesting slide show.


Three travel ideas from the ITB Berlin Travel Show

More than 11,000 exhibitors from 187 countries tried to make their mark at the 2009 ITB Berlin Travel Show. They showcased wines, highlighted unique local attractions and generally tried to show that they are the best places in the world for tourists to spend their hard-earned cash. Travel+Leisure tried to describe the industry’s hottest trends, but the article really came across as “here are a few cool things I noticed.” So, I took the coolest of the cool, below:

1. Get healthy
Plenty of destinations offer spas, yoga and fitness options – sometimes using them to theme an entire resort. But, that’s thinking small. Go all the way with medical tourism, and call those DDs your own in an overseas clinic. Before you develop visions of hacksaws and cigarettes over the operating table, some of these surgical getaways are in upscale facilities.

Hey, it’s up to you. Roll the dice.

2. Hearken back to the Cold War
Screw traditional cruise liners in favor of Soviet-era ships pushing down the Volga River. Praise Lenin, listen to a balalaika and drink Russian Standard vodka (quite good, actually). Lament how long it will take for the dictatorship of the proletariat to emerge.

There are other unusual cruise options out there as well – such as one in Laos that takes 28 passengers into a once inaccessible piece of the Mekong River from Vientiane.

3. Watch a new nation rise
Kosovo doesn’t have much to say for itself except that you should be patient, because the country’s just getting started. So, if you go there now, you’re getting in on the ground floor. Get to know the concierge. Tip him well. You’ll become a national hero.

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.