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]

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.