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]

10 Tips for visiting Bethlehem this Christmas

Those of us who travel to Bethlehem soon discover the huge gap between our happy Sunday School expectations and the heavy realities of visiting the West Bank in person. It’s not such an easy place to get to, though world interest makes Bethlehem far more accessible than say, Ramallah or Jericho.

Out of 133 destinations rated in this month’s issue of National Geographic Traveler, the West Bank’s little town of Bethlehem ranked the lowest. Sad but true, travel experts consider the birthplace of Jesus Christ to be the world’s worst travel destination, one that’s surrounded by a giant concrete wall with difficult checkpoints and generally tangled in a political rat’s nest.

Still, for those in search of a geographically-correct Christmas, Bethlehem offers a nice dose of nostalgia served with a serious side of political pondering. It’s also a bit of a circus, like Las Vegas with Franciscan monks and machine guns. In such a place, it helps to have a guide. In lieu of a bright star shining in the east, behold ten hints for helping you navigate the dark streets that shineth:

  1. Check the border situation constantly: security in Israel varies wildly. Peace or violence in one location does not pre-determine security in other locales, especially in Bethlehem. CNN, BBC, and US State Department travel alerts are interesting but rarely compelling. Instead, ask around in country. Learn to listen beyond the bias and get the inside scoop as to which entry points are ‘hot’ and which ones are getting less traffic. Which brings us to the next point:
  2. Plan a window of extra time: crossing into the West Bank is always a gamble. In some cases, you may not even make it, so don’t write “Bethlehem” into your travel planner between 10:00 and 12:00. Instead, plan a range of days and hope that your first attempt is successful. If not, try, try again.
  3. Hire a Palestinian taxi driver with Israeli license plates: When it comes to straddling a tumultuous border, get the best of both worlds: A Palestinian driver with Israeli papers (and driving a car with Israeli plates) is pre-cleared and faces far less hassle when crossing back into Jerusalem. They will also be much safer escorts for you while you are in the West Bank. Again, ask around and seek trusted insights from insiders.
  4. Avoid big bus tours: though safer in principle, taking a tour bus into Bethlehem is often a recipe for a painful wait at the border in either direction. Add fifteen minutes for every olive wood sculpture of the baby Jesus in your backpack. If possible, travel ultra-light (passport, camera and a bottle of water) and in small groups.
  5. Visit the Church of the Nativity backwards: the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ is anything but peaceful, with all the wailing Russian Orthodox pilgrims and nit picky clergy who voraciously guard their little corner. Take a second to relax your religious connotations and realize that you are in a major tourist destination with crowds like those at the Empire State Building or Dollywood. Visiting the church in reverse order–saving the Grotto of the Nativity for last–can help you skip some of the longer lines.
  6. Don’t go on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day: I know, I know, that’s kind of the point, but know that it will be a Christian madhouse. Try going instead to visit first thing in the morning of December 24th, otherwise (insert joke about there not being any room in the inn, ha, ha.)
  7. Dinars or dollars: shekels have very little use in the City of David and most ATM’s disperse Jordanian dinars. Get some cash before you enter, or use US dollars. Again, the lighter you travel, the better.
  8. The Shepherds Fields of Bethlehem is a hoax: What? You mean the shepherds that saw a star shining in the sky and then heard angels singing, “Glory to God”–they weren’t actually hanging out on that specific hilltop that happens to be a ten-minute drive from the Church of the Nativity? No, sorry. The chapel and twisted olive trees are a nice reminder of a cool event, but it’s a Victorian-era invention for tourists like us.
  9. Bring a bible: The Book of Luke is probably the best and only guidebook to take with you. The book never gives false information about restaurants, opening hours, or directions, and offers some great context about the town itself.
  10. Keep apolitical: It sounds way obvious, but a trip to Bethlehem is not the time to show off your cocktail conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Be assured, no matter what you say, you will offend least one person. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would put his foot in his mouth in Bethlehem, so better to shut it. Talk about the weather and delve deeply into your clueless tourist persona–on this border, it’s the safest way to be.

Berlin hotel offers bed, breakfast and a piece of the wall

The Westin Grand hotel in Berlin has recently added a surprisingly creative package to their lineup of perks.

Instead of the usual drab spa services, or package with a snack in your room, the Westin is offering guests the chance to stay at their hotel and take home a piece of the Berlin wall.

Right in the main lobby of the hotel is an authentic piece of the wall, weighing in at 2.7 tons.

Guests who book the “tear down the wall” package will receive a night at the hotel, along with a safety helmet, goggles and a hammer and chisel. They are then free to bang away on the wall and grab their very own piece of history.

After the hard work, guests can visit parts of historic Berlin with a complimentary guidebook. The package even includes a glass of Champagne and a Currywurst.

Packages start at EUR199 and can be booked directly on the web site of the Westin Grand Berlin.

A Canadian in Beijing: Simatai, The Great Wall: Take 3

My sister and her fiance Steve arrived in Beijing on a Thursday afternoon and they hit the ground running. Before the sun had fully set, they had checked into their hotel, eaten a traditional hot pot meal and were in attendance at my last and final performance in Beijing. That night was a late but great one, and it was wonderful to have them there.

Six o’clock the next morning rolled around far too quickly.

We were scheduled to depart for Simatai Friday morning, the most beautiful tourist section of the Great Wall. A car was waiting for us just outside the hotel lobby, thanks to my wonderful friend Stuart who works for a travel company (Intrepid Travel) and who has excellent connections with things like this. He set it up for us and I was thrilled to not have to navigate public transportation with my family after such a late night. I was already bleary-eyed and poised to nap on the two and a half hour trip out of town.

When sleepy, must sleep. That’s my body’s motto.

The driver was very nice and we smoothly exited the city in nearly absentee traffic and quickly found ourselves in the morning mist of the outlying Beijing area. I slipped back to sleep in the front seat while my sister and Steve chatted about the scenery and the different energy of China compared to Canada. I tried to stay awake to act as the translator and tour guide, but it was for naught.

I woke up when we turned the final corner towards Simatai. Off of the highway, this last twenty minutes took us through several small and quaint countryside villages where we could see small-scale farming and country life up close, sometimes just a few feet from the windows of the car.

We all exclaimed at the brilliant greens and natural beauty that is in such contrast with the grey cement of Beijing. I reminded them that there is a lot of green hidden between buildings in the city, but it takes awhile to find it and celebrate it. I hoped I would get a chance to take them to some beautiful places in the city as well. We only had a few days together, and the density of the “intended” schedule was already apparent.

This tourist site is the section of The Great Wall that is farthest away from Beijing. Its beauty took my breath away. The misty mountains, the water below as you climb the several hundred feet up to the wall, the parts of the wall not fully renovated and so still breathing some of the crumbling history into the soles of our shoes – all of it was incredible! Even though this wasn’t the wild wall, it was part of the story. I am continually inspired by this snaking stone wonder that covers this part of China. I don’t think I’d ever get tired of laying my eyes upon it as it weaves its way along the skyline.

All told, seeing this part of the wall completed the cycle between the first section of the wall that I saw (Mutianyu, which was extremely renovated and almost pristine in its square edges) against the extreme rustic beauty of the wild wall that I saw when I went hiking in early June. Here was the middle ground between the two and it felt like the missing link in the chain of historical events.

We climbed the few kilometres up taking many rests in the heavy humidity. At one point, we came upon a group of women lounging along the wall’s edge. They all had sacs and were dressed in the same deep navy blue pants and shirts. I thought they may be workers, but it turned out that they were all vendors and were all selling the same items.

Three of these women greeted us and began to walk with us. When they realized I spoke Mandarin, they got even more excited and the conversation took off. Eventually, I realized that they were planning to accompany us (as though official guides) and I stopped walking. So too did my sister and Steve and I rounded off the conversation. I then gently requested that we be left alone to walk separately. I thanked them for their kindness but explained that we wanted to have some space just the three of us. They responded in kind and then trailed us by about fifty feet as we climbed the wall, always keeping us in view.

Finally, closer to the top, they inched nearer again and began to offer some interesting historical information about what we were seeing. I’m a sucker for history and so I didn’t discourage it and I listened and translated for my sister and Steve who were also interested in what they were saying. Eventually, they pulled out their tour books and asked us to once again consider buying their wares.

My sister wanted a book. They started the price at 180 kuai. I laughed outright at such an inflated price and told my sister to not pay more than 20 or 25 kuai. She eventually paid 50, which we learned was the starting price for the same books down at the base of the mountain where the rest of the vendors were. Oh well, I suppose my instincts were correct in terms of price, but my sister felt their ascent, historical information and overall persistence was worth the extra cash. She has a heart, after all.

We didn’t go right to the very highest point, but instead took the trail towards the cable cars. They wanted to take the easy route down and I relented and agreed. I wasn’t tired but it was threatening rain and I figured being in a covered cable car in the rain was better than getting wet while making our descent. In the end, the cable car ride was about ten or fifteen minutes of peace. I rode alone and they rode together and I took the time to just watch the scenery slowly roll out beneath me – such a carefully and meticulously landscaped valley – and the wall fade into the mist of the mountains behind me. I shut off my brain and let the colours soothe.

It was all very storybook-like. It was lovely.

Our driver was waiting for us at the bottom. We piled in and ate the picnic lunch I had brought while we made our way back to the city. Due to the midday traffic, the trip back was much longer than the trip there, but it was still interesting. The driver and I had a great chat about historical sites in and around Beijing and I fared relatively well in Chinese throughout it all. He was complimentary and taught me some interesting new words.

When we got back to the hotel, I was ready for a nap but happy to have seen the Great Wall of China one last time before I had to go home.

I fell asleep in my hotel room conscious of my great fortune and privilege in being in Beijing for so long. I have seen the Great Wall three times now! Some people – most people – never get to see it even once.

Life is great.

A Canadian in Beijing: The Wild Wall Will Not Be Tamed

When I went to the Great Wall on that first weekend I arrived in China, I simultaneously learned about the “rest of the wall.” By this, I mean the “wild wall” that isn’t a tourist attraction but lies along the spines of mountains across China, crumbling and often forgotten.

National Geographic Adventure Magazine ran an article called “Astride the Dragon’s Back” (written by Matthew Power). My friend here loaned it to me after we returned from seeing that tourist section of the Great Wall. I read it twice. I was fascinated.

This weekend, a friend of mine took mercy on my country girl self and took me to the outskirts of Beijing so that I could breathe some fresh air. Our plans were simply to see green mountains, fresh water and breathe deeply. On Saturday morning, we were climbing the mountain roads just one hour north of Beijing on his motorbike and I finally felt the city fall away from my skin. The air was fresh and the view was breathtaking. I was laughing and singing out loud into the wind when even my laughter was replaced by a gasp at what I saw.

There, on the mountain, was the Great Wall of China, climbing like a stony vine up the ridge, sporadically spiked with watchtowers and jagged in its uneven state of deterioration.

I yelled into the wind and my friend’s ear, “Look! It’s the Great Wall!” He yelled back, “No, Ember, that’s just the wild wall. The Great Wall is over there!” and he pointed to where “Mu Tian Yu,” the tourist site that I visited two months ago is located a few miles away. I yelled back , “but that’s still the Great Wall and it’s even more gorgeous! No McDonald’s and postcard vendors!” and he laughed.

And then, suddenly, he slowed down, turned off the road and parked the bike. It turns out that walking up to the wild wall is very easy. You just park your vehicle, find a path and walk up the mountain! Some paths are more worn in than others. We found this out the hard way and had to descend once before finding a more worn way that didn’t require crawling through weeds and overgrown spiked bushes!

Fifteen minutes later in the 38 degree heat, sweating and winded from the climb, I was standing on the Great Wall of China… speechless. There it was, just stretching before me like an open palm of history and I was on its back, atop piles of stone that had long fallen in on itself and formed more of a rounded ridge than a defensive squared-off one.

It was solid, though, and felt safe to stand on. It had been trekked before. There was evidence of footsteps and rubbish by other curious hikers, which was the only sad fact to what was otherwise a glorious moment of discovery for me. The rubbish, I mean. Happily, though, the trash was just on the flatter sections that had obviously been used as picnic sites. When we walked along, it was just stone and greenery for “gongli” after “gongli” (kilometre after kilometre.)

The article I read two months ago spoke about the first non-Chinese person to trek the Great Wall, British ex-pat William Lindsay, and his non-profit organization called “International Friends of the Great Wall,” an organization that he set up to promote both the exploration and the preservation of the “vast, unreconstructed, overgrown sections that are free of tourist kitsch, trash, vendors, graffiti, and all the encroachments of modernity.”

The article explained that some of the really remote sections are under threat. Apparently, one section of the wall located northwest of Beijing was dismantled stone by stone to pave a local highway. It was a thousand yards in length. Furthermore, the tourist areas “have been rebuilt and paved over, essentially, with little concern for historical accuracy or respect for the wall’s landscape.”

When I read about these situations, I really craved the wild wall and what it would feel like under my feet or against the palm of my hand. I really wondered if I had felt the history fully at the tourist site. I even wondered if the stones under my feet had truly been ancient stones or if they had all been replaced to accommodate the excessive traffic at those sites. For example, I have heard that Badaling, the most popular location of the Great Wall, gets over 10,000 visitors a day.

So on Saturday when I stood there on that wild section of the Great Wall, I felt huge and miniscule at once; I felt vividly alive and simultaneously conscious of the dead under my feet in a more raw way than I had before. The dust and dirt between the stones was grey and brown and black and white and I couldn’t help but wonder if those white flecks were ancient bones. I knelt down and took a handful of dirt into my right palm and circled the colours with my left fingers. I still couldn’t speak. I just heard the wind. I just breathed time into my lungs through the scent of the nearby lilacs mixed with my own sweat.

Time is all we have.

After awhile, we decided to climb up to the closest watchtower. It took another fifteen minutes to get there, but we made it. Peering out those old windows into the foothills and valley below, I felt a solemnity with time. These old stone buildings were still standing and still telling their stories. They’re not going anywhere fast. I was reminded that the earliest fortifications were built in the 7th century BC. While I have no idea when these specific sections were built, they are still ancient to this Canadian! And, there’s fierceness in how solid the rock sits against the mountain. Resolute. Determined. Stubborn.

I felt myself flood with respect.

I also wanted to clean up the rubbish and wished I had brought an extra plastic bag or twelve. The place was littered with plastic bottles and garbage and cigarette butts, not to mention covered in graffiti.

The article explained that recent economic growth in the past twenty years has meant the advent of the first “Chinese hiker,” or city people (once having emptied the countryside for the city in hopes of finding urban work) now exploring the countryside again, this time as wealthy tourists. One of my favourite quotes from the article is this one: “It seems ironic that the city the Great Wall was built to protect is now, in a sense, its greatest threat.”

Environmentalism is not exactly thriving here, but Lindsay’s organization is trying to promote a sense of mutual ownership, conservation and stewardship of this huge piece of ancient history. And, really, in terms of the municipality of Beijing (which is about the size of New Jersey) we’re talking about four hundred miles of The Great Wall that line its northern mountains, of which only a few have been reconstructed for tourism. Constant preservation is impossible, but instilling a sense of respect and honour for such an important piece of history is not.

My friend, who is Chinese, had never seen the wild wall before. He stood there as amazed as I was. He, too, was silent. He told me it would not be his last visit to see the wall in its natural state, crumbling back into the chaos of nature where it began.

William Lindsay is quoted as saying, “The Great Wall is an entire landscape, not just the wall itself. Its greatness is in its wholeness, and every alteration, every tourist trap makes it less.”

I wholeheartedly agree.