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Make The Former Soviet Union Your Next Travel Destination; You'll Be Amazed At What It's Become! (Part 1)

October 17, 2017

Ask the majority of Singaporeans about their impression of the former Soviet Union, and all they'll reply is "you mean Russia?"

 

Either that or, "Oh I know, communism. Yeah, ruled by that guy. Was it Hitler? Oh no, Hitler was German. Ah yes, Stalin, I think.....or was it Lenin?"

 

You might even get a couple of Singaporeans who might even reply, "you mean Red Alert?" (the popular 90s PC strategy game) Yes, that's just how ignorant most Singaporeans are about travel destinations that don't happen to be Iceland or Japan.

Soviet symbol. A tank Monument in Tiraspol, Transnistria; its cannon is pointing towards Berlin

 

The Girl & I are on our 65th country (as I type this), have visited a third of the world (which consists of roughly 195 countries); but somehow, the world's "Last Empire" has always been a fascination for me (The Bald Guy).

 

It's been 26 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so I thought I'd visit some of the former Soviet States and share a blog post on what they are really like today; and also, information about some of these "former states", some of which have since evolved to rank among the most exciting travel destinations in Europe today (It's unlikely Singaporeans would agree though).

 

States of The Former U.S.S.R

ImageCredit: http://m4rk.us/fall-of-ussr-map.html#

 

 

The former U.S.S.R was made up of 15 member countries, split across 5 groups.

 

The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania),

Eastern Europe (Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine),

Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan),

Transcaucasia (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan),

and of course, Eurasia (Russia).

 

In Part 1, We'll leave out Central Asia & Russia and just focus on the former Soviet States (excluding the Motherland) In Europe.

 

With that, lets take a look what these former Soviet Republics are like today. I'm trying to write as little as possible because I don't want to make this post a drag; (it's going to be a damn long post) so if any of these countries interests you, you'll have to do your own research.

 

For the first time though, I'll give a "Bald Traveller" rating on how much that particular country is worth a visit on a scale of 1 - 10

 

 

Transcaucasia

 

Azerbaijan

Baku; Azerbaijan, with the famous Flame Towers in the background

 

Life after the collapse of the U.S.S.R

A good many companies from the west have invested truckloads of money in the development of Azerbaijan's oil and gas sector. Unfortunately, a huge portion of money has gone to defense spending as a result of an on going conflict with its Armenian neighbor instead of being used to develop its economy.

 

As a travel destination

There isn't a whole lot of information available on travel in Azerbaijan simply because;

 

a) They only really started having a more welcoming visa policy in 2016 

b) Many people (typical Singaporeans in particular) feel that any country with a name they have difficulty pronouncing is probably dangerous.

 

Azerbaijan was to us a really quirky travel destination. The cities are a mix of ancient buildings with futuristic structures built right into them. It's as though they're trying to out build Dubai in a competition of "lets see who can build the weirdest buildings".

Checking out the "Mud Volcanos" in the Gobustan Area, Azerbaijan

 

The must visit attractions are really different from the boring churches and monuments you get in the rest of Europe. One of my favorites were the "mud volcanoes", instead of Lava, these volcanoes erupt and spew cold mud over the nearby villages. There are fire temples, fire mountains, oil fields/rigs, and caves to explore.

 

It might not be your typical travel destination, but if you've already visited loads of European countries, Azerbaijan is a very welcome change.

 

The Bald Traveller's "Must Visit" Rating: 7/10

 

 

Georgia

Tbilisi was amazing. Undoubtedly one of my favorite cities in Europe, if not the world.

 

Life after the collapse of the U.S.S.R

Georgia was once an affluent part of the USSR, but after independence, Georgia lost access to the resources they had as part of the USSR. Georgia and Russia had a couple of armed conflict incidents, their relationship deteriorated, and the Georgian economy plunged. Overall, the country has had a difficult post-USSR period.

 

As a travel destination

Georgia, without doubt, ranks as one of A Girl & A Bald Traveller's Top 5 Favorite Countries.

 

It has, by a long shot, some of the most magnificent landscapes we've ever witnessed. Even its capital Tbilisi, is way more interesting than most European capitals.

 

Its historical sites are well preserved, landscapes to rival the best in Europe, wonderful food, and really affordable prices; truly the perfect vacation destination (as far as European countries are concerned).

The picturesque Georgian countryside.

 

Because there is just so much to do and see in Georgia, the minimum we feel this country deserves is at least a week. Visiting Svaneti, the mountainous region of Georgia where the entire region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must.

 

Oh, and lets not forget Georgian wine (which costs $2 a Litre). You'll be clearing those expensive bottle of French wine out of your cellar the second a drop of Georgian wine hits your tongue,

 

The Bald Traveller's "Must Visit" Rating: 10/10

 

 

Armenia

Monastery at Lake Sevan, Armenia. I proposed to "the Girl" here after 7 years.

 

Life after the collapse of the U.S.S.R

After independence from the USSR, Armenia was drawn into a conflict with Azerbaijan. A ceasefire was eventually agreed but Armenia's economy never recovered quickly enough; unemployment and poverty remain widespread. The global financial crisis in 2008 plunged its economy into further despair. Many Armenians try to leave the country to seek what they hope might be a better life abroad.

 

As a travel destination

Because Armenia is the worlds first Christian country, it's no surprise what the main bulk of Armenia's attractions would be. You've guessed it, "Early Christian" monasteries. In case you didn't realize, Armenia is the final resting place for "Noah's Ark" (if your a Christian that is).

Republic Square, the most "happening" area in Armenia's capital, Yerevan.

 

This country is perfect for history buffs and hardcore religious folks. They've got great museums, beautiful scenery, and among their many monasteries, "The Girl" and I witnessed some of the most amazing architecture and church frescoes we'd ever seen in Europe (yeah, time to move on from Barcelona and Gaudi's work).

 

While Armenia is undoubtedly beautiful in its own way, most of the country is still brown and dusty, not a single skyscraper in sight, and some how you get the feeling things are a lot more backward here.

 

The Bald Traveller's "Must Visit" Rating: 7/10

 

 

Eastern Europe

 

Ukraine

I had no idea that Kiev was so majestic. Ukraine really surprised me; pleasantly.

 

Life after the collapse of the U.S.S.R

During their glory days, Ukraine was responsible for almost a third of the Soviet Union's agriculture. After independence, their economy plunged. While they do trade with the European Union, the Ukrainian economy is dependent on Russia, who is still their largest individual trading partner, and let's just say their relationship has been somewhat frosty these days. On the whole though, they have handled independence better than some of their neighbors.

 

As a travel destination

Wow, Ukraine was nothing like what I expected. The capital of Kiev is absolutely grand, the women in general are some of the most beautiful in Europe (If your a single Singaporean guy, it's time to buy your air-ticket), and the country (war zones aside) is way safer than its name suggests.

Taking a dip at the "azure swimming pool", after the Chernobyl Incident

 

Besides the splendor and beauty of say Kiev and Lviv, Ukraine is also home to some of the coolest "Tourist" activities ever!

 

I visited Chernobyl,and  the "ghost town" of Ukraine where thousands of people were evacuated due to radiation from the reactor incident. There are tours to the abandoned soviet missile silos and military tours where you get to fire the famous Kalashnikov rifle; the AK-47, and you can even get to drive a soviet tank!

The Bald Traveller's "Must Visit" Rating: 9/10

 

 

Belarus

The coolest library in Europe is found in Minsk, Belarus!

 

Life after the collapse of the U.S.S.R

Belarus, with their President Lukashenko, has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics, resulting in a somewhat decent economy. The country is however, very dependent on Russia and will have to continue their "close ties" to keep their economy afloat. Belarus is also referred to as "Europe's Last Dictatorship".

Don't mess with the "Hero" (name of the momunment) of Brest, Belarus

 

As a travel destination

Belarus is perhaps the only country (Tranistria too but it doesn't count as a country) where you can get a  glimpse of what life was like before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here, it's as though time stood still, with soviet propaganda and monuments lining the streets. Soaking up the "communist atmosphere" is the true enjoyment of a trip to Belarus. Go watch an opera (in Russian), checkout the soviet museums and go drive a tank. A vacation in Belarus is truly an experience of its own. You won't get this anywhere else in Europe.

 

The Bald Traveller's "Must Visit" Rating: 7/10

 

 

Moldova

The "biggest attraction in Moldova"  is a monastery on a hill?

 

Life after the collapse of the U.S.S.R

Conflict between Moldova and separatists in the Trans-Dniester region (which has resulted in Transnistria, a breakaway country supported by Russia) has hampered its ability to deal with independence. The country's economy is dependent on wine exports (Moldovan wine is as fine as Georgian wine, way ahead of any French wines. I know, because I've sampled them all) and remittance. Unfortunately, Moldova is rife with corruption and suffers from poor infrastructure, which have put off foreign investment in the country. Moldova has never really progressed since its "Soviet days" and is considered as the poorest country in Europe.

 

Tranistria, the "other" Moldova

 

As a travel destination

There aren't many "tourist attractions" in Moldova. Even the country's "key attraction", Orheiul Vechi, a monastery at the top of a hill in the Moldovan countryside wasn't particularly impressive. Its capital, Chisinau, is far from how I would describe a "vibrant capital". 

 

Despite all these shortcomings, in it's wine, Moldova has a clear winner. For the first time in my life, I chugged down a whole bottle of wine almost on my own just because it tasted so damn good (and i'm not even a "wine person"). Go visit the many winery's in the country, get yourself drunk, and then, cross the "border" over to Transnistria to get a feel of life in the Soviet Union (that's right, Transistria is still stuck in the dark ages). This country isn't going to be your usual "activity filled vacation", but still a decent experience in it's own right.

 

The Bald Traveller's "Must Visit" Rating: 6/10

 

 

The Baltics

 

Estonia

The magical city of Tallinn, Estonia on a gloomy winter afternoon

 

Life after the collapse of the U.S.S.R

It seems like independence has done Estonia well. It joined the European Union, is the richest of the 15 former Soviet Republics, and has strong trade relations with its European neighbors like Finland and Germany.  

Medieval yes?

 

As a travel destination

Estonia is the most "touristy" among the former Soviet states. Its capital Tallinn is a magical blur of cobbled paths and medieval structures. While "old towns" might be commonplace about Europe, the one in Tallinn is incredibly well preserved (thanks to the hordes of tourists).

 

Of course, there's more to Estonia than just Tallinn. Some of the worlds most beautiful national reserves can be found in Estonia. They have beautiful forests and over 1,500 islands!

 

The Bald Traveller's "Must Visit" Rating: 7/10

 

 

Lithuania

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania from above

 

Life after the collapse of the U.S.S.R

Like it's Baltic neighbors, Lithuania joined the European Union and has seen strong economic growth (compared to some of its former Soviet "comrades"). Unfortunately, the economy never truly recovered since the 2008 global financial crisis. Unemployment is rampant and many of their citizens have left the country in hope of finding work.

The Hill of Crosses (Siauliai), Lithuania. Probably the "holiest" and "eeriest" place in all of Europe

As a travel destination

I felt Lithuania was amazing. Sure, its the most "backward" of the 3 Baltic states (and also the cheapest), their capital of Vilnius isn't as vibrant as Riga's (Latvia) and certainly not as magical as Tallin's (Estonia); but for me, it was perfect. Lithuania is a great destination to experience the "True Baltic's". And yes, you should visit real soon before tourists ruin it.

 

The main highlight for me was "The Hill of Crosses", where defiant Lithuanians planted crosses on the hill as a form of resistance against the communist regime. The soviets would bulldoze the hill free of crosses, but before they knew it, more and more crosses would reappear.   

 

The Bald Traveller's "Must Visit" Rating: 7.5/10

 

 

Latvia

Visiting the House of Blackheads, the most iconic building in Riga, Latvia

 

Life after the collapse of the U.S.S.R

Since independence, Latvia's economy grew and it eventually joined the European Union. Like Estonia and Lithuania, it didn't take the financial crisis in 2008 too well and unemployment has soared. It is not uncommon to see young Latvians seeking employment away from their country.

 

As a travel destination

Latvia (Riga mostly) is arguably the "nightlife capital" of the Baltic's. Most people who visit Latvia definitely make it a point to stop by the capital of Riga; which is basically Tallinn with a more vibrant nightlife and way cheaper.

 

Besides the usual medieval attractions, museums and such, Latvia is also known for its "winter activities". Winter sports usually tend to be an expensive affair, not in Latvia though. Try your hand at skiing or even bobsledding (ever watch the movie Coolrunnings?). If sports is not your thing, get hot, then cold in a Latvian Sauna!

 

The Bald Traveller's "Must Visit" Rating: 7/10

 

 

In Conclusion

Ukraine's answer to the Statue of Liberty; the "Motherland" monument!

 

This blog post is perhaps the closest thing most Singaporeans will ever have to experiencing a vacation around the former Soviet Union (there are just too many "priorities"; like Switzerland, when it comes to European vacations).

 

For the few of you Singaporeans who don't require "validation" on where you travel to however, you'll be rewarded with ridiculously low prices and almost no tourists to "photo bomb" your pictures. And wouldn't it be nice to enjoy a European vacation that doesn't imply revolve around churches, shopping, and "iconic landmark" hunting?

 

Singaporeans are usually 10-15 years behind the times when it comes to "travel trends". We visit Turkey and "think" its exotic (like seriously?). Refer to any country that isn't the U.K, or Italy as "Eastern Europe", and discovered Iceland exists only after seeing our friends pictures on Facebook! (Which one of you visited Iceland 10 years ago? Why not? it was certainly cheaper to visit back then)

 

Here's my prediction on travel trends over the next 10 years. The former U.S.S.R could just be Europe's best kept secret. Don't be that Singaporean who simply "talks" about "planning" a vacation in this part of world "someday".

 

You know those guys who kept on bragging about getting a tattoo (annoying right?) in secondary school and 10 years later their skin is still as white as a baby's bottom?

 

Yeah, that's you.

 

 

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