Ancient Church in Kazbegi, Georgia.
I am asked pretty regularly why I go to countries like Russia, Ukraine or Tajikistan. At first glance, there is not much to attract visitors, what with the civil wars, frowning shopkeepers, bitter winters and general chaos. Admittedly, these places are not for everyone. This is the land of communal bathrooms, sweaty trains, body odor and too much mayonnaise. But, if you can set aside a few creature comforts, then the former Soviet Union is the most exciting travel destination there is.
Here is why:
1. No Tourists
Monastery in Suzdal, Russia.
That is, no retirees piling out of charter buses or groups of college kids barhopping. The foreigners who come are usually seasoned travelers intent on understanding a different culture and learning something. They are the types who like the place for reasons 2-10.
2. See the Remains of the Modern World's Last Empire
Statue of Lenin in Donetsk, Ukraine.
The Russian Empire never properly collapsed and its Soviet successor held on well past the end of the great European empires. Although the 15 countries of the ex-USSR differ dramatically, there is a common history, mindset and language that binds them all. Each relates to its Soviet past differently, but the physical reality of communist rule is always visible in the drab apartment blocs and decaying monuments to an untenable socialist future.
3. Escape Technology and Convenience
Relaxing on the Banks of Lake Baikal, Russia.
People here do not bury themselves in their iPhones while in public or binge on Game of Thrones. They gather in the parks to play volleyball and go on walks for fun. One of the most popular summer past-times is berry and mushroom picking. There is also a different understanding of customer service here. As a friend told me: "Why should I pretend to be happy at work when everyone knows I would rather be sitting at the lake?" Well, you can not fault honesty.
4. Lakes, Mountains and Beaches
The Ice Is Treacherous in Early Spring.
Lake Baikal in Russia is the deepest in the world and freezes so thick in winter that cars use it instead of the highway.
Europe's highest mountain, Elbrus, is in the Caucasus, and the Pamirs in Tajikistan are said to be the least visited mountains on earth.
The Black Sea coast of Georgia and Ukraine were once playgrounds of Russian nobles and VIPs of the Communist Party. Crimea is mostly off limits at the moment, but the beaches in Georgia and Southern Ukraine offer sunbathing and swimming in an interesting post-apocalyptic industrial atmosphere.
5. Kopecks, Rubles and Grivnya
Opening Beer in a Village in Ukraine.
Except for Moscow, these countries are cheap! A metro ride in Kiev will set you back $0.17 and dinner with drinks and desert will be less than $6. In Central Asia you can have lunch for less than a buck. In Vladivostok fresh caviar and smoked salmon is cheaper than chicken, and babushkas sell fur hats for $10 (though they may be made of dog).
Of course, beer is cheap everywhere.
6. Borsch, Khinkali, Plov
Women Prepare Sour Yoghurt in Tajikistan.
Part of the experience, especially in Russia or Ukraine, is getting used to eating strange meatloaf that may or may not have been sitting unrefrigerated for hours.
Caucasian cuisine is the best in the world and Tbilisi, Georgia is rapidly becoming a foodie destination. It is a delicate blend of Mediterranean and Indian, with all the freshness of the former and flavor of the latter.
Central Asian food is good, but you are pretty much guaranteed to get deathly ill at least once. But hey, it's part of the experience!
7. Vodka, Wine and Babushka's Moonshine
Wine Jugs in Georgia.
Vodka flows like water in Russia and costs about as much because of low excise taxes.
The Georgians and Moldovans were renowned across the entire Soviet Union for their fine wines. Many Georgians make their own wine at home and then sell it in old Coca-Cola bottles on the street. The unrecognized breakaway Republic of Transnistria in Moldova is especially known for its cognac.
The Russians call it "samogon," the Georgians "chacha," and the Latvians "kandža," but it is all moonshine. It is especially common in the village, where almost everyone seems to have a bottle tucked away for a special occasion or unexpected guest.
8. Extremes of Climate, Politics and Behavior
Tallest Flagpole in the World. Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
The Republic of Yakutia in Siberia holds the record of having the coldest inhabited place on Earth as well as the largest recorded temperature range, with lows of -90ºF and highs of 98ºF.
Central Asia takes the cake for the weirdest politics. Turkmenistan's former president build golden statues of himself and remodeled the whole capital in white marble. Tajikistan's strongman president, Emomali Rahmon, ordered the construction of the world's tallest flagpole.
Russia is famous for producing crazy Internet videos and everyday life in the country really does tend towards the bizarre. Drunk guys sleeping on the sidewalk, club bouncers punching customers in the face, and guys popping wheelies on motorcycles down Main Street are just a few of my personal favorites.
9. Unique Fashion and Style
Gold Plated Mercedes. Moscow, Russia.
From Central Asian uni-brows to Russian girls skidding over ice in high-heals, the people of the ex-USSR have some very interesting tastes. In Moscow, I have seen gold plated cars and even a Mercedes with its entire exterior upholstered in leather. In Western Ukraine, there is a resurgence of national peasant style, with embroidered linen shirts and large Cossack mustaches.
Lunch in Yurt. Murghab Region, Tajikistan.
Maybe because foreigners are still a relatively rare sight, the people of the former USSR are tremendously hospitable. Whether it is a Ukrainian babushka presenting a block of salted pork fat (salo), a Russian beating you with birch branches in the banya, or a Tajik holding conversation over tea and watermelon, guests have a special place here.