Written by Joel Gallagher, our man in our Soviet Europe office.
The lands of the former USSR, for me, are made up of the last untamed lands of the European continent, where the surreal meets the bizarre. For the past few years, I’ve been travelling through the untamed countries of Eastern Europe with YPT, exploring the crumbling remains of the former USSR. From the heart of Russia in Moscow to Docklands of Vladivostok, from the unruly, warrior tribe inhabited mountains of the Caucasus to the Cossack Steppes of Ukraine, I cannot get enough of this vast, untamed, unpredictable Eastern land.
Eastern Europe provides an experience and chance for an adventure like no other. From tearing across the Ukrainian Steppe in a tank, coming face to face to some of the still operational KGB, exploring the ghost city of Chernobyl and enjoying the company of some of the toughest craziest, fun-loving locals you’ll ever meet, anything is possible.
Here are eight reasons to make Eastern Europe your next adventure.
#1. The wide variety and warm hospitality of the hard-bitten locals
Out of all the destinations of the world I’ve travelled too, none have matched Eastern Europe in terms of the welcoming embrace I’ve received from locals, from feasting with Chechens, drinking vodka balanced on a sword with hulking Cossacks and raving with gold-toothed Moldovan farmers, it goes without saying, if you don’t interact with the locals, you haven’t experienced true Eastern Europe.
Expect to be invited into the homes of people who are genuinely curious about you and eager to show you their culture, history, food and hospitality. Expect local, sometimes live, music, a lot of alcohol and crazy goings on, as well as an endless list of spontaneous goings-on that are too unique to summarize. Do not be put off by language barriers and approach every situation with an open mind, you’ll more than likely end up with an experience and story to tell that is unique to anybody else you know.
#2. Awe-inspiring sights, minus the mob of tourists
Whilst the now famous Eastern European cities of Prague and Krakow are becoming tourist hubs, the vast East boasts more than enough opportunities to escape the tourist hordes.
In the Caucasus you only need to jump on a Marshrutka for a few miles will find ancient mountain fortresses and watchtowers hundreds of feet in the sky that leave you dumbfounded at how they were actually built, sights deserving of being surrounded by tourists but thankfully left alone for only the most adventurous travellers to enjoy. You will also find that some of these ancient watchtowers are not abandoned, instead inhabited by fierce but friendly warrior tribesmen, who make a surreal sight when coming alongside modern vehicles on horseback, still carrying the swords and traditional dress of their ancestors.
Although the prices of the early 90’s are a distant memory. If you are from the West, your first time in Eastern Europe will come as a nice surprise and you will soon find that you can live well, eat well and stay entertained for a modest price.
In Kiev, a fascinating city where many various cultures such as Russian, Ukrainian, Azeri, Georgian and Cossack intermix, prices are 67% lower than in London. You will find eating out in restaurants and enjoying great food and drink will not break the bank. This also brings us to our next point:
#4. The Incredible Food
Your first taste of Eastern European food will break any stereotypes you may have about food in this part of the world. Prepare for a vast array of colourful mouth-watering dishes such as homemade Pelmeni with sour cream, Borsch as red as the flag of the USSR, Salo on fresh black bread, the staple of Ukrainian peasants! All washed down with a variety of local beers and different types of Vodka of course!
#5. Unique flea markets and souvenirs
I’ve amassed a collection of bizarre souvenirs from the flea markets of the East. In these close quarters events, you will find anything for sale. If you are a military history buff you can find an array of Soviet and Tsarist memorabilia and medals plus everything else from a Cossack sword to a (probably) deactivated Kalashnikov.
You will likely find items that can be classed as bizarre to comical. I remember seeing a hatch of a Russian battle tank with a faded, 80’s poster of Elton John glued to the inside, an inert RPG rocket in a box full of children’s toys and a huge fibreglass statue of Lenin painted pink. Prices are low and bartering is standard.
#6. The ease of getting around
One of the great things about Eastern Europe is its ease of travel on all forms of public transport whether it is a bus, train, tram, metro, or boat. Provided it’s not to obscure, you can get to a lot of places.
For example, it’s possible to backpack through the Caucasus without using a plane. Marshrutkas and trains cross borders taking you from cities such as Tbilisi and Baku to Yerevan and Derbent.
#7. Luckily, getting there ain’t what it used to be
During the USSR, traveling to the Iron Curtain was a rare occurrence only ventured upon by diplomats or some of the most hardy of travellers. While Russia still requires a visa, the majority of countries in Eastern Europe don’t require a visa for most Western citizens.
Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic states, the Balkans and most of the South Caucasus either do not require a visa or provide one on arrival. The still secretive Soviet state of Belarus have also now introduced a 5 day visa free program.
#8. The Geographical variety
While these vast lands may be daunting to a first time traveller, it provides a huge array of geographical variety. You can see the beauty of the arctic wilderness in Kamchatka, bathe of the shores of the Black sea in the tropical heat of Abkhazia, climb some of the biggest mountains in the world in the Caucasus and hike through the steppes and tranquil forests of central Ukraine. Whatever your taste in scenery, Eastern Europe is vast and varied enough to guarantee it.