Travel: Back in the former USSR: Fred Mawer looks at how independent travel has changed since the CIS's birth

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE official line is that restrictions on independent travel in the Commonwealth of Independent States have changed little since the days of the Soviet Union. For most of the CIS, you're still supposed to book all accommodation and travel in advance to get a visa. The justification for this is new. Now it's not to keep tabs on foreigners, but due - say the authorities - to the scarcity of accommodation and the complexities of the transport system. But in reality, independent travel has altered vastly. New places are opening up which are not on the Intourist map. In the Ukraine and the Baltic countries in particular, where you can just turn up, no one is likely to tell you where you can and cannot go.

VISAS

Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS): You must get a visa in advance for Russia, the republics other than the Ukraine, and for Georgia, from the Russian Embassy, 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 (071-229 8027). Open 10am-12.30pm (not Wednesdays). Allow 14 working days. For the Ukraine, you must get a visa on arrival (about pounds 30).

The Baltic countries: You no longer need a visa for Estonia (embassy 071-229 6700) or Lithuania (embassy 071-938 2481). For Latvia, get a visa in advance (as long border waits are likely) from the Latvian Embassy, 72 Queensborough Terrace, London W2 3SP (071-727 1698). Open 11am-2.30pm. There is no fixed processing time. You don't need to pre-book accommodation or have an itinerary.

GETTING THERE

Air: British Airways (081-897 4000) and Aeroflot (071-355 2233) fly direct to Moscow (Apex pounds 388) and St Petersburg (Apex pounds 363); discounted fares start at pounds 245. You can't fly direct to any other CIS or Baltic destination from the UK - though Lithuania Airlines has just begun a service, ticketing has yet to be sorted out (ask at the embassy). Discounted fares with Finnair (via Helsinki) to St Petersburg, Tallinn and Riga start at pounds 229. Austrian Airlines (via Vienna) and Lufthansa (via Frankfurt) fly to Kiev and Minsk; discounted fares begin at pounds 295. Try STA Travel (071- 937 9962), Trailfinders (071-937 5400), Progressive Tours (071-262 1676) or Regent Holidays (0272 211711).

Rail: The 54-hour through service from London to Moscow via Brest and Minsk costs pounds 284 return second-class - a berth pounds 50 extra each way. Thomas Cook's European Train timetable details a few lines within the CIS and the Baltics. Phone British Rail International (071- 834 2345) for more information.

Car: 36-hour delays at the Poland-Lithuania border have recently been reported, and from Lithuania into Latvia. Prepare for delays of some hours at the main border points of Brest into Belarus and to the south at Przemysl into the Ukraine.

MONEY

Take dollars. Sometimes the same number of roubles are given to the pound as to the dollar. Deutschmarks can also be useful, especially in Lithuania. Travellers' cheques are not widely accepted nowadays, even in the main cities. Many hard currency shops will only take credit cards. Inflation and devaluation have made the cost of living for foreigners spending roubles very cheap (though often crippling for locals - the cost of a kilo of butter in Latvia could be nearly as much as a teacher's monthly salary). In the more rural areas, you could spend only roubles. A normal three-course meal in Moscow might cost 300 roubles ( pounds 1).

In Moscow and St Petersburg, and in hotels throughout the republics, you can live it up in the many hard currency shops, restaurants and bars.

ACCOMMODATION

For most of the Commonwealth of Independent States, officially you must book accommodation in advance (but not so for the Ukraine and the Baltics). An advance booking anywhere in the former Soviet Union may save much hassle. Hotel accommodation is relatively expensive: a double room in a three- star hotel booked in advance through Intourist costs from about pounds 60. You may have to use hard currency to get a room: a cheap room booked on spec in the Baltics will cost about pounds 20.

INTERNAL TRAVEL

As travelling restrictions for foreigners and, more importantly, for nationals have decreased recently, public transport has become very crowded (as have hotels) and it can be difficult to get seats.

In most parts of the CIS, foreigners should purchase tickets in hard currency. The cost of a ticket in roubles is unbelievably cheap for foreigners. Theoretically, you may be asked to show your visa for your destination when buying a ticket - but it is unlikely, especially at train stations; if it doesn't match up, technically it means you will be travelling illegally.

Aeroflot books domestic flights in advance from this country through your international carrier (so if you're not flying to the CIS you'll have to use an agent or book locally). The fluctuating exchange rate can alter prices considerably; a single from Moscow to St Petersburg costs pounds 38, Moscow to Vladivostock pounds 164. By train, Intourist quotes the fare from Moscow to St Petersburg, and Moscow to Vladivostock on the trans-Siberian railway, as pounds 290 second-class.

Officially, in most of the CIS you are not supposed to drive more than 500km a day and must stick to the itinerary you give when applying for your visa. In the Ukraine or in the Baltic countries, you can roam at will. In these countries, you will probably have more success hiring a car - ask at the main hotels. In the CIS you are given petrol coupons when you enter the country. Beware of an acute shortage of garages able to supply you with lead-free petrol - apparently there is only one in the whole of Estonia.

LANGUAGE

Political changes have brought about conflicting signs in the Moscow metro and Russian signs in the Baltics are crossed out. To avoid getting lost, it's generally helpful to be able to read Cyrillic. Outside the main cities, you'll need at least a bit of Russian to communicate - though you may get a flea in your ear for speaking Russian in Georgia or the Baltics.

TRAVEL COMPANIES

With no tourist boards and little up-to-date literature available, you will need to go to specialist tour operators for accurate information on flights, bookings and red tape. For B&B in Russian peoples' homes, try Goodwill Travel (0438 716421), Progressive Tours (071-262 1676), Room with the Russians (081-472 2694). For general advice, in addition to these companies you could also try Intourist (071-538 3202), Regent Holidays (0272 211711) and Ukraine Travel (061-633 2232). All listed companies are ABTA bonded. The Baltic embassies also tend to be very helpful.

GUIDES AND MAPS

Two of the most up-to-date guides available are Lonely Planet's USSR ( pounds 13.95) and Fodor's 1992 Russia, the Republics and the Baltics ( pounds 11.99). Maps, especially small-scale ones, are hard to come by.

NO-GO AREAS

Parts of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Tajikistan are not safe. Contact the Foreign Office travel advice unit (071-270 4129).-

Comments