If you thought the end of the Cold War would lead to the easing of labyrinthine Soviet travel bureaucracy, you would be utterly wrong. A trip in and around the former USSR is as complex as ever. Neil Taylor offers a guide
Saturday 06 May 1995
Russia and the Ukraine still want proof of pre-booked accommodation (backpackers need not apply) and the visa will often cost the same as a night or two in a hotel. For an "urgent" fee of £40 the Ukrainian Embassy in London will issue a visa in three days. If this is not good enough, a £60 "express" fee will produce a visa within a day. Determined perhaps either to enter the Guinness Book of Records or to find the funds to decommission Chernobyl as quickly as possible, a visa issued on arrival at Kiev airport costs $150. Not surprisingly, Kiev has, as a result, yet to follow the Baltic capitals into the city-break market. Uzbekistan will also turn away backpackers whatever amount is offered for a visa, but at least Tashkent airport charges "only" $40 for issuing one on the spot to passengers with pre-booked accommodation. As far as the Russians are concerned, three weeks is now the norm, provided you do not call on a Wednesday, any UK holiday, any new Russian holiday or any old Soviet one. Fees can be up to £80, depending how quickly a visa is needed.
While the Schengen agreement is dismantling borders in Western Europe, they are avidly being restored all over the Baltics and CIS. The village of Valga on the Estonia/Latvia border boasts three newly-built customs houses, fully staffed day and night. They are at their liveliest around five in the morning when the daily bus to Riga leaves; every passport is checked thoroughly and non-residents will get an appropriate exit or entry stamp. A few thousand miles to the East, Pendzhikent used to be a regular day trip from Samarkand, but no longer. The journey now involves leaving Uzbekistan for Tajikistan, and two separate visas are consquently required, a Tajik one and a second one for the return to Uzbekistan.
The mechanics of travel are as complex as the visa procedures. There are no longer regular flights between Tashkent and Almaty, the important capitals of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Only three flights a week link Tallinn and St Petersburg but five a day operate between Tallinn and Helsinki. The Baltics and the Caucuses are now completely cut off from Central Asia. A trip from Vilnius to Tashkent is no longer a domestic flight. It now requires a double-transit visa for travel via Moscow.
Yet there are positive sides to this new situation for many travellers; as each republic sets up its own airline with services to Europe, and as each major city in Russia wants a direct link to a source of dollars, journeys that in the Soviet era took days now take hours. Every day Western aircraft reach Baku on the Caspian Sea, Ekaterinburg and Novosibirsk in Siberia, and Tashkent in Central Asia. As far as tourists are concerned, the more unappealing the destination, the higher the fare. Almati (the former Alma Ata) hardly warrants more than a day as a stopover en route to China but oilmen are happy to spend more than £2,000 to get there on a Lufthansa Airbus. The fare to Tbilisi on Azerbaijan Airlines via Baku, which can only be described as the least unsafe route there, is about £500. At least a visa is free for those brave enough to make the journey.
By the end of 1995, each new republic should have an airline service to London. Lithuanian and Uzbek Air both started in 1992 and were followed in 1993 by Baltic International. One month ago, the first flight operated between Gatwick and Minsk and by November, even Tallinn with a population of only 500,000, should have a thrice-weekly direct link to Britain. During the summer, on the back of a wing, prayer and perhaps even an EU grant, services are likely to start to Almati, Tbilisi and Yerevan.
Competing with these direct services are Austrian Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa, Scandinavian and Turkish Airlines. The business traveller leaving Kiev or Riga for Britain on a Friday afternoon now has a choice of four flights within the space of two hours.
What conclusions can be drawn for the UK visitor who previously went on one of about a dozen itineraries specified by Intourist? The Baltics can now be regarded as totally European, with weekend breaks, fly-drives, coach tours and currencies all too hard against the sickly pound. Most hotels are in the three-star category and prices are now falling as new ones open.
In Russia, the choice in Moscow and St Petersburg is between two-star and five-star; pay £25 a night or £200 a night but nothing in between. Many other towns, such as Irkutsk, Novosibirsk and Vladivostok offer one tower block at about £85 a night. Only determined Russian speakers may be able to buck the system and find accommodation in academic hostels or with families, while satisfying rigid visa constraints.
Neil Taylor is the managing director of Regent Holidays.
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