“Follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park and listen to the wind of change” – Scorpions.
It’s no travel secret that I am slowly beginning to love backpacking in the Former Soviet Union, these days I love it and am keen to explore it much, much more. As a child, I was always intrigued by the Soviet Union, the U.S.S.R., C.C.C.P., the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I mean, what the hell was it? I just didn’t really know. To me it was the home of Rinat Dasaev, goalkeeper who was once world number one but made an error in Belfast one night that led to my team Glentoran being 1-0 up on Spartak Moscow.
I used to confuse Russia with the USSR (I mean 4 of the letters are the same and I always thought CCCP was some kind of drug!) and I hadn’t a clue what the CIS was, still trying to work out what “Commonwealth Independent State” means. But then I started working with people from Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Estonia while serving ice cream in Bournemouth and it was too fascinating to avoid visiting by now.
In truth though, reading books and talking to people is useless – the only way to understand it, is to go there and see the culture first hand. It has taken me a while to get into Soviet history, but now having spent cumulatively about 10-11 months in ex-Soviet Union countries, I love it. I’m inspired by it and by using Bishkek as my base for the last four months, it has allowed me to not just reflect on my journeys in the former Soviet Union, but to live in it. Kyrgystan and Moldova for me are the easiest two Former Soviet Union states to live in. I simply love Bishkek – it’s a great city.
These days as a long term backpacker, it’s obvious to me what the Soviet Union was – 20 plus countries controlled or combined to act ridiculously as one. And it failed of course but the beauty is you can now backpack your way through these cool countries, regions and hotly debated states with more freedom than ever before. Well, perhaps apart from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
“Wherever you hide, I’ll find you” – Noel Gallagher.
You can now relish in the aftermath of a truly bizarre regime which somehow attempted to amalgamate dozens of different cultures into one. I haven’t yet backpacked through all of the Soviet Union though, but I ventured to these states and regions this far and there’s a huge amount of other parts to still explore (whether they’re official countries or not doesn’t register with me – I’m a separatist and a Northern Irish nationalist):
1.Moldova (self governed, partly claimed by Gaugazia)
2.Transnistria (self governed, claimed by Moldova)
3.Ukraine (self governed, partly claimed by Russia)
5.Lithuania (self governed, partly claimed by Uzupis)
7.Uzupis (claimed by Lithuania)
9.Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (A strictly monitored zone which includes land from Belarus and Ukraine, and formerly also in Russia)
13.Uzbekistan (self governed, partly claimed by Tajikistan)
14.Karakalpakstan (given autonomy by Uzbekistan)
16.Gorno Badakhshan (protected and governed by Tajikistan)
17.Azerbaijan (partly claimed by Nagorno Karabakh)
18.Nagorno Karabakh (self governed, claimed by Azerbaijan)
20.Georgia (partly claimed by Russia)
21.Kaliningrad (borders Lithuania and Poland – geographically separate from Russia)
Even on that list, you can see the political enigmas and difficulties within. The borders are highly complex and I’ve managed to backpack across about 20 land borders in the ex-Soviet Union so far including:
Kazakhstan to Krygyzstan
Lithuania to Uzupis
Moldova to Transnistria
Lithuania to Latvia
Latvia to Estonia
Transnistria to Moldova
Poland to Kaliningrad
Armenia to Nagorno Karabakh
Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia
Georgia to Armenia
Armenia to Georgia
Georgia to Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan to Georgia
Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan
Tajikistan to Uzbekistan
Tajikistan to Gorno Badakhshan
Uzbekistan to Karakalpakstan
As for visiting the other countries and significant regions/debated states in the Former Soviet Union, they are definitely on my list. Officially though, I’ve made it to most countries and regions with the exception of all of Siberia, Turkmenistan, Gaugazia, Abkhazia, Naxivan, South Ossettia, Crimea and a few of the other contentious states. I’ve been to an Abkhazian Embassy before though…
A lot more to see for me, especially in Russia itself, but as I prepare to leave Bishkek and magnetic Kyrgyzstan, it’s a nice time to reflect on my Former Soviet Union journey so far. These are my top 20 moments from those 20 countries/regions I’ve ventured to thus far. I made no apology for not including Latvia at all on the list, two visits in and it remains my least favourite country in the former U.S.S.R. One country significantly gets a double entry.
1.Watching Northern Ireland play in Bobruisk, BELARUS
Probably one of the wackiest journeys I will ever do was heading all the way to the city of Bobruisk in Eastern Belarus to watch the Northern Ireland ladies team play an international football match!
It was a crazy train journey from Minsk, I stayed in the only hotel in Bobruisk and I am still the only fan to ever travel to Belarus to watch a full Northern Ireland team play a match. It also was my debut chapter as a published author as I wrote about my trip to Belarus for the 2010 book by Shaun Schofield, Albania to America.
I visited Belarus in 2007. All posts here.
2.Backpacking in the Republic of Uzupis, UZUPIS
As far as countries go, the self declared nation, the Republic of Uzupis is one of the coolest countries out there. Of course, a country like this with its arty vibe and free spirit would have been banned during the Soviet Union, but thankfully, Uzupis is now a popular up and running independent country with its own army, borders, passport stamps, currency (the Uza) and their own independence day (April 1st). It’s no joke.
After crossing the border from Lithuania into Uzupis, I toured the sights and got my passport stamped, drank in the cool Spunka Bar and then heading back to Lithuania. All this while still backpacking in the city of Vilnius.
I visited Uzupis in 2015. All posts here.
3.The Wacaday Adventure to Nukus, KARAKALPAKSTAN
Yet another unknown country or autonomous region, the Republic of Karakalpakstan should have invited Timmy “Wacaday” Mallet to be its president. As it stands, Karakalpakstan doesn’t have complete independence from Uzbekistan but they sure as hell have their own culture here. You might have read that my journey from Bukhara to Nukus in the Republic of Karakalpakstan was one of sheer undoubted lunacy.
Nukus, the capital is like a rock’n’roll ex-Soviet city in the desert. They have their own language and flag here and secretly they have the world’s best art museum. No kidding! I stayed in the quirky Jipek Joli hotel and whackpacked my way through the sights of Nukus.
I visited Karakalpakstan in 2016. All posts here.
4.My Journey to Orheiul Vechi, MOLDOVA
I could live in Moldova for sure. It’s one of the cheapest countries in Europe, friendly people, not too many sights to get drowned in, Kishinev’s up and coming pub scene, great food and superb wine.
Plus as well as whackpacking through Chisinau/Kishinev, a lively capital city if ever there was one, I toured Butuceni and the monastery at Orheiul Vechi. This was a crazy one man show – an off the wall journey to the tiny village of Butuceni.
I visited Moldova in 2014. All posts here.
5.My Night in the Southern Most Hotel of the USSR at Termiz, UZBEKISTAN
To spend 4 nights right on the Afghanistan border yet within the former Soviet Union was one of my highlights on my Central Asian adventure. When life took me to the city of Termiz, this was one part of my journey where I felt truly off the scale completely.
I was alone, the soul backpacker in a non-descript city of Uzbekistan. Everyone in the city had gold teeth, I filled my backpack with cash, whackpacked my way into Afghanistan and then when I stopped and checked the facts – I was sleeping in a Soviet style hotel, once the southermost tourist hotel in the USSR.
I visited Uzbekistan in 2016. All posts here.
“Your joys are counterfeit; this happiness corrupt political shit” – Manic Street Preachers (when referring to Uzbekistan).
6.Visiting Joey Dunlop’s Tribute in Tallinn, ESTONIA
While most backpackers tick off a textbook top 15 sights of the Old Town in Tallinn, my selfish Ulster soul was determined to visit the sad spot where Northern Irish motorcyle hero Joey Dunlop died.
It was a poignant and lonely dander to the edge of the city and there was a moving tribute to my hero and fellow countryman in a city with enough kick ass bars to help drown my sorrows in.
I visited Estonia in 2015. All posts here.
7.Touring the Pamirs, Khorog, GORNO BADAKHSHAN
While securing a visa for Tajikistan in 2016, I also wanted to see the Pamir region and so I got myself a permit for the Gorno Badakhshan region. This is a border country between Tajikistan and China and is mostly mountainous.
A separate permit is required of course, but realistically the region is part of Tajikistan. I stayed in the Pamir Lodge in the capital city of Khorog.
I visited Gorno Badakhshan in 2016. All posts here.
8.Staying at the Eclectic Hotel in Vank, NAGORNO KARABAKH
Again sheer lunacy took over when we stayed in the most elegant hotel in the most ridiculous settlement of all time in a country which to all intents of purposes, doesn’t really exist. The Eclectic Hotel resembles the Titanic and sits in Vank, Nagorno Karabakh.
Vank is a town near the Armenian Gandsazar Monastery but the entire town and country of Nagorno Karabakh is housed on land that the Azerbaijanis claim is theirs. You need a visa to visit Nagorno Karabakh and you have to illegally cross Azeri land to get in. This is complicated and things get even weirder when you see the “Stolen numberplate wall”, the ruined city of Agdam and you are served the local drink – blueberry juice with bits of wood in it.
I visited Nagorno Karabakh in 2013. All posts here.
“You’re turning every modern theory on its head” – Super Furry Animals.
9.Four Months Based in Bishkek, KYRGYZSTAN
When I crossed the border from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan in December 2015, I had no idea I would spend the next four months here using Bishkek as my base. It wasn’t love at first night, but it was love within the first 24 hours and soon I decided I would stay in Bishkek.
It’s just hard for me to describe how much I love it here in Bishkek. You just sometimes get a feel for a city and you like it. With Bishkek, I just love the vibe about the city. I love the people, the streetlife, the cafes, the bars, the sights and the pure Soviet influence which the locals have no need or desire to cover up. I have been based at the Apple Hostel Bishkek for the most part, but in between securing visas for other countries, I also toured the city’s Wi-Fi cafes by day, the bars by night, tried the local food and had a couple of nights in one of the city’s coolest hotels.
You’ve probably read a lot about Bishkek already on here, and there will be more to come. I’d loved to be based here again, I helped organise the city’s first ever pub crawl this week and have found a good base.
I visited Kyrgyzstan in 2015 and 2016. All posts here.
10.My Homestay with Ilya in Tiraspol, TRANSNISTRIA
When I travel I still meet people who have never heard of Transnistria. I even met people who thought it was either part of the USA or part of Romania! It’s neither – it’s a completely separate country! Transnistria has its own borders, flag, passports, stamps, currency and government!
After crossing the border on a crazy Marshrutka in the pouring rain from Chisinau in Moldova to Tiraspol, Transnistria, I set about exploring the top whackpacking sights of the capital. I stayed with a local lad, Ilya, a full on Transnistrian who speaks English and acted as my guided tour in this wacaday off the cuff Republic. I had a local dinner at my homestay, tried the local beer and enjoyed a Placinta breakfast before backpacking through Lenin busts and the last remnants of the U.S.S.R. If you only ever visit one ex-Soviet Union country in your life, make it Transnistria. Although, that will be hard as the country doesn’t have international flights and is landlocked within Moldova and Ukraine, so make it your second. This is the nearest country you will get to seeing what the Soviet Union was actually like.
I visited Transnistria in 2014. All posts here.
11.The bars of Lviv, UKRAINE
Of all the cities I have travelled too down the years, few can compete with absurb and unusual themed bars than lively Lviv in Ukraine. You can get your ass spanked at the home of Masochism, hold a gun and proclaim glory to the Ukraine in a bunker bar called Kryjivka or overlook the main square with a textbook bottle of local grapefruit beer. This is my favourite city in the Ukraine and it would take a huge shift to ever change that.
While I include the bars as my favourite memory here, the Ukranian Revolution Museum should also not be missed. This is a proud and loyal Ukranian city.
I visited Ukraine in 2015. All posts here.
12.Day Tour of Turkistan, KAZAKHSTAN
Kazakhstan doesn’t have a good reputation amongst backpackers for some reason. Check 100 travel blogs, and rarely will more than 10 of them have articles on Kazakhstan. But what’s not to like about this country? It’s also “opening up” to the rest of the world with its more lenient visa entry rules than Belarus and Russia. Plus you can go Kazakpacking instead of backpacking or whackpacking or suitcasing.
Cities like Shymkent and Almaty have their own pleasant charms, the national park at Ile Alatau was brilliant and then there is Turkistan. Is that a country? No – it’s just a small town with some cool Islamic shrines and it’s also a kick ass UNESCO World Heritage Site – Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi’s shrine. As a bonus, the city of Shymkent is only 160 kilometres away and would almost be worthy of a place on this list too.
I visited Kazakhstan in 2015 and 2016. All posts here.
13.This A Visit to Stalin’s Town – Gori, GEORGIA
Finally we get down to the real business – backpacking through Stalin’s town. The man responsible for most of this Soviet Union history. While the Soviet Union and the communist ideal was Lenin’s dream, Stalin was the crazy man who took it over and controlled over 20 countries during his reign which also occurred during the horrific Nazi extermination era from Hitler’s Germany, the start of the Cold War and the ongoing debate on how many people were killed by order of the Stalin Soviet regime.
I’d read enough books on it and studied Soviet history at Ards tech but it was time to get into a Marshrutka and head to Gori to backpack to Stalin’s town. I toured Stalin’s museum and the nearby village of Uplistsikhe.
I visited Georgia in 2013. All posts here.
14.Touring the Hill of Crosses at Kryziu Kalnas, LITHUANIA
When I backpacked in Lithuania in 2015, I was keen on touring the city of Siauliai and in particular this ice cool remote area in a countryside location outside the city, Kryziu Kalnas otherwise known as Hill of Crosses.
This has some interesting Soviet era history too. Religion was banned under the Soviet regime, but here in the middle of the night people would always sneak back to the Hill and add more and more crosses, hence why there are now thousands of crosses here. I also toured Kaunas and Vilnius while in the country.
I visited Lithuania in 2015. All posts here.
15.Stranger in Moscow, RUSSIAN FEDERATION
I could easily have left Russia off this list, but after all, it was my first ever ex-Soviet Union country to visit in 2007. At the time, everything with travel just seemed so amazing to me. Yeah seeing the Lenin tomb, Red Square, walking through Gorky Park, the Kremlin. A few nights on the rip in Arbat Street. I was so young and bouyant about everything. I stayed in Hostel Moscow near Afanavyesky Boulevard and loved it.
Back then everything was good, I loved Moscow, and I wrote about it in my early travel blogging days. Looking back, the posts seem so dated and even the trip seems a lifetime ago now. I had no notion that my simple backpacking blog would ever become a business or that I could earn money as a professional travel blogger, it still seems a bit surreal when I think about that time in Moscow, I remember typing my stories up on the hostel PC.
I visited Russia in 2007. All posts here.
16.Day Tour of Dushanbe, TAJIKISTAN
It took me a while to reach Tajikistan, a country not often backpacked and a country perhaps as obscure as they come. But well worth the trip. Dushanbe, the country’s capital rocks along with a subdued appeal. I got a guided tour of the city of Monday, Stalinabad, Dushanbe. The name of this city has changed down the years almost as much as the city itself. After the revolutions of 2012, Tajikistan was a dodgy place to be, these days it’s safe, happy and friendly.
I visited Tajikistan in 2016. All posts are here.
17.Visiting Tatev Monastery, ARMENIA
Although I loved my time in Armenia, I never got round to writing about every part and some places that were ice cool slipped through the net. Without doubt, Tatev Monastery was my highlight from Armenia. Check it out. It’s an age old monastery deep in the countryside.
It was weird backpacking through Armenia as it just seemed so different to what I expected anywhere in the former Soviet Union to be.
I visited Armenia in 2013. All posts here.
Magnetic Kyrgyzstan pulled me in again with its countryside charm, despite the fact I only visited and stayed here in Winter and Spring. My time in the countryside took me to Ala Archa National Park, the impressive Cholpon Ata for the Ruh Ordo Cultural Center and the Petroglyphs and the ruined city of Balasagun and Burana Tower. And of course, I’ve hardly seen any of it yet. What a special country.
Part of my heart will always be here in Kyrgyzstan, there’s just something so endearing about the country to me. It reignited my travel flame and in many ways enthused me more and more about the Soviet history.
I visited Kyrgyzstan in 2015 and 2016.
19.Touring Pripyat, CHERNOBYL EXCLUSION ZONE
It might seem strange to include such a sad place in my highlights but the fact is we need to somehow see the gory shit on our journeys and I’ve written about horrific places before. What happened at Chernobyl was drastically sad and a complete PR disaster for the Soviet Union, one of many glaring errors in the history of the regime. Some 29 years on, I finally got my Chernobyl entry permit and backpacked in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The entire day tour was sombre and reflective but we also couldn’t escape the secrets of the Soviet regime. We visited the top secret Duga radar system and saw two settlements which had to be completely abandoned in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Of these, Pripyat stands out – really sad place, a deserted city, one also covered in a song by Northern Irish rock band Ash.
I visited Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in 2015. All posts here.
20.Watching Northern Ireland play in Baku, AZERBAIJAN
I started my top 20 with a Northern Ireland football match and I’ll end it with one. Yes, there were many highlights from my time backpacking in Azerbaijan, and I wrote a lot about that country, but being back with the Green and White Army in Baku ranks highest.
But to link it altogether, I also wrote about and loved my trips to Xinaliq, Sheki, Lake Masazir, James Bond Oil Fields, The Mud Volcanoes, Qobustan World Heritage Site and Baku itself.
I visited Azerbaijan in 2013. All posts here.
So as I reflect on my visits to ex-Soviet Union states, I’m aware I still have a few more to visit and might well try and visit them soon. Especially Turkmenistan and Abkhazia. I visited Kaliningrad after writing this, so that story is not included, you can read about my best sights in Kaliningrad here. Gaugazia also interests me a lot and gives me an excuse to go backpacking in Moldova again. I’m becoming more and more intrigued with the ex-Soviet Union as the days go by and the recent chapters typed up for the book Backpacking Centurion reflect my time in Bishkek and my Soviet influences.
I’ll see you around!
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7 thoughts on “Backpacking in the Former Soviet Union: My Top 20 Moments So Far”
It’s been enjoyable to follow all of your stories during your tour of the former U.S.S.R. It really puts into perspective how big and convoluted that country was from 1922 – 1991. Here’s hoping you get to the remaining regions on your list, especially Siberia! I can only imagine the type of adventures you will find there. Maybe you will have to combine it with World Cup 2018 tour perhaps? 😉
Hi Ray, the 2018 World Cup has definitely crossed my mind, it’s such a huge country, Russia and when I add the other ex-Soviet states to it, I get intrigued to visit it all. Turkmenistan is such a beast to get to, and if I do it, I’ll have to get another Uzbekistan double entry visa, or an Iran and Uzbek one and overland it. Abkhazia and South Ossettia are not straight forward either, but it’s a nice challenge! Safe travels. Jonny
Haha. So cool. I am studying Russian and thinking about a backpacking extravaganza through some of these places. Thanks for inspiring me!
Hi Frosty thanks for the comment. Yes a backpacking extravaganza could be on here! Safe travels. Jonny