Tips for traveling in the Communist/Post-Communist Bloc

* A definition is probably in order here. The term “Bloc” has historically referred to the East European nations that formed the Warsaw Treaty Organization, but I use it here to describe any nation that experimented with Communism — by choice or by force — in the 20th century. I wrote this list in 2003 based on experiences I had in the late nineties, so undoubtedly it is dated, particularly concerning China. But hopefully it retains some relevance, as a historical document if nothing else!


1. Pack Well. Certain items can be in scant supply in this part of the world. Bring a flashlight, rechargeable batteries, converters, a strong piece of nylon rope, good pens and paper, a pocket knife, a combination padlock, and all the condoms, tampons, and medical supplies you could possibly need. Healthy snack food is also a good idea (especially in Cuba and, I imagine, North Korea): a jar of peanut butter, dried fruit, granola bars, soup mixes, etc. Once you arrive, try never to leave your flat/hostel without tissues — public bathrooms rarely have toilet paper.

2. Bribing Works. The days of distributing panty hose, pens, and chocolates for favors are generally OVER in the Eastern Bloc, but offering cigarettes and/or a bottle of vodka can be a nice way to get a bureaucratic transaction rolling. (Although they’ll ask for your MP3 player if they see it.) It is technically illegal to bribe, so be smart about it. Proffer it as an act of friendship rather than a blatant bribe. Aside from my dormitory and canteen in Moscow, I actually didn’t have to bribe terribly often in Russia and the former Soviet Union, and not at all in China, Viet Nam, or Cuba. I attribute this largely to my Single Young Female (SYF) status. If you fit that bill, you might be in luck! If not — and, say, Belorussia is on your itinerary — bring along a carton of good cigarettes.

3. Take Pleasure In Simplicity. The sad fact is that if you are from a “developed nation,” you might be carrying more money in your hidden waist belt than your bloc friends will earn all year. This can lead to some uncomfortable social situations. If you’re a SYF and they’re a male or older female, you might bruise their ego if you offer to pay. (Or worse, make them feel obligated to return your financial favor.) The best strategy is to live as locals do, frugally but fully. In Moscow, my boyfriend and I strolled everywhere, had picnics in the park, and read poetry aloud to each other. In Beijing, my friends and I biked all over town, watched tai chi in the park, and held numerous mahjongg orjiaozi-making parties in my flat. In Havana, we strolled up and down the Malecon for hours on end and twirled around their kitchen tables.

If you happen to hook up with someone in the Russian Mafiya or Chinese Triad, however, let them pay.

4. Communist Kitsch. Those Mao mobiles and Little Red Books and Lenin pendants might by kitschy collectibles, but resist the urge to, say, build a shrine with them in your new flat. If, in the unlikely event your future friends/guests still hold Leninist/ Maoist/Fidelista views, they might either assume that you do too (which can be dangerous, even if you think you do) or think you’re poking fun of their ideology. Otherwise, they’ll probably consider it bad form, tasteless, or downright insensitive (particularly if their relatives spent time in prison or a labor camp). Either way, you’ll likely be further perceived as a tourist who doesn’t understand the first thing about their culture/society/history. My advice: stock up and stuff it in your suitcase. A major exception to this rule is, of course, Che Guevara. If you’re in Cuba, shrine away.

5. Be Wary When Admitting Your Nationality/Profession. I once got attacked by a babushka in the Moscow Metro for saying I was from Texas (and that was four years before Bush seized power). That was a freak occurrence, of course, but not an isolated one. From that point on, whenever I was in doubt about how Americans might be perceived (like the time I got surrounded by skinheads and punks at a Zyuganov rally), I pretended I was from Mexico. On the other hand, countries where I thought being American might pose a problem — like Viet Nam and Cuba — welcomed me with open arms. I was, however, in those nations a very limited time.

Travelers to currently Communist lands should also take heed when discussing their day jobs. Calling yourself a journalist, for instance, can really freak people out. (Although if you’re on assignment, there is no ethical way of avoiding it.) Admitting that your employer is the Embassy, meanwhile, can instantly earn you 50 new friends — all of whom want a visa. Saying you are a student (especially a foreign exchange student) is usually the safest bet. (Although claiming to be a journalist from a major news organization did keep my luggage from being ransacked at the airport in Tashkent, Uzbekistan a few years back….)

6. Be Wary Of Political Conversations — Even If (Especially If) You Consider Yourself A Socialist/Marxist/Communist. This is a tough one, but it basically boils down to this. Communism may have ended repressive monarchies or military dictatorships, educated the masses, universalized health and child care, and vindicated the rights of women in many a country, but it also wreaked total havoc upon — if not destroyed altogether — hundreds of millions of innocent lives. Unless you are actually from a bloc country yourself, chances are high that people will discount whatever you say in conversations about politics, no matter how well-read or traveled you might be, for the simple reason that “You don’t know — you didn’t live it.”

I quickly learned not to offer my political views until I either knew someone very well (as in months) or felt very confident they were open to a genuine discussion and we were in a safe/private space. Otherwise, I just turned the questions onto them and responded like a journalist: “How interesting. Yes, I totally understand how you could feel that way. Tell me more.”

7. Be Wary Of “Sensitive” Subjects. In China, those include Tiananmen Square, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Falun Gong, and political dissidence. In Cuba, try to avoid mentioning Fidel Castro by name. If you somehow get yourself into North Korea, probably anything but food, family, and the weather is off limits. Anyone out there know for sure?

8. Watch What You Say And Where You Say It. If you are going to hold a conversation on one of the above topics, be careful where you have it. In 1998, I heard some pretty horrifying stories of Western teachers trying to turn their English classes into “Democracy 101” in China by asking their students to debate certain historical events or ideologies. Yet, the Chinese Communist Party often had “monitors” in each class who reported what was said and done each day to the school. A black mark on a Chinese dossier could lead to untold troubles in the future in everything from employment to housing.

Your new friends, of course, will instinctively know what can and can’t be said in certain locations. Try to let them bring up “sensitive” topics and pay close attention to their body language. If they ever seem remotely uncomfortable — say, when someone enters the room — switch topics.

9. Be Wary Of The Loose-Lipped. If a Cuban, Chinese, or North Korean walks up to you and begins to trash their country, leaders, and history within two minutes of acquaintance, proceed with caution. Unless they are an artist/intellectual (or you are a journalist), they might have either an ulterior motive or a death wish.

10. Don’t Be Paranoid. Unless you are a diplomat, journalist, or activist from a major organization (or are in North Korea), the governments of these nations could probably care less about you. I gave myself needless angst in China by self-censoring my emails, ripping off the covers of certain books, and locking up my notes and journals in a suitcase. Don’t let this happen to you.
As I hopefully show in my book, the Communist Bloc is a dynamic, vibrant place full of incredible people with gripping — albeit tragic — stories. It will likely challenge all you know to be true, strengthening some of your beliefs and revolutionizing the rest. I cannot recommend traveling there highly enough. Go now, before another one falls.