5 Formerly Forbidden Places, Now Ready for Travelers

5 Formerly Forbidden Places, Now Ready for Travelers

The world is opening more and more to curious travelers. So many places that were once forbidden are now everyday destinations.

Take Vladivostok, Russia’s rather ordinary Pacific Rim port on the country’s east coast. Due to its importance as a border zone city, Vladivostok was declared off-limits to foreigners and even most Russians following WWII. It was only on January 1 1992, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that the city was declared officially open, and began to welcome travelers. MIR regularly introduces travelers to Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian Railway (it’s the end of the line) and on handcrafted, custom private trips.

Here are five formerly forbidden places you can travel to with MIR:

  1. Iran
  2. Marble Canyon Gulag Museum, Novaya Chara
  3. Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
  4. Kaliningrad
  5. Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Nasir ol Molk (aka The Pink Mosque) is a must-see on any trip to Iran. Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Nasir-ol-Molk (aka Pink Mosque) in Shiraz, Iran, is an explosion of color, inside and out
Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

1. Iran

Times have changed in Iran. From launching political rhetoric condemning each other – the U.S. was characterized as the “Great Satan,” Iran belonged to the “Axis of Evil” – the two governments are coming closer together. Sanctions have been lifted, and travelers are bumping Iran to the tops of their Bucket Lists.

Meanwhile, the everyday people of Iran have, for more than 15 years, welcomed MIR travelers from the U.S. with open arms. Locals are quick to say that while governments can have their differences, the people of different countries can get along just fine, thank you very much.

There are 19 different UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iran, including the ruins of the capital city of the Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis and the ancient waterworks at Shustar. Take a peek at a few other sights you should see in Iran.

Experience enigmatic Iran on a:
  • Small group tour – Join like-minded travelers in the company of talented tour managers to experience world-class attractions and inventive extras. Maximum group size: 16 travelers.
  • Rail Journey by Private Train – Be one of the first in your circle to explore this fabled country on a rail journey by private train.
  • Hand-crafted private tour – customized to your interests, pace and dates. 


2. Marble Canyon Gulag Museum, Novaya Chara (Siberia, Russia)

The remote Siberian taiga is dotted with crumbling gulags and work camps, where Stalin and later leaders sent both criminals and political prisoners to backbreaking work in the mines and timber camps, building roads, bridges and the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Such was Marble Canyon, one of the Soviet Union’s first uranium mines. Located in a “natural gulag,” surrounded by vertical rock faces, the Marble Canyon mine was just one among thousands of Siberian gulags where prisoners were worked to death under horrendous conditions.

Rail travelers on the 2016 BAM route that veers up around the northern tip of Lake Baikal stop at the Marble Canyon Gulag Museum in little Novaya Chara. The village is known to alpinists and climbers as a jumping-off place to the rocky peaks of the Koda Mountains – and the beautiful but harsh Marble Canyon.

If you want to learn about gulag life without heading into the wilderness, you can visit the Gulag History Museum in Moscow. From its façade of red-painted brick stare the portraits of 12 prominent Russians who lost their lives in the camps. Through photographs, documents, clothing, personal belongings, drawings and paintings, the Gulag Museum remembers the millions who were unjustly arrested and sentenced to forced labor and often death in camps all over the former USSR. Exhibits include a chilling mock-up of a camp barracks.

Experience gulags first-hand:


Douglas Grimes with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy in Baikonur, Kazakhstan Photo credit: Christopher Prentiss Michel

MIR President, Douglas Grimes, with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy in Baikonur, Kazakhstan
Photo credit: Christopher Prentiss Michel

3. Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

Russia’s premier space launch facility, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, is located deep in the arid steppe of Kazakhstan. This is the place where the first spacecraft to orbit the earth, Sputnik I, was launched, and where Yuri Gagarin began his historic space flight, making him the first human being in space.

First referred to as “the cosmodrome located near Baikonur,” to confuse U.S. intelligence services (the old Kazakh town of Baikonur was actually several hundred miles away) the 2,500-square-mile complex was discovered by U2 spy planes in 1957, only months before Sputnik’s launch.

The Russian military command picked the remote and sparsely populated site because it was near a rail line, and because test rockets launched here could be tracked by radio and land safely in Kamchatka. When construction began, there was nothing here save for the small Kazakh town of cattle breeders called Tyuratam, or Broken Arrow.

The Soviet army built the launch pads and the town of Leninsk – since 1995 officially named Baikonur – from their quarters in tents and dugouts, enduring summer temperatures of up to 120 degrees F and winter temperatures that fell to -10. Herds of horses and wild camels still occasionally wander through the desert complex.

Today Baikonur Cosmodrome includes nine launch complexes with 15 launch pads. The giant Soyuz rocket, ferrying astronauts and cosmonauts to the International Space Station is launched here. An oxygen and nitrogen producing plant, a power station, 11 assembly buildings, communication sites and two airports are connected by roads and railways. The town, now open to non-Russians, boasts apartments, hotels, a movie theater and a riverside park.

Go Inside the Russian Space Program:

You can visit Baikonur and attend a launch of a Soyuz rocket on MIR’s small group tour, Inside the Russian Space Program.


The Curonian Spit borders Kaliningrad, Russia and Lithuania Photo credit: Lithuania State Tourism Department

The Curonian Spit ties together Kaliningrad, Russia and Lithuania
Photo credit: Lithuania State Tourism Department

4. Kaliningrad, Russia

An exclave of Russia, Kaliningrad is the country’s only year-round ice-free port. Because the Soviet Baltic Fleet was headquartered here, Kaliningrad was closed to foreign visitors until 1991. It is still heavily militarized. 

Known since 1255 as Königsberg, the city was for many years the German capital of East Prussia. During WWII, Königsberg was nearly destroyed by the Allied forces, and after the Soviets were awarded the region at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, they did not restore the evidence of its long Germanic past. It was renamed Kaliningrad in 1946.

Here you can visit the Bunker Museum, the underground command post of German General Otto von Lasch in WWII. It includes the room where he signed the city’s surrender papers.

This is also where the Nazis hid the panels of the Amber Room they stole from Catherine’s Palace in St. Petersburg, and where the trail to their whereabouts ends. Reproductions can be admired in the Amber Museum situated in the city’s original fortifications.

Visit Kaliningrad:


Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, Ukraine

A few of the exhibits at the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, Ukraine
Photo: Douglas Grimes

5. Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine

In a 19-mile radius around Ukraine‘s Chernobyl’s Reactor #4, plant and animal life are burgeoning. The absence of humans has allowed them to flourish, unimpeded by that most destructive of factors, human population. This is a so-called Exclusion Zone, evacuated in 1986 and still mostly uninhabited.

The ghost town of Pripyat, which used to house reactor workers and their families, stands silent, its schools, hospitals and homes rifled and decayed. More than 45,000 people were evacuated from Pripyat in the days after the nuclear accident, and a further 116,000 from the rest of the Exclusion Zone.

Since then, about a thousand people have returned, unofficially, to live here. Sometimes in the villages of Opachi and Kupovate, you can meet pensioners who prefer the contaminated environment to moving to a new home.

While a lethal dose of radiation is from 300 to 500 roentgens an hour, the radiation levels here are said to vary from 15 to several hundred micro-roentgens an hour. At this level only long-term exposure is dangerous, according to Ukrainian officials.

Travel to Ukraine:


Travel to a Formerly Forbidden Place with MIR

In 2016, MIR celebrated 30 years of journeys to legendary destinations at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Clients rave about our on-the-ground support and stellar tour managers. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

MIR has a variety of small group tours and rail journeys by private train that traverse and explore these “forbidden” destinations. You can also have a custom, private trip, handcrafted to fit your pace, budget and interests.

30 years of travel expertise means that the specialists at MIR know how to get there, what to do while you’re there, and how to enhance your trip in each of our destinations.

Wondering which destination or itinerary is right for you? In addition to browsing the pages of our free catalog, you can narrow down your choices online using our Trip Finder and the Destination Map.

Contact MIR today at info@mircorp.com or 1-800-424-7289.

Top Photo: The complex Persian architecture of beautiful Isfahan, Iran.

PUBLISHED: February 19, 2016

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