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Rail journey Through Siberia (2/2)

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Women have another job on the Trans-Siberian. Most of the line does not have the automatic signalling familiar on U.S. and other railroads. Instead there are relays of signal huts. Suddenly, out of an immensity of space, there is a hut and standing before it a woman holding aloft the yellow baton that informs the engineer of our great train that the way ahead is clear. Travellers vary in their reaction to the six days and nights on the train. Some find it entrancing, some find it boring, and some find it a mixture of both. Its appeal is not easy to pin down. It may be the variety of scenery and the lure of far places. It may be one's fellow voyagers, if one is lucky. It may be the odd fact that most people find they sleep better on it than most places. What it is not is a gourmet special. The single dining car did its best with the little it had and tried to make up for the rest in sheer willingness to please.

The menu was printed grandly in four languages but the only items available were those few that were priced. There was boiled chicken every day, some days more rubbery than others. Schnitzel was on every day as well tasting the same whether it was listed as pork or veal. So was solyanka, soup fortified with bits of meat and sausage. Semolina with butter and sugar was the daily desert. There were plenty of eggs for breakfast and, if requested, a cereal called grechnivaya kasha guaranteed to stun the digestion of a wolverine.

All this was washed down with excellent Russian tea or mediocre coffee or beer, wine and soft drinks. Experts gave the pivo or beer a low rating. The wine varied from a sweet Russian to a sharper Romanian Riesling. Russians are solid drinkers and bottles of wine disappeared at an uncommon rate even at what was officially called breakfast. Since the train rolls through a new time zone every day and Russian railroads recognise only Moscow time there was a morning guessing game about the exact hour the dining car would open. Usually everyone guessed wrong and raced ashore at the first available stop to try to buy something edible from the old ladies who run free enterprise food stalls on the stations. Food vendors also worked the train but their unvarying supply of smoked and canned fish soon palled. Closer to Moscow a few oranges end bruised apples made a brief appearance.

Russian passengers frequently insisted on sharing some delicacy such an a local variety of smoked fish with foreigners and would not accept a gift of any sort without offering one in return. " I gave a woman some eggs for her children" said a Swedish girl, " and she made me take one of their toys."

The train rolled along at about 45 miles or so an hour making the world a bigger place (in contrast to planes which shrink it.) We went ashore at Kubyshevka and Skovarodino and Nerchinsk and Chita, which is the junction for the train to Peking. Sometimes we were pulled by one diesel train and sometimes two. Sometimes we had a diesel pulling and a locomotive shoving and once there were two splendid locomotives in front sending great plumes of white smoke over the Siberian taiga. At every station there were statues of Lenin, silvered, gilded or in stone. Ulan Ede, capital of the Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic glimmered through the night, no mean city this. Then Irkutsk, where Trotsky was exiled, and in the dawn the magical sight of the world's largest and deepest freshwater lake, Lake Baikal, which is 390 miles long, 50 miles wide, 5,500 feet deep and has more then 1,000 unique species of plant and animal life, many threatened by pollution. The Russians say 333 rivers empty into Baikal and only one emerges from it, the River Angara, and if a drop of water falls into the lake it takes 500 years for it to emerge.

Then through Cherenkhovo, Katalik, Tulun, and the metropolis of Krasnoyarsk where on the freezing platform Russians lined up to buy ice cream as they had done all along the route whatever the weather. If it weren't for the ratio of price to salary, the Russians would consume more ice cream per capita than all-American boys. A couple of Russians, one obviously a dignitary since he was put in the only first class car on the train, got on at the goldfield town of Achinsk. The little huts changed about this point, most of them began to sprout television aerials no matter how humble the little habitation looked. Soon we were at Novosibirsk (population 1.2 million and the " Chicago of Siberia ". The next noteworthy stop was Sverdlovsk, once called Ekaterinburg and the scene of the massacre of Czar Nicholas and his family during the Russian Revolution. Between Sverdlovsk end Pera we passed out of Asia and into Europe.

We crossed the Volga at Jaroslav with much chattering from Russians who have a mystical regard for it. Then the go1den domes of The Churches of Zagorsk loomed ahead, a place of religious pilgrimage in Czarist times. The tomb of Boris Goudonov is in the Cathedral of the Assumption there and since religious pilgrimage is not encouraged under the Soviet regime, the mass of buses must have been filled with curiosity seekers. One depressing fact occurred to most of us after the halfway mark of the journey. The people were not as forthcoming as on the first part of the ride. Perhaps it was only coincidence that this reserve marked our entry into the area reached by Soviet television and its propaganda.

The Trans-Siberian Express pulled into Jaroslav Station in Moscow and the good-byes were just as sincere and insincere as they are at the end of an ocean cruise. Many of the passengers had been thrown together for the six days and nights it took to cover the 5,350 miles from Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East and in holiday terms that is a long tine. Long enough to make and break friendships. Long enough to wonder why the warmth and generosity of the Siberians in their vast land begins to darken into aloofness the closer one gets to European Russia and the capital.

David Bowie in Red Square (May 1973)

Long enough to learn about travellers and travelling. Our resident Trans-Siberian sensation, pop superstar David Bowie, who refuses to fly because of a premonition of death, chose orange slacks by Yves St. Laurent and a floppy Dutch-style peaked cap for his entry into Moscow. It was subdued for him but he made up for it that night with a cafe-au-lait silk jacket striped with green sequins and worn with bright yellow slacks and three-inch high yellow platform-soled shoes. With his dyed bright red hair and pale face he made a striking and handsome figure and whatever Russian men may have thought he was looked upon kindly by scores of young Russian girls on Gorky Street. Over caviar, smoked salmon and sturgeon, at the National Hotel, a reaction from the Spartan fare of the train, he mentioned the only two unpleasant experiences of the ride.

"The Russians say you can use your cameras as long as you don't include any military objectives, " he said. " We were shooting station scenes at Sverdlovsk when a character in a leather windcheater and dark glasses demanded our film. We refused to give it to him and for a moment I was worried there would be trouble. But the train started to pull out just then and we jumped aboard. "I believe he was a KGB man"

David Bowie in Red Square (May 1973)

"Then we were in the dining car one day after we passed from Asia into Europe. We've all noticed how much friendlier the people were in Siberia and how they seemed to stiffen the closer we got to Moscow, well this day there were four Russians at another table staring at us in a way that made us think they were locking for an argument. I was with Geoff (Geoffrey MacCormack his boyhood friend and bongo player) and we decided it was better to leave" " Yes", said MacCormack" we got out smartish like, and as we did one of the Russians drew his hand across his throat".

These incidents, they stressed, were the exception. The predominant impression of western passengers was that Russians are a welcoming people generally and for the most part anxious to have visitors think well of their vast land. The debarking was accompanied by much changing of gifts. Russians will rarely accept anything without offering at least something in return.

The last half of this last great train ride on earth across the Soviet Far East, Siberia and European Russia was as much an exploration of personalities as of countryside. Bowie, en-route home to London after a successful series of pop concerts in Japan, came out from behind the "bisexual" image he presents to his young fans to reveal himself as a likeable, intelligent and talented young man. There was nothing ambiguous about his relationships with some of the prettier girls on board, either. " My wife Angela understands", he laughed one day. They have a son Zowie, named from a Batman comic. He can change it to whatever he wants when he grows up", he said. For some of the trip he worked on new songs he will record in Japan before what he says will be the most ambitious tour of the United States ever undertaken by a foreign rock artist. When not otherwise engaged he studied the Japanese language.

Passengers make or break a journey of this duration. We were lucky. There was a New Zealand archaeologist on his way to Tashkent and Alma- talking about the thrill of holding implements put down 5000 years earlier by a farmer in Ur-of-the-Chaldees. Somerset Maugham would have loved our retired English lady schoolteacher and keep fit enthusiast who skipped a rope at every station to the delight of the Siberians. At Irkutak there were two colourful additions to the roster. One was a brisk septuagenarian San Francisco lawyer who proved he was an expert traveller by producing an all-purpose wash basin stopper. "I've never known any place in Russia to have them", he said. He stayed aboard one night to fulfil an ambition to ride the Trans-Siberian then headed for Tashkent, the Thyber Pass, Burma and hone. " My wife said she was too tired to take this trip", he said.

The other was photographer Leee (three eees) Childers of New York, a platinum blonde with snakeskin platform-soled boots who reported children had pursued him in Khabarovsk shouting "Bowie…Bowie." The word somehow got around that David might be there and I was the only likely looking candidate I suppose", he said.

There were two Swiss agricultural scientists returning from studies in Japan, Thailand and other countries and a group of women schoolteachers from Munich on their way to Irkutsk, Lake Baikal (which contains one-fifth of all the pure water in the world) and the Russian science city of Akademgorodok. They spoke Russian and some of the younger members of the group spent their last night aboard at a party at which everyone drank Romanian Riesling and listened to Bowie sing to his own guitar accompaniment. It broke up before dawn rose on pine forests dusted with snow. At Irkutsk there were the evocative farewells of travellers to far places... So long, see you in Isafahan, Bokhara, Kabul, Samarkand (whose golden road is now a paved automobile highway). A Russian said Tamerlane or Timor the Lame is buried there in a tomb which includes the largest piece of jade in the world and the legend: " He who opens this tomb will bring upon his country an invader more terrible than I." The tomb, he said, was opened by Russian archaeologists in June 1941. The next month Germany invaded.

At another station there was a poster showing a thief slinking around a freight train and warning about pilfering. A wealthy Australian growled that he would like to bring his country's communists to Siberia to see the log cabins and wooden huts in which people still live 57 years after the Russian revolution. " Peter the Great started sending prisoners to Siberia more than 250 years ago and under the czars there were never more than 185,000" said a like-minded bystander. " Under Stalin there were about 15 million". Whoever they were or in what numbers they laid the foundations of a great state.

David Bowie in Red Square (May 1973)

Bowie intrigued his fellow passengers and astonished the Russians at every station he walked around. "I find freedom only in the realms of my own eccentricity", he said of his clothes and hair (previously dyed blue and blonde). He used to wear smock dresses till a Texan pulled a gun on him while he was on a U.S. tour to promote his albums. His hairdo, white face and choice of colours stem from his deep interest in the Kabuki Theatre in Japan. His appearances in Japan were, as he says, "Beatlemania all over again." The fact his records now top the world charts and his concerts are sell-outs surprises him not a bit. He thought it was fated to happen and it has. Bowie shared his compartment with MacCormack.

I was promised a charming young lady by Intourist but wound up with a husky New Zealander. One Englishman who had an East European girl in his roomette reported that she plucked at his pyjama sleeve one night and whispered what he thought might have been an invitation in his ear except that it sounded like she was saying " Bobby Fischer".

She was. She couldn't sleep and wanted him to play chess.

---This page last modified: 27 Jun 2002---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)