Riding The Red Rooster
What! Me a communist! A waver of the red flag with hammer and sickle. Marching in the May Day Military Parade past the Kremlin? Can this be the All American red white and blue Joseph? Ok, I admit it – I was a communist for a short time – let me tell you the deal. I had always wanted to take the Trans Siberian railroad across Russia – seven 24-hour periods, day and night, a million little stops along the way, some as the train was waiting on a siding – there was only one track in 1983. Chugging out of Moscow, then crossing the Urals, to the steppes of Siberia, just like in Dr. Zhivago – maybe there would even be some beautiful blonds, like Julie Christie – almost 5900 miles, we ought to see someone as fetching as her. But why really go, don’t know for sure – just sounded like an exotic adventure – certainly a place no one else was going. Seeing cities like Novgorod, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Ulan Ude, Amur, Perm, and Vladivostok. Most people had not ever heard of these cities, let alone been there.
But this was 1983, and tourists to the Soviet Union were persona non grata. President Regan had just referred to the USSR as the Evil Empire, and he let them know that we had a star war’s defense and offense that gave us total superiority. The US was generally hated and feared by the Russkys and getting a visa to wander around a country with 7 time zones was impossible. But then came some information that the USSR through its agency Intourist was organizing a trip for US Communists to take the Trans Siberian from Moscow to the East Coast – Just what I wanted. Problem however, I had not attended any communist meetings or protests or any thing like that and I had no party card. My explanation – I was the only communist in the state of Utah but I did have a friend who was very sympathetic to commies and he would like to come along also (He actually has a beard and looked like he was from the steppe wastelands). After an obviously non-rigorous investigation of our backgrounds some commissar agreed we were acceptable – $833 from New York, then London, where we got on Aeroflot to Moscow (just a note here, never fly Aeroflot – if they are holding your kid for ransom, if they promise the flight is free, if they threaten your life, don’t get on). On our particular flight both pilots were drunk, and the sole flight attendant had been a former Gulag enforcer. My seat wouldn’t stay upright and they wanted to charge for a cup of water – naturally the bathroom was out of order. There was no bad weather but the plane bounced around as if we were in the middle of a hurricane – two tires blew when we landed. I ask the chief pilot if we crash-landed or were shot down. He said something in Russian that was obviously abusive. He seemed to impugn my character and all my relatives, finishing up with a two fingered gesture that I doubt was complementary.
After this rough introduction to Moscow, we staggered off to our hotel, exhausted. It made Motel Six look like the Taj Mahal - within 10 minutes prostitutes were banging on the door – Very admirable looking, but with unshaven arm pits and carrying sexual transmitted diseases, we didn’t open the door more than about four inches. Our tour included seeing Moscow, the subway system (trust me not a soul wears deodorant– tears were running down my eyes with the rank odor permeating the cars), seeing Lenin’s tomb (he looked just like the pictures) and a tour through the Kremlin (Pretty boring). Our Fellow Travelers were a mixed bag from students to the elderly – all sympathetic to the cause.
Next day we were on the train (Named the Iron Rooster because the front of the engine was painted red and it made a lot of noise – just like in Dr Zhivago). We found that our first class accommodations were a bit tight since there was four fold down bunks in each compartment and little room for luggage. If you ever have the chance to go somewhere by train, do it, its like being rocked to sleep by your mom. It was really hard to stay awake. Anyway we pulled away from Moscow with the buildings lessening and within a half hour we were welcomed with the landscape that we would see for the next nine days – Russia has the largest forest in the world – all white birch – millions and millions of stands. They grow right up to the side of the tracks and that is what you get to see hour after hour as you stand in the hall outside your compartment and watch the landscape roll by. It’s almost hypnotizing and while interesting during the first few hours it then became monotonous. But, and this is the point of my story, about every 30 minutes the train would stop – day and night – and there would be a station – sometimes a large city, most times a small station with no town in sight, but with all manner of people who wanted to sell you food from their gardens. Some of the time we were on a siding waiting for the west bound train to pass us.
But before we got used to dealing with the merchants (women in babushkas) along the tracks we had to get use to all of the facilities of the train. By facilities I mainly mean the toilet, the dinning car and the Samovar (boiler – I only got burned three times) for heating water for tea. The first meal was pretty unappetizing with cabbage soup, potatoes and some sort of meat that I was unable to identify. Lots of fat and none too clean. I noticed that the Russian Staff didn’t touch anything with their left hands. The food only got worse from that first meal. Within an hour there was a line at the toilet at the end of the car – as you flushed the toilet the contents dropped right on to the tracks. I had massive cramps and was under tremendous pressure to get my turn at the stall when Mrs. Jowers, the enmity of Southern graciousness looked me right in the eye as she came out and said ”Joe, you might want to tarry a bit before you go in there”. I got the meaning but my own needs were urgent and I charged in regardless of fumes. I didn’t bother to tell the next in line what awaited him since he was hopping from foot to foot. You were not supposed to use the toilet (one per car) while you were stopped, but I quickly learned this was a voluntary rule and made sure I avoided the general bathroom area of a car while stretching my legs after getting splashed twice. You can imagine the surprise when we found there was no toilet paper. I found out while I was in a delicate position. I fortunately had my favorite book of short stories by Somerset Maugham with me – I watched the pages flutter down to the rails at 30 miles per hour. When I ask for toilet paper, the guide just held up her left hand. Now I understood.
One other problem was an older life long communist gentlemen (Alfred) in the group who was reaching the final stages of senility at eighty. He had trouble understanding where the bathroom was and during the night would relieve himself in the corner of his compartment – also occupied by the Jowers. The Jowers were a gentlemen and his wife from the South and Vince came up to me with the quote: “I’m going to have to put Alfred off the train next stop”. Since the Iron Rooster stopped about every 30 minutes the deluded one didn’t have long to ride – and Vince Jowers meant what he said. The problem was resolved much to my displeasure by having senile Alfred move into our compartment along with our guide. I was glad I had a top bunk. We passed through the Urals, which was like going through the Appalachians with a few pine trees. All the big mountains in Russia are south of Moscow – Elbrus at 19,000 feet, which we climbed in 2000. The country was completely different seventeen years later, but not necessarily better.
But back to the little stops – we bought excellent food and little carvings – and in the middle of Siberia did they want kopecks or rubles, heck no they wanted US Dollars - go figure. Everyone dressed uniformly in blue polyester tracksuits – an attempt to come up with a classless society. We were about 5000 miles across the country when we stopped at a little station – as I looked up there was a star of David on the front. I immediately wondered where it came from. After finally finding someone who spoke English and then a man of 90, I found out that Stalin had cleaned out all of the Jews in Moscow and sent them to this region during one of his pogroms. They build the station and housing, etc. But within two years all had snuck back to Moscow.
Probably the most significant placed we stopped was lake Baikal (20% of the world’s fresh water resides there). When the Whites (Cossacks) were fighting the Reds (Bolsheviks) during the Russian Revolution, the reds were approaching and the people of Irkutsk (right on the banks of Lake Baikal) decided to flee – going across the frozen lake in the dead of winter – the fastest getaway. But a force 10 blizzard came up while they were crossing. It lasted for four days and froze the 30,000 people trying to escape. In the spring the ice melted and their decomposing bodies just slowly sank down to the mile deep bottom. Normally rails were laid on the ice across the lake in the winter, but the revolution had prevented it in 1918.
My friend and I took a naked dip in the Lake’s water (it was supposed to give you long life) and having met 33 degrees, beat a hasty retreat both believing, if anything, our lives had been shortened. Every part of our bodies had been shriveled. We went to some churches around the lake, but the nuns were all in their 80s and the government was trying to eliminate any worship at all except complete loyalty to the government. All of the young people we talked to had no interest at all in any kind of deity worship. We met several very old ladies (dressed in peasant black) at a church on the lake and they didn’t want any pictures taken and made the sign of the evil eye to us.
We finally got to Karvarosk for a two-day respite from the birch trees. One little problem however. The central power plant that sent heat to all of the houses offices and factories in the city was broken down. Just make sure you have extra blankets. It was the end of August, but was cold already. Then it was a couple more days to the end – I had a tremor from being rocked every day and night and I could see white birch trees when I closed my eyes. But we had survived the Trans Siberian and looked forward to never taking it again.
Part of our trip included five days in Samarkand. We flew (even a worse plane and crew - more terror) to Tashkent with an eye ready to go to Samarkand. Some of you will recognize the poem by James Fletcher.
We travel not for trafficking alone
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the golden road to Samarkand
I can’t say it was exotic or that there was a golden road, but it was windy and hot. The country (today it is Uzbekistan), and the people looked as if they were from China and ice cream was plentiful. Right away we could tell which buildings were Russian built and which were built by the Czechoslovakians. It appeared that the Russian Concrete started to deteriorate after about three years. Same with the train cars and engines, you could always tell when the Czechs had built it. There was a famous Czechoslovakian Brigade that fought on the side of the White Russians during the Revolution – in fact they controlled the Eastern part of the country at one time. As the Reds began to win every battle and come East they finally made their way to the Kamchatka Peninsula and got a passage to Vancouver, then crossed Canada and eventually returned to their homeland – some taking two years to make the journey.
Now some of you may ask if we were concerned traveling through enemy territory even though we were declared communists. The USSR was the sworn enemy of the USA. Way back in Moscow we were given a booklet that outlined our rights while in the USSR. It showed that a jury would try us if we did something illegal or stupid while there. We found that soldiers were more than glad to have their picture taken with us and we felt no danger at any time. There were no pilfering gypsies; no beggars, no thieves and everyone had a job, a place to live and basic food – not a great life, but augmented with a bit of vodka it wasn’t too bad. In 1983 there was basically no crime in the county. One of our group lost his wallet and after a two-hour search, he was found by a shop owner who noticed it on the road. Nothing was missing and the shop owner was frantically looking for the owner. If you did commit a crime in those days, you might end up losing an appendage or having all of your belongs confiscated and you and your luggage sent further North to be lost for ever in the snow, tundra and birch forest. Samarkand and Tashkent were interesting with lots of history with some buildings 2000 years old – the tile work was exquisite but decaying.
Then it was on the train back to Moscow – no minor stops this time – just four or five. We had a celebratory meal the last day and it must have been some sort of revenge. Both of us were immediately sick and remained that way as we got on Aeroflot for one more trial. I was so sick that I actually wished the plane would crash. In London we found a Chemist (Pharmacy) that would supposedly fix us right up. Didn’t – sick as a dog, but it was time to go to the airport and take good old TWA back home. As I was leaving the hotel, I had an overpowering urge to vomit the cups of tea I had been drinking. And I mean it was really urgent. I rushed to the restroom, but all the stalls were filled. I finally tossed up the contents of my stomach into a urinal. Such was the velocity that my contents hit on a downward path and came right out again soaking my pants.
Great, soaked with my own vomit (tea, so it wasn’t that bad) we proceeded to the airport, where by some strange confusion, we got on the wrong plane, which was headed for Philadelphia rather than New York. In all and all an interesting trip. Got a good look at the Soviet Union before the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR divided into separate republics. When I went back to climb Elbrus in 2000, most of the people I talked with liked the old regime better, where they were guaranteed a job and a place to live and there was no criminal activity. Now all that was reversed – about the only thing that had increased was consumption of Vodka. Lots of Gypsy Beggars, panhandlers, big time criminals, and unemployment – a lot of the population must have read Julius Caesar because they had a lean and hungry look.
Today you can book a ticket on the Tran Siberian – about five times the price, but the endless birch trees, bad food, and tiny compartments are still there.