Fishheads, Coal-bins, and Frozen Tracks: Riding the Trans-Siberian Railway

In December 1971, at the height of the Cold War, a first-class ticket on the Soviet Union’s Trans-Siberian Railway from Nakhodka to Moscow cost $150.  Actually, I paid that equivalent in Japanese yen since the only travel agency I could find that would arrange a customized trip to the Soviet Union was located in Tokyo.  The Tokyo agent served as a broker, coordinating with Intourist, a Soviet state-run agency founded in 1929.  Intourist closely controlled highly restricted foreign tourism in the country, meaning that I was watched every minute from the time I crossed the border until I flew out of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport a month later more than ready to leave.

Six months before, I'd been delighted to learn I could reach Europe, where I hoped to find a job, by traveling through the Soviet Union. Pre-Internet, it took a few months to find an travel agent go-between in Tokyo.  No rush, I thought.  I was fortunate to snag a couple of well-paid jobs on archaeological digs (tent and grub included!), after having finished a master’s degree in anthropology.  I was grateful for some time to ponder what unfamiliar place I would strike off to in hopes of using my new degree.  

As my plan gelled, I told my folks.  They nearly had a stroke.  This was pre-Gorbachev, perestroika and glasnost.  As far as my parents were concerned, their adventure-addicted daughter was mystifyingly heading off to fraternize with a bunch of commies, and would surely end up in the Gulag.  Looking back on it, I regret the pain inflicted when none of my postcards with reassuring messages reached them. That month of silence was very difficult for them.  When I telephoned after landing in West Berlin, relief was palpable.  At least I was safely behind the Wall.  Being surrounded by commies sounded a lot better than being among them.  (Needless to say, I never shared tales about sneaking notes in my underwear across Check Point Charlie to East Berliners separated from their family members in the West!)  

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Arriving in Tokyo en route to Nakhodka after the longest flight I’d taken to date was a little scary.   It was very late at night, I had no hostel reservations, and knew only a few words of Japanese.  I was traveling solo, when few women did so.  I carefully copied Japanese script for “ryokan” (traditional inns) from my guide book to my palm, so I could discretely identify neon inn signs by glancing at my hand rather than looking like a helpless tourist paging through Frommer’s. I looked for students entering and leaving, another clue the cost would fit my budget.  The smaller the sign the cheaper the room.  Fortunately, there were lots of hostels and inns, and I easily found a place to stay.  I spent the better part of a week in Tokyo, either at the travel agency office, or soaking in a wonderful Japanese style bath.  I slept on a thin futon mat in a small space divided by paper-thin sliding doors.  Utterly charming!  I loved it.

The travel agency tediously prepared my itinerary, arranged for my boat trip from Yokohama to Nakhodka, secured Trans-Siberian railway tickets and my Soviet visa. My agent, a shy young Japanese man, whose curiosity finally got the best of him simply could not understand why a 26 year old woman would want to spend four weeks in the dead of winter crossing Siberia to Moscow, not to mention stopping in Irkutsk when the famed Lake Baikal would be frozen solid.  Winter ticket discounts, I said, were appealing to budget travelers.  I also explained that I wanted to scour museums and libraries for archaeological or ethnographic resources and meet university students and archaeology faculty, more likely when courses were in session than during warmer summer months. 

My hopes to meet with Soviet archaeologists in Vladivostok with whom I had corresponded were dashed when Intourist made it clear I was not allowed to go there.  Irkutsk’s resources would have to do.  Arriving there, it quickly became apparent the the travel agent knew more than I.  Venturing out from the Irkutsk University hostel each day, the brutal cold—minus 45 farenheit—soon drove me back to my room, offering scant time for professional networking!

Leaving Irkutsk after several days and meeting no archaeologists, I settled back into a so-called “first class car” on the Trans-Siberian for the last long leg to Moscow.  Those six days were the toughest of the trip.   My sleeping car had four bunks, three of which were occupied by rotund, drunk Soviet military brass.  Had they not been snockered beyond oblivion, I might have feared for my safety.  As it turned out, my fear quickly turned to aggravation and disgust from the nightly ritual of vodka-soaked singing and toasting, occasionally followed by one or another rotund, red-faced hurler who couldn’t quite reach the toilet in time. 

Days were less festive, quieter.  Thank you, lord.  I mostly hung out in the lounge drinking tea made in a coal-heated samovar by our car's stern, decidedly humorless matron.  Everything smelled like burning coal.  The matron—egg-shaped in her thick black wool coat, wore felt boots and a dog-eared fur ushanka ear-flap.  She occasionally flashed forced smiles of gold teeth.  When the train crawled to a stop two or three times a day, “volunteer” passengers were herded off the train and put to work chopping away caked ice on the wheels.  I didn’t need to understand Russian to grasp the reality that the train would not move forward without de-icing.  I gladly did my part.  

The already meager meals became unimaginably more meager. All the food ran out save fish heads in a urine-colored gelatin blob long before we reached Moscow.  My turn to hurl. 

There were bright spots.  I discovered another foreign tourist on board—a tall, friendly guy from Montana.  I called him Montana; he called me California.  We bonded through hunger.  Together we plotted to watch for a station stop with a food kiosk close enough to reach quickly from our train.  We reasoned we could buy whatever was edible, scamper back to our car and re-board before the train pulled out.  

Our chance finally came, though the kiosk sprint looked daunting.  Despite intense cold and a dozen icy tracks between us and food, we bolted out as the train lurched to a stop, ahead of the matron and her team of ice ax-wielding indentured passengers.  Disappointment followed. The kiosk vendor's supply chain clearly did not include Zabar’s.  But neither Montana nor I hesitated to buy several of the stale, crumbly piroshkis left on her cart. 

Montana luckily heard our train pulling out, paid for and scooped up his buns swiftly, and struck off on his long legs, broad jumping icey tracks nimbly back to the train.  Though foggy and steamy, our car was clearly distinguished by the matron shouting and waving her arms at us.  Montana sped up, jumped on the platform steps, grabbed the wagon’s hand bar.  Looking back for me, he later described a pathetic scene.  Extending a free hand for me, yelling “run faster, faster!” I was making little progress.  I slipped, slid, tripped, fell, got back up, slipped again and again, finally getting close enough to latch onto Montana’s arm.  Whew, that was a close one!  (Where were YakTrax when I needed them!  Uninvented.)  

And then, a moment later, the train ground to a halt.  It stayed put for nearly 30 minutes.  Despite the unthinkable horror of getting stranded in Siberia, not getting stranded was a bit disappointing.  A great yarn demoted.  Sustained by the piroshkis and the sudden appearance of eggs picked up en route, our Trans-Siberian ride continued without additional surprises or incidents. 

Nonetheless, I welcomed Moscow after the long, cold journey from Nakhodka and Irkutsk.  The student hostel was heated and meals at the university’s cafeteria were cheap and filling.  I managed to see the Bolshoi Ballet and attend the Opera (La Traviata), despite my lack of evening wear.  I packed nothing beyond blue jeans (coveted by my "commie" acquaintances and, ironically, becoming wildly fashionable in the 1980’s). 

After a month in the Soviet Union, riding the Trans-Siberian, elbowing my way onto Moscow subways, pushing through crowds at the post office, and dining alone in faux fancy Intourist hotels became lonely and wearisome.  I cut short my stay, canceled a trip extension to Leningrad (on reflection, a regrettable decision), counted up my dwindling Traveler’s Checks, and treated myself to a flight to West Berlin.  There began another chapter of my life on the road, this time more career productive, finding a wonderful job teaching anthropology and archaeology all over Europe.   I also made a terrific group of friends, with whom I remain close to this day.  As for satisfying my thirst for adventure, the “gypsy scholar” teaching gig led to six delightful years living and working in Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey. 

But that’s a Travel Tale for another time.