(A young adventurer’s solo journey across the Soviet Union and Siberia during the height of the Cold War)
Saturday April 20th 1968, Hotel Metropole, the Soviet Union
“Are you sure you’re safe? I’ve been so worried about you.”
After a disturbing number of clicks, my mother’s voice echoed down the line,
“I haven’t been able to sleep since…since..”
“That’s why I called you.” I joked. “I just knew you’d be worried sick!”
I recalled the agonized look on her face when she and my older sisters hugged me goodbye at Liverpool Street Station.
“We thought we’d never see you again,” she sniffed.
Ever dramatic, despite the bad connection, I could hear my mother was crying now.
“I might even die before you come home!” she continued.
“Of course you won’t! ” I laughed. “I said I’d call you at the first opportunity. And here I am!”
It was Saturday 20th April 1968. I was twenty-three. I had just set out on the biggest adventure of my life, alone on a 8000 mile journey from London to Nakhodka by train and then on to Japan, Hong Kong and Vietnam. I was not about to be deterred by my mother’s fears, even if I felt a little guilty by her very real concerns about my travel plans.
“But it’s been a week already. And it’s dangerous there. I read they’re building up the troops on the border,” she continued in a conscious effort to make me give up my plan and encourage me to return to the safety of home.
My mother was now sobbing loudly into the phone.
“I read it in the papers,” she cried. “You must be careful. You’re all alone. There may be a war between Russia and China!”
“Then I’ll make a quick escape to Hanoi to join my friend, Sean!!” I retorted. “Honestly, Mummy, it’s OK, I’ll be fine. I’m in Moscow, safe in the Hotel Metropol. I’m going to see Lenin’s tomb tomorrow. It’s his birthday so there’ll be marches and stuff. And then, in the evening, I’m going to the Bolshoi. Your favourite ballerina is dancing – Maya Plisetskaya.”
“But you don’t know anyone there!” my mother persisted, “What if you’re kidnapped? I don’t have any friends who can help you.”
“Then you can sound the alarm as it would cause an international incident!” I retorted lightheartedly. Then, more gently, “Of course I won’t be kidnapped. And in two days I’ll be safely on the Trans- Siberian.”
“But that’s exactly where the troops are heading. Through Siberia and up to the Chinese border.”
I decided to change the subject. This conversation was heading nowhere. I knew what she wanted. She wanted me to come home. Not in two years. Not in a year. Immediately.
“Do you want me to tell you about the journey here?” I asked.
She composed herself. “Yes, do tell. How was it?”
“Well, it was quite an adventure. The ferry from Harwich to Rotterdam was uneventful, other than I thought I lost my luggage. Then some nice Customs Officer came to my rescue and managed to locate it for me. Then from Rotterdam to East Berlin I found myself in a compartment with a young English guy, Patrick. He was on his way to Munich to teach English. He was really sweet.”
My mother’s voice suddenly softened. “Oh, you liked him then?”
“No! Not like that, Mummy! He was just very nice. And we had hours to talk. So he told me his life story. And I told him mine. Strangers on a train, and all that.” And then I joked, “I think he knows more about me than you do!”
“I hope not!” My mother sounded offended.
“Of course not. But you know how it is with strangers? If you find yourself sitting beside someone you assume you may never see again, you tend to tell them your deepest secrets, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never found myself in that position,” Mummy replied.
A series of clicks interrupted our conversation again.
“What’s that sound?” my mother asked.
“They’re probably eavesdropping!” I joked.
“Don’t say that!” my mother sounded alarmed.
“I was only joking,” I replied, “sort of!”
“It’s no joke,” she said. “We’re in the Cold War, darling! Anything can happen!”
“You just worry far too much,” I replied.
My mother sighed. “ So will you see this Patrick again?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Well, we exchanged addresses and phone numbers so we might meet up when we both get back to London. He’ll be away two years too. But I must tell you about when I got to the border of Poland and Russia. Now that was scary!”
I could feel my mother starting to panic.
“Why? What happened?”
“We had a long wait at the border. It was pitch dark when we pulled in to the station. About 10pm. We were told we could all get out and stretch our legs because the train wouldn’t leave until after midnight. So I got off the train and walked up and down the platform a few times. It was really cold. I went into the ticket office to warm up. There were lots more people in there. Some of them were beginning to file out onto the platform with their children and luggage eager to board the train. I sat down and took out my book. But I kept looking up at the clock above the ticket office to make sure I got back out onto the platform in good time. There was no way I wanted to be stranded on the border in the middle of the night.”
I paused, letting it all sink in.
“I’m already worried for you.” I could almost hear the panic in my mother’s voice.
“You don’t need to be.” I reassured her. “I’m here in Moscow, speaking to you, aren’t I?”
“So what happened next?” My mother’s voice sounded barely relieved.
“Well, about 11.30 I looked up from my book again to check the clock and I suddenly realized I was all alone in the ticket office. I heard a tremendous commotion coming from outside and my heart sank. I thought the train was leaving without me. I cursed the ticket master as I dashed out onto the platform and got a real shock – there was no train. For a few seconds, I panicked. There was no one on the platform. I was about to dash back inside and find the guard but then I heard voices coming from above me and I looked up. And there, suspended on heavy metal cables, was my train, with all the passengers looking out of the lighted windows.”
“What happened?” My mother sounded alarmed.
“I had to laugh. Partly in relief. And partly because all those people with their faces pressed against the lighted windows looked so comical. Apparently, the rail gauge is different between Poland and Russia so they had to lift the train off the rails and change the wheels to fit the Russian track! They then swung it over and placed it on the other side of the station. I had to cross the bridge in complete darkness. The only light was from the windows of the train. It was all very surreal!’
The operator abruptly interrupted.
“Достаточно. Необходимо больше рублей.” (Is enough. More rubles needed).
“Mummy, I’ve got to go. I don’t have any more rubles.”
My mother, panicked, “She’s “cutting us off?”
“Yes,” I said, “Goodbye. I’ll call again. Give everyone my love!”
There was a loud click.
“I love you,” I said.
But it was too late. I replaced the receiver and walked out of the phone booth and into the spacious lobby of Moscow’s oldest hotel.
“Built Before the Revolution” the poster beside me announced proudly. “The Most Luxury Hotel in All of Russia– Come Stay With Us at the Hotel Metropol.”
“Luxury” it was not. Like most Soviet buildings, it was basic. And it was functional. It had an expansive lobby with a rudimentary reception desk, a few cumbersome armchairs and a very wide central staircase running up to the spacious landings above. On each floor at the top of the staircase was a heavy wooden desk manned by an unsmiling policeman or woman. Or maybe they were from the Russian Intelligence (GRU) placed there to spy on guests, I never found out. But I did notice the policewoman on my floor grabbed the key to my room whenever I left and assiduously wrote down all my comings and goings so I surmised she must have handed that information to someone.
The following day, Sunday, April 21st, I set out to join the birthday celebrations for Lenin in Red Square. I joined the long line of schoolchildren and citizens who were slowly snaking their way towards the tomb that held the embalmed corpse of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
I hadn’t really anticipated the genuine devotion, or forced devotion, the Soviet people felt for their former leader who, by 1968, had already been dead 44 years. And, until then, I thought only the British enjoyed the masochistic sport of ‘queuing. But I was surprised how patient they all appeared to be. Even the children lacked exuberance and tolerated hours patiently waiting in line with a rare stoicism.
“It seems the Soviet people really like to queue for hours,” I remarked to my Intourist guide, a young Muscovite called Pavel.
“We learn from an early age,” he replied. “We queue for bread, for meat, for milk, for butter for our families. But mostly we queue for Lenin!”
I noticed part of the queue in front of me snaking off towards another building.
“Where are they going?” I asked.
“Ah, that is the Necropolis. They pay their respects to Comrade Josef Stalin and to Comrade Yuri Gagarin first,” he replied. “But mostly to Comrade Gagarin!” he added, his blue eyes twinkling.
The world’s first cosmonaut had died in a mysterious plane crash just one month earlier.
“How did he die?” I asked.
“They say he was flying over forest shooting deer,” Pavel whispered in my ear, making sure no one was listening. “His plane went out of control.”
“Really?” I whispered back. “Do you believe that?”
Pavel grinned and shrugged his shoulders.
“In Soviet Union, who knows?” he replied. I was surprised at his not exactly towing the party line.
“Maybe just…maybe, we never know.” Pavel gestured as though he was drinking. ”But, mostly, we just wonder!” he added.
He reached into the breast pocket of his scruffy grey canvas Intourist uniform and withdrew a packet of cigarettes. He offered me one. I shook my head.
“Don’t smoke, thanks,” I said.
He shrugged his shoulders and lit up a cigarette. Before he replaced the packet in his pocket he showed it to me.
“Laika,” he said, “first dog to orbit the earth. 1957.”
I took the packet from him.
“I remember,” I replied. “Sweet dog. What happened to her?”
Pavel shrugged again.
“Still up there, maybe!” he joked. “She never come back.”
The mausoleum housed in a solid red marble building in Red Square contrasted with the gaudiness of St Basil’s Cathedral whose multi-coloured onion domes were clearly visible above me.
The impeccably preserved corpse of Lenin, dressed in clean clothes for his birthday, lay undisturbed in his glass-sided sarcophagus, eyes closed, one hand clenched, the other open, oblivious to the scores of people shuffling past him to pay their respects.
There was probably only one other body in the world that could lay claim to such expensive, elaborate and constantly updated embalming techniques, I thought, and that was the body of Eva Peron.
The next morning the real adventure began. Pavel collected me from the hotel at 6am and escorted me to the Yaroslavl Station to catch the Trans-Siberian railway, an incredible feat of engineering that snakes its way from Moscow across the vast steppes of Soviet Russia, the seemingly endless tundra of Siberia, through the high Urals and around the world’s deepest freshwater Lake of Baikal to Nakhodka on the East coast, a journey of over 6000 miles. Crossing over countless rivers, including the massive Volga, and passing through villages and towns with names such as Ekaterinburg (a name now synonymous with the tragic ending of Russia’s last Tzar, Nicholas II and his family), Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Irkutsk, Ulan Ude and Khabarovsk.
The platform was full of food vendors, soldiers and their families, hawkers selling their home-made wares and even a band of ragtag musicians playing a mournful song. Pavel, carrying my suitcase, skillfully jostled his way through the throng, beckoning me to follow,
“The soldiers are on their way to the border with China,” Pavel explained as I watched the young men in shabby uniforms and long khaki coats embrace their weeping wives, mothers and children.
Like me, I thought, they are journeying into the unknown. All I knew of Siberia was from the recently released movie, “Dr. Zhivago.” And, of course, news stories I had read about the gulags, about slave labour sent to work in the coal mines and about exiled criminals and political foes being “sent to Siberia” as a lifetime punishment for bad behaviour, infringement of the law or political dissent.
But these young soldiers were different. They were being sent as cannon fodder, possibly to die in the local flare-up between two emerging powers – China and the Soviet Union, that shared a common border stretching over 2500 miles and where disputes and conflicts were rarely absent.
Pavel found my carriage and beckoned me to follow him. We clambered on board. I am not sure whether my heart was pounding from fear or excitement. I had been anticipating this trip for a year while working for the BBC News out in Alexandra Palace. My colleagues there had even had a whip around before I left to raise some funds for me. And my boss had “stolen” two large cartons of 35mm film so that I could record my trip and, perhaps, send some of the photos back to the BBC for publication.
“After all,” Bert, my boss, said, “it’s not every day one of our colleagues travels the length and breadth of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and during one of the biggest build-ups of Soviet troops along the Chinese border. We need photos, Caroline. Lots of them.”
My agent had also managed to secure an advance for me from Heinemann’s for a book about my travels which had paid for my entire trip as far as Yokohama. My plan from there was to head south to Hong Kong, apply for my visa into Laos and then make my way through Hanoi down to Saigon to meet up with the photojournalist, Sean Flynn, who had preceded me to Vietnam by two months.
Sean and I had dined at the Carlton Tower Hotel in London with our mutual friend, David Niven Jr, the night before Sean was due to leave for Saigon on his third assignment.
“Sean’s an ‘old hand’ in Vietnam,” David said, “that’s why I thought you should both meet. He can give you some tips.”
And as an “old hand” in Vietnam, Sean had many hair-raising stories to tell.
“I’ve been injured a few times,” he joked, rolling up his trousers to show me a deep scar on his knee.
“And he has grenade fragments on his arms and chest,” David said. “Are you sure you want to go there, Caroline? It’s dangerous!”
“Certainly not for the faint-hearted!” Sean smiled at me. “But I can see you’re determined. So how can I help?”
I told him about my plans to write a story for The Daily Mirror about young Vietnamese girls and their babies who had been abandoned by their US soldier boyfriends.
“I can help you with that,” Sean said. “I’ve met a few already. And their stories are tragic.”
We agreed to meet up in three months. Sean gave me his contact details and we tucked into delicious crepes suzettes.
Sadly, our plan never materialized. While I was in Manila the following year, I received word that Sean had “gone missing”. His body was never found. And, in 1970, he and his colleague were presumed dead. It was assumed they had either driven their motorcycles over a landmine on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam while chasing down a story for CBS or had been captured by the North Vietnamese or the Khmer Rouge. It was believed they were held captive for over a year before they were killed by their captors. Sean was declared “legally dead” in 1984.
And, after months of anticipation, now here I was boarding the famous Trans-Siberian train, sadly not the one Agatha Christie wrote about, nor the one featured in so many films and documentaries, but the unglamorous one, the slow one, the one whose top speed was just 20 MPH, the one that was designated “hard” class without any of the opulent trappings, expensive European fixtures and understated elegance of the “soft” class.
“Hard” Class meant I would have to share a cramped compartment with three men, two bunks on each side. Pavel checked my ticket. I had been assigned to a lower bunk. I was grateful for that, at least.
“The upper, how do you say, bed?”
“Bunk,” I said.
“Ah, yes. Bunk. It will be tied back against the wall during the day. So you will mostly share yours during the day with the man above.”
“Not an ideal arrangement,” I laughed. “What if I want to lie down during the day?”
Pavel shrugged his shoulders. A whistle sounded above the general noise of boarding passengers, music, shouting and last minute sales of food through the windows of the train.
“You OK?” he asked. “I must leave now.”
He shook my hand and left me in the carriage with my three compartment-mates who had already become firm friends over a bottle of vodka. I turned around and they eyed me with a mixture of curiosity and feigned disinterest. Who was this young foreigner with long blonde hair, dressed in a floor-length Biba coat and knee-length boots? What was she doing on their train? Where was she going?
I smiled at them. I got out my notebook from my pocket. My mother had written down what I should say to people when I met them.
“Zdravo, zovem se Caroline. Ja sam engleski i putujem u Nakhodku”
(Hello, my name is Caroline. I am English and I am travelling to Nakhodka.)
This was to become my standard phrase over the next two weeks.
I also found out that “Hard” Class meant only one toilet for around 30 people. It turned out to be a lurid green metal box room at one end of the carriage, with an elevated bowl over a hole in the floor where, if I cared to look down, I could see the stony ground and the metal sparks beneath me. There was a small cast iron basin with cold water, a broken mirror and a fan that didn’t work. A bucket sat in one corner and I wondered whether it was for slopping out or washing oneself.
When I got hungry or was simply feeling adventurous, I discovered that “Hard” Class also necessitated a long walk to the dining car at the rear of the train. This, in itself, was not a past-time for the faint of heart. It involved passing through several carriages that contained the chaotic communal sleeping quarters of the train where most of the soldiers and the poorer Soviets and their families were forced to sleep, three bunks deep on either side and where numerous pungent bodily aromas mingled and lingered without a breath of fresh air to dispel them.
It also involved strong muscles to force and hold open the thick spring doors between the carriages. And it required a good balance and some nimble footwork to avoid stepping on intoxicated bodies lying on the floor and to negotiate a path from one carriage to the next across the moving metal divide. People, suffering from lack of air in their stuffy, airless quarters, would congregate either side of the carriage doors breathing in the brief and exhilarating rush of icy air whenever the doors were opened.
My first meal on the train was eggs. In fact, every subsequent meal I had on the train was eggs – scrambled, fried, boiled and poached. I didn’t test the meat dishes as I didn’t know how fresh it would be by the end of the journey. And the idea of having a bad case of diarrhoea considering the primitive condition of the toilet and the queues that lined up outside it, did not appeal.
As we crossed the vast swathe of central Soviet Union, the train stopped at tiny, insignificant stations every twenty minutes or so. At every stop, we all piled out religiously, desperate to breathe some cold, clean air, stretch our legs and to buy local bread, potato and cabbage soup or grilled kebabs wrapped in flatbreads from the local hawkers. Some people, I noticed, even preferred to use the toilet on the station or relieve themselves behind a tree or telegraph post rather than use the increasingly unhygienic facilities on the train. As the state of the toilets on the train became increasingly hard to stomach, I even resorted to this method, much to the amusement of the soldiers and the children. Fortunately, I had my ankle-length Biba coat that obscured my deeds. And, having been warned by Pavel about the lack of toilet paper on the train, I had stocked up on my own supply before leaving Moscow.
Few, if any, people boarded or disembarked at these smaller stations. I had hoped that one of my sleeping compartment comrades would not be going the whole distance and would free up much-needed space. But, I found out that, like me, they were on the train for the full journey.
For most of the trip, I read copiously. I had brought about twelve books with me, including “The Naked Ape”, “The Magic Toyshop” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and although they added to the weight of my luggage, I was very glad that I had them with me. I also wrote in my journal as one day blended into the next, with no highlights, no lowlights, just consistent monotony. I spent a lot of time, looking out through the misted windows of my compartment, daydreaming about the days when the Trans-Siberian boasted a gym, comfortable beds with fresh linen sheets, a piano room and maid service.
I remembered with a smile my beloved Serbian maternal grandmother summoning me to her apartment in Monaco before I set off on this journey.
“I vant you to go and have fun,” she said, kissing me. “You stay away as long as you like. Don’t mind your mother.”
“Baba” was my confidant at that moment. Without any of my mother’s religious restrictions, my grandmother was often able to speak her mind. And she did then.
“Listen to me,” she went on. “You travel for as long as you want. You have as many boyfriends as you like. And if you have babies, don’t worry, you can always send them to me here in Monaco. I will look after them. I won’t tell your mother!”
I threw my arms around her at that moment.
“Thank you, Baba!” I said. “You’re amazing. But how many babies do you think I can give birth to in two years?”
“Pregnancies last a much shorter period these days,” she said.
“Only in shotgun marriages!” I said.
“And if you need any money, you let me know. I can send it to you wherever you are,” she continued. “And if you need some jewellery to sell, I can give it to you now. Just tell me.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, “but thank you!”
Neither of us knew at the time that this visit would be the last time I would see her alive. She died just over a year later. I had not sent her any babies from my travels, I had not asked her for any money and I had not accepted any of her jewellery. But I knew her offers had been sincere. I realized at that moment how much I loved her. I wrote a tribute to her in my journal.
And while I scribbled away under the fogged-up window, or withdrew into the darker recess of my bunk and read under the small reading lamp, the three men in my room smoked tobacco, ate raw onions and drank a home-made brew of schnapps 24 hours a day.
Needless to say, after a few days, the small cabin became almost insufferable with the combined odours of onions, human sweat, stale clothes, cigarettes and halitosis. And I was probably just as much to blame as the men because by then, the state of the lavatories meant that showers were out of the question and, although I religiously applied deodorant under my arms and brushed my teeth twice a day, I could not have been in a very hygienic state by the time the second week of the trip came around.
One night I had to resort to ringing the bell for help, as the man above me was so drunk he fell out of his bunk on top of me, whether by accident or design I never did find out. The attendant certainly had no doubts. He must have realized he had met his match as soon as she entered. She was an immense, hairy female with a black moustache beaded with sweat. She dispatched him with ease. She simply scooped him up in her large dimpled arms and tossed him back on his upper bunk as though she was throwing a child’s ragdoll. She then admonished him in what I assumed was an avalanche of Russian swear words, wiped the perspiration from her moustache, wagged her finger at him one more time, shouted some Soviet blasphemies and slammed the compartment door behind her.
The chastened man couldn’t bring himself to look me in the eye after that. He would stare into the dregs of his schnapps, puff on his cigarette and ignore me whenever I entered or exited the compartment. The other two appeared equally embarrassed, maybe because they hadn’t come to my rescue and had just sat and watched to see how the little drama was going to end.
At least I now knew I had a protector on the train as it had become increasingly obvious as the days passed and my trips to and from the dining car revealed that I was, as I had suspected, the only foreigner on the train. I tried to use a few words of my mother’s mother tongue, Serbo-Croat, to start a conversation but since my vocabulary was limited to “Good morning, darling” and “I love you, darling,” my efforts were limited and met with some rolling eyeballs, surprise and a certain amount of derision.
Occasionally the train would crawl into a big city, such as Irkutsk, immediately identifiable by the huge manufacturing buildings and smoke-belching chimneys of the local metal, fuel and aviation industries. As at every station, the compulsory posters of Lenin, arm outstretched, lined the platform. Vendors and hawkers shouted their wares, some even attempting to muscle their way onto the train in order to beat their competitors. More soldiers bade sad goodbyes to their crying children who clung to their fathers’ long army coats and then, humping their knapsacks, turned and jostled their way reluctantly to the communal sleepers at the rear of the train to begin their journey to the Chinese border and an unknown fate.
Even in late April, as we continued to creep our way across the endless steppes, the days remained despairingly gloomy and the ground was still covered in several inches of snow. The landscapes were bleak with only an occasional thicket of trees, very few birds and animals, vast great spaces without a single dwelling and with only the massive railway linking the little villages across the vast rolling steppes. And all along the route, the snow was blackened from the soot and flying cinders from the coal-fired engine.
But as we approached the Urals these persistently overcast days began to lighten. The monotonous, treeless landscape gradually began to take on a new character. The flat tundra slowly gave way to the sporadic foothills of this ancient mountain range that stretches more than 1500 miles south from the frozen Arctic, its snowclad peaks beginning to emerge in a haze on the distant horizon. Thorny bushes dotting the landscape heralded ever steeper hills, covered in thick clumps of towering pine trees, now shaking off the last snows of the Arctic winter from their branches.
Slowly we snaked our way around the southern shore of Lake Baikal, close to the Mongolian border. After the dreary featureless flatness of the snow-covered steppes, I was eager to see this particular lake, known as possibly the oldest and the largest freshwater lake in the world. Only, once again, I was to be vastly disappointed. Instead of an area of natural beauty, I was horrified to find that the lake had been polluted by the toxic effluent of a local paper industry. I guess I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. The Soviet Union had never been known for its protection of the environment. I had already seen in other parts of the country that neglect and damage were commonplace. But somehow I hadn’t expected such devastation in this remote place surrounding Siberia’s most famous lake.
Without any concern about the destruction it was causing, the two-year-old *Baykalsk Pulp and Paper mill had been spewing all its effluent, including chlorine and bleached paper residue, directly into the lake, resulting in poisoned water, swathes of rotting algae and the devastating loss of fish, including the sturgeon, the Arctic grayling and the unique omul, Lake Baikal’s endemic species. As I surveyed the damage from my window, I remembered that Pavel had told me that “Baikal” meant “nature” in Mongolian. Right now that irony didn’t escape me. Nature Lake, what a tragedy.
*(Several attempts were made over the succeeding decades by environmentalists to shut the mill down. But it only eventually closed its doors in 2013.)
I still had about 1250 miles to go before I reached Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East, a University town where I planned to stay a couple of nights in a hotel, have a hot bath and, having been starved of any conversation for so long, find some English or French-speaking students to talk to.
The twice-daily trip to the restaurant car, no longer an adventure, was becoming more of a necessary chore. On top of that, I was getting bored with a diet of just eggs. So, for the last few days before reaching Khabarovsk I decided to risk buying the local food available at all the small stations we passed through. My daily diet from then on consisted of a slice of rough, flourless bread, steamed dumplings filled with limp, overcooked cabbage and a non-descript cake that was more like a rough, rock-hard scone. Rather than bring the food into the train and adding to the less than fragrant aromas in the compartment, I would gobble it all down while walking up and down the platform getting my daily exercise.
When the train finally pulled into Khabarovsk late at night, I was packed and ready to leave before the stationmaster could even blow his whistle. I nodded to my room-mates and, with an enormous sigh of relief, shut the door of the cabin for one last time.
Somehow in the middle of the scrum of people, soldiers and suitcases spilling out onto the platform, my Intourist guide, Irina, found me. I guess with my long blond locks and my Biba clothes, I was not too difficult to spot and for that I was grateful. A hot bath beckoned. As the days had passed on the journey, the image of a steaming hot bath had grown out of all proportion to a point of obsession. Just imagining the joy of eliminating the grime, the soot, the smells and the thick grease that felt like it was clinging to every pore of my body had been plaguing my thoughts for days.
Irina shook my hand, beamed and said,
“Welcome to our beautiful city, Miss Kennedy!”
Whether Khabarovsk was beautiful or not, I thought, just because I was so grateful to have arrived there it would forever rival Paris, Dubrovnik or Venice in my mind.
The water in the hotel bath trickled out of the tap. I realized the bath would take hours to fill. I threw myself onto the bed, revelling in the clean sheets, picked up the phone and called my family.
I am too embarrassed to describe here the filthy scum rim that adhered to the interior of the bath after I had wallowed in it for an hour in the steaming water and scrubbed my body from head to toe.
The following morning I asked the receptionist the way to the University and set out, under a welcome blue sky, carrying all my books and most of my winter clothes, including two Biba trouser suits, my knee length boots and my ankle-length coat. I planned to donate them to the first girl I met who spoke English.
With my new found freedom, I strolled at a snail’s pace, enjoying the Spring weather and photographing everything of interest along the way. Despite enough warnings, any thoughts of spies, secret police and GRU Intelligence officers couldn’t have been further from my mind. Khabarovsk, I was delighted to discover, was a beautiful city. It could have rivalled any European city with old Colonial-style houses painted in pastel colours, busy sidewalk cafes, wrought iron street lamps and wide boulevards lined with blossoming trees and shrubs. It’s true that a few ugly Soviet-style buildings were dotted in between the grand houses but the overall impression was of a much gentler city with the turquoise and golden spires of the Russian Orthodox Church, glinting in the morning sun, towering majestically over the rooftops.
I reached the Pacific National University and asked for the English teacher. I soon had a gathering of students around me. They escorted me to the English class. I explained to the teacher what I was doing and said I would wait until her class ended and then I would like to talk to the students.
But she was intrigued enough to ask me to address the class. And, when I started unloading the twelve US and UK books, from my shoulder bag, there was a mad rush to grab them.
As one student explained to me, “We are learning English. But we are not allowed any American or English books. And we won’t be able to travel. We learn English just to teach other students English.”
The clothes too disappeared in a second. Suddenly we were all best friends. Linking arms with me, they walked me outside into the grounds of the University and we sat under a tree while they catapulted me with questions and I answered them as best as I could.
What did I think would happen in Vietnam following the Tet Offensive?
How did I see the space race ending?
Would the Soviet Union and the West ever be friends?
And, of course, the greatest academic conundrum of them all, who did I prefer the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?
And as we queued for lunch in the canteen the questions kept coming. I took group photographs of all of us and realized this could have been a University anywhere in the world with curious young students desperate to learn. Only this was the Soviet Union. And the reality was that these girls, this generation of students, would miss out on travelling the world. They would never have the freedoms I had. Like their parents before them, they could only dream about them. They wouldn’t even be able to choose where they wanted to work after University. They would be assigned a teaching position in a school somewhere, perhaps far away from their families and friends, and they would have no choice but to accept it. And they would probably end up sharing a small room in a bleak tower block on the outskirts of some Soviet city with several other teachers. And they would simply make do. That would be their life.
I realized with sadness that our brief encounter was probably the closest any of them would ever get to feel free, the very rare opportunity to talk with a foreigner without being interrogated or punished for the infringement. With any luck, one day their children would have more freedoms but not these young girls, so keen to learn but deprived of so much that we take for granted.
I hugged them all at the end of the day and made my way back to the hotel. That night there was a knock on my door. I got out of bed and there were two men standing there. My heart started palpitating. They looked unsmiling. One held the door open and the other walked in.
“We hear you take photos. Photos not allowed. We must see your film. Give me camera and all film.”
My heart sank.
“We just look,” he said, more menacing than reassuring. Dutifully, I handed him my camera. He opened it and removed the film.
“More film?” he asked.
I pointed to my suitcase.
He bent down and opened it. He found lots of used rolls of film waiting to be printed and the two large cartons my boss at the BBC had given me.
Methodically he went through every single roll, deliberately pulling out the film, holding them up against the light to try to make out the images. Every single one. Destroyed. Even the unused ones.
So much for illustrating my book, I thought. And there I had been all this while thinking the Soviet Union was not as bad as I had been led to believe, that all the talk about espionage, suspicion of foreigners and fearmongering was all nonsense. This was a brutal lesson in reality.
When he was satisfied, he thrust the spools of ruined film into my hands and left. His silent comrade closed the door behind them.
I fought back my tears. The most precious photos were the ones I had just taken with the students that day, my new friends, the ones whose addresses I had written down with a sincere promise to send them all the photos of our day together. Now I would be letting them down. But then a thought occurred to me. Had one of them alerted the authorities, had one of them actually squealed on me? It was possible. But it was too unsettling to contemplate. If yes, which one of them was to blame? Or was it the teacher? The teacher who had been delighted to welcome me into her class and asked me to address her students? Or was it none of them? Was it someone who was skulking in the background, who had followed me all the way from the hotel to the University? For my own peace of mind, I decided that was the more likely answer.
Needless to say, I was quite grateful to leave the next morning when Irina arrived early to collect me and take me back to the train station. This was to be the last lap of my gargantuan trip across the Soviet Union and Siberia, the last 500 miles to the port town of Nakhodka, just east of Vladivostok.
At the station, my eyes immediately landed on two young men who definitely looked European, not Russian. Desperate for conversation, I made a beeline for them, introduced myself and the three of us clambered aboard together.
Martijn and Thom were Dutch who told me they were travelling for a year before starting four years of University back in The Hague. Like me, they had worked out the cheapest way to get to the Far East was by the Trans-Siberian. Like me, they had also travelled “hard” class. And, like me, they had finally given up on using the toilet on the train and had resorted to relieving themselves behind the trees at the local platforms! They had arrived in Khabarovsk two weeks ahead of me and had illegally rented a small boat with an outboard motor and chugged slowly up the Amur River, stopping in the little communities along the way to buy food, set up their tent and overnight under the stars.
With the sunshine of the Soviet Far East warming the outside temperature, no longer did I have to spend my time blowing on my fingers to keep them warm, pulling my woolen hat down over my ears to prevent a severe case of otalgia or demisting the windows with my scarf so I could strain my eyes against the glare of snow for a rare glimpse of wildlife. Now the three of us could actually look out and see the tall pines thinning out and receding and the peaks of the Ural Mountain range disappear into the highland mist, as we crossed back over the Amur River and descended south-east towards the lowlands and the shores of the port town of Nakhodka on the Sea of Japan.
Tokyo beckoned for the three of us as we spent the evening playing cards and sharing our plans for the next few months. Martijn and Thom were hoping to spend three months travelling all over Japan and then, if they still had some money left, sail south to Thailand. My plans were to spend a month in Japan, then sail to Hong Kong, get my visas for Laos and Vietnam and then fly to Saigon to meet up with Sean Flynn.
As I gazed out of my hotel window overlooking Nakhodka Bay the following morning I couldn’t help thinking that this was the beginning of the rest of my life. Would I regret my decision to come halfway around the world by myself? What would the future hold for me? Would I ever write that book? Would I show bravery or cowardice in the face of the many dangers that would face me in Vietnam? Or would I simply die an unnecessary and premature death in a foreign land, one more casualty, one more statistic, un-mourned by anyone other than my close family and friends?
“Ready?” Martijn asked, knocking on my door. “We’re leaving now.”
“Time to leave Siberia!” Thom laughed, putting his arm around me. “Shall we celebrate?”
“Definitely! “ I said, as I slammed the door of my hotel room behind me. “Yokohama, here we come!”
We laughed, picked up our suitcases, ran down the stairs two at a time and went to look for the bus that would take us to the ferry.
We had all forgotten, of course, that we would have to go through Customs at the ferry terminal. We lined up for over thirty minutes until we got to the head of the queue. Martijn and Thom got waved through. But I was stopped. My heart beat a bit faster. Perhaps word had got out about my photographs. Maybe I would be forced to have another inspection of my suitcase.
Well, in retrospect, if it had only been that, I would have been lucky. It turned out the Customs officers in Nakhodka were very thorough. They went through everything, including my bag, reading my letters, opening my lipstick and testing my foundation and mascara. Then they came to my box of tampax. That presented an enormous problem. The customs officers had obviously never come across tampax before. They tore open the box, pulled out the tubes, opened them up, removed the tampons, looked through each tube as if they were looking through a telescope and shrugged their shoulder, nonplussed. Meanwhile, everyone else had passed through Customs and was waiting, watching this spectacle.
Baffled, the two officers went off to find another, more senior, officer, an officer with a peaked cap and gold stripes on his lapel, an officer who probably should have known what tampax was. They showed him the tampons and he, too, shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. They then strolled over to me, whispering among themselves.
“Что это” (What is this?), the senior officer with the gold stripes asked.
I grabbed the empty box from my suitcase, removed the instructions and began to give a fairly graphic demonstration of what tampax was used for, much to the shock of my audience. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Martijn and Thom giggling hysterically.
The three Customs officers shuffled uncomfortably, their combined cockiness momentarily demolished. Unsure where to look or what to do, they began trying to shove all the tampons back into their little tubes. Finally, realizing that what comes out of a tube doesn’t always go back in, they dumped all the tampons, the tubes and the torn paper back into the box and handed it to me. I, in turn, handed it back to them.
“This is my gift to the women of Siberia!” I announced defiantly and, feeling momentarily triumphant, started repacking my case, knowing that all eyes in the room were focused on me at that moment.
Relieved that the ordeal was over, I joined Martijn and Thom, who gave me a hug and a thumbs up. Then the three of us boarded the ferry boat for Japan, put all memories of Siberia behind us and looked forward to our next respective adventures.