Also in the September 1971 edition of the Railway Magazine, was a description of a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It’s written rather in the “British Empire” style – intrepid explorer with Union Jack and pith helmet reaches the interior and meets friendly natives – but is still an interesting read about railway, and the USSR socially and politically in 1971.
… My publisher said “Go to Vladivostok”, so I went.
It was not quite as easy as that. Firstly, east of Moscow, there are only three towns along the route that are open to foreigners. They are Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and Khabarovsk…. I did not rate my chance of reaching Vladivostok very high…
Let me say, in retrospect, that the Trans-Siberian Express is the best thing in Russia. It is one of the most comfortable trains in both Europe and Asia. The wider gauge ensures spaciousness, the coaches are kept spotlessly clean and its timetable is strictly adhered to. Best of all, it is the one place in the whole Soviet Union in which you can live with its citizens.
The best season for crossing Siberia is autumn. The world of trees transforms from a depressing green to a gigantic cloth of gold.
A station stop….
Having got to Khabarovsk, with a little help from a student, the author managed to get a return ticket onwards to Vladivostok.
…. In the morning the whole communal coach learnt that there was an Englishman among them and I was invited to about 17 breakfasts. Police came on board at Ussuriysk and I retired hastily to my bunk.
Was it worth the effort and risk of arrest?
The big steam locomotive brought us into Vladivostok Central on the dot. I had eight hours to spend before my over-night train back to Khabarovsk. Between the ranks of a battalion of fully armed troops I emerged into the most depressing of streets.
Vladivostok I soon discovered to be exceedingly awful. I started my tour with a visit to an office near the station to put in motion the preliminaries of the return journey. They spoke no English but seemed to require more than my passport in support of my request. I tried them with my driving license, regimental association membership card and an out-of-date Barclaycard. To my amazement they seemed satisfied and no more questions were asked.
Shipping of all descriptions jostled the docks. Warships in slabs, like compressed dates, showed through the rigging and radar antennae of fishing trawlers, while, in the quayside streets, soldiers were as numerous as the sailors. The hills of China rose from the far end of the city to remind all and sundry for the reason. Red slogans screamed “LENIN – OUR TEACHER AND OUR FRIEND” from banners reaching across the road.
Not my first choice for a seaside holiday. He concludes on his return to legality….
I couldn’t tell them the truth of course: that I went to Vladivostok just for the ride. Only a decreasing breed of Englishman would understand that.
But in the November edition came a terse response.
SIR – I have been a reader of your magazine for well over twenty years, not having missed a copy in that time (even when serving as a national serviceman in Malaya). I have always found it an excellent source of railway information. How did you allow such a politically-motivated article as “Nine Days to Vladivostok” to slip in? The pre-conceived prejudices and snide remarks of the author are surely out of place in a serious magazine devoted to railways. The only justification for it seems to be that he used rail as a method of foisting himself on the people of Siberia.
I am unsure whether the writer considered the article pro- or anti- USSR. I suspect it was just the superior tone of the article. But if you have happily read a magazine for 20 years, why put pen to paper for the one article that annoys you? Why not just ignore it…..