Wednesday, February 29, 2012

U.S.S.R. - David's Notes on the Trans Siberia Railway - 13.6.1970

These are from notes I typed up for David when we got to California, they are very informative and interesting and fill in lots of gaps from both our memories.


From Warsaw, after strenuous enquiries, we discovered no reservation was required for the trip to Leningrad.  However after a rushed change of trains at the U.S.S.R.  border, a cool calm Intourist rep. boarded the train, a young man who apparently spoke fluent English and German.  But discovered that I spoke a little German, he conducted the whole conversation in that, to place me at a little disadvantage, I felt.   We found we needed reservations for the Kuznitza - Leningrad section and were quoted US$7 each for a sleeper, so we said we'd prefer to sit up.  He then offered us the use of the sleeper with linen and blankets, this time at US$5 for two.  We again said we'd do without and after disappearing he came back to say he thought that would be okay except we would have no linen or blankets and left the train.  Our conductress then intervened, said that medical regulations required the use of the issued sheet and pillowslip, and quoted one Rouble each for these.  (1 Rouble = 1 US$)  So we had a sleeper, sheets and blankets for the overnight trip, but having no Roubles we were assisted in our dilemma by a lovely little Polish girl, who paid the two Roubles, and later invited us to join her group for a simple evening meal - we had no food ourselves, and no Roubles to obtain any.

The train consists of carriages built in 1969 in East Germany, they are very well fitted out with washing and toilet cabinets at each end of the corridor.  The four berth compartments have padded, if not cushioned, seats, with mattresses of similar padding laid over the bunks for sleeping.  After the disorganization of the entry into U.S.S.R. we were greatly surprised in Leningrad to be sought out in the crowd outside the station by an Intourist courier, apologizing for being late, who packed us into a Volga taxi for a rapid drive to our hotel.  This Hotel, the oldest in Leningrad was carpeted throughout with Persian rugs,  and was very comfortable.

The day train to Moscow was seats only accommodation and well provided with restaurant car and service for drinks etc.  from waitresses carrying baskets up and down the carriages.

The Trans-Siberian, nominally Moscow to Vladivostok, train left Moscow punctually at 10:05am  The accommodation was three classes - First-class, Tourist Hard and Third or extra Hard, in which there were bunks three high throughout the carriage and in the corridors with no compartment divisions.  Tourist Hard was the same East German built carriage but First-class rode in very old apparently Russian-built carriages.  I would say that to purchase First-class travel was money down the drain... we met several disgruntled First-class tourists, whose hotels were only as good as or even inferior to our Tourist class twin rooms, and facilities for First-class rail travel were, by observation,  actually inferior to Tourist as far as cleanliness and modernity of carriages went.

In each carriage there is a conductress who travels the whole way, she would vacuum the floors each day, clean windows, etc., and also serve tea at two kopeks (100 kopeks = 1 Rouble) a glass if requested at almost any time.  At each one of the 72 stops Moscow to Khabarovsk, a team descended on the train, to refill the drinking and washing water tanks from track side hoses, to check carriage wheels, brakes and bearings.  Track maintenance was of quite high standard, for the whole length of 9,487 km.

Photography is a subject requiring some caution, broadly, 'railway junctions, stations, factories, rivers, roads, bridges, harbours and port installations', and or course defense and military equipment are forbidden subjects, but I found that if unobserved, e.g. in our compartment, I could take anything I liked.  While observed I would make it obvious that I intended to take a shot and desist only if shouted at by a guard or official in uniform of any kind.  Each train carries a railway security officer who dispenses literature in many languages, feeds selected matter into the radio wired into every compartment and corridor and watches for breaches of regulations particularly photographic as I discovered when about to take a shot from the rear of the last carriage in the train.

The restaurant car provides quite a well cooked range of dishes, not in great variety, standards were ham and eggs, beef schnitzel, kebabs, fried liver, friend sturgeon, solyanka (sausage and cabbage) and borscht soups, plus caviar and champagne, very palatable, many soft drinks all good, beer awful, coffee awful and chai or tea with lemon at 8 kopeks or 2 kopeck plain, and very good.  Meal vouchers are included in the fare to a value of 4 Roubles a day which is more than adequate and being encashable were able to retain at least a Rouble or two per day to spend on extra drinks cigarettes at 30-40 kopeks for 20, or had we known at the 'duty free international' stall at the port in Nakhodka on foreign cigarettes, drinks souvenirs etc.

Washing facilities were clean and water both hot and cold was unlimited, it would even have been possible, had we thought to take a bowl or dipper, to shower by soaping up and then rinsing off after removing the plug in the floor of the toilet compartment this was not possible in first class carriages however.

All Intourist bookings i.e. Non-Russians were in one compartment with no segregation, however our two cabin mates, both males got out at Irkutsk  so for one third of the way we had a compartment to ourselves until Khabarovsk where all foreigners leave the train, to stay overnight in a Hotel before continuing on another special train, which passes the controversial security points of the Chinese border and the Naval establishment at Vladivostok during hours of darkness.  This second train was of slightly higher standard, being the same type of carriages but newer, cleaner and with a better restaurant car, serving fixed menu meals of more appetizing quality.  The peak however was reached on the ship from Kakhodka to Yokohama, Japan where meals and service were positively sumptuous by Russian standards and a determined effort was made to provide entertainment in the form of films and dancing evenings.

The line from Moscow is electrified all the way to Sverdlovsk and from Omsk to Petrovsky Zavod. The Sverdlovsk to Omsk and the Khabarovsk Nakhodka sections are diesel-hauled.  From Petrovsky Zavod to Khabarovsk 2,714 km, we had one or at times two massive steam locos depending on the gradients.  Plugs for wash basins even in hotels appear to be a nationwide deficiency and we would have been well advised to take a universal one of our own.  However a pleasant surprise was that all the carriages had 220v A.C. power outlets for shavers also shock-absorbers on the bogies.  Both these aids to comfort were lacking on first glass carriages!  Almost all our Russian fellow travellers were eager to be friendly, we had many enjoyable games of chess, draughts, cards and discussions as far as was possible in German which was usually the only common language.  On the Nakhodka train however we met a very voluble lady who spoke excellent English and gave us a fascinating insight into the attitudes of a disciplined Russian mind.  We found people almost all satisfied with their style of life, intensely proud of their countries industrial achievements utterly convinced of the evil intentions of the West, U.S.A. mainly and certainly in no mood to overthrow Communism.  This was not the case in the Satellites... there a feeling of patriotism and dislike for the Russians and their Communism was the apparent attitude an impression gained after rather limited contact, admittedly.  All in all, the Trans Siberian must rate as one of the most rewarding journeys in the World, particuarly when one considers that for $220 per person from Moscow to Yokohama, full board included one travels half way around the world.
June 1970

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