Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Road to Samarkand - and back

The best trip I ever went on was a school visit back in 1973, to the Soviet Union. John, a teacher of Russian, organised it at a cost of £170 for 3 weeks, which sounded expensive at the time, but was very well worth the money.
    It began on Friday August 10th, with a boat from Dover to Ostend, from where we caught an overnight train to Berlin. It was quite appalling, with six people having to sleep in a compartment in tiny couchettes. In consequence of inadequate sleep, we hardly appreciated our tour of Berlin the next day. This involved first being taken through Checkpoint Charlie for a tour of East Berlin. Our guide, a young East German girl in a leather skirt, explained how the wall was necessary to prevent spies getting through from the west. (I wonder what she is doing now?) On our return the coach was thoroughly searched, including a mirror being slid underneath to check for refugees who might be clinging to the drive-rod. In the afternoon we saw the wall from the western side. I was amazed at how squalid it was. Part of it was simply old houses with their windows filled in with crudely laid breezeblocks. The Potsdamerplatz was like a deserted Piccadilly Circus with a wall right across the middle. Here we could climb up scaffolding and look across the wall, or wave at the East German guards. We could see it wasn’t a single wall, but a whole no-man’s-land with barbed wire, tank traps and presumably minefields. The scaffolding we climbed up seemed to be riddled with bullet-holes. Wreaths were laid where victims had been shot trying to cross, and along the Bernauerstrasse someone had sprayed “Murder!” (in German) on the wall.
    We left Berlin at midnight, which involved taking a train from a ridiculously short journey from West to East Berlin, and then catching the Moscow train at the Fredericksburg station. Surprisingly, the Russian train was much more comfortable than the Belgian one had been. We spent the night and next morning crossing Poland without stopping. When we reached Brest Litovsk the entire train was hoisted up in the air to change the wheels, since Russian railways are on a different gauge. This operation took some time, and in the course of it one of the boys needed to be conducted to the railwaymen’s lavatories. His very long hair, floral shirt and flared white jeans in best 1970s style caused some suspicion and doubt cast upon his gender. We then spent the rest of the day and all night riding through Minsk and on to Moscow. The region we covered was mostly birch forest and marshland, and sometimes we travelled for ages without glimpsing a single human habitation. I wondered how Hitler, or for that matter Napoleon, had brought vast armies through this desolate wilderness. However, the journey wasn’t tedious, because here we met Alla, our guide for the tour, a splendid lady who was utterly unlike the standard cartoon figure of an Intourist gyide: very attractive, intelligent, fluent and westernised. She was to prove the dominating personality of the group: indeed, easily the best guide I have ever come across.

In Moscow we stayed at the Ostankino hotel out in the suburbs, but had our meals at the Hotel Pekin (The name was spelt outside in Cyrillic letters made of imitation bamboo). We managed to cram an amazing amount into our three days in the city: the Kremlin, Lenin’s tomb, Lenin museum, Tretyakov and Pushkin art galleries, Park of Economic Achievement, Young Pioneers centre, plus drives around the city and trips on the metro and the trolley-buses. The fare on the metro was no more than 5 kopeks for any distance (about 3 or 4 pence), and the trolleys were even cheaper. Many of the metro stations looked like palaces: incredibly clean, with mosaics of heroic workers and peasants over the ceilings, and sometimes even chandeliers instead of strip lighting. But from a utilitarian aspect the metro had drawbacks: the name was only written up once per station, and if you failed to spot it you could be in difficulties. We noticed even the locals navigated by counting stops. Furthermore the stations tended to have ideologically-based names which gave you no idea were you actually were in the city: not “Leicester Square”, but “Red October” or “Komsomol”. On one trolley-bus ride we met a hopeless drunk who invited us all round to his home for a drink. The passengers were angry at his causing them embarrassment in front of the tourists, and at the next stop they threw him off. At one point our coach driver got lost trying to drive us back to the hotel, and kept stopping to consult a map. “Kutusov is still thinking!” said Alla after yet another delay. Finally he did a U-turn across eight lanes of traffic to ask the way.
The Kremlin cathedrals were marvellous, especially with Alla to explain the meanings of the icons.

We saw a bell which was too big ever to be rung, and a cannon which was too big ever to be fired, and I felt there was something very Russian about this. Beside the Kremlin was Red Square, with the History Museum at the top, the river at the bottom, and in the middle the great pile of St Basil’s cathedral, looking for all the world like a Disneyland mock-up in painted cardboard. Lenin’s tomb was a slab of red marble in front of the Kremlin wall. Two cadets from the military academy were perpetually on guard there, and every hour, on the hour, a fresh pair replaced them, parading in and out with an elaborate goose-step (which of course amazed us, since we would always associate it with the Nazis). There was a huge queue at the tomb, though as tourists we were allowed to push to the front. We had to file quickly past his body beneath its glass dome, and were not allowed to take pictures. He was surprisingly small, almost hairless, and unnaturally pink: we thought he was probably a waxwork. I noticed a bust of Stalin in the Kremlin wall near the tomb, but when I asked Alla where Khrushchev might be found, she replied, “Who cares about Khrushchev nowadays?” The Lenin museum had approximately one million portrayals of the leader, in feathers, grain, semi-precious stones and any other media you could imagine. “Every feature of his face is sacred to mankind and he will live forever” was the inspiring inscription. The museum also featured multiple copies of Lenin’s party card. Apparently whenever party cards were reissued, Lenin was posthumously given card No.1 (which he never had when he was alive). Some of the photographs were obvious fakes, with embarrassing people like Trotsky or Stalin being painted over. Alla was also irritated when some of the boys drew her attention to this, saying, “That picture’s in our history books, but it’s got Stalin in it there!” “Meester Shilston!” she confronted me, “Why do you cram the brains of your pupils with all this roobish? It will be a long time before Anglo-Soviet relations improve!” The interesting thing was that Alla was certainly old enough to remember when Stalin was still on the picture (it showed him and Lenin sitting side-by-side, but Stalin had been cut out and his right hand, beneath Lenin’s left elbow, replaced with an arm-rest). So what was a highly intelligent person like her supposed to make of it? Later on in the tour, we persuaded some gullible chap to let us have several of the little plastic holders that people were supposed to stick their Party cards in. Graham rather incautiously said to Alla, “It’s a pity you’re not a Party member, or we’d have given you one!” She threw him an exceedingly filthy look: I don’t know what that betokened. The Tretyakov gallery was full of appalling Soviet pictures: my favourite was called “The End”, and showed Hitler in the bunker, receiving the news of the latest Soviet victory with an all-purpose coarse acting gesture of despair. Needless to say, Stalin did not feature. The Pushkin had a huge collection of more modern art; Impressionist and Post-Impressionist; Matisse and so forth; and practically no visitors were there. (Before the Revolution, Russia had been a great centre of modern art. Many of the avant-guard artists had supported the Bolsheviks, but when it had quietened down, Lenin told them to start producing revolutionary art. They replied that their art was revolutionary, but of course what Lenin had meant was pictures of workers and peasants in heroic attitudes. So Socialist Realism came in, and many of the artists left the country. Our guide explained it this way; “Before the Revolution there was the idea of “Art for art’s sake; then it was replaced by a superior concept: “Art for the people’s sake”.) Departing from the official schedule, John persuaded a very reluctant Alla to let us go to a still-functioning Christian church. It was full of candles and incense, a congregation mostly of old ladies, and a priest who looked like Rasputin. But perhaps what Alla hadn’t wanted us to see was the collection of cripples and blind people begging at the gate, because when we got back to the coach we were given a lecture on the wonders of the Soviet welfare system. We also got our introduction to the “Berioska” system: hard-currency shops just for the tourists, with much better quality goods and better prices than in the shops for the natives. I could not imagine British people standing for this. In the evening we went to the circus and saw the famous clown Popov. He was amazingly multi-talented, doing juggling, acrobatics and impromptu drawings of people in the audience as well as comic turns. His showpiece act, however, was when his stooge entered brandishing an object labelled “atom bomb” with maniacal laughter, and Popov repulsed him with a dove of peace, to tumultuous applause. The stooge was strangely garbed in top hat and tailcoat, and it was only afterwards I realised that he was, of course, dressed as a capitalist.
Also in Moscow we encountered the Russian public for the first time. A tremendous number of them seemed to be on the cadge. At the lowest level were little children who wanted chewing gum in exchange for badges. We soon built up a large collection. Most of these were just little plastic affairs that they had been given to mark some anniversary, but some were more serious: “Hero of Socialist Labour”, “Outstanding Member of the Red Army” – they must have pinched them from their fathers. When we were queuing up at Lenin’s tomb, we saw a party attending the World Gynaecological Congress, wearing the most splendid official badges. Alla said, “Give me all your chewing gum!” and then walked along the line of these eminent doctors calling, “Chewing gum for badges? Chewing gum for badges?” Alas, none of them were trading. It was incidents like this which convinced us that Alla must have been very high up indeed in Intourist. The more adult cadgers wanted foreign currency or clothes. One boy was offered 50 roubles for his jeans. The nicest incident of our stay in Moscow happened at the Hotel Pekin, where we shared the dining room with a party of East Germans. At our first meal, we heard a fat and pompous man make a speech in German and Russian about how pleased they were to be in the socialist motherland, and all his party drank a toast. At our second meal, the man made a similar speech and his party drank another toast, but with rather less enthusiasm this time. When at our third meal we had to endure the man making yet another speech, we decided we had had enough. Graham got to his feet, rapped on the table for silence, and with great feeling and emphasis recited the Newcastle school song in Latin. “Floreat, o floreat!” he concluded, raising his glass, at which we all leapt up and shouted “Floreat Castellum!” The fat pompous East German stormed out in disgust, but the rest of his long-suffering party turned round and applauded. The waiters told Alla that they thought it was very funny.

After three days in Moscow we took an overnight flight to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, which was actually the first time I had ever flown.

Most of Tashkent fell down in an earthquake in the 1960s, and so what we saw was a very modern city; concrete and skyscrapers in the middle of the desert; but spotlessly clean and surprisingly attractive. We particularly liked the central plaza, where we could walk under a row of fountains, get soaked, but then be dried off by the intense heat before we’d walked back to the hotel. We were taken round museums and silk factories, and bought Uzbek skullcaps and embroidered waistcoats at the Berioska. Out in the countryside we saw cotton and maize fields, and went swimming in a local lake. The local Uzbeks were very distinct from the Russians: a dark, Turkish people with fierce moustaches and shaven heads under their skullcaps, and the women all in headscarves and brilliant multicoloured dresses. A man tried unsuccessfully to seduce, Dave, one of our boys. “Heem … pleasure … kiss heem … Five minutes!” he attempted. “Eh, Alla”, said Dave, “How do you say ‘Get stuffed’ in Uzbek?” Another local offered to sell two girls to the youngest of our boys, aged only 13. “Uzbek twits!” said Alla. I suppose it is nice to know that traditional trades are still being practised in these parts.
Then we flew out over a patchwork of irrigated fields to Samarkand. The first person I saw in the city was a man wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt (a very old one: it still had Brian Jones on it). We were pleased to see British culture making an impact in such remote parts. Samarkand was marvellous. Our hotel room looked out on the blue dome of Tamerlane’s tomb.

When we toured the city, it was every bit as exotic as I had imagined. We visited the tomb itself, which was called the Gur-Emir (The local saying went, “If the sky should fall tomorrow, the dome of the Gur-Emir will replace it”). In the centre of the city was Sandy Square, around which were three huge mosques and midrasas. The most exotic of them had mosaics of huge faces like half-moons, and also animals (all very unIslamic) and was known as the Midrasa of Fantastic Lions. The biggest building was the mosque of Bib Khan, Tamerlane’s wife, which had been shattered in an earthquake, leaving just the remains of a huge drum which had supported the dome, and a vast stone lectern for the Koran. Outside the city were the observatory of Ulugh Begh, the most famous astronomer of his day but an inept ruler, and a complex of mosques and tombs called the Shah-i-Zindah: the place of the living kings. The predominant colour everywhere was a deep, brilliant blue. Then there were the people. Tashkent had appeared quite westernised; Samarkand looked unchanged for centuries. We saw three little girls outside a still-functioning mosque and bribed them with chewing gum to pose for a picture. None of them spoke any Russian. We visited a market for fruit and spices where hardly anyone was wearing European dress, and some of the farmers looked as if they had come straight out of the desert. The food in the hotel was good: rice, lamb, local bread and all kinds of melons. (It was said that in the old days the Caliph in Baghdad would give a slave girl for a single Samarkand melon: we decided he had a point) We were even given melons on the planes.
Then it was on to Bokhara, which was even more Asiatic. Kirov Park was an endless avenue of fruit stalls, with carpet-covered platforms in the shade where Uzbek men in their kaftans lounged, smoking and drinking tea. We were taken to a surviving fragment of the ancient city wall, the Spring of Job mosque and the Ishmael Samna building; a structure in white open brickwork which was the only part of the city to survive destruction by Genghis Khan. In the city centre was the Khalyan mosque and its enormous minaret, which was also known as the “Tower of Death”, since enemies of the Emir used to be thrown off the top.

On the outskirts of the city was the summer palace of the last Emir, “The Place of Moon and Stars”. The Emirs ruled here, as feudal underlings of the Tsar, until they were thrown out by the Revolution. The palace was a fantasy of alabaster and mirrors, full of lavish carpets, embroidered clothes, and enormous Chinese vases. In the grounds was the harem. Peacocks were nesting in the trees around a shady pool. The Emir had an observation platform from where he could watch the concubines coming down to bathe; and it was even equipped with a billiard table, in case he found the whole procedure too boring.
Here might be the time to mention the Uzbek drivers, who were quite the worst I ever came across. They would cut corners and overtake blindly, and the only control they seemed to use was the horn. We had one narrow escape from death in Bokhara, but the worst experience was when driving out of Samarkand, on a narrow, twisty road blasted through cliffs. Our driver tried to overtake a lorry on a bend, and as we rounded the corner side-by-side we saw a third vehicle approaching us at speed. All three drivers sounded their horns, but apart from that appeared to take no action. I was in the front seat, and I closed my eyes. When I opened them I was surprised to find I was still alive, and our driver was laughing. I do not know how we survived.
In Samarkand we found ourselves sharing the hotel with a film crew. A poncy Yugoslav actor spent much of the evening chatting up Alla in a most cringe-making fashion, and with little visible success. In Bokhaha at an open-air cinema we saw our only film, a fairly grisly production called “Laurel-wreaths”, in which a young Soviet girl in a steelworks discovers the joys of operating the Bessemer converter. Not one of our best fims, was Alla’s verdict. She told us she had volunteered to come with our group to Central Asia because of her memories of how her husband once shot a movie there. One of her first jobs, she told us, was looking after a party of visiting Soviet dignitaries on a trade mission to London. She prepared an itinery of the main tourist sights and asked which they wished to visit first. “We would like to go to a strip club”, they said.
We were supposed to fly on to Khiva, which apparently was even more exotic, but for some unrevealed reason this part of the tour was cancelled, and instead we had to go back to Moscow. When we reached Bohkara’s little airport it was immediately obvious that there wasn’t a single plane there; but Alla rose to the occasion. “Don’t worry, boys!” she announced, “I’ll find you a plane!” Two hours later she reported that she had indeed found us a plane, and there on the runway was a little Yak-40 executive jet just for us. Apparently what had happened was this: in Tashkent two of the boys had gone down with the usual holiday tummy-trouble and were rushed off to hospital and given blood tests. We were told that if anything nasty showed up, we would all be isolated and shipped back to Britain forthwith. The authorities were clearly very scared of epidemics. After a day they were in fact let out and we were reprieved. But from Bokhara airport Alla rang up Intourist in Moscow, and told them that half the party had suspected dysentery and unless they brought us a plane the whole region would have to be placed in quarantine. This was the advantage of having a high-level guide.
Our last stop in the Soviet Union was Leningrad. Anywhere else would have been an anticlimax after Uzbekistan but Leningrad had so much to see that it could not possibly be a disappointment. The former capital was full of splendid 18th century architecture by Rastrelli and Rossi, and their followers. We stood in Winter Palace Square (which is not a square at all, but a huge semi-circle where the Winter Palace faces Admiralty Arch), scene of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in 1905, and of the Bolshevik coup in 1917. We saw the equestrian statute of Peter the Great and St. Isaac’s cathedral, and the Peter-Paul fortress and the “Aurora” gunboat which fired shells at the Winter Palace in the October Revolution.

 Some of the best statues were by a sculptor called Klodt, which greatly amused everyone, and we had to explain the joke to Alla. “Sculptor Klodt” ought to be a character in the “Beano”: one can instantly foresee some of his misadventures. In a modern exhibition we saw a model of the “Lenin” atomic-powered icebreaker, which had forced a passage round the north of Siberia. When exploring on my own, I found the Kazan cathedral which had become a “Museum of Atheism”, featuring waxworks of Spanish Inquisition torturers. Alla took the only possible course in the endless treasure-house of the Hermitage; marching us briskly through several rooms in order to concentrate on just one particular picture. (I was surprised at one point to be confronted by a Van Dyck portrait of Archbishop Laud. It must have been part of the Walpole collection bought by Catherine the Great). Then we went out of the city to Peter the Great’s palace at Petrodvorets, and the classical palace built for Tsar Paul at Pavlovsk, and the vast blue-and-white monstrosity which Rastrelli created for Catherine at Tsarskoye Selo (now Pushkin).

 We were told how these palaces fell into Nazi hands during the war, and were stripped bare and almost destroyed. Catherine’s palace once had a room wallpapered in Chinese silk, and another room tiled in amber. When Soviet troops reoccupied the palace, all this was gone. Ever since then, designers and builders had been painstakingly reconstructing it, but only a very small number of the rooms were as yet completed. Our hotel in Leningrad was the Astoria, an impressive building were Hitler planned to hold his celebratory banquet before he had the city destroyed. Our local guide was a nice little girl called Ludmilla, who had just completed her university exams. She was fairly sure she had done well in her language papers, but was less certain about the compulsory paper on Marxism-Leninism, which she would have to pass in order to graduate. Leningrad was also Alla’s home city. By the end of the German siege, she told us, almost all her relatives were dead.
The legendary bad Russian plumbing was certainly true here. There was also a shortage of loo paper, which meant that the lavatories were supplied with copies of “Pravda” torn into little squares. One of the boys searched through for the picture of Lenin which was always on the front page of the paper – but he couldn’t find one! They’d all been removed!

We went to the ballet and the opera. Alla was rather apologetic in advance, saying that the artistes were only provincial companies, and probably not very good, but I felt I couldn’t tell my parents I’d been to Russia and turned down an invitation. So in Moscow we saw “Gariya” by Khachaturian, about the collectivisation of farming in Armenia, in which the plots of fiendish kulaks were duly thwarted, and in Leningrad a production of “Der Fledermaus”. In the ball scene, there was a gauze curtain pretending to be a mirror, with the dancers on the far side moving in exact mirror-image of those in front. It was well done, but seemed unnecessarily complicated. Some of our party left after this scene, thinking it was the end, and had to hang around on the streets outside in the rain for ages.
We finally departed after two weeks in the Soviet Union; but it wasn’t quite the end of the holiday, because we were to return to Britain by sea, on board the “Nadezhda Krupskaya” (alias Mrs. Lenin). We boarded late in the evening. There was a huge queue at visa control, but again Alla dominated the situation. “Go to the front, boys!” she commanded. A party of Americans shook their fists at us as we overtook them. “We’ve been here for ages!” they protested. “Roobish!” said Alla, and turned to the official at the desk. “Serve my boys first!” And he did. We sang “The Red Flag” to Alla as the ship circled away in the gathering gloom.
It took us four complete days to sail home across the Baltic and the North Sea. The ship was actually quite comfortable. But we felt it would have been more exciting to travel on the “Lenin” icebreaker with an Uzbek captain: he probably wouldn’t have bothered to turn right at Denmark; simply got up a good head of steam and seen if he couldn’t plough straight across Jutland. Some fairly dreadful Russian films were shown, though one had an unconscious touch of humour: it was a documentary which opened with shots of travellers on a train. “These people are going to Siberia”, the commentary began, “The makers of this film wanted to find out why it is so easy to go to Siberia, but so difficult to leave”. We had a day in Helsinki, which was amazingly and spotlessly clean after Russia. We saw the Temppeliaukio church, built in solid rock, and Dipoli University, which was a building with no right angles, and Tapiola suburb, which demonstrated how to make tower-blocks attractive. When we got back to the ship, we found the harbourmaster, the chief immigration officer and the young lady transport controller, all totally sloshed, having been boozing at the bar ever since we docked. (“Very nice Finnish girl”, said our purser, suggestively.) The harbourmaster tried to give us some Finnish coins as a souvenir, but succeeded only in dropping them all over the floor. Apparently it was so difficult to get a drink in Finland that they had to rely on the Russians for their alcoholic needs. (Alla had told us a story about a Finn on holiday at the Astoria in Leningrad: he spent all day lying in bed drinking vodka, then decided to go down for dinner in the evening. Since it was a smart hotel, he thought he had better put a tie on, and it was only after he had walked down the corridor he realised that, although he had put a tie on, he hadn’t put anything else on.) Our final port of call was Copenhagen, where we saw the Organ church and the Little Mermaid statue (placed in a very insignificant site) and were amazed by the pornography shops. When we passed through Dover customs, an official got suspicious of our collection of posters, and wanted a look at them. “These aren’t from Copenhagen”, John explained, “They’re Russian ones. They’re just urging the working classes to rise up”. “That’s all right then”, said the official. Somehow this seemed a suitable end to our tour.
This will always rank as my best-ever holiday.



  2. Hi Peter - that's a great story. Thanks for posting it. I was recently in Uzbekistan for a documentary production. If you are interested in seeing some of the sites again that you mentioned in your post, you might be interested in getting a copy:
    The documentary won an Emmy this year. You can also find it on-demand on Just search for "Through the Desert Goes Our Journey" Walter Ratliff.

  3. I'm so glad you invited me to check out your blog, Peter. I loved your story and your style.
    I've no choice...I have to follow you now!

  4. How did I miss this trip at the time? The tales resulting were legendary. Didn't Phil T sell his trunks in a Moscow taxi? And the Beach Boys repetoire get several airings?