THE FAR HORIZONS
CHAPTER TWELVE: THE SIBERIAN ROUTE HOME
The Baikal was a cheerful, friendly little ship, with the crew making worthy efforts to entertain us with Russian songs and Cossack dancing in the evenings. There was always a peculiar purple-pink cabbage soap on the menu, which tasted quite good, and black caviar which tasted perfectly horrible, like oily frog spawn and fish paste. The ship was also plentifully scattered with communist propaganda, there were little booklets and leaflets sprinkled like heavy confetti around our cabins and in all the public rooms. I read some and it was very impressive, all about the glories of the Russian system and the evils of the West, but I write fiction too, and I know how words can be juggled to tell any kind of a story. (There was even a glowing euology about Russia’s sole desire for a peaceful stance with the rest of the world, but as I write this the Kremlin has just repeated Hungary and Budapest by sending their tanks and heavy guns to invade Czechoslovakia.)
However, there were no politicians, generals or propaganda- writers aboard the Baikal. It was a happy ship and it was a pleasant two-day cruise, first up the north east coast of Japan, turning between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, and then west across the Sea of Japan to Nahadokha on Russians east coast. I shared a four-berth cabin with a young Swede and two Germans, and apart from a young English schoolteacher and his wife the rest of our fellow-passengers were all Japanese.
The schoolteacher was returning from a long stay on Taiwan, and had also been able to visit Canton in Red China, and his comparisons of the two made interesting and enlightening bar-leaning conversation. Having seen something of both sides he was convinced that Mao and Communism had at least done more for China than the American-backed government of Chiang Kai Shek had achieved for Taiwan. Most of the millions of US dollars poured into Taiwan had merely been used to turn the island into a vast and useless military fortress facing the mainland, while the peasants still lived in their original poverty.
It made me wonder whether the Americans ever will realize that all the evils in the world cannot be cured by the simple distribution of little slips of green paper bearing pictures of good ole Uncle Sam.
We were sailing deeper into winter, up on deck the winds were freezing and usually carried snow, and as we neared the Russian coast small ice floes began floating past. When it appeared Nahadokha looked cold and drab; a few oil or gas tanks, and then a low line of spartan grey buildings huddled in the gaps between the hills. There were more large chunks of dirty ice drifting between the half dozen small freighters that lay in the outer harbor, and the port looked like a mere coastal outpost for sailors and fishermen.
After the ship had docked there were three hours of delays. The customs officers finally reached our cabin and there was a moment of dark suspicion because the Swede had listed his Christmas presents under a column on the declaration form headed Goods brought in for other persons. We managed to sort that out, and then had to find the Intourist officials who were collecting up vouchers given by the Tokyo office and allocating carriage and berth numbers for the train that was waiting to carry us all to Khabarovsk, the next stage of our journey.
Finally we were able to descend to the concrete quayside, where a scattering of curious Russians stood around in heavy black overcoats, and fur hats with the ear flaps tied on top. We went into a reception building to wait for a bus that was to convey us to the railway station, and here I found myself abruptly surrounded on three sides. Not by the dreaded KGB, (although much later I was forced to revise that conclusion), but by a lady schoolteacher in a pink hat, and two shy seventeen year old girls. The lady was named Vera and taught English and the girls were her prize pupils. She explained that they tried to meet all the incoming ships to find someone with whom they could practice their English, and I was elected.
At first I felt like something between a pedigree dog at crusts, and a lost lecturer who has somehow strayed on to the wrong platform in a fit of amnesia with no notes. Vera kindly suggested that I tell a joke to break the ice, but most of my jokes were hardly fit for a broad-minded English Rose, much less for two bright-eyed young Russian maidens eagerly thirsting after pure education. Fortunately Vera was a born talker, (just like women everywhere), and the conversation soon got off the ground. The girls mostly smiled and laughed, and they were very pretty and once I had recovered my balance I began to enjoy their company.
The train was not due to leave for another three hours, and so they gave me a nutshell tour of Nahadokha. It was a larger town than its first impression had made me believe, with a population of over 100,000. Bare, frozen birch trees lined most of the wide main streets, and in many places the road surface was cracked by the cold. It was dark and there wasn't very much to see in the yellow light of the street lamps. The only building of any size was the Cultural Centre which was rather like a modern town hall with white columns and wide steps at the end of a long avenue. Here there was another library of free literature and they made me a gift of volume number thirty of the collected works of Lenin. In fact, if I had had a wheelbarrow to take them away I could also have had the other twenty-nine.
We walked back to the train which steamed up and departed at eight o'clock, and Vera and her two girls waved gaily from the platform until they were swallowed up by the night. We passed somewhere near the great naval port of Vladivostock but saw nothing of in the darkness. No doubt we were not intended to see anything, for I could think of no other logical reason why the train should have been held back all through the afternoon. As much as possible of the journey through the USSR was always taken during the hours of night.
When I awoke the next morning a crisp white scene of grassy plains mottled white with snow was flashing past beyond the windows of the train. The land rolled like long calm white dunes and there were many small forests of silver birch under the bright blue skies. It was warm and cosy in the train, but the wicked draught that slashed up between the coupled coaches made it obvious that it was freezing outside. Throughout the morning the landscape became more wintery and there were a few small wooden townships and an occasional farm. In places it looked as though old-fashioned Christmas cards had come to life, but there were vast empty spaces. Pines began to alternate with the birch forests as we drew further north, and the train snorted into Khabarovsk shortly after noon.
There was a seven-hour delay until our departure to Moscow, and to fill in the gap all the transit passengers from the Baikal were loaded into three buses and driven to a hotel for lunch. There followed an afternoon coach tour of Khabarovsk, all of it inclusive in the pre-paid itinerary. We were now six hundred miles north of Nahadokha, and I was more than ever glad of that “hairy animal thing” I had carried all the way from Afghanistan.
My impressions or Khabarovsk were of an expansive city of wide streets and scattered buildings, with naked trees shivering along the pavements. There was a spacious Lenin Square, complete with a statue of the worker's hero in a shabby jacket, cloth cap and waistcoat. The sunlight reflecting from the blanket of white snow gave everything a seemingly false air of cheer and brightness, as though underneath it was serious and sombre.
The highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the Amur River which curved past the city in a great sweeping arc over a hundred yards wide. It was frozen over and presented a great expanse of virgin snow, except for two lonely fishermen huddled over holes cut in the ice. They were like squatting black bears in their massive overcoats and furry hats, and had built semi-circles of ice blocks like half-constructed Eskimo igloos to protect them from the bitter wind. The buses stopped so that we could take photographs, and about a score of us ploughed through knee-deep snow across the frozen river to reach the scene. Cameras clicked in a feverish, fumbling tattoo, to record the Arctic picture, and then we all ran back to the buses. The temperature must have been about thirty below freezing and my retreating thought was that fishermen everywhere needed their heads examined. By the time I got back to the bus my feet were numbed solid, my ears felt brittle enough to crack off, and I had reached the conclusion that we tourists weren't all that particularly intelligent either.
The buses took us back into Khabarovsk, and then out to the airport. There was another long wait, and again a mass of blatant communist propaganda was the only reading matter available in the airport lounge. Finally we heard the news that our flight was cancelled because of bad weather over Moscow, and we were all taken back to the hotel in Khabarovsk to spend the night.
I was rather pleased with the cancellation, because we eventually took off at ten o'clock the following morning and flew in daylight all the way. The plane was a giant Turpolev 114 of Russia’s Aeroflot Airways, with massive double sets of distinctive contro-rotating propellers thrust forward on long engines from each wing. It was the largest airliner in the world, but there was a lot or rattling vibration from the curtain rail above my window, and the standards of luxury were far below those in the West. The stewardesses, I thought unkindly, looked more like tractor drivers, but perhaps they had been chosen for their long-distance stamina in getting up and down the aisle rather than for their looks.
From the air Siberia stretched away in empty white plains with only a few wriggles and squirls of black earth showing through the hoary white crust. The rivers were wide and wandering, like trails of frozen cream. As the plane cruised on the ground below gradually became a wild and vicious waste-land of gleaming white, like giant waves tossed by a violent wind and then frozen into position. Hours later the black and grey shades returned where some kind of dark scrub, or possibly small pine trees had managed to survive. Throughout nine hours of flying the changes were only in slight degrees. Sometimes the earth was a flat desert of snowfields, and sometimes more like a frozen swamp with still pools, bubbles and swirls and wriggling channels making bizarre patterns. At other times it was simply a vast jigsaw puzzle with no picture or design, but simply formless, interlocking pieces of grey and white. But always, over thousands of miles, it was totally empty without a glimmer or hospitality or habitation, just as I had always expected Siberia would be.
Only during the last half hour before landing at Moscow was there anything below, and then only a few isolated buildings and the snow-buried lines of a few roads, like the canals on a frozen Mars. Our scheduled night flying time had been eight hours, but in bright daylight and perfect flying weather the actual flying time had taken one and a half hours longer, and I suspect that our route must have been deliberately altered in order to show us precisely nothing. Over what and where, I wondered, had we detoured to fill that extra time?
The temperature was exactly freezing point at Moscow airport, but even so it was warm compared to Khabarovsk. We stayed there for twenty-four hours, just long enough to visit the Red Square and the Kremlin, and to spend a single night at the classy Metropole Hotel. On the whole I wasn't particularly sorry that my stay was a brief one. I saw nobody smile, and the Intourist guide who marched four of us around the Kremlin was deadly serious and completely devoid of any sense of humour. The entertainment on offer was all coldly cultural, the Bolshoi Ballet, symphony orchestras and approved plays, but absolutely no light entertainment, no variety, no bright lights and no laughter. I left feeling that the Ivans were welcome to their workers’ paradise. When I arrived back in England the dock strike was on, and I found myself thinking that if only those Communist trade unionists, strike-leaders and troublemakers could just see the drab and repressive world of their ideals, then they might have quit their stupid sabotage overnight.
As an experienced traveler I can confidently state that nowhere in this world is perfect, but that England for all its faults has fewer imperfections than anywhere else.
My departure from Moscow, again arranged by Intourist, was timed at night, so I saw no more of Russia as the train rumbled west through the long hours of darkness. Most of the next day was occupied with crossing the dull, flat countryside of Poland, and the transit through East Germany and Berlin was again made at night. Consequently I saw nothing of the infamous wall, although I was hauled out of my bunk at five different control points to fill in long identical forms and have my cringing passport battered with a succession of savage black stamps.
The train crossed West Germany during the rest of the night, and by morning it was swaying swiftly across Holland. The towns and stations and even the hillsides were much brighter and cheerful despite the rainy grey skies of winter, and it was some time before the obvious reason for the change clicked in my slow brain. It was the advertizing hoardings with all their colourful pictures of tasty foods and smiling faces. They had been non-existent in Eastern Europe where everything is state- owned and there is no enterprise and competition, but what a difference they made. They were a familiar sight that I had never fully appreciated before.
The train passed through Rotterdam and then reached its journey’s end at the Hook of Holland. The Dutch motor steamer Koningin Wilhelmina was waiting, and soon she was lifting her bows into the grey waves of the Channel crossing. After six lazy, rolling hours she nosed into Harwich quay, and the wet, foggy air of dear old England. I was almost home, and to while away those last few hours at sea my mind had wandered back along the paths of poetry; not particularly good poetry, but it seemed to sum up what I was feeling:
I've seen the bazaars of Istanbul,
The Blue Mosques of Isfahan,
The shadowed medinas of Marrakech,
And the plains of Abadan.
I've seen the Kasbah of old Tangiers,
And the streets of Kandahar,
And I've slept out on the desert sands,
Neath the heavens filled with stars.
I've seen the Valley of the Kings,
And the temples of the Nile,
And the Acropolis of Athens,
In splendid Grecian style,
I've seen the Himalayan peaks,
All flushed with sunrise red,
And I've walked the sacred Ganges,
Where the Hindus burn their dead,
I've seen the wondrous Taj Mahal,
Like ivory neath the moon.
And I've seen the fires of nomad's tents,
Where the sparks fly in the gloom,
I’ve seen the jungles of Siam,
And Bangkok’s temple spires,
And the million lights of old Hong Kong,
Like flashing neon fires,
I've journeyed through the Khyber Pass,
Where Genghis Khan once rode,
But through all the world I've traveled,
Be it Paris, Venice -- Rome,
The sweetest mile of all to see,
Is that last long mile to home.