Russia has been in the news–a lot–these days and I can’t help but think back to the summer I took the Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Moscow. It was a seven-day trip and Russia was still part of the Soviet Union then–but not for long.
Mongolia was vast and dusty, but pretty nonetheless. In 1991, I didn’t have a digital camera and I’m not sure if many did. So I apologize for the poor quality of these photos.
When we reached Russia, it was Siberia. Even in July, the nights were cool and I had to take out my only sweater when I disembarked for a quick stop at a station along the way. It’s quite a change from Mongolia. I went through a bushel of peaches and bananas my friends in Beijing sent me off with, as well as bread I bought at stations in Mongolia and Russia. Half a loaf for lunch, the other half for dinner. The dining car ran on Moscow time, so was often open at odd hours.
I shared a four-person berth with two British teens–who had just completed a gap year working at an orphanage in India–and an American woman several years older than I. The American woman’s parents or aunt and uncle (I forgot which) were traveling on the same train, but in first class. I saw their birth and it was very nice!
Once we arrived in Moscow, a guy on my Hong Kong study abroad program (who I didn’t know would be on the train, but voila!) and a British guy from the train talked about renting an apartment and when I said I needed a place to stay, we three banded together. The guy from my program bought his train tickets from the same travel agency in Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong where I bought mine. The agency said if we wore their t-shirt when we got off the train, someone would meet us on the platform and could lease out an apartment for however long we wanted. It worked!
It was difficult to find a place to eat that first night, but the two guys from the train and I finally bribed a restaurant employee to seat is in the kitchen and serve us dinner there. It was the best US$11 I ever spent!
We didn’t stay near Red Square, but that’s what I remember most about Moscow. That and coming down with a fever the second night.
Those are all the photos I have from the train and Moscow, which is sad because I really did see more. I was in Moscow for five days and loved the Arbat the most. It was filled with young people singing Beatles’ songs and selling matryoshka dolls and Red Army paraphernalia. I bought some pretty white and silver stacking dolls, and another set at the GUM department store, which was not easy because none of the salespeople seemed interested in working.
I barely made it out of Moscow. If you didn’t know Russian back then, it was almost impossible to buy a train ticket out because the lines were long and all but unmarked. So I asked the woman who rented us the apartment if she could help me with a ticket to Budapest. The day I was set to leave, a big guy named Igor opened the door to the apartment and asked for US$50 and my passport.
“Budapest?” he asked.
“Da,” I replied. That was about all the Russian I knew.
Half a day later, he returned with a first class ticket to Budapest and my passport. I had less than an hour to get to the train station, but I made it thanks to an aggressive taxi driver.
A month later, Boris Yeltsin would emerge as the new leader and the Soviet Union would be no more.