CAROL SUMMERHAYES. Another Trans-Siberian experience.

John Tulloh’s post brought back memories of my Trans-Siberian train journey, some twenty-three years after his.  He was there in 1967, and not a lot had changed when I was there in 1990, travelling in the reverse direction.

With a friend, I flew from Niigata in Japan to Khabarovsk in Russia’s east, 30 km from the Chinese border and 800 km north of Vladivostok.  While the Trans-Siberian train left from Vladivostok, it was then a closed city so we foreigners had to board at Khabarovsk – a dark, brown, eerie place if ever there was one.  It was the end of April so the thaw was just beginning – our clapped out taxi took us from the airport through puddles, potholes, cars with parking lights only, occasional dim street lights and a haze of smog, filthy dirty rickety old buses lurching along in the dark, and hardly any people, to the Intourist Hotel. Money changers and bored youngsters hung around in the gloom outside our hotel, with its dark brown interiors – heavily lacquered parquet floors and timbered walls, very little lighting, drab and sparse furnishings, guarded on each floor by a babushka who seemed well set up with a perpetually running television, a few armchairs and decorative items but no apparent purpose.

The following morning revealed Karl Marx Street populated by packs of dogs roaming over broken pavements and a few people shopping at market stalls.  It was impossible to meet anyone’s eyes, much less get a smile out of them – a national trait, if the mistrust of strangers can be called a trait.  At the train station gypsies were living in the railway underpass – as we left Khabarovsk things looked decayed, with rubbish lying where it had fallen, broken steps, making me wonder if all of Russia was going to be like this?

But nature prevailed out in the countryside! We saw blue snow-capped mountains, large stands of silver birch (some just starting to show a tinge of green, more so as we travelled westwards), tussocks breaking green through the flat post-thaw mud.  There were some strange sights – one railway station’s sign was also in Hebrew, as it apparently was an autonomous Jewish region (maybe John Tulloh’s place of Jewish exiles?); occasional cemeteries edged the track – remains of former railway workers or of labour camps?  Where there were settlements, they were wooden houses with pale blue, ornately carved window frames and shutters.  The size of the firewood stacks gave some indication of how hard life must be in winter.  The countryside changed, sometimes to dry rolling grassland and hills, with still frozen rivers and lakes, fewer birches and more firs, with the occasional cheery red tree to break the beige monotony.

After two nights on the move, we detrained at Irkutsk, about half-way between Vladivostok and Moscow.  The city streets had a slightly Parisian feel, with buildings only about three storeys high and great trees.  But it was May Day and snowing, so very Siberian.  We formed the Yarralumla-Irkutsk Friendship Brigade and set off to join in.  The streets were lined with great-coated young soldiers, with loudspeakers shouting “Oorah” or however the Russians pronounce Hoorah.  The people bore red banners, party badges, balloons and sprigs of new leaves, some with paper or fabric blossoms attached.   We tacked ourselves onto the ragged end of the procession, following the music down by the Amur River.  It was a fun occasion with “proper” Russian music and old ladies dancing to the squeeze box, only to be overwhelmed by an amplified band playing pop; kids dancing in circles or doing the Lambada – but freezing!!

Back to the train – as we left Irkutsk for Moscow we managed an upgrade to “soft” class for a mere $10, money well spent for a compartment to ourselves.   We rattled on, passing through some large cities in the middle of the night and daytime views of gradually greening vegetation as the spring sprang.  People were ploughing and planting, setting out to make the most of the growing season.  People carrying two buckets on a yoke were a common sight – such primitive farming.

At our stops people would come to the train to buy sugar, butter, bottled milk and large bagels from the restaurant car.  Others would come to the train to sell – piroshkies, dill pickles, carrots and potatoes – or to collect empty bottles, paying the steward for the privilege.  Entrepreneurs abounded.  We disembarked to stretch our legs, breathe fresh air, check the wares and take photographs – stork nests were a favourite.

Which leads me to the story of Boris and Albina Klein, Khabarovsk folk travelling to Moscow for the Victory Day celebrations on 9 May.  Boris’s first approach to me, as I was photographing birds’ nests, had me thinking he wanted to buy my camera – he wrote the number 50 on the palm of his hand and kept saying “photo apparatus”.  Fifty roubles? Fifty dollars?  After much to-ing and fro-ing with the phrase book, we finally worked out he wanted me to take a photo of his wife who was celebrating her 50th birthday!   We celebrated with a glass of something sparkling, but not before I had dug out of my luggage the plastic blow-up birthday cake I had with me (doesn’t everyone?) and presented it to Albina.  I had just enough Russian to recognise Boris’s feelings for Stalin – he said he loved him after I had made a disdainful gesture at the mention of his name.  Life must have been much more predictable for Army people like Boris back in Stalin’s time.  I sent the birthday photograph to the Kleins in Khabarovsk, and can only hope they got it as it wasn’t returned to sender with a Nyet.  Even if it didn’t arrive, at least they had the plastic cake.  I often wonder how and if they re-tell that tale.

Eventually we arrived in Moscow, after the most fascinating train trip I have ever undertaken.  Many of John Tulloh’s experiences on the train echoed with mine – using cigarettes as currency : it took one packet of fags to get a clean tablecloth in the dining car; sharing smoked fish and boiled eggs with generous fellow travellers; passing time in the train corridor with constant music and announcements from the train’s broadcast  system.  We were so lucky to have that exposure to Russia and Russians.

Carol Summerhayes worked with Prime Minister Whitlam,speech writer Graham Freudenberg and Governors General Hayden and Deane.


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9 Responses to CAROL SUMMERHAYES. Another Trans-Siberian experience.

  1. Avatar John Tulloh says:

    Thank you, Carol, for this. What a charming, beautifully written, evocative account it is. I can almost smell the omnipresent carbolic. The blue window panes and shutters bring back many memories. Your account suggests that Khabarovsk had gone downhill since my visit with the loosening of the Communist grip on Russian society. I presume the Intourist Hotel was the same one where I stayed…on the edge of a vast square. It was sunny and autumnal during my stay which must have given it a cleaner look than when you were there.

    Three other memories come to mind.

    One was flying from Irkutsk back to Moscow. We paused in Omsk and from the plane window I saw passengers heading briskly across the tarmac, disappearing behind a dilapidated terminal and returning to the plane from the other side. Curious, I got off to investigate only to discover it was a toilet stop! The old airliner had no toilet.

    The second was being approached by a Russian with a large bundle wrapped in newspapers. I think it was on the flight to Irkutsk. He indicated I might like to buy it. He unwrapped it to reveal a large and smelly animal pelt. It may have been a Siberian tiger’s. As I recall, he wanted next to nothing for it. I had no interest.

    The third was on the train. A couple of compartments from mine was a fat Russian with a melancholy expression who stood in the corridor for much of the day and evening, possibly to escape his wife who was inside. After a while, as I attempted to pass him, I would mutter unkindly ‘Piss off, fatso’. He withdrew into the compartment each time without a word. On the final night, in response to my request, he stood his ground, looked at me and said ‘Piss off yourself’. I was dumbstruck. But he smiled and explained of how he suddenly recalled the expression when Allied troops liberated him as a POW of the Germans. He said he would have said exactly the same himself if roles had been reversed.

    At the time, quite a few Russians had a smattering of German as a result of WW2. As I had picked up a bit of German during a stint working in Zurich, it sometimes became the lingua franca during that visit.

    Thank you once again for the pleasure of your account of your experiences under the Hammer and Sickle.

  2. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    My wife and I took the Russian cruise ship (later to run in Australian cities) the “Feliks Dzerjinsky” in early June from Yokohama through the Straits between Honshu and Hokkaido to Nakhodka. This was the “open” port not too far distant from the closed naval port of Vladivostok. We were bussed to our waiting train – early evening. All gilt and brass and curtains of pre-Revolutionary Russia. So this is the Trans-Siberian Railway – Wow! But no, this was the spur line – 16 hours to Khabarovsk where the streamlined formica fitted out Trans-Siberian Railway began. We had four days in Khabarovsk – fending off young people engaging us in conversation leading to requests to purchase our jeans and T-shirts – and attending the theatre – the Pushkin Theatre Company on tour – later sharing drinks dedicated to Freundschaft as folk bounded around like kangaroos to show they understood Australia. We went on the Amur River as well – saw sites connected to the Red/White battles of the Revolutionary era. And then to train to Irkutsk. Three nights there – out to Lake Baikal by bus – back by hydrofoil – the city’s water always a cool 4 degrees. Another theatre visit – this time Ukrainian – and a circus. Back on the train we were often asleep by mid-afternoon having been plied with food and vodka while returning from the plain by increasingly reduced menu offerings – solyanka, beautiful black bread – by passengers wishing to hear our story. In Moscow we fell in with a pair of Aussie journalists – ate in an excellent restaurant one day – attended the famed Circus Karandash (side-splitting drollery from the signature clown), found Pola DERY from Melbourne visiting with her grandson – attended the Bolshoi Theatre for a performance by the visiting Kirov Ballet Company from (then) Leningrad – and exited the USSR over a night train ride into garish bright and advertising drenched Finland. We have never forgotten that visit – now over 41 years ago. It reminds me that when I was a lad of 13, 14 I wrote to the Russian/USSR Embassy in Canberra – a school history project – and received back roneo-ed copies of five-year plans and such statistics – and the response had fired in me the desire to know more. I was then a very fundamentalist Seventh-day Adventist – naïve in the extreme – and believing in democratic principles – knowing nothing of ASIO and Colonel SPRY – fore-runner of the Sodomite (well-explained – the definition – by the NSW Central coast Anglican priest who has just recently suggested this) Peter Dutton, I guess! I am writing this from Napoli – the last time I was here (January 1977) was just six months after that Trans Siberian train journey. Lots of memories.

  3. Avatar Michael Delaney says:

    Hello Carol. Beautifully written.You might remember I went to Russia with EGW. Then twice with JSD. Recently I went to Moscow from St Petersburg by river and lake boat. All vastly different now from the previous. Both beautiful and clean cities now. All the grey is gone. Regards, M.D.

  4. Avatar Kevin Gill says:

    Hi Carol
    Long time no see…. Jan and I are hoping to travel on the Trans Siberian Railway in 2018
    I travelled from Finland to Russia by train in 1976 and it it will be interesting to see if anything has changed.

  5. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    A nice memoir, Carol, thank you. Your memories of Khabarovsk parallel closely mine of Vladivostok in 1990- a sad, decaying dispiriting place , at the tail end of the Gorbachev years ( he resigned under duress in Dec 1991) . But I am told Khabarovsk is now a booming regional city, quite cosmopolitan, benefitting economically from its proximity to Chinese trade and investment. A friend of mine who was there a few months ago describes it as her favourite city in Russia outside Moscow – high praise indeed.

    I have not done the Trans-Siberian except in 1971 the Moscow-Irkutsk section with my ambassador Fred Blakeney, but last year I enjoyed the luxury Grand Express night sleeper Moscow to St Petersburg . One of Europe’s best train journeys now, with a lovely dining car for a leisurely late supper ( boards at 11 pm, dining car open all night)

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