Trans Siberian Railway Journey
In 1970 on reaching home I wrote a travelogue on my journey from Tokyo to Delhi. I typed it using my Olivetti Lettra. Pitaji had liked my written narration of the journey. I saved it with other papers I valued.
In between 1970 and 2009 I moved from Delhi to Trieste to Simla to Mysore to Cochin to New Delhi to Noida and finally to Gurgaon. I had tried my best to preserve my notes and publications but was no match for the tenacity of white ants. Through persistent hard work and strong determination they managed to cut openthe attache cases where I thought I had safely kept my papers including the notebooks filled with solutions to my research problems,and papers. They successfully reached their ultimate goal. I discovered to my horror that instead of my notes, all I had left was white powder.
I have no choice now but to try to retrieve information stored in my brain cells and relive my journey of 44 years ago. The narration that follows is an attempt to write about the 12 days in 1970 I spent in a once-in-a-lifetime journey by ship, rail and air from Yokohama to Delhi.
On the eve of my departure from Tokyo my friends helped me to moveto the cloakroom of the Yokohama railway station heavier pieces of my luggage: these included the Sharp TV, the Akai Tape Recorder, the FM radio and the typewriter, and another carton containing my notes and important papers. On September 26, 1970, I was scheduled to sail at 8 am from the Yokohama port. I left my apartment around 5 am for reaching Yokohama by taking subway and trains. Some of my friends were waiting for me at the Yokohama railway station. We moved my luggage by taxi to the jetty by the side of which my boat was anchored. A large number of persons had gathered there to bid farewell to their friends and loved ones as many passengers were young boys and girls going abroad for the first time. After going through passport control I was allowed to board the ship. A conveyor belt facility was available for loading luggage on the ship. I put the bulky pieces of my luggage inside the designated storage space with shelves in the boat. It had a door with a grill, which was locked after the passengers had kept their luggage in it. After adjusting the remaining pieces of luggage in the cabin, I moved to the side of the deck facing the boarding platform. It had a festive atmosphere. The passengers on the boat had linked themselves with their relatives and friends by throwing to them coloured paper streamers. As the boat drifted away from the jetty I also bid my adieu to my friends who had come to see me off. I was departing from Japan exactly after a memorable stay of one year.
I went to my cabin only to sleep. I spent my time on deck making friends. The boat took 36 hours to cross the Japan Sea from Yokohama to Nakhodka. It anchored in the Nakhodka port the following day around 8 pm. The Russian passport and custom control were shocked to see the possessions I was travelling with. The TV, the tape recorder, the FM radio and the 35 mm camera were banned items in the USSR. I tried to convince the custom authorities that I was in transit through the USSR and my final destination was Delhi, India. I showed them my air tickets for my journey from Tashkent to Kabul. Tashkent was my exit port from the USSR. My entire luggage including the camera, except the laundry bag and the brief case, was sealed and listed on my visa. I had to show these items at the time of my exit from the USSR. After completing the custom formalities the next challenge was to move my luggage to the train stationed over 200 meters away from where I had disembarked. I could not carry the TV 200 meters by myself. Also, it was not safe to make multiple trips between the ship and the train carrying one piece at a time and leaving the rest either near the train or by the jetty where the ship was docked. There were no porters. Luckily I had made friends with two young girls on the boat. They offered to help me with the shifting of my luggage. When other travellers saw two girls lifting heavy luggage they also volunteered to help. Now without much difficulty my luggage was moved to the train. The train was not stationed next to an elevated platform as one normally expects at a railway station. Locating the coach where I had a berth for the night journey was another challenge. It was dark and involved walking by the side of the railway tracks. Unlike me other travellers were travelling light. Getting into the coach involved climbing up at least three steps from the ground level. Transferring my luggage and adjusting it in the compartment was managed. We slept soon after settling down in the train, which perhaps left late in the evening around 11 pm. We woke up early next morning to see that we had reached Khabarovsk Railway Station. We had a wait of three hours after getting from the link train as the Trans Siberian train coming from Vladivostok was scheduled to depart around 11 am.
I escorted the two girls I had made friends with for breakfast to the railway restaurant. I wanted to order water. The Russian word for water is voda. Instead of asking voda I asked for vodka. An elderly waitress looked at me reprovingly as she thought I wanted to drink vodka in the company of young girls and that too in the morning. She said, “Nyet.”
In the Trans Siberian train I shared a four berth cabin with two male and one female companion. One of the male companions was an Australian medical doctor. I do not remember now the nationality of the other two co-passengers. They were surprised to see the luggage I was travelling with. Everyone cooperated and adjusted my luggage inside the cabin. The four-berth cabin was similar to the first class cabin in trains of the Indian Railways. I had a lower berth. I was travelling 3300 km by this train. I had two days and two nights train journey to Irkutsk. The other three companions were going to Moscow and were to spend five days in this train to travel a distance of 9000 km. We moved to the train’s restaurant for lunch. I ordered borscht soup and rye bread. I gave my 5 rouble meal voucher as payment. I was returned in cash 4 roubles and 40 kopeks. I now knew how to have roubles in hand for making petty purchases from the vendors inside the train and at the stations where the train made stops.
The Trans Siberian train like the passenger train in India stopped at each railway station in its Siberian section. This train was the only link for the common people living in far-eastern Russia with the rest of the world. This train had the lowest priority on this route. All goods train had higher priority than the Trans Siberian train. It was stopped for allowing fast moving goods trains to pass.
Elderly women sold home-cooked food items including home-baked bread on platforms of railway stations. Now that I had Russian money I used it for purchasing fried potato patties and home-baked bread.
From Khabarovsk the train went westward circling around the Northern border of China. It was early autumn. The birch trees had turned golden yellow. We passed hundreds of kilometres of birch forests in autumn colours. Occasionally we crossed rivers and streams. The view of the Siberian steppes was monotonous. We did not pass any big city in the day time during the train journey.
Soon the four of us in the cabin ran out of conversation and we explored other opportunities for passing time in the journey. Like us the Russian passengers were equally bored. They wanted to break the monotony of journey by interacting with us. Not knowing the local language came in our way. We struggled for words. We consulted our Russian-English dictionaries but it did not help much. People were generally curious about me. Indian students rarely travelled on this train. A drunk Russian wanted to know from me what I did for a living. I tried to tell him that I was a student. He could not accept that a student from India had with him luxury items which common people in Russian could only dream to possess. As an act of annoyance he tried to break my TV by kicking it. The good luck was that the TV was securely packed with styrofoam supports in a strong carton and so survived his act of vandalism. My companions restrained him physically and pushed him out of the cabin. Now we decided to keep the cabin door locked from inside.
By the second day of our train journey our train was following the Mongolian border. I had one more night left to travel. Early in the morning I saw from the cabin window a beautiful lake. We were travelling by the side of Lake Baikal. It is a fresh water lake and covers the largest surface area of any fresh water lake in Asia. It is the deepest lake in the world. I now anticipated my arrival in Irkutsk. This Siberian town is by Lake Baikal. The train had a long halt in Irkutsk.
On arrival of our train in the Irkutsk railway station a girl entered the coach. She introduced herself as an Intourist guide. She had come to take me to my hotel in the city. On seeing my luggage her first reaction was of a surprise. She did not expect me travelling with so many pieces of luggage. She spoke English. She said, “We will manage.” She had a car with her. My luggage was adjusted in her car and we went to the hotel where my bookings had been made. She asked me to get ready for her to take me out on a sightseeing trip of the city.
I was happily surprised to see in central Siberia a beautiful city full of life. I noticed though that its shops were almost bare.No luxury goods weresold in these shops. It was a new experience for me to see a city without neon signs or attractive hoardings, in sharp contrast to the glittering shopping malls of Ginza and Shinjuku of Tokyo. Irkutsk had many cinema halls and a permanent circus arena. I decided to see a Russian circus. I made a booking for the evening show for the following day.
The Intourist guide took me to a Pioneer’s Palace. It indeed was housed in a palatial building. In the Pioneer’s Palace I saw young children learning gymnastics, ballet, and many playing indoor games. Children were free to do what they liked in the Pioneer’s Palace. For the Russian State children were its precious assets. It invested its resources for holistic development of its children.
The Intourist girl said that she could spend sometime with me in the evening. She was fond of seeing Hindi films and mentioned the names of recently released Hindi films. I was completely out of touch with Indian cinema.
The next day I saw the circus show in the town’s permanent circus arena. My impression so far was that circus shows were held in large tents as the circus moved from town to town. The circus performance needed no language so I enjoyed seeing one in the heart of Siberia. The item in the circus show I liked the best was the human cannonball.
I went to the airport early in the morning for catching my flight to Alma Ata. I was pleasantly surprised when all items of my luggage were checked in and I was not asked to pay excess fare. On the flight I was served two boiled eggs and two slices of bread. It was an unusual inflight meal. As the plane approached Novosibirsk I saw from the plane ground covered with sleet. Novosibirsk is known as the science city of Russia. It was difficult for me to imagine how the scientists managed to live here during the Siberian winter. After flying for couple of hours I landed in the bright beautiful city of Alma Ata. The city is now called Almaty. Though it is the largest city in Kazakhstan it is no longer its capital.
The city looked modern. I could see snow covered mountain ranges on the horizon. I was told that as a part of the commemoration of the golden jubilee of the Russian Revolution, a modern auditorium-cum-concert hall was built in the city. I wanted to see it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a concert by the Russian Army Chorus Band was scheduled to be held in the auditorium in the evening. I had heard recordings of the Russian Army Chorus Band. Its music was fast and vigorous like the Bhangra dance and music of Punjab. I was keen to see a live performance of the Russian Army Chorus Band. My luck was good. My interest in seeing the concert was conveyed to the management of the auditorium. I was given a ticket on payment of a couple of roubles. I did not know till I was ushered to my place in the concert hall that I was given the privilege of sitting in the first row nearest to the stage. I found myself seated next to the VIPs. The performances lived up to my expectations, as the music had a fast rhythm and the dances were in synchrony with it, and were full of energy and life.
I was impressed by the quality of Alma Ata apples. I was keen to take a basket of apples for my parents. I restrained myself from adding the last straw on the camel’s back by adding a fruit basket to my already heavy luggage. Once again I was not charged excess luggage fare for the flight sector from Alma Ata to Tashkent.
I had a romantic image of Tashkent a city I associated with Mughal emperor Babur. It lived to my expectations. My accommodation was in a modern Sarai-cum-hotel. I started feeling for the first time after leaving Japan that I was now approaching India. I declined to visit madrasas of Tashkent. My impression of madrasas was of village schools for religious education of Muslim children. It was a mistake. Madrasas in Tashkent were the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the Central Asia. They were like the Mughal monuments in India and Pakistan. I saw the modern part of Tashkent. The part I saw was laid out like a Mughal garden with flowing water and running fountains. I ventured out to eat my dinner in a typical hotel used by locals. A big man with the looks of a Pathan joined me. He was keen to know if I was a Muslim. I was hesitant to disclose that I was a Hindu from India. I managed to evade the question.
Early the following morning I had my flight to Kabul. I completed the exit formalities with the USSR Customs. They checked all the items endorsed on my visa by their counterparts in Nakhodka. My excess luggage came to the notice of an airlines official. I saw an American hippy. I asked him if he was travelling with much luggage. He took out from his pocket a toothbrush and said, “This is my entire luggage.” I asked him if he would check in some pieces of my luggage on his air ticket. He happily agreed and - I avoided paying excess luggage fare to Aeroflot once again. The flight from Tashkent to Kabul was over the barren terrain of Central Asia. I did not see greenery from the air even when the flight approached Kabul. I was to fly Afghan Ariana Airlines from Kabul to Delhi. I was charged 400 Afghani rupees as excess baggage fare. I did not mind paying it as the amount asked was less than forty US dollars.
It was a clear October day with no dust or haze in the sky. We flew over the snow covered mountains and crossed from Afghanistan into Pakistan. The view of the fertile plains of the Indus Valleyin sharp contrast to the barren landscape of central Asia and made it obvious why Babur left Tashkent and made India his home.
On arrival at Palam Airport I heard the pleasant voice of Pitaji, “Amar Nath.” My once-in-a-lifetime journey following closely by rail and air the route of the Mongolian invaders to India had come to an end.