I had completely forgotten that my name might arouse some amusement, to say the least, when I went on a trip to Central Asia. Bob, you see, means a bean in Russian (also Hungarian for that matter), and a polite but wry smirk crossed the face of every Intourist guide and receptionist for the next few weeks.
I picked up my group for the London to Moscow flight at Heathrow, and introduced myself to people before we were dispersed in the BA cabin for the flight. I was curious to find it rather a multinational group, with a French couple and one of their Swiss friends, a Kuwaiti man, a gangly chain-smoking Texan and a corpulent Turkish man who seemed to be in the running for champion perspirer. It transpired that the French speakers had relatively poor English, so I found myself in the position of running the trip in English with French commentary and at the same time straining the limits of the Russian I had somehow absorbed in school many years earlier.
A smooth flight took us directly in to Sheremetyevo airport where we queued for passport control; the Turkish man was directly in front of me, looking rather agitated and sweating like mad. The youth behind the screen took an inordinately long time with the Turkish man, scrutinising every page and checking screens before he finally stamped it and handed it back. Everyone else went through with no problems and we were met by a local guide who ushered us through to the waiting bus for the long drive into Moscow.
It was during this drive that the Turkish man quietly informed me that he had worked for VoA – Voice of America – broadcasting into nearby Soviet Republics, a pretty good reason to be nervous at passport control.
This rather alarmed me at the time as I envisaged the extra surveillance we might attract as a result. In fact, nothing of the sort occurred at all, but the man was invaluable when we arrived in Dushanbe, then traveled on through Chimkent and Tashkent to Samarkand and Bokhara. I had not realised it, but locals in all these smaller republics spoke a Turkic language and so we were able to have interesting encounters in unusual places.
Our stay in Moscow was in an enormous hotel out by a Science Park, and the lobby was a constant hive of activity observed by men in suits hiding behind newspapers and brassy blondes weighing up potential customers passing through. At the time (late 1980’s) I think there was a general undertone of suspicion, manifesting itself in phone calls at odd hours asking if anything was needed, or perhaps just checking we were where we were expected to be. We felt like meat on the slab when we went to the hotel disco in the basement for overpriced drinks and unwelcome attention.
The most striking thing about Moscow in those days was the absence of litter, and of advertising, which covered every available space in major western cities. Here it was fresh and uncluttered. In particular the Moscow Metro was an eye-opener in more ways than one. The London underground was jam packed and dingy, with wrappers and discarded newspapers and fag ends blowing along the tracks, with little variation in the bleak tiled tunnels threading beneath the pavements. In contrast every station we visited in Moscow was an artwork, with onyx and stainless steel, vivid mosaics of poets and skies, of parachuting airmen floating down from the ceiling. Stylish decoration extolling the virtues and graces of the Soviet Empire made it a capital for its citizens to be proud of, even if they didn’t have access to Levi’s and designer label clothes which were sought after by many hotel staff. A further factor that lightened our moods was being able to get 12 Roubles for every pound when the banks only offered one for one. Champagne was on the menu !
We left Moscow after the obligatory tour of the city, continuing to Central Asia – the flight from Domodyedovo airport would be roughly the same duration and orientation as going from Copenhagen to Damascus, to give you some idea of the size of the former USSR. Coming from a plush British Airways international flight, we now changed to an Aeroflot internal flight. The seats were rickety and some refused to stay upright, the only refreshment was a teabag in a cup of lukewarm water and a few boiled sweets, rather meagre for a three and half hour flight, but we were hardly expecting any luxuries.
Our Texan had greater trouble as he was gagging for a smoke which was strictly forbidden by the cabin staff. However, one of the flight crew came down the aisle to stop and chat with us, having noted there was an American on the flight. His motivation was he wanted to know if the American knew the words of ‘Home on the Range’. A golden opportunity presented itself and in exchange both I and the Texan were invited up to the flight deck for a couple of smokes while the pilot wrote out the sought after lyrics. Laughable to look back on from our high security times !
From here on we would have a National guide, and in each location we would pick up a local guide too. Everything ran like clockwork, which you could view as excellent organisation, or strict control, depending on your outlook. My boss at the time, Derek, told me about a trip he had undertaken on the Trans-Siberian not long before and he too had noted that at every scheduled stop, the train came to a halt with his exit door directly opposite a smiling person with their hand held out to greet him. He too was a little disconcerted to realise that someone knew exactly where he was at every moment, which of course you could interpret as you chose.
Our national guide, Mikhail, told us he was a physics graduate, and he spoke remarkably good, colloquial English, although heavily accented. I had no doubt that he was member of some security service, gaining experience in everyday usage of English for some future purpose. The regional guide was Ludmila, she came from Sochi on the Black Sea and knew Central Asia well. They were both remarkably open about life in the USSR, although often this came as a result of a question out of left field, which interrupted a practised presentation. We might be hearing about the programme of renovation of Islamic monuments in the region, when I asked about schooling arrangements for children in remote areas – it usually broke the rhythm and often afforded an unguarded insight.
We visited a wide range of places, including kindergartens, collective farms, mausoleums and museums, many of which involved being toasted by the workers with vodka, brandy etc, at any time of day, so we had to take care to remain sober enough to enjoy what we had come to see ! Some of it, though was pure fun, like a visit to a ‘herders yurt’ for a lunch of bish barmak – a lamb dish so greasy that you were expected to use the excess fat to smear your boots, followed by some rather unsteady folk dancing.
One of the most insightful moments of one trip for me was our departure from Samarkand; – almost all tour groups flew between cities but we always took road or rail where possible, avoiding hours in airports and seeing the country en route. Our departure from Samarkand to Bokhara was by overnight train, thereby saving a night’s hotel accommodation as well as injecting a romantic note into the proceedings. Derek had asked me to try and get a few shots of passengers mounting the train and I mentioned this to Mikhail.
He looked at me and smiled thinly “Bob, you know as well as I do that everyone has satellites taking pictures to less than one metre resolution, but”, he paused, “the Station master – he will arrest you”. So no pics of this momentous event.
We were actually staying in Urgench not far from the historic city of Bokhara, but architecturally representing the more modern Soviet world than that of the ancient redoubt we had come to see. It was only a hundred odd years before that people could have their throats cut in the street for wearing buttons, as it showed you as an outsider. Historically, foreigners had never fared well in Bukhara, generally being incarcerated, flogged, thrown into snake pits – you get the idea. Bokhara was a law unto itself under the Emir, and an especially big cheese in the time of the Great Game, when the Russian and British Empires tussled over influence in Central Asia. We were to fare rather better, but the stay brought its own problems.
The stunning tilework on the exterior of many important buildings in the old city was utterly captivating, not least when we learned that many of the original techniques had been forgotten, but recreated the best that could be done. Certainly the restoration of many of the Islamic monuments of the region had been undertaken with dedication, though doubtless more for the tourist value than adherence to the faith, which had been remorselessly suppressed in the Soviet era.
The interiors of many of these striking buildings were cool, shaded by high canopied tea houses (chaikhanas), and the huge ancient mulberry trees were kept intact, lending a tranquil, almost louche atmosphere where the wanton and violent persecutions were contemplated.
Our own woes were rather more prosaic than the fate of previous visitors, and could directly be ascribed to the hotel in Urgench. I almost never got ill at all in my travelling life but something virulent in the food had me on my knees for most of our night there. Another couple suffered even more and I was obliged to arrange with Intourist for them to be hospitalised until they were fit to continue. This throws a tremendous strain on a travelling group, and we left Urgench on our flight back to Domodyedovo in Moscow with heavy hearts. Our sentiments were barely leavened by being housed this time in the iconic Hotel Moskva, right on Red Square and across from St Basils church and the Kremlin. As in all the hotels we stayed in, there were elderly women housekeepers – babushkas- on each floor, stern as granite, and in charge of all keys and order on their territory.
We all took a turn around Red Square, under the gaze of stentorian guards outside Lenin’s tomb where it felt almost blasphemous to be enjoying our last night in the USSR. Shortly before our arrival, there had been a remarkable event which caused endless international consternation; a young German had piloted a light aircraft under the radar over Poland and right into Moscow, landing in Red Square. Nothing at all was said to us about this, and in fact we only discovered this astonishing act of foolhardiness when we got on the BA flight with todays newspapers. No wonder we felt keenly observed.
Our wanderings took us a little further afield to encounter the nascent private enterprise of the art market in Arbatskaya St, an area where people sketched customers, exhibited and sold painting and trinkets alongside the usual Soviet ex-military bric a brac of lapel badges, medals and furry hats. We were still benefitting from our ‘winnings’ on the exchange rate and keen to divest ourselves of excess Roubles, as we would only be able to change money back to hard currency if we had valid exchange certificates to cover the returns.
This last little bonus we had enjoyed was to bring even greater joy as we went through Sheremetyevo airport for our BA flight to London. Personally, I had a very sticky moment with immigration which I have recounted elsewhere in ‘To Hell and Back’, but our delight arose from my visit to the Gents, where I found a great wad of Roubles with an elastic around them, left on a sink, and no-one to be seen. I knew exactly why they had been discarded, because someone was aware they were valueless outside the USSR and could not be exchanged as they had been acquired illegally. I pocketed the lot and after a quick conflab with my group, it was distributed among us to change using our certificates. As a result, we all enjoyed quite a lot of Bucks Fizz on the return flight, an audible sigh of relief from some in the aircraft as we left terra firma. In fact our ecstasy was redoubled when on easing down in Heathrow, no-one could tell the split second between floating and rolling on the runway, it was so imperceptible that the cabin erupted in appplause; I can say I have NEVER had a smoother, or more welcome landing in my life.
Das vidanya Tovarischi,
Catch yer later Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant