The story of a longish trip
This is the story of a voyage that I took 20 years ago. A long voyage, a hard voyage, a fascinating voyage, a memorable voyage – a TRIP. In 1980 I was living in Shizuoka, Japan. My idea was to travel across the USSR and then work my way to London where, at the time, air tickets for the return voyage would be less expensive. I would raise the money for the return trip by playing street music In Europe.
I made my reservations with a Tokyo agency specializing in Russia. My first idea was to take the boat from Yokohama to Nakhodka, then the trans-siberian from Vladivostok to Irkustk, then to Alma-ata or Tashkent before getting to Moscow. None of this really worked. First of all the boat departs Yokohama only once a week and to wait for the next departure would have delayed me by 10 days. Then the Soviet authorities refused to grant me permission to visit the Central Asian republics claiming that there were no vacancies in the Intourist hotels for that month. So the first part of my itinerary evolved as follows: Tokyo-Niigata by train, Niigata-Khabarovsk by air, Khabarovsk-Vienna by train, with stops in Irkutsk and Moscow. In fact I would have loved to visit more towns in Siberia, or spend more than one night at each stopover but it was not practical for several reasons. First of all the Intourist hotels, the only ones allowed to accept foreign tourists, were not so cheap. Secondly, in 1980 it was not easy for a Soviet citizen who was seen in the company of foreigners. I reasoned that it would be easier to meet people and have conversations on the train. There noone could blame them if they were assigned to a compartment containing a foreign guest. For this reason also I decided not to go in summer when there are more tourists because they tended to reserve one or two wagons exclusively for foreigners.
In October I was absolutely the only one on the train and therefore had a lovely assortment of Russian travelling companions. A worker returning to Leningrad after visiting his son on Sakhalin island, a military pilot returning to Krasnoyarsk, a professor from Omsk going to Moscow – and many more – a nice collection. We spoke in broken English –Russian- French- German. The Russian-English dictionary I brought with me was extremely useful. Afterall one has the time to look up every word, and Russians are very patient. The other important preparation for the voyage was my suitcase 90% full of food. A strict vegetarian at the time, I was concerned about surviving the two weeks it would take to get across Russia. The food served on the train was limited to a dirty grey soup with chunks of unidentifiable meat –it would have killed me. The train itself was perfectly comfortable with four berths per compartment, good isolation, a samovar and the end of each wagon, and toilets less disgusting than in most neighboring countries. I would have been happy to stay on the train all the way to Moscow if only there had been a shower. So I programmed one shower every three days which meant spending a night in Khabarovsk, one in Irkutsk, and one in Moscow.
Khabarovsk is a bustling and dynamic little city, very Asian. Irkutsk seems more Russian by comparison. But I could easily forget these lovely cities when I think of the gorgeous small towns and villages we passed on the train, with their wooden houses and farms. But of course the real pleasure for the eyes was the amazing Siberian forest. As a typical young American I imagined that spending day after day with nothing to see but “Siberia”, then synonymous with “bleak and barren wasteland” would be so incredibly boring that it would be a challenge to the nerves. Nothing could be farther from the truth – I never got tired of staring into the fabulous and varied forest scenery, and I even saw some wildlife. In October some of the countryside we passed through was already covered with snow, some of it was alive with autumn colors, and some of it was indeed rather austere, but all of it was beautiful.
From time to time the train would stop at a platform in a small village, or in the middle of nowhere, and often there were ladies selling kefir, potatoes, or other goods. The kefir certainly helped me survive my starvation rations. I had picked up a loaf of heavy rye bread in town and it was delicious in addition to having the vertue of lasting up to a week.
I was not looking forward to Moscow, my heart was in Asia at that moment, but I was getting hungry and thought I might be able to find something better than the meagre goods offered in Irkutsk. I was to be disappointed – the stores in Moscow had exactly the same selection of unappetizing tinned goods as in the remotest outpost. My hotel room at the Metropole, a turn of the century mammoth, was the size of a tennis court (and as nicely furnished!). I couldn’t wait to get out of there!
As the train headed westward across European Russia to the Polish border I had a shock: In 1980 the Russian-Polish frontier was more heavily guarded and more intensely walled, fenced, and armored, than any part of the East – West German border. I have never seen a more frightening border in all my travels. My travel agent in Tokyo had taken care of all the formalities includung Russian visa, and had assured me that the transit visas for Poland and Czechoslovakia would be issued with no problem on the train. The Polish immigration officials had the uniforms of bus drivers from the 1960’s. One was an older, grey haired man and the other a young woman. They asked me kindly to present my visa and seemed surprised that I expected them to issue one. No, they assured me, it isn’t the custom. However, if I happened to have some foreign hard currency the matter could be arraged… My pockets were getting dangerously empty but I had no choice. We reached the Czech frontier at about 1:00 AM and were boarded by the Czech officials, two tall, mean-looking young men in green military uniforms. When I smiled my warmest smile and asked in my sleepy but politely servile little voice if it wouldn’t be too much trouble to stamp my passport they replied calmly but firmly “Get off the train. Go back to Poland. Get visa”
So there I was at the world’s most forlorn border post train station with most of a night to kill before catching a train (with no ticket nor Zlotys with which to buy one) back to Katowicze to try to score a Czech transit visa. The atmosphere at the station was not incredibly cheerful. Two or three other sorry looking people shared my bad luck of having to wait several hours before the early morning train. It was dark and cold and a thick air of opression hung over the place. I took out my viola and started to play Bach – noone objected. I may have gotten an hour or so of sleep. The northbound train pulled up around 5:30 and deposited me in Katowice with no major problems, a minimum of explanation to the Polish authorities who had seen it all before.
I obtained the address of the Czech consulate and waited for it to open. When I was finally allowed to explain what I needed I was told to present my photos. I couldn’t believe it! Photos required for a transit visa, to cross the country by train without ever touching its soil, a journey of only hours. The photos put a dent in my budget, too, and with what I had to pay for the stupid visa itself I was down to almost nothing.
The Vienna bound train was not due to part until 9PM so I had the rest of the day to kill. Katowice is an industrial city with a lot of not very nice looking parts but I managed to find a nice park near the university and the day was sunny and warm. Students and young people were sunning themselves on the grass and there were some pretty churches – quite pleasant actually. Some people that I met invited me to pass the afternoon at their apartment and we spent the rest of the day in conversation.
In the evening I went to the station to inquire about my train and the woman at the ticket booth told me that I would have trouble because my reservation (for the previous day) was no longer valid and since that train was often fully booked, I risked being refused. In a lower voice she confided to me that the conductor would certainly be persuaded to arrange matters if only I had a bit of hard currency to offer him. The nice lady said she would take care of it for me. She closed her window and we went up to the platform together. I gave her all the dollars I had left which wasn’t much (maybe 6?) and she entered the train, emerging a few minutes later to tell me that everything has been taken care of. I thnked her and boarded. When the train pulled out I breathed a sigh of relief. Shortly, the conductor came by asking to see our tickets. When he remarked that my reservation was no longer valid I indicated that I was indeed the person on whose behalf the nice lady in Katowice had spoken. His response was predictable – he stretched out his hand, palm up. To my chagrin I had not a single dollar left to grease it with, only 60 worthless zloty, which he accepted anyway (I guess it was a slow evening.
Crossing the Danube at Vienna was a delicious moment. It meant that I could make money and therefore eat. I had the address and telephone number of an acquaintance with whom I was hoping to stay for a few days but no money so the only solution was to cross Vienna on foot, showing up at their door with no warning. I was warmly welcomed by the lady of the house and her children, less so by her husband. I knew I would have to find other lodgings soon. In the meantime I went to work, playing Bach, Bartok, jazz, and folksongs in the streets.
I decided to see a friend from school who was living in Berlin, a horn player in the Berlin Philharmonic. In those days there were two possibilities for rail travel between Vienna and Berlin. Either one could take the train to Linz, Passau and then continue up the West German side until Hannover before crossing through the DDR to Berlin; or else one could take the train direct by way of Prague and Dresden, shorter by half and much cheaper. Of course this would mean getting another Czech transit visa! At least this time I wouldn’t be taken by surprise.
Arriving at the Ostbanhof in East Berlin and passing through the checkpoint was something of an experience in itself, an experience that today’s travellers are mercifully spared. I was welcomed this time both by my host and his wife and we spent some delightful days together. But it was not easy for street music at that time and I decided to move on. In Sweden a couple of years previously I played with a Norwegian guitar player-singer who was, it seems, once again back in Oslo. I decided to pay him a visit.
The first leg was by train to Hannover, where I stayed a day or two. One memorable thing happened to me there. I had spent the morning playing in the pedestrian zone, the weather was good and I made a tidy sum. I was getting extremely hungry and went to the food section of the biggest department store. In Germany the department stores (Kaufhaus) have entire floors devoted to food, usually the basement, and one finds absolutely everything there. I bought some goodies and was on my way out when I realised that I didn’t have a knife or spoon with me and that my cheese, yoghurt, etc. would be impossible to eat. I wasn’t about to go back into the supermarket to buy a knife, so I went instead to the cafeteria on the same floor to ask if I could borrow one for a little while. Somehow I just couldn’t get anyone’s attention and I was really dying of hunger, so I just took a knife and spoon and slipped them into my sack. Back at street level I left the store to find a quiet place to picnic whn I heard someone shouting. It was a store security guard and he was asking to see the contents of my bag! I didn’t have enough German to explain what I had done and I was not confident that I would be treated well if the situation went further so I did the one thing possible – I ran. Leaving behind all my hard earned purchases. I was in a sorry state, I had tripped and fallen on the tram tracks and my leg was hurting, and I was still hungry. I bought myself a loaf of rye bread and a tin of tuna and cursed myself for being so stupid.
From this point on I resorted to that most economical means of transportation: hitch-hiking. I had no problem at all getting from Hannover to the ferry for Denmark and then to southern Sweden. It was nice to be in Sweden again – the fall weather was still mild. I must have spent one night in Copenhagen where I knew some people who could put me up. I remember precisely where I spent the second night: on the Swedish-Norwegian border – my second border night of this trip. From Göteborg I had not to much trouble getting up to the border but it was getting late and the light was fading. In fact after about 8 PM there were no cars at all. The only thing to do was to stretch out on a customs shed bench, outdoors, and try to sleep. I had a wool blanket with me that partially saved me from the rapidly dropping temperatures.
The next morning it was easy enough getting to Oslo, my first time in Norway. I made my way to the main pedestrian street and started to play with much success. After an hour or so disaster struck – I broke a string. It being Saturday the music stores closed at noon, which had already passed, and would not open again until Monday or Tuesday.. I was reduced to playing on three strings for the rest of the weekend. I was trying to figure out how to deal with that when I saw him, my friend Terje. Someone had seen me and had gone to tell him that his viola-playing friend had appeared. We talked about old times and decided to do a little tour together. He had just bought a banjo and was eager to use it. He also had a violin, a Czech factory made instrument. I left my viola at his apartment and we hit the road with violin, banjo, and guitar.
On the way up to Osla someone had told me that Stavanger, on the southwestern coast, was a paradise for street musicians. There the men who worked on the off-shore platforms came to town with more money than they could spend and were known to be very generous toward musicians. Terje agreed that it sounded promising. When we arrived it was cold and rainy, it rains about 300 days a year there. The only place to play was an underground street crossing and that was taken by a blind accordianist. That didn’t matter because there wasn’t anyone about. It seems that the oil-worker shifts are two weeks on, two weeks off, and if you aren’t there at the beginning of the shift there’s no action.
We couldn’t just go back to Oslo and heading north was out of the question. Terje suggested that we go down south where the weather would certainly be better so we went to Kristiansand at the southern tip of Norway where the weather was exactly like in Stavanger. So we took the night boat to Frederikshavn in Denmark. I had heard that this particular crossing was a difficult one. The channel that links the North Sea with the Baltic is called the Skaggerak and is famous for its high waves and stormy seas. I was sick as a dog. The rest of the passengers were having a huge party, drinking, eating and shouting. It was cold in Frederickshavn but we had no trouble getting rides south. When we got to the German border (!) however, Terje realised that he had left his passport in Oslo, thinking that we would go no farther than Stavanger! We tried slipping through but the guards were thorough and we had to turn back. We went back north about 15 kilometers to the nearest town, Abenra (there should be little °s over the two a’s to show that they are pronounced like o as in more). Terje cabled to his friends in Oslo that they should send his passport ASAP and we found lodgings in a guest house. Abenra was too small to make much money from street music but the people there were extremely pleasant to us and the two days passed quickly. On the afternoon of the third day we were off again and played in Flensburg, a pretty town just over the border. From there we thought we might go to Hamburg or Lübeck before heading back up to Oslo.
We were at the highway entrance by late afternoon and had a bit of trouble at first, finally getting a ride at nightfall. As we approached Hamburg the driver asked if we wanted to stop or continue – he himself was going in the direction of Bremen. We were feeling very comfortable in his nice car and were not enthusiastic about getting out so we decided to take our chances with Bremen. But as we neared Bremen he posed us the same question, adding that he was continuing in the direction of Dortmund. OK, Dortmund it was. Once again the same routine Dortmund or Frankfurt? We finally asked where, in fact, our driver was heading and he responded: Lugano. Well, we wanted to go south and Lugano was definitely South! Our driver drove through the night and fast. I slept an hour or two and when I awoke it was the dawn and we were stopped at the side of an Alpine meadow with snow capped mountains on all sides. The Saint-Gothard! It was spectacular! Soon after we were dropped off at a highway rest area, as our driver was not going into town he reasoned that we would get a lift easily from there. He couldn’t have known
We stuck out our thumbs and the second car stopped. Are you going to Lugano, we asked? No, to Nice. OK; Nice is nice, let’s go. So 14 short hours after leaving Flensburg at the Danish border we were basking in the sunlight of the Côte d’Azur. Our stay in Nice proved to be less enchanting than we might have imagined. First of all the weather was turning and it drizzled often. Much warmer than Norway it was still a bit cold. Not as cold as the people, though. Never had we encountered such a difficult public. We stayed about a week but our luck never turned. So we began the voyage northward again.
To be honest, I am not totally clear about the itinerary I followed after Nice. Some of my memories seem to be confused with other trips. There are four cities that I remember for different reasons but I am not at all sure of the order. I remember being in Munich with Terje so that might have come fairly soon after Nice. We stayed with a horn player friend who was living at the Sivananda Yoga center and we enjoyed the meditation with them in addition to earning well. I think we may have seperated then because I don’t remember seeing Terje in the other towns.
I remember Lyon because I was filmed there. I was playing beside a fountain at the Place Bellecour when a man came up to me and told me that I would please be in the same place at the same time the following day. When I told him that it was possible but not at all sure he repeated that I WOULD be there and furthermore, that I would be dressed exactly the same way (“He’s perfect”, I heard them say in French, “so scuzzy, so disgusting”) if I wanted to make 300 francs. The next day the film crew showed up and I had my bit role in a French short feature.
I remember Paris because I had to spend most of the night on the street. I was staying with a friend who had a tiny apartment near Montmartre, the kind where you have to wash in a basin on the kitchen floor. I went to play on the Champs Elysées where people are waiting in line to get into the movie theatres and are glad of a little entertainment. I didn’t know that one has to pay the local mafia in order to play there so I got busted. Actually brought to the police station and made to wait there several hours before they let me go. By that time there was no more money to be made and the metro had stopped running so I had to go by foot. By the time I got to Montmartre it was about 1 AM and I couldn’t get into the courtyard of the building because the front door was locked and could only be opened with a code, there was no intercom. As my friend’s apartment was not equipped with telephone I had no means of ingress. I sat on the sidewalk to wait. From the ground floor front windows I listened to a couple making passionate love. After an hour or so I lay down but couldn’t possibly sleep on a Parisian street. Around 2:45 a woman called down to me from the fourth floor of the building across the street. I explained to her that I possesed the key to the apartment door, but not to the outer door and she kindly wrote the code on a scrap of paper and floated it down to me. Bless her heart.
I remember hitching up to Enschede, Netherlands where I also had some musician friends, viola players who had studied in the same class with me and were playing in the local orchestra. I remember hithching my way to the Hook of Holland and taking the boat to Harwich (vomit, vomit) then hitching to London. I remember having a hard time scraping up the last of what I needed for a plane ticket and finally had to settle for Hong Kong because Japan was too expensive. In Hong Kong I was able to borrow the rest of what I needed, which wasn’t much, and I finally arrived at Narita airport on the 20th of November, almost two months after setting out.
It was a trip with some good times, some hard times, and some incredible memories. The only thing I regret is not being able to go back to get my viola in Oslo. As far as I know Terje still has it, I’ve lost touch with him as well. Maybe one day…