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Rail journey Through Siberia (1/2)

by Robert Muesel - UPI (1973)

See also: "David Divines Doom In Moscow" Circus Magazine (October 1973)

The following article is the original transcript of a journey on the Trans-Siberian railroad in April 1973.  The journalist who wrote this (Robert Muesel) was one of those flown in from the US by RCA to attend Bowie's concert at the Friars Club, Aylesbury on 15 July 1972. After a London meeting with Angie Bowie - it was also arranged that Muesel be on the same train trip as David Bowie in May 1973 - who was travelling back to the UK from Japan.  Much of the following article contains interesting references to, and quotes from Bowie on that trip.   These are shown in red.

David Bowie and Robert Muesel

The Trans-Siberian Express is not only the longest train ride in the world - 5,350 miles from Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East to Moscow - but it is considered by railroad buffs to be the last great train ride on earth. Recently UPI senior Editor Robert Musel boarded the train at the Chinese border and rode it all the way to the Soviet capital. This is his account of the places he saw and the people he met.

In Khabarovsk, a border city that keeps a wary eye on the blue hills of China across the Amur River, the citizens of the Soviet Far East appear to be a more-independent lot than those closer to the seat of power in Moscow. For as I strolled along Karl Marx Street one day recently threading my way through promenading soldiers and sailors, I came upon a policeman getting a solid bawling out in public from an angry shopper. I felt sorry for the cop who was trying to keep order in a noisy queue of housewives competing for a shipment of new carpets. From his gestures he was apparently only asking why the bulky ladies in the inevitable headscarves couldn't be as well mannered as a nearby queue for lemons at 15 kopecks (20 cents each) being sold from crates marked Californai Sunkist.

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Bowie at Yokohama Port, Japan (April 1973)

My brief stay in Khabarovsk coincided with reports in Peking that the Soviet Union was reinforcing its garrisons in the Asian Republics and Mongolia as part of the war on nerves that started in 1969 with a small clash between the Superpowers on the Ussur River only a few miles away. Whatever the truth of the reports the word "China" alone was enough to freeze the normal good humour of the staff of the Hotel Central ($50 a night and a broken seat in the toilet) and everybody else I met. But politics was not the motive for my trip. I had a "soft class" ticket on the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow, the longest train ride on earth, six days and six nights, 5,350 miles and seven time zones across the Soviet Far East, Siberia and European Russia. And one cold morning with lowering skies heralding a snowstorm I lugged my bags dawn to the railroad station and looked over my travelling companions.

All the Khabarovsk people were Asiatic or European Russians except myself but the boat train was arriving from the forbidden Vladivostok area (transit passengers only) with travellers’s from Japan who were continuing into the Soviet Union or Europe. Before they debarked my Intourist guide went to check whether I really had the private compartment I had requested. She returned beaming. "I have good news ", she said, "You will have company all the way to Moscow ". I don't want company", I pointed out "or I wouldn't have asked for a compartment to myself".  But she’s a charming young lady", she said.

Soviet railroads make no sex distinctions in assigning passengers to two-bunk or four-bunk compartments, and even less when it’s hard class - open trains with no privacy at all. With Washington and Moscow making friendly noises it seemed churlish to risk wrecking it all at Khabarovsk so I said I would be glad to share with the charming young lady. A Frenchman who made the same democratic gesture wound up with three women. My roommate, I report without bitterness, turned out to be a husky New Zealander named David.

Bowie at Yokohama Port, Japan (April 1973)

Then a passenger made an entrance that stopped onlookers in their tracks as he was destined to do at most of the 91 stops to Moscow. He was tall, slender, young, hawkishly handsome with bright red (dyed) hair and dead white skin. He wore platform-soled boots and a shirt glittering with metallic thread under his blue raincoat. He carried a guitar but two Canadian girls did not need this identifying symbol of the pop artist.

"David Bowie" they screeched ecstatically, "on our train". Bowie turned their spines to jelly with a smile. One of the few genuine superstars of pop music he said he was on his way back from a spectacular tour of Japan to prepare for the longest American tour ever undertaken by a visiting rock artist. "I won't fly, he said "because I've had a premonition I'll be killed in a plane crash if I do. If nothing happens by 1976 I'll start to fly again. But I love trains and I'd probably take this ride anyway, it's supposed to be the greatest of them all." He and his boyhood friend and bongo player Geoffrey MacCormack piled aboard into the compartment next to mine. A few minutes later the long train, packed with Russians in hard class and with a cast of westerners in soft class that would have delighted Somerset Maugham, began a journey made possible by an epic of railroad engineering.

The Trans-Siberian is more prosaically known on the timetables as the Moscow-Vladivostok train. The line, completed in 1904 under the pressure of the coming war with Japan, was driven through some of the most difficult and inhospitable terrain on earth. Eight giant bridges had to be built to span enormous rivers (the Ob is the longest river in Russia with the shortest name). In a single 42-mile stretch of the Yablonovi Mountains near Lake Baikal the engineers had to bore 38 tunnels. It took five years to blast through the permafrost.

In its early years there were bathtubs and showers but these days there are no bathing facilities. There are, however, enormously competent and tireless lady porters who vacuum clean three times a day, keep a "samovar" boiling at the end of each car for tall glasses of Russian tea, make up the bunks and wipe down the handles of the cars before permitting passengers to alight or embark. Since passengers get off at every possible station to stretch their legs or examine the food at free enterprise stalls run by elderly local housewives, our girl porters, Nelya and Donya, put down a runner rug every-time the platforms were wet or snow covered. Snowstorms in May are not uncommon in Siberia. Most of the rivers we passed for the first 2,000 or 2,500 miles were frozen and locals were often fishing through the ice.

David Bowie & Geoff McCormick (April 1973)

The old platform ladies peddle roast potatoes, boiled chicken, fried fish and a meat-fined doughnut fried in low-grade grease. They sell eggs at 20 cents each, sometimes bottled fruit (from Hungary) and cans of sardines and other fish at what would be considered high prices in London or New York. The food itself and the rough and ready wrapping in brown paper looked unappetising but was evidently quite wholesome. Bowie, for example, drank several quarts of local yoghurt. " Excellent", he said.

The food race on the stations went to the swift. As soon as the train stopped hordes poured from the carriages heading for the stalls. The Russians being adept at this sort of thing usually had already formed as long a line as the time at the station permitted, and most westerners had to fall back on the single dining car, whose chefs in their tiny kitchen and two fatigue-proof girl waitresses, Nina and Danya, worked a 12-hour shift. No one went hungry but it was more practical to try for two rather than three meals a day. Shortly after departure from Khabarovsk many passengers donned blue track warm-up suits like so many Olympic team rejects. They are handy garments, cheap and practical and much the vogue among Russian travellers’s. Most of them wore badges of one sort and another - the Russians love badges and every station had a stall selling them.

At Yerofay Pavlevitch snow was thick on the station and some of the train crew started a snowball fight. A group of soldiers gathered to watch. Another small group marching by collided with them. They were looking the wrong way, at a vision descending from the train. It was Bowie wearing a yellow oilskin windbreaker with a fun-fur yellow collar and a large floppy Dutch-style cap. He paid no attention to the stares.

In response to unspoken questions our girl porter said he was a famous star of popular music. " It could only happen in the decadent West, said a Russian. How wrong he is. A few minutes later the background music piped through the train played a Beatles number and a San Francisco lawyer who got aboard at Irkutsk reported seeing Russian youngsters rocking and rolling in a discotheque with all the fanatic energy of their western counterparts. Bowie grinned when the Russian remark was translated. " I wonder what he1d say if he knew I've been invited to give a concert in Vladivostok " he said. 'On the boat from Yokohama, Geoff (MacCormack) and I did a few numbers for the passengers and a Russian radio official extended the invitation. I'd like to do it and play Moscow and Peking as well".

The Trans-Siberian Express is not only the longest railroad ride on earth it must the longest stretch of highway in the world without an advertising sign. Somewhere the Soviet Union went wrong. Not a bit of reading matter about gasoline, deodorants, detergent or tobacco to compete with the scenery all the 5,350 miles from Khabarovsk to Moscow. The western traveller, deprived of the hard sell, which is his birthright in the United States and most other allied countries, has to make do with nature. The question he has to answer is whether great rivers, mighty forests, vast plains, the long slope of the Urals and scores of picturesque wooden settlements, like so many movie sets for western films, are a fair exchange for billboards.

The passengers in soft class on the train I rode recently had no doubt about their choice. Hour after hour, they stood in the narrow passageways looking through the windows and discussing such matters as a hawk attacking a large unidentified bird, a shepherd on horseback (a sheepboy?), Siberians fishing through the ice of rivers still frozen deep into Spring, the flash of a railroad sign in Russian and Yiddish in Biro-Bidjan (which Russia once hoped Jews would accept as a national home), and log cabins and little wooden huts called "izbas" built to withstand the 60 below zero cold of winter. "These little houses with outdoor privies you see" said a Russian who wore a collection of patriotic badges, "are being replaced by modem buildings in new towns."

We could not see them, he said, in the melange of signs and languages that somehow everybody understood, because they were built well away from the railroad, which at that point had just left the sensitive area of the Chinese border. He had the pride in the sheer size of his country that marks the friendly people who inhabit its more inhospitable regions.

Did we know, he said, that Siberia was 400 miles long and 2,000 miles wide, more than one and a half times the size of the United States? That it was the greatest mass of unbroken territory on the planet? That it had the largest gas and oil reserves in the world? The world's largest deposits of coal and iron ore? Immense deposits of gold and diamonds and Uranium? The biggest dams and forests, and in the latter another treasure of fur-bearing animals such as sable? Even the Siberian tiger, he said, was the biggest tiger.

David Bowie & Geoff McCormick (April 1973)

A couple of soldiers who had paused on their way to the dining car to hear this patriotic declamation being translated, smiled, one of them with a checkerboard of real and steel teeth. The teeth were practical as well as striking. Our neighbour, pop star David Bowie emerged from his compartment with a bottle of mineral water looking for a bottle opener. "Allow me", said the soldier, and placing the metal cap between his teeth he nipped if off neatly. Bowie called our attention to a middle-aged woman railroad worker sledge-hammering a spike while her male colleague’s watched, leaning on their tools. The equality of Russian women has always extended to an equal chance at the heavy manual labour jobs. A sensitive young man of 25, Bowie said he found the sight of women who might have been mothers and grandmothers, working so hard, somewhat disturbing. " I awoke when we stopped in the middle of the night" he said, " and out of the window I could see three elderly women wearing those quilted jackets and heavy boots they all wear and carrying oil cans. It was freezing outside. I wonder what Women’s Lib think about that?"

Continued on next page

---This page last modified: 29 Jun 2002---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)