TO RUSSIA WITH LOVE... and a few pointers on patience
World hopping — it's for the birds: Conclusion
The giant airliner swooped down for a landing at Moscow's gleaming new airport, and so began the last lap of an around-the-world expedition of bird (and people) watchers, led by the author. At last — the land of cosmonauts, Communism, borscht and The Bomb. They were ready for Russia ... but was Russia ready for them?
I DIDN’T GO to Russia looking for Khrushchov or to conduct man-inthe-street interviews about the state of Communism and the Cold War. In fact, I talked to only a couple of men-in-the-street during the week that I was there, although I was free to walk around and talk to anyone I wished. The interviews I did conduct were limited mainly to asking where I could get a taxi back to the Leningradskaya Hotel. So I haven’t the foggiest idea what they think about the Cold War or anything else.
I was in Russia looking for birds, not political insight; I was leading a party of thirty-three Canadian and U.S. naturalists on a roundthe-world bird-watching tour, and Russia was one of our stops. We spent two days in Moscow for the sights, and four days on a virgin steppe preserve near the Black Sea for the birds. So the following is simply a recital of the probably politically meaningless adventures and misadventures of thirty-three bird watchers in Communist - land. I am not sure they are politically meaningless; I leave it to you to judge.
Our introduction to Russia was the seven-hour, nonstop flight from Delhi to Moscow aboard our first Aeroflot (Soviet Airlines) plane. As an amateur student of manmade birds as well as feathered ones, I can report that Russia has some superb modern aircraft. The one we boarded at Delhi was a two-deck monster, bigger than anything I knew at the time to be in passenger service anywhere in the world. It was their TU-114, with
capacity for one hundred and seventy passengers; even with such passenger capacities, Russian aircraft have wider aisles and more leg room than ours.
The Delhi - Moscow flight was the most exciting of the twenty-nine flights and the twenty-five thousand miles of air travel that took us around the world. For three hours we flew over the Himalayas, which are not only the biggest and most rugged mountains of the world, but succeed in looking it, too. Then came the vast desert and semi-desert interior of Russia which changed finally to steppe where the great checkerboard of grain fields resembles our prairies, except that the fields — three to five miles square — are larger.
At Moscow’s gleaming new Sheremetyevo airport we were met by the Intourist guide who was to stay with us throughout our Russian tour. He was a short, rotund, balding, country-vicarish man, alternately dour and cheery, named Sergei Saltykov. He gathered up our passports and visas, disappeared, then returned in fifteen minutes with the tight-lipped look that I was to learn in the days ahead always signaled trouble. The visas of all fourteen Canadian members of our party, he told us glumly, had expired. They had been erroneously dated June 6-15, instead of July 6-15, and because of the unfamiliar Russian alphabet no one had noticed the mistake until we got to Russia. The Americans, Sergei announced, could go into the city; we Canadians would have to wait at the airport until some-
thing was done about our visas. What had to be done? He didn’t know. How long would it take? He didn’t know. Sergei told us to find comfortable seats, then he disappeared with the Americans. My diary continues the story:
“Two and a half hours have passed. No sign of Sergei. No information from anyone. A man just came up and announced, 'You will come for dinner.’ Three hours. It was a splendid meal. Filet mignon and a wonderful beer. Have located an Intourist office, but they seem to be underlings who haven’t any idea what is going on.
“Four hours. The good effect of the filet mignon has worn off and everyone is mad and telling me to get cracking and do something. Back to the Intourist office. Only one man there and I don’t think he understands English. How do you argue with a guy who won’t talk back?
“Five hours. Back to the Intourist office again. There was a girl there this time who understood English. 1 asked her where our visas were. She didn’t know. I asked if it took five hours to correct a typing error. She was polite, more polite than I, but I think she was a little affronted at the fuss I was making. Russians, who stand in line at Lenin’s tomb for hours, are more accustomed to long waits than we are.
“Five hours and forty minutes. Sergei is back with our visas, jolly and all smiles as though he left just five minutes ago. The dates have simply been corrected with pen and ink. He is rushing us into town to get us to the Bolshoi Ballet. It is to be the highlight of our Moscow visit. The ladies have brought party dresses for the occasion.
“Five minutes too late. The ballet has started and / continued on page 31
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Question: If you don’t work, how do you eat? Answer: You don’t-so you work
TO RUSSIA WITH LOVE . . .
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our tickets have been sold. And this is the last night, so there will not be another opportunity to see it. The Americans are inside and seeing it. but there is nothing for us to do but go to our hotel. There is no reserving of hotels in Moscow; you simply go where Intourist takes you. Apparently there is a film festival. Moscow is full, and we are not getting one of the top hotels that tourists usually get.
"Ours is the Leningradskaya, an oldtimer with great marble pillars in the lobby that make it look like the head office of a bank. Carried up my own luggage and the hall was so dark I couldn’t read the room numbers. Found one that I could read and counted back from there to locate my room. First thing that happened: the toilet overflowed all over the bathroom. It took some time to get someone on the phone who understood enough F.nglish that 1 could explain what had happened. Half an hour later a man came and fixed the plumbing, but he made it clear that it wasn't his job to mop up the floor. Half an hour after that a maid came and glumly cleaned up."
Sergei made sure that we saw a lot of Moscow in our day and a half. It is a spacious city with clean wide streets, frequent squares, trees and green strips of boulevards. Garbage containers and spitoons are everywhere, and Muscovites use them; I saw a man walk twenty-five feet out of his way to spit in a spitoon. Most of the buildings are low—ten stories or under. The occasional higher one is usually a slender tower, spired and wedding-cakish, which gives Moscow a stately, pinnacled skyline instead of the boxed and rectilinear skyline more familiar to Westerners.
Open door to a mystery
Sergei told us about Russian prices and living standards and said workers were free to choose their jobs or, if they wished, not work at all.
He was asked: “If you don’t work, how do you eat?”
His reply: “You don’t. That’s why everyone in Russia works.”
At the Kremlin, we wondered if anyone in Moscow worked, because it was jammed with sightseers. The rusty-red Kremlin walls, closed tight in Stalin's time, are now wide open to tourists. It is hard to believe that this rather drab assemblage of ancient, onion-domed cathedrals and plain yellow-stucco office buildings is heart and nerve centre of Russian power, the world's preeminent symbol of mystery and intrigue. It doesn’t look like a capital. But mysterious it certainly is, for although the cathedrals, now' museums, are open to all. the government offices are occult unknowns. Even Sergei, who knows Moscow like his own apartment, said he had no idea where Premier Kosygin’s office is.
When the guided sight-seeing was over, Sergei went home and left us on our own. He told us to go where we liked, and take any pictures we liked. If tourist movement was ever restricted in Moscow, it certainly is
no longer. We joined rush - hour shopping crowds in the big GUM department store and rode on Moscow's palatial subway. Someone somewhere in one of those drab Kremlin seats of power went on an extravagant binge when Moscow’s subway was planned. To get off w here you started, you have to draw a
picture of the station name because, for Westerners, the Russian script simply can’t be memorized. But many young people in Moscow today speak English, and it was our experience that they will go out of their way to put lost travelers on the road for home.
Treasure Tours of Montreal, organi-
zer of our world tour for birds, had asked that we be taken to a region where we could find new and interesting birds. This had posed a problem for Intourist, because we were the first party of bird watchers ever to visit Russia. The problem w'as that wild areas best for birds didn’t
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have good accommodation or travel connections. After considerable correspondence, we had settled on Askaniya Nova, a virgin-steppe preserve and a wildlife and agricultural research institute far down in the Ukraine near the Black Sea.
Now, to reach it, we had to make a four-hour, hop-skip-and-jump flight to a small dirt-strip airport at Kherson, then a two-hour bus drive to a new, neat, little power-station town called New Kohovka. When we arrived at our hotel, we discovered we were still fifty miles from Askaniya Nova, our centre of operations.
“We are far off the usual tourist routes here,” my diary records. “The hotel has a pleasant, almost rural setting on the Dnieper River, but the rooms are small, with antiquated plumbing that has a disconcerting habit of making sudden noises in the middle of the night. We have learned that two days we thought we were to have for sight-seeing in Leningrad have been cut to one because of problems with plane connections. The keen bird watchers don't mind, but some of the not-so-keen are telling me to get them to Leningrad a day earlier or else. Sergei says it’s impossible, Leningrad is full of tourists, we'd have to sleep in the street if we arrived before schedule.
“Our first of several bus drives to Askaniya Nova. The fields are vast, rolling on and on to the horizon three miles or more away. They are mostly wheat, but there are also corn, sunflowers and grapes. It is strange to see huge fields of sunflowers, grown here for the oil. Traffic on Ukraine’s workaday highways is almost entirely farm trucks. There are no individual
farm homes as in North America, only clusters of shanties that look like our lumber camps. And no service stations, for each big state farm has its own gasoline depot. They could teach us something about roadside beautification; these are minor highways, but they use hollyhocks and shrubs to make attractive roadside border?. And of course, no billboards.”
Birds only, and only wild
On our arrival at Askaniya Nova there was still misunderstanding about who we were and why we had come. For two hours we were treated to a series of talks on the institute’s cattlebreeding research. Then we were asked if we planned on attending the international bird conference to be held shortly in Kiev. We pricked up our ears at that, but when Sergei’s interpreting was nailed down to more precise terms, it turned out that the “bird” meeting was to be a poultrybreeders’ convention. We finally got through to them that our interests were limited to wild birds, and we were turned over to the capable and understanding institute ornithologist, a giant of a man named Igor Andrievsky. He knew no English, and Sergei’s interpreting stopped short of English bird names: but by using pictures in the bird guides and the Latin names, Andrievsky managed to give us a thorough course on the birds of Askaniya Nova during the next three days.
We had proof here that we were in an offbeat region where foreign tourists rarely penetrate and are eyed
skeptically when they do. Two of our women — Mrs. H. C. Rowland, of Montreal, and Charlotte Elliott, of Portola Valley, California—stayed behind one day and took a boat cruise on their own down the Dnieper River to Kherson. In Kherson a policeman eyed their cameras suspiciously and took them to a police station. An interpreter was finally obtained and they were asked for their passports. They didn’t have passports; Intourist was holding them. What were they doing? When they replied they were in Russia to look at birds, police eyebrows lifted incredulously. But the questioning ended abruptly an hour later when police got the idea they were government guests at Askaniya Nova (which in a way they were). They were taken back to the dock in a police car and an officer, suddenly solicitous now, bought their return tickets and made sure they got on the right boat. Miss Elliott, who is eightythree, regarded her “arrest” as the highlight of her world tour. “I’m sure.” she said, “they thought my cane and bifocals w'ere a James Bond disguise.”
When we arrived at Kherson to fly out of the Ukraine, there was still dissatisfaction that our Leningrad stay could be only one day before we had to fly on to Finland. But our Leningrad hard-luck story had only begun. Here is an abridged diary account of our last twenty-four hours in Russia:
“Kherson airport. We are to take off at 5.12 p.m., but Sergei says the plane has been delayed half an hour by a
thunderstorm that just passed through. The plane is coming from Kiev, where we catch our Leningrad plane ...
“6.30. Finally found Sergei. He is staying out of sight. Now he says the plane is at Odessa. It’ll be here by 7.30.
“7.30. The storm is supposed to be at Odessa now and the plane can't take off until eight o’clock. He said earlier Kherson airport would close at eight: now he says it can stay open until eleven. Aeroflot has one of the best safety records in the world, but can’t they fly around thunderstorms?
“8.05. The following conversation with Sergei: 'How long to Kiev?' 'One hour.’ 'Will the Leningrad plane be waiting, or has it gone?’ 'Don’t know. Don't be so curious.’
"8.15. Odessa has closed for the night, Sergei reports. No plane until morning. We’ll have to take a chance on finding hotel rooms in Kherson. Our luggage is checked through and we are going to have to spend the night without it.
“9.30. After a lot of doubling up and juggling rooms, we are all squeezed into one hotel. Kherson has beautiful strips of trees and gardens along its main street. Walking down the street is like walking through a park.
“7.30 a.m. Breakfast. No staff yet; Russians don't like getting up in the morning. Sergei and some of our girls are serving. They are having a hard time finding enough silverware. Sergei disappears periodically — maybe he is cooking in the kitchen, too.
“9.30. Takeoff at last . . . Four-hour wait at Kiev. This is the day we are supposed to be seeing Leningrad. We are a seedy, unshaven, uncombed crew because we haven’t had our luggage since yesterday morning.
“5.15 p.m. Leningrad. We finally made it! What arc we going to see? The airport waiting room. Our plane for Helsinki takes off in an hour ...”
Our quest for birds went on for eight more days. Five of them we spent in Arctic Finland and Norway, where the sun circled the sky for twenty-four hours each day without setting. We reached Hammerfest, the tourist - conscious Arctic Ocean port that claims to be the world’s northernmost town. Ten days before we had been sweltering in Delhi’s one hundred and eight degrees and studying such tropical birds as parakeets and sunbirds. At Hammerfest, on the same latitude as northern Alaska, we caught up with the Arctic spring. Tulips still bloomed and snowdrifts lingered, and the birds were Arctic Terns, Arctic Skuas and Kittiwakes. Our departure from the little Lapland airport of Ivalo had an Arctic flourish — before our plane could take off, a truck had to precede us down the runway to chase off the reindeer.
Two final days of hireling amid the dunes and tidcflats of Holland’s Texel Island, then it ended at Amsterdam — forty-six days, twenty thousand miles and some two hundred and fifty species of new birds after San Francisco. Thirty-three globe-trotting bird watchers broke up here to make their various ways home, weighted down with pocketfuls of unspendable, unrecognizable coins — the leftovers of a dozen airport money-changing counters — and with souvenirs that ran a weird gamut from Japanese pearls and Indian saris to a pickled Mount Fuji salamander and a bottle of Arctic Ocean water.
We had introduced a new kind of academic round-the-world junket to the travel industry’s boom in specialized tours. I had discovered that tourleading is no picnic. But I’ll be packing again, come next June. Treasure Tours has asked me if I want to lead another, with new bird-watching stops this time at Hawaii and Iceland. How can I say no to that? And furthermore,
I still have to see Leningrad. ★