Thursday, June 22, 2017

ON THE AVENUES: Train Whistle Reds, or my journey from Budapest to Moscow by rail in June, 1987.

ON THE AVENUES: Train Whistle Reds, or my journey from Budapest to Moscow by rail in June, 1987.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

As though to refute a litany of preconceived notions, the train arrived on time. It eased into Kievsky Station in Moscow at precisely 11:10 a.m. on June 28, 1987, roughly 36 hours after departing Budapest.

Not all of these many moments were spent in forward motion. The border crossing between Hungary and the USSR, bosom fraternal allies bound by the solemnity of the Warsaw Pact, took three full hours in the dead of night at the edge of nowhere between Zahony and Čop.

Saying goodbye to tourist-friendly Hungary was relatively seamless. By contrast, entering the Soviet Union prompted a bout of nervousness. My ream of papers had every appearance of being in order – passport, visa, tour group documents and a pristine $10 bill to change officially for rubles while aboard the train.

After all, upon arrival in Moscow I’d need enough spare change to buy ice cream, vodka and subway tickets. After that the flourishing black market would satisfy my extended banking needs at a far preferable rate of exchange.

When leaving the USSR, one could convert rubles back into hard currency, though only for the exact amount of legal, sanctioned, rubber-stamped transactions. Laundering black rubles wasn’t possible, but I fully intended to get my ten-spot back before passing into Poland in early July.

Meanwhile at the border, there was palpable trepidation. Those Cold War spy tales had left an indelible impression, and not many Americans entered the USSR by rail from Hungary. Furthermore, I didn’t know enough Russian to hold a meaningful conversation with soldiers, whether or not they were carrying guns.

My fears were unfounded during the document check, which went swimmingly. Then a stone-faced Ivan Drago lookalike appeared, wielding grunts and gestures to convey to me that my nifty interior frame backpack should be presented and opened for immediate inspection.

Gazing sternly at my motley collection of belongings, he lifted a t-shirt and found the artfully concealed bottle of marvelous Egri Bikaver wine – and I could have sworn he was suppressing a smile somewhere behind a very stiff upper lip. The border check proceeded quickly and efficiently, and only after it had concluded did one of my two seatmates turn and address me in serviceable English.

There’d have been no compelling reason to make himself look suspicious until the other formalities were concluded.

Perhaps a tad paranoid, though in 1987 it had been only 34 years since Uncle Joe Stalin died, and memories were long.

In 2017, it's been 33 years since Bruce Springsteen released "Born in the U.S.A." -- and memory has ceased to be any factor in our lives.

The primary reason our border stop lasted so long was the need for something called a bogie exchange. It had nothing to do with Casablanca or Lauren Bacall. Simply stated, the standard Soviet rail gauge is wider than the gauge used in both Eastern and Western Europe (with the exception of Spain and Portugal).


Bogie exchange is a system for operating railway wagons on two or more gauges to overcome difference in the track gauge. To perform a bogie exchange, a car is converted from one gauge to another by removing the bogies or trucks (the chassis containing the wheels and axles of the car), and installing a new bogie with differently spaced wheels.

Rather than switch trains, the train switches wheels. In 1987, I must have been asleep and missed it. In 1989, at Brest on the USSR’s border with Poland, I was able to see a bogie exchange up close and personal.

Crews went into the compartments at each end of the railway wagon and detached the outermost passenger seat assembly. Below each of these was a mechanism resembling an oversized cotter pin, which was removed.

The wagon was lifted by the arms of hydraulic jacks and the narrower gauge bogies pushed out, to be replaced by wider ones rolled into position by means of dual tracks. The wagon was lowered, and the cotter pins replaced.

Off we went, back into the USSR.

In practical terms, wider wagons meant just enough extra inches to comfortably stretch my six-foot, four-inch frame to full extension, something rarely enjoyed inside Western European sleeper compartments.

With little else to do, my plan for two evenings on a Soviet train was to sleep as much as possible … and eat, and drink. I’d brought my own victuals from Budapest: a half-kilo of salami, bread, sweets, cherries, apples and wine.

One delightful difference on a Soviet train was overstaffing, with at least two attendants per carriage. At one end of each carriage there was a nook with a built-in samovar, the classic Russian vessel for making tea. Almost any time of day or night, piping hot tea was available for the asking at a ridiculously low price of a few cents American. It came in a real glass, inserted in a podstakannik (подстака́нник), the characteristic metal tea glass holder.

The sunrise on June 27 was unforgettable. We were eastbound in the foothills of the Carpathians, and I shuffled out into the corridor to hug a window and view scenery that reminded me of Wyoming or South Dakota. Soon the heights yielded to the plains and farms of Ukraine, interrupted occasionally by pine woods, and through these landscapes we would continue rolling all the way to Moscow via the historic cities of Lvov and Kiev.

I brought two books, a Russian language instructional text and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. There was plenty of time for reading them. I’d taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet, which came in handy when pronouncing words, though less so when I still didn’t know what the words meant.

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This train trip was the centerpiece of my eastern strategy in 1987. I’d prepaid a “youth and student” tour of Moscow, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Riga and Vilnius (now independent Latvia and Lithuania, respectively) and Warsaw. My old pal Barrie Ottersbach would be joining the tour in Copenhagen, and flying to Moscow with the group.

I’d been on the road for two months, largely incommunicado, and needed to connect to the tour group in Moscow from somewhere in Eastern Europe. I’d learned that booking such an East Bloc connection from the United States was highly problematic, and stupidly expensive whenever possible, but far easier in Western Europe by means of the official government-run travel agencies of the Warsaw Pact countries.

The first month of my trip unfolded in Western Europe, and I diligently procrastinated. Then I was in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, and still did nothing. Typically for a last-minute type of guy like me, I waited until all conceivable inexpensive choices narrowed to just one flip of the coin.

Either something or someone in Budapest would sell me a train ticket to Moscow, or I’d be spending more money than I could afford on an airplane ticket.

I began with the ticket windows at Keleti Station and was ingloriously repulsed. Next came multiple locations of IBUSZ (EE-boos), the officially sanctioned national tourist office. Traveling in Communist countries meant developing a forager’s aptitude. The trick was to be persistent; just because one worker said it was impossible didn’t mean the next one wouldn’t be helpful.

In fact, one English-speaking IBUSZ clerk flatly informed me that a train ticket to Moscow simply couldn’t be managed so close to the departure date, still three whole weeks away.

Finally it occurred to me to visit the office of the Hungarian youth and student travel agency, which I believe was called Express. On the one hand, I no longer was a student. On the other, I’d registered for a spring semester class at IU Southeast, found a friendly face in the bursar’s office to verify the application, and then dropped the class with a full refund, though not before obtaining an internationally-recognized student ID from the accrediting agency in New York City.

Lo and behold, the helpful clerk at Express fixed me up lickety-split. It was a morale boost, and I felt extremely worldly for once. A 36-hour train ride with two nights in a three-bedded compartment ultimately cost me less than $25, including the salami, wine and multiple servings of tea.

However, the single most daunting task was yet to come.

I’d given Barrie a date and a window for expecting a phone call for reconfirming our arrangements prior to his departure. Had I been ensconced at the Budapest Hilton, making this call probably would have been easy, but I was a budget traveler sleeping in someone’s guestroom in Obuda and making lots of 15-cent tram rides.

It was generally accepted that in 1987, international phone calls were problematic to the point of insanity at a Hungarian streetside pay phone, even from Budapest, and so on the 22nd of June, one of the tourist offices directed me to a large centrally located telecommunications center where Hungarians queued to speak with the outside world.

It was a cavernous hall with a well-worn counter and numerous semi-private phone booths paneled in old school veneer. At the counter, you handed over the number to be dialed and paid for your fixed call duration. You were given a booth number, which would be called over the loudspeaker when the connection had been made.

It all sounds easy, except that the number 18 in Hungarian is spelled tizennyolc, and pronounced --- how, exactly?

I’d paid the lady, and now all I had to do was find my phone booth when prompted. The next twenty minutes were spent with my phrasebook, drilling the syllables TEEZ-en-yolts over and over again.

But when the speaker finally crackled, “achtzehn” came spilling out. Thank heavens for Frau Leach’s college German; it transpired that the Hungarian woman behind the counter was trying to help a foreigner as best she could, making eye contact to ensure I knew her German even if she didn’t know my English.

Barrie answered, and we coordinated plans in the scant minutes before the connection fizzled and crashed. I didn’t demand a refund.

Karma, after all.

There was a worker’s cafeteria not too far away from the telecommunications center, and it was time for a few of those chilly Borsodi drafts at the low daily price of a quarter each.

I'd be missing Hungary, for sure.

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Recent columns:

June 15: ON THE AVENUES: Hi there, NAHA wastrels. My name is Peter Principle, and these are my friends Deaf and Dugout.

June 8: ON THE AVENUES: Since 2004, "Two way, better way."

June 1: ON THE AVENUES: Take this cult of personality and shove it.

May 25: ON THE AVENUES: Welcome to wherever you are, and come to think of it, Ljubljana will do nicely.

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