Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Traveling to Leningrad (St. Petersburg)

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890711.18

Day 12

If you’re wondering what happened to Day 11, it was spent trying to figure what the hell happened to this journal. Two nights ago, I gave the journal to Greg the Wonder Dummy to have it marked. He supposedly gave it to KB but he never got it. It was a total waste of time. There was nothing happening but there was no curfew so just about everyone made a beeline for the Heinekin Bar, including me (no drinks though).

Today was nothing special. But the BS shops have really got to work on their act. It took me two trips to get what I wanted. Well, time for dinner.

I do not remember much from Day 11, as far as my journal and my first version of this book goes, it’s part of Day 12. The morning of Day 11 was spent down at the beach of all places soaking up more rays. Beyond that, I’m not sure if anything special happened.

When lunch rolled around, we were informed that we had to have our journals passed to either Greg or KB himself that day for marking. Yes, there were many feverish writers that day. I on the other hand was up to date and had no worries … yet. Before lunch ended, I sprinted up to my room, grabbed my journal (simultaneously lobbing a bun at my partially deceased roommate) and tore back down to the restaurant.

Greg was still there, taking orders for t-shirts (which I was an order) and little rubber squeaky pigs. Don’t even ask! I didn’t want to find that out myself. Anyway, I gave him my journal. I should have told him “BE CAREFUL”. There had been nothing planned that day so I returned to the beach with the others. For awhile at least. I could feel the skin on my body become increasingly warm, even when it was covered. To an experienced sun burner, this was a good sign to cut out before it got any worse.

When I returned to the room, I spent my time trying to get a hold of Greg. I not only wanted to find out if he found any shirts but if he had my journal. I didn’t know that he’d misplaced it yet, but I needed it. For some bizarre reason, KB decided that we were to have a talent show that night. Yes, we were to supply the talent. I can’t sing, dance or play an instrument. Reciting Monty Python never crossed my mind but I could write good poems. For that though, I needed my journal.

That’s when I found out that Greg had lost it. Though Greg had said that he had given all the journals to KB, I knew that KB hadn’t lost it. Teachers don’t do that (usually). Greg had also failed to get me a t-shirt. It wasn’t really his fault, the store had run out, but I was in snotty mood anyway.

While I was out on the porch doing God knows what, we got a knock on the door. As Jason was still comatose, I went to see who it was. None other than Mr. Phillips. He was personally passing a book around which we were going to give to Suzanna. It was a large book on Canada full of pictures. I signed it and we managed to get Jason to do so as well. Mr. Phillips was also taking a collection for Marina. Five rubles each was all he asked.

I think Mr. Phillips was disappointed at Jason, for being sick. I’m almost positive that he linked to Jason’s drinking. I was going to explain that there were others who drank even more than Jason and were fine and chances were that it was food poisoning. But I didn’t.

After a while, I went over to the TV. We had watched a bit from time to time, if any English bits came on or Gorby was on (that’s how I got my only photo of him). We flipped through all six channels until we came across something rather interesting. We must have timed it well, we found Red Heat, with Arnie Schwarzenegger himself. We came in just as it started. Throughout the film, except for the parts that were in Russian to begin with, there was a single man doing all the translation. The Soviets really have to work on their dubbing, we could still hear all the English in the background.

That took us up right to dinner. Jason stayed behind though, he was still to ill to eat. At dinner, I noticed that Mr. Phillips and his entourage were not eating much. That’s when I found out that Mr. Phillips had spent more rubles buying eight or so whole roast chickens. He ate one by himself. So would I if I had the opportunity to eat one.

Following dinner was, as scheduled, the talent show. For this we had to go to a Roman style building just up the hill from our hotel. It was easily within walking distance. But we didn’t go in. We just stayed on the stairs. Then the performances began.

Jeremy had prepared a poem, which was quite humourous (I would have liked have done the same, but my journal was still in limbo). He’s the only other one besides a duo that stand out in my mind, I can’t remember the few who did preform. There weren’t many. The best group I think was the duo of Greg and Toni. Greg wore his Russian bicycling cap and a military jacket while Toni sported the matching hat. Why they wore them I’m not sure, but their little song was a riot.

Perestroika, perestroika,
Glastnost too! Glastnost too!
Gorby’s got a problem, Gorby’s got a problem,
Lenin too, Lenin too.

Perestroika, perestroika,
Glastnost too! Glastnost too!
Gorby’s got a funny head, Gorby’s got a funny head,
and Lenin’s dead, Lenin’s dead.

These were the first two verses of their song, sung to the tune of “Frere Jacques”. The song itself was funny, but some Soviet guy who wanted to get in on the action made it even funnier. The guy walked up, and stood next to Greg, peering over his shoulder at the page that contained the lyrics. Then he took Greg’s hat and put it on. To top it off for a finale, Greg literally hopped in the guys arms. By this point, Toni was virtually in tears from laughing, as were most of us. But Greg did get his hat back.

Then Mr. Phillips made his two presentations to Suzanna and Marina. Suzanna, as I had mentioned, received a book on Canada from all of us. Marina received a bonus, if you will. The average Soviet makes less than 200 rubles in a month. In one minute, Marina received 230. We didn’t let her refuse either.

That night was a bit on the dull side. As there was no curfew that night, Greg had suggested that we have a Toga party on the beach. It never got any further than a suggestion though. Somehow I doubt that the hotel would have let us. Most of us ended up going to the Heinekin Bar on the C level. I ran into Sonya and Kelly in the elevator on my way down. But we also ran into a little trouble, to the tune of four rather larger German men.

They paid no attention to me but immediately turned to face both Kelly and Sonya. I could feel their nervousness. Either that or I was nervous for them. Had anything come around, there would have been nothing I could have done. As much as I still practice the ancient art of Chivalry (no, it is not dead), I wouldn’t have lasted ten seconds up against those guys. When the elevator arrived at C level, the three of us got out as fast as we could. The Germans did not follow. A few steps more and we were in the bar. They don’t card you in the Soviet Union, I doubt they even care.

I was one of a very small number of people (two I think) that drank no alcohol. I was there simply to talk with the others. I did not stay long, I kept getting the distinct feeling that I was not wanted there. I didn’t want to ruin any friendships that I had then, so to make life a little easier, I left for the Observation Level.

I spent many of my evenings that way, alone. I felt alone for most of the latter half of the trip. I don’t know why, I just did. Almost like a void. I envied Greg, Derek and Pete for being lucky enough to have relationships during the trip.

Despite the lack of curfew that evening, I turned in at 11:00. There was really no point for me staying awake any longer. Jason had beaten me to sleep again, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised. What I was surprised at was the fact that no-one stayed up late. Everyone turned in at “a reasonable hour”, which means before one in the morning. This I found interesting. For at the beginning of the trip, no-one wanted to go to bed early. Now no-one wanted to stay up late.

Day 12

Jason made a return from the living dead today, actually showing up for breakfast. I was a bit surprised that he didn’t get a standing ovation, but then again, just about everyone was deeply engrossed in breakfast, as were the two of us in a short time. Jason set a record eating his meal. If it had been a buffet, the table probably would have been emptied by Jason alone.

Following breakfast, I got down to the serious task of buying souvenirs for not only me, but my family. I had promised them all something and was determined to get something fairly decent. I didn’t know when I was going to see a BS shop again so I used the one in the hotel. It wasn’t a bad shop at all, a bit larger than some of the others I had been in. I spent nearly an hour, but I managed to find something for everyone on my list.

I found a pair of earrings for my sister that were had painted china beads on them. I tried to find a decorative plate for my mom, but had to settle for a spoon. My dad got a key chain with a thermometer in it. I know they sound cheap, but the prices were quite high in there. As I collected coins, I also bought a coins set of all the kopecks in circulation. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in there that I could afford.

It took me two trips though, the staff there wasn’t too swift. I then took my newly found treasures back up to our room where I was almost instantly confronted by a short Soviet woman, one of the maids. My towel had fallen off the railing on our balcony a couple days previous and I had to pay for it.

Having gotten rid of her, Jason and I finished with our packing. Then, with great effort, hauled all our shit downstairs, where several of the others were waiting. A few minutes later, the buses (we finally got two of them) were loaded and we were on our way back to the airport. We traveled along the same route we had taken to get to our hotel and the sites were familiar, even though we had only seen them once before.

We didn’t go directly to the airport, as I had thought we would, but headed along a road that went along the shore of the Black Sea. Here we found a restaurant, were we had lunch. It was a rather peculiar design or a restaurant. It was decked out in a Polynesian design, despite the fact it was in Russia. But the food was Russian, and there was no doubt about that one.

After our filling lunch, we headed back outside and boarded our respective buses, making sure we got on the right one. Then we were on our way to the airport, about ten minutes away. When we arrived, our luggage was taken for us (as it was always) and we went into the terminal. But we didn’t stay in there long. Less than five minutes later, we were on another bus to take us over to the plane. I guess we were a bit late.

As we were flying almost the width of European Russia, we needed a larger plane. There were also more people going. Because of that, our Aeroflot Ilyushin36 ended up being the long distance kind. It was more or less a cross between a 747 and a DC10. As this was an international plane, it had a higher landing gear. But we still boarded from the runway. Just behind the rear landing gear was a door that folded down from the fuselage to rest on the runway. We entered through the cargo section, climbed a set of permanent stairs to enter right into the cabin, where we took our seats.

I guess our flight was carrying Leningrad children (Soviets often send their children away for the summer) because there were a bunch of them running around. I had a window seat so I didn’t have to worry about them. Radar on the other hand, a row up or so, spent time trading with them. The three hour flight was fairly uneventful. The flight was smooth (no in-flight meal either) and the landing, unlike a few others, almost flawless.

But, as usual, we did not stop at the terminal. This time, we stopped no where near the terminal. We exited the same way we got on, but instead of following everyone else on the flight to a small glass building, our group hung around until everyone else had grouped together.

Several of us took pictures of our plane. This was a definite no-no in the Soviet Union, and to top it all off, there were two guards nearby watching us. Now either Perestroika was really working or they were just plain lazy.

We then entered the small glass building. The only thing inside was a pair of escalators, one up, one down. It turned out that the building was a hub used to space planes out more. So we went down to the walkway, which was a moving sidewalk. This took us to the main terminal, where we promptly made a quick exit, only to lose half the group again. Greg double backed to find the others while the rest of us waited.

We continued along the outside of the terminal, occasional going inside the terminal and then coming back out, realizing it wasn’t what we were looking for. We finally found what we were looking for, the area our luggage was going to show up. Just up a staircase was a waiting lobby. There we found a bar where our group pretty well depleted the supply of Pepsi.

We waited there for about an hour until our luggage came out. We collected it and made sure it was all there. But we didn’t leave yet. First, it was back upstairs to the lobby. Fifteen minutes later, we went into the restaurant adjacent to the lobby for dinner. It was an average dinner for us, including the fish. The food was average, the activities however were not. For starters, Lisa P was feeling a bit kleptomanic, wanting to take a plate, cup, glass and some silverware home with her. But she promised to bring it all back when she visited again (yeah, right!).

Then Kim, Lisa, Jason and Mr. Phillips (everyone at my table except me) broke into verse. To be precise, American Pie. I never liked that song before the trip, since then, it’s been one of favorites. It was virtually our tour theme. I suppose that if I had gone on that trip two years later, I probably would’ve joined in, but I was way to insecure about my singing voice.

Not long after, our buses finally showed up. As we were already downstairs, all we did was grab our bags and chose which bus to get on to. It wasn’t a hard choice. One was the standard bus, the other was a brand spanking new one, not a single colour matching the other. Of course, I grabbed the new one.

We left the airport as we left everything, unceremoniously. We hit the highway and headed for the downtown core. It was a fairly long trip, along the way we saw nuclear power plants (long distance shot too I might add), Lenin shipyards and a few other historical monuments. Out of the skyline, we spotted our hotel. It didn’t look much different from the one we had in Kiev, but that was from the outside. We hopped off and grabbed our luggage. It wasn’t raining or anything, but we wanted to check out what we could find of the city while we still had light. We forgot the infamous “White Nights” that are typical of the northern region during the summer months.

Then we lined up to try and get our rooms. This was when the next problem cropped up. There were only so many double rooms. The rest were all singles. Jason gave me his passport and I tried to get up as far in the line as possible. However, they ran out of rooms, doubles anyway. I ended up with a single. So taking my key, I made a hasty retreat with my luggage up to my floor. Once again, the elevators were a bit slow. In this hotel, I used the elevator as much as possible, and as far as I know, that’s all the girls ever used. The stairs were dimly lit and spooky as hell.

Afterwards, almost all of us went out front to trade with the locals. You didn’t have to go far to get hit by one of them. A veteran trader can pick a tourist out at five hundred metres. Besides, it seemed that the traders had selected this as a common site to trade, there were almost as many traders as there were tourists. Just one tip to anyone who reads this and decides to go to the Soviet Union, take the price tags with you. Shaun tried to trade his $25 Batman shirt, but quickly changed his mind when the Soviets told us it was worth $4.

Pins seem to go nice and cheap. There was this one kid, who couldn’t have been much older than eight who had a large bag of pins. For a decent sized bag of gum, I got every one of the pins that he had. Call it a hunch, but he was a beginner. Most experienced traders knew a fair bit of English, this kids hardly knew any. In time, he would probably become fairly fluent.

Despite all I had learned of the Soviet’s great problem of drinking, I was a bit surprised when Mr. Phillips was unable to trade his Canadian scotch. The ironic part was that the guy he was trying to trade with was guzzling a bottle of vodka at the time. While we were working our way around the flock of youthful merchants, we happened to run into a group similar to ourselves. The only major difference was that they were from Alabama. All but one.

He was almost the spokesperson for the group. As he was from Iowa, his accent was almost undetectable to us. All the others had those indicative southern accents. I like to listen to the accent (I don’t know exactly why), but sometimes I do find it hard to understand, especially if the person has an exceptionally strong accent.

But you must realize, we didn’t bug them about the accent. As far as we were concerned, we had one too, providing you were looking from their perspective. One of them was warned not to speak despite this insight. It seemed he was from the hills of Alabama and had a very heavy accent. Chances were that this was the kind of accent we would have trouble understanding.

We spent quite some time talking to them, comparing our escapades through the Soviet Union. Regardless of the reports that American students weren’t doing well academically, we found our American twins to be quite educated, except that they referred to Canada as the 51st state. We corrected them on that one. We probably would have talked to them longer, but they told us they were on their way home. We bid them safe passage and I headed for bed. Sleeping is not easily done in the northern areas on the world during the summer, it almost doesn’t get dark. Two to three hours of dusk is all you get.

That was the least of my problems that night. I was dying of thirst. Just have a drink of water? Sorry, the water in Leningrad is worse than the water in Mexico. Thanks, but I didn’t want to get that sick at that point in time. To try and counter my thirst, I brushed my teeth. It worked, not as well as water but I wasn’t dying of thirst, not completely. But my luck was to improve when I went down to the lobby to sign in for the night.

The Suhs were signing in as I got off the elevator. That’s when I remembered that they had bought five or six bottles of Pepsi at the airport. I raced over to them, nearly scaring them half to death. Desperate people often do rash things. I almost ended up my knees begging them for mercy. They only had one left, but they were willing to give it up. I promised to buy them two bottles at the BS shop the next day.

Pepsi and AIM toothpaste do not mix well, but at least I wasn’t thirsty anymore. I owe the Suhs a lot for their generosity. If I hadn’t gotten anything to drink that night, who knows, I might have died of thirst. Okay, maybe that’s a bit over doing it, but when you’re that thirsty, you often tend to exaggerate things just a wee bit.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

We got a brand new Intourist bus … IT RULED!!! On the way out, I was going to snap off a couple more shots of our Ilyushin 36, but I decided not to. After we got to our hotel (somewhere in Leningrad), most of us went out front and did some heavy duty trading. Something that struck me as odd was the fact that Mr. Phillips couldn’t unload his good scotch. Very strange indeed.Radar (with some of his shady underworld techniques and my seven bucks) scrounged up a bunch of Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts. At about 10:50, I split for bed, while dying of thirst but I ran into the Suhs (thank God!) and got a bottle of Pepsi off of them (God bless them!!!!) Almost forgot one thing. While we were trading, we met up with a group from Alabama. They were great, not at all like some of the Americans we know, the obnoxious type. Well, g’night Y’ALL!.

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