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Back in the USSR - Russia and Central Asia, 1974

Back in the USSR - Russia and Central Asia, 1974

Old Sep 7, 23, 3:32 pm
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Back in the USSR - Russia and Central Asia, 1974

I recently submitted a post to another member’s trip report in which I commented on a trip I took almost 50 years ago to what was then Soviet Central Asia – (today’s) Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – as well as then-Leningrad and Moscow.

It struck me that there might be some interest in a somewhat more in-depth report on this trip, at least as much as I can recall given the passage of decades, so I’m going to indulge my hubris (and/or delusion) and post it here. Treat this exercise as you will; it’s just a few megabytes in an ocean of petabytes or more.


In the summer of 1974 I was living in the UK, waiting on word from a couple of universities to which I’d applied for teaching posts. My first wife and I had separated (her loss) and the future seemed a bit unclear, to say the least. A friend, a NASA engineer who lived in the Bay Area, was planning to come to Edinburgh to visit me, and together we decided to go on some cheap two-week (or so) excursion outside of Britain before he would join me in Scotland. Since I wasn’t expecting to hear from the universities for three weeks or so, I got a copy of the Sunday Times, the travel section of which always had advertisements for all sorts of budget holidays available on short notice, and went shopping.

The easy winner was a two-week inclusive holiday to the USSR – flights, hotels, meals, surface transport – for what looked like a crazy price – around Ł300. We had to fly from Gatwick, which was fine – he’d fly from SFO to London, then we’d jet off to Russia, then back to London, up to Scotland, ta da.

I had a meeting in Nottingham around then (another last-minute interview) so I drove my VW Beetle down, had my meeting – they wanted me but… Nottingham?... and rendezvoused with my friend. We took a couple of days to help him recover from the time change (aided by beer in some Northamptonshire pubs) then made our way to Gatwick.

It was the tour itinerary that had sealed the deal. A couple of nights in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) then off to the Silk Road – Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva in the Uzbek SSR, and a day in Dushanbe, the capital of the Tajik SSR, before returning to Moscow for a couple of final nights. It was definitely a high-speed whistle-stop itinerary, but we were young and up for the challenge. Oh, and it was early August, so it would be hot. Seriously hot. Map -

It was a lot of flying in a short time, and while I know this is FT, I confess that I don’t have a lot of clear recollections of the actual flights, with a couple of (very) notable exceptions. Naturally, all the flights were with Aeroflot, and my inner plane geek was pretty stoked at all the strange and wonderful flying tubes ahead of us. (I came from an aerospace family background; my mom was secretary to the test pilots at Douglas during the “right stuff” days, my (step)dad worked at McD-D on Saturn/Apollo, and I spent some nepotistic summers bucking rivets on DC-9s at the big DACO plant at LGB.)

The flights to and from LGW were on Tu-104s, a workhorse twin jet that lots of airlines bought (and probably regretted given the aircraft’s safety record.) Our flights were unremarkable.

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Old Sep 7, 23, 3:58 pm
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Leningrad and points east

In Leningrad we were housed at the Hotel Leningrad, a Finnish-built slab of a thing overlooking the cruiser Aurora (famous from its mutiny and role in the 1917 revolution.) My wife and I had spent a few nights at the hotel the previous summer, when we had driven a rental car into Leningrad from Helsinki (that’s another story) so I was familiar with the drill – “key ladies” next to the elevators on every floor, a sign carved into the stone siding next to the exterior main restaurant entrance announcing, in Russian, that “the restaurant is full,” to discourage the proletariat… oh wait.

(A note on the photos in this TR. These have been scanned off old transparencies, and many images have faded or have suffered damage due to degradation of the film over the years. I'm sorry they're not of digital quality, but hopefully they'll convey the scenes adequately anyway.)

We met our fellow tour group members (all travel by foreigners in the USSR was under the control of Intourist, the state tourism authority.) We were around a dozen in total, from various countries including the US (us) the UK, India, Canada and maybe some other English-speaking countries, for the ease of translation by our guide/host/minder, a lovely young woman named Larisa. (Same as Julie Christie’s character in Dr. Zhivago, but no Julie Christie she.)

The two days in Leningrad were spent doing typical tourist stuff – the Hermitage, Petrodvorets via hydrofoil, Petropavlovsk Island and fortress, etc. My friend and I managed to elude one muster and took off on our own, in order to visit the highly weird Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, the Finland Station (where Lenin arrived to take charge of the Bolsheviks) and some other places, including kvass and beer in a park or two. Na zdorovye.

Then it was off to Uzbekistan, via an incredible flying time machine, a Tu-114. This was (and I think remains) the fastest turboprop plane ever built, and IMO one of the most beautiful. It was based on a Soviet bomber and featured four huge turboprop engines with counter-rotating props – we called it an “eggbeater” – that permitted long range and high speeds, albeit with ear-shattering noise, as the prop tips were traveling at supersonic speeds.

It was an overnight flight, with a scheduled stop in Kuybyshev (now Samara) on the Volga. This was my first introduction to non-Leningrad Russia, and what an eye-opener it was. Our ground time at KUF was a couple of hours, so we were allowed off the plane and into the airport, or I should say, the chaos. People shouting, babies crying, a babel of languages… There was no TP in the toilet stalls, only baskets of chopped up pages from Pravda (its highest and best use IMO.) Yikes. We pivoted and went back to the plane, where we observed a scrum at the foot of the stairs that looked like an evacuation scene from some movie (this was a year before the fall of Saigon.) Men in turbans waving their arms, mothers with babies crying… ...?? Some exceedingly sturdy Aeroflot lady saw our boarding passes and made a hole through the mob so we could get up the stairs, and eventually the dam burst and all the other seats were presently occupied by said gaggle.

Making a noise like the end of the world, the plane took off and then it was time for our in-flight meal as we continued the journey toward dawn. We were each handed an actual PVC bag with the following contents:

- A piece of black bread that would have served nicely as a roofing tile.

- A paper tub of some sort of pink goo that (I guess) we were supposed to put on the bread.

- A hard-cooked egg.

- A whole unpeeled cucumber.

The FAs brought around warm fruit juice, possibly as a concession to the heavily Muslim passenger load headed home to Central Asia.

Enjoy your feast, comrades!

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Old Sep 7, 23, 4:23 pm
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Skĺl and Na zdorovye

It was early morning when we landed in Tashkent, and walking out of the airport doors it was immediately evident that we weren’t in Russia any more. On the other side of the forecourt road was a plaza filled with little food wagons and stalls, many seemingly equipped with a charcoal brazier cooking something delicious smelling. There were stacks of fruit, breads, lord knows what else. But no, you should already be full from your bread/egg/cucumber meal, so Larisa hustled us onto a bus and off to the Uzbekistan Hotel, another giant slab of a thing in the middle of the city.

Tashkent is in a very active earthquake zone, and the city had evidently been leveled a few years before. So the hotel was brand new (just opened a few months before we got there) and was a thing of much local pride. Fine, good on ya. We got checked in, managed a shower, then reported for an afternoon’s bus tour around the town.

To be honest, I don’t recall much about the next day and a half, possibly due to the influence of some very blonde SAS flight crew members who were laying over at the hotel. At the time, SAS had (exclusive?) rights to overfly the USSR between western Europe and Japan; all the other European carriers flew “polar” routes that involved tech stops in Anchorage. The price SAS paid was to make a tech stop at TAS, and the Hotel Uzbekistan is where their flight crews were domiciled between flights.

At the time there was a very nasty, overly sweet, but exceedingly cheap champagne knock-off made in Uzbekistan. That night we found ourselves in the company of a number of very attractive SAS FAs and stewards in the hotel bar (way prettier than any of us, so fuhgeddaboudit) who were self-medicating on this awful (but effective) booze. Thus my second day in Tashkent is a complete blank.


In the shadow of the Pamirs.

We were forbidden to take pictures from any of the flights, which was a shame because the flight from Tashkent to Dushanbe entailed overflying some of the most incredible mountain scenery I’ve ever beheld. Like most of Tajikistan, Dushanbe sits at the foot of the Pamir mountains, extensions of the Hindu Kush, Karakorum and ultimately the rest of the Himalayas. You’re at 20,000 feet beginning your descent, and you’re looking UP at one mountain peak after another. Stunning.

Our time – just a day – in Dushanbe was the most “Soviet” of the whole trip. Only surface impressions, of course, but it was clear that the authorities didn’t feel that Dushanbe was ready for prime time. Our Intourist bus took us past some unmemorable buildings, a standard town square with a statue of Lenin in the middle, I think a war memorial (ubiquitous throughout the USSR although I have no idea how many, if any, Tajiks served in the Great Patriotic War.) The highlight/centerpiece of the day was a visit to a textile factory where numerous young women were all sewing furiously as they assembled “traditional” Tajik garments, sitting under red banners exhorting (in Russian, not Tajik) that they strive to increase production in time for the next CPSU Congress. As if they gave a…

And, as we kept observing throughout the trip, if you looked through the windows into the management offices, there was a blond (or blonde) head sitting in the big chair.

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Old Sep 7, 23, 5:00 pm
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Along the Silk Road

The next six nights were spent in the ancient, awesome, and beautiful Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, and in (not awesome or beautiful) Urgench, from which we visited Khiva, which was. At the time Khiva had been largely depopulated (remember who’s boss) so that the city could undergo massive restoration works with the pesky local people out of the way.

What can I say? The architecture, the history, the vibrancy of the bazaars and markets, the chaikhanas, donkeys transporting goods in the streets, braziers offering skewers of lamb and goat and chicken, men in long robes and turbans, women in outrageous silk attire… total overload.

Wisely (or maybe because of limited language skills) Larisa and the other tour group minders sort of left us alone for big chunks of time. We could wander the streets, sit in a chaikhana while old men played backgammon as they’d done for centuries, the hot green tea serving to cool one from the stifling air. We visited the markets, bazaars and caravanserais that had been in continuous operation for a thousand years or more. We bought delicious baked goods from street vendors…

The history was everywhere – the giant minaret in Bukhara from which opponents to the ruling emirs were thrown, but which was now occupied by a family of storks. The Gur-e-Amir mausoleum (rivaling the Taj Mahal IMO) Tamerlane’s tomb and the mind-blowing Registan Square in Samarkand, on and on.

But also the back streets and alleys with intricately-carved doorways, scenes of people bartering and laughing in the markets, mountains of melons… Take my hand, I’m a stranger in Paradise…

Rather than describe specific scenes or events, I’ll just let some pictures do the talking.

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Old Sep 7, 23, 5:10 pm
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How sweaty it is

But then it was back to the 20th century, with a bang. We were due to fly out of Urgench back to TAS, then onto a flight to Moscow, but two things got in the way. First, we got to the airport to discover that our Yak-40 had been commandeered by a bunch of bigshots in the Uzbek Communist Party en route to some event in Tashkent or Moscow. Don’t worry, we’ll get you out later. Hah.

Then the power went out. To the whole city. Our already-awful hotel in Urgench didn’t have air conditioning in the first place, but even the electric fans didn’t turn now. No refrigeration in the hotel kitchen, and nothing cold to drink (no beer anyway – Muslim country) and all there was was warm apricot juice. That evening, the thermometer in our hotel room exploded. I’m not making that up.

The next morning we finally got to the airport for the short hop to Tashkent, followed by a longish time sitting in the airport, followed by the worst plane ride of my life, or at least one that didn’t crash (of which I’ve had three.)

So the story goes that the Soviets were very proud of the Ilyushin-62 with its four rear-mounted jet engines; when it was introduced in the 1960s it was the largest passenger plane flying. The Russians were accused of having stolen plans for the (very) look-alike VC-10, but the IL-62 was considerably bigger and no evidence ever turned up to confirm the espionage charge. The IL-62’s engines were more powerful than the VC-10s, but it was a bigger plane overall, and some thought it was underpowered.

Like me.

So here we are, loaded onto a full-to-the-gunwales IL-62 on the ramp at TAS. It’s around 4 PM and the outdoor temperature is hovering around 40° C. Now Tashkent isn’t at especially high elevation, but an underpowered full aircraft + high air temperature + not the world’s longest runway… danger, Will Robinson. The driver is obviously concerned about density altitude, so we taxi to the end of the runway, and sit.

The pilot then does a thorough static test of his engines. Spool up No. 1 until the aircraft is trembling like me on my first date, then back down. Same with No. 2. Then 3, then 4. Then he turns off the air conditioning in the cabin, and starts to repeat the process. By the time he’s finished with No. 4 a second time, the interior of the cabin is like a lobster pot. I’ve never been this hot in my life, and that includes August in Singapore. A tour group member sitting next to me, a physician from Mumbai, tells me that he’s afraid he’s going to faint. From Mumbai.

A few rows ahead of me, an older man in full Uzbek traditional garb, jumps up and starts brandishing a decorative (?) knife, one of those curved Ali Baba jobs, all the time wailing and shouting in Uzbek. Two of the Aeroflot FAs, retired Olympic shot put stars, tackle the man and stuff him back into his seat, while a third appears with a bunch of seatbelt extenders which are deployed to harness the still-yelling gent. I am not making this up.

Finally, minutes (or was it hours?) later the pilot has obviously made up his mind that his craft is - probably - airworthy, so this time he pushes the throttle handles all the way, the engines all start screaming like the old Uzbek man, and he pops the brakes.

I’m looking out the window (just behind the wing) and the plane starts rolling down the runway. Faster and faster and we’re still stuck to the planet; faster and faster and… he rotates and I see the main gear fall with a bang to their max extension (no ground under them) and right that instant the cement ends and the weeds and dirt are all that’s under us, maybe five feet below the spinning wheels. He climbs out, ever so slowly it seems, until it’s clear we’re not going to rejoin the pedestrians. Oh, sh*t, the air conditioning.

It’s like he’s opened a window at 30,000 feet. The temperature inside the passenger cabin falls from lobster-pot to cold beer in twenty seconds. It’s obviously way more than the dehumidifiers can handle, so the (liters? gallons?) of accumulated perspiration in the cabin air immediately starts condensing onto anything cool, like the metal strips along the bottom of the overhead racks (not bins, 1974) or the light fixtures or air vents. It rains on us. Sweat rain.

We arrive in Moscow, most of us (me and my friend included) feeling like we’re steps away from pneumonia, and bused to the Hotel Rossiya, at the time the biggest hotel in the world, right on Red Square. We’re hustled by the key ladies to our rooms, then told that dinner is on our own (still included, just not a set meal) in the hotel dining room.

But wait. The kitchen is out of food. Huh? In the largest hotel in the world, the pride of Intourist and the emblem of the ascent of Marxism-Leninism? Uh, yah. No, wait, we have bananas. And champagne, which we’ll comp you. No, it’s not more of that blindness-inducing Uzbek crap, this is the good stuff. From Armenia. Bananas and champagne. Enjoy your feast, comrades!

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Old Sep 7, 23, 5:26 pm
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The days in Moscow were something of a re-introduction to Soviet life in the 1970s. There were canned tours – the Kremlin, the Bolshoi, the circus (all amazing) but also enough time to get out on one’s own. We rode the stunning metro, walked along the river, visited GUM the huge department store, declined to see Pickled Lenin, took pictures at midnight in Red Square… We were pestered endlessly by people trying to get us to exchange our dollars/pounds for rubles at the black or grey market rates (what exactly are we to do with those rubles, by the way?) One such pestering took place directly in front of the Lubyanka building, home of the KGB and site of numerous executions over the decades. Yeah, sure, buddy.

But it’s one of the world’s great cities and shows it. Not my favorite big city, but pretty impressive given the times. I’d like to return one day (probably not happening) but from what I can see on TV, it looks like it’s joined the group of bland European metropolises.

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Old Sep 7, 23, 5:30 pm
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The flight back to London was uneventful. I wanted to get back quickly to Scotland, so given that it had been a very early morning flight from Moscow, I decided that we’d make the drive from Gatwick back to Edinburgh the same day.

The M25 wasn’t complete yet, so we had to go through central London (fortunately it was a Sunday) to get to the M1 for the drive north. We finally arrived at my flat in Stockbridge around 7 PM, and had started to decompress in the company of a bottle of Bell’s when there came a knock on the door.

I greeted the two Edinburgh cops somewhat warily – police at my door on a Sunday night was a new thing for me. They asked me if I was me, and I was, then they suggested I might want to fetch a coat and a toothbrush as I would likely be spending the night away from home. Huh?

I asked why, and they said the guv’nor will explain. I told my visiting American friend to help himself to the booze, then accompanied the polis down to the Black Maria (aka paddy wagon) in which I was transported through the dark city streets to the city jail (gaol in Scots) which was located in medieval arched-ceiling rooms underneath the Criminal Courts, which at the time were in the old Parliament Hall opposite St. Giles Cathedral in the Old Town. I still had no idea why I was being arrested.

I was escorted to the booking desk, where I was informed that I was being detained under section blah blah blah of the Blah Blah (Scotland) Act of 19-blah blah, for failure to pay… parking citations.

“Say what? I’m getting arrested for not paying parking tickets?”

“Aye, that’s what it says here,” he replies, referring to a sheet that includes the names of other wanted arch criminals.

I want to ask more questions but am moved aside to make room for some drunk. It seems that the Edinburgh cops sweep the Grassmarket and Cowgate on Sunday nights to house the drunks that congregate in those areas. While I’m watching, a person who I assume is the jailer (based on the big ring of skeleton keys he’s holding – really) passes. He is a victim of kyphosis. He’s a hunchback. I’m not making this up – either.

Now, in fairness, the charge is probably righteous. Over the previous year I’d been working on my thesis, which required that I spent a lot of time in the National Library of Scotland. I tended to drive my car there ‘cause I’m very lazy, and then I’d get caught up in the research and forget that the meter was about to expire. There might also have been some times when I parked near some pub or other and got carried away with my research there, too. So I can’t say I’m outraged by the fact that I had a lot of parking tickets. I’d paid off quite a number, but you had to do that in person and it was a nuisance. But getting arrested?

Anyway, the standoff ends when I muse openly about phoning the American consulate (really) and the booking officer allows me to post twenty quid as bail pending my appearance the next morning at the Burgh court. Done, and I’m driven home in the same vehicle that brought me. The day which began in the USSR ends with me as a bad guy out on bail.

The next morning I stand in front of a judge, wig and all, who asks me about my evil ways. I have a handful of receipts for tickets I’d paid, but there’s nothing on the receipt tying it to any one ticket (poor bureaucrats, the Scots) so which ones I’d paid vs. which ones I’d ignored can’t be determined. The judge shakes his wig and asks if it seems like a hundred pounds might be a warranted penalty, and I agree, and my days of incarceration are passed.

It could have been worse. It could have been the Lubyanka.
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Old Sep 7, 23, 7:44 pm
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Outstanding; thank you for sharing.
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Old Sep 7, 23, 8:03 pm
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Fantastic! Great TR and great photos. Nice scanning job. The photos look very high quality.
great meal.
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Old Sep 7, 23, 8:09 pm
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Very interesting TR. Thanks for posting and the images.

My only experience with Aeroflot and thirsty noisy under powered Russian aircraft is a very cheap flight NBO-ADD-KRT-CAI-SIP-SVO-LED-LHR in Feb 1985. (not 100% certain of the Russian airports). Full throttle slow take off's I remember. A map from the Great Circle Mapper - Great Circle Mapper
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Old Sep 7, 23, 8:57 pm
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Incredible TR! Thank you for including the photos as well!
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Old Sep 8, 23, 3:57 am
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Very great TR, keep it up!
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Old Sep 8, 23, 5:13 am
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I thank you for penning down your memories so eloquently. Also, as others have said, great photos even without the disclaimer!
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Old Sep 8, 23, 5:23 am
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Super TR, definitely meets the 'trip of a lifetime' criteria.
Tell us more about the plane crashes and how are still with us.
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Old Sep 8, 23, 6:31 am
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What a tale, and some incredible images - one of the best TRs I've read on FT - thanks so much for sharing!
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