USSR and beyond, 1977: The East
A guest post by my father, Aleksandar:
In 1974, I returned home to Yugoslavia from my life-changing trip to India. When all the excitement and stories settled, my father Slobodan (who was 56 at the time) started behaving very strangely. Usually very social and jovial, he started isolating himself in his bedroom.
We noticed tons of books, maps and few notebooks piling up around his bed. One evening in the spring of 1975, he appeared wide-eyed and called a family meeting."I have all the details right here," he said pointing to the notebook in his hands, "We are buying a new car and DRIVING to Japan this summer!" Wow! We were quite surprised and sceptical but not one of us said no.
In fact I still have some of his documents today. The careful and minute planning my father undertook: charting budgets (the cost of gas, food, ferries, souvenirs, museums and of course, cigarettes); painstakingly copied language phrases; typewritten itinerary lists of destinations and kilometres to be travelled, subsequently revised in blue, then red pen). At the time this was an incredibly ambitious undertaking, not to be taken lightly.
We managed to buy a new car replacing our Fiat in autumn of 1975. It was a shiny, red Renault 4. Our travel plans altered a little, after careful consideration and a few visa rejections. Ultimately, we decided to take the trip in the summer of 1977 through Romania to the USSR, then Finland all the way up to the Polar Circle. We'd come back the other way around, through Norway, Sweden, Denmark, East and West Germany and Austria (not Japan this time!). One of the main reasons we selected Russia for our tip was the romantic wish my mother had to visit the enormous and beautiful birch forests of the steppes. They populated Russian literature that she (and all of us) had read and loved all our lives. So off we went!
We traveled more than 20,000 km in about 40 days, if I remember correctly. Among other troubles (and many more good times) we had to apply more than 6 months in advance to get written permission and visas for traveling by car through the USSR. We found out later that only one in 100 applications get approved. We got a luck stamp of approval, but it came with significant alternations to our proposed plan. We were permitted to travel a maximum of 500 km per day, drive only during the day, and only on specially pre-approved roads. No unplanned excursions to villages or towns were allowed, and we had to stay only at camp grounds, no hotels of any kind. It turned out that we were not even allowed to sleep in our own tent, but had to stay in tents or cottages provided by the authorities, who were to be paid in advance.
Every step of the way we raised the suspicion of the Soviet authorities. We underwent numerous police checks, and encountered obstacles of all kinds. To any of our complains they replied: "We didn't invite you to come here!" We were not even allowed to buy gasoline at the gas station, instead we were escorted to a special location in each city where we could buy 10 litre coupons and then return to fill up a tank. If you didn't know exactly how much would fill your tank and accidentally asked for more than would fit, there was no way to stop the pump. Gasoline would overflow and spill out.
The obstacles culminated in one emblematic experience at the USSR/Finnish border. During the 4hr-long interrogation we were required (3 separate times) to take everything out of our car, down to the last, tiny item and present it to the authorities for examination. This absurd ritual allowed us to proceed.
But looking back, our overall impression of Russia was still extremely positive. The birch woods were magnificent, bringing to life every story we’d read about them. Driving by the milky-white trees for days was unforgettable, as was getting lost in the surreal light once inside the forest. And of course, seeing Russian history come to life was sublime. For example, the Orthodox churches were extremely well-preserved, though not always used for intended religious purpose. We also had numerous precious contacts with locals. Even when their poverty was so blatant, that you might see an old woman selling just one egg by the road side, the local people were ready to help us or share a story and a drink.
To be continued...
Next time: PART II - The West, the second leg of this family journey.