Through Russia with love

This afternoon a party of intrepid British astronomers departs from Moscow by train for Mongolia and China. Nine years ago, Jeremy Atiyah travelled the other way, through a quite different world
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The Independent Travel
Moscow was only 24 hours east, but the Russian capital could have been a light year back down the track. That winter in Berlin the fog over Alexanderplatz still had the sad smell of coal dust and Communism, but I didn't care. Metres away, cocooned in its wall, West Berlin was a city of dreams. Its centre comprised budget supermarkets, designer sex shops, ongoing student demonstrations and one memento of the Second World War: the ruined Kaiser Wilhelm Church. Somewhere out there, among the punks in Bahnhof Zoo and the grandes dames wearing fur coats on Ku'damm, was a girl called Xiaosong, dressed in red for her first day in the free West. On a winter's day in the city of dreams, I was looking for a girl from Communist China.

Was it only seven days since we had met, in the restaurant car of a train somewhere in the vicinity of Mongolia? Professor Zhang and his comrades were eating their last Chinese dinner, and teaching me how to use chopsticks. "This is the b-b-best day of our lives," giggled the professor. Yes, China was that bad. All these worn-out intellectuals were leaving their families for the sake of science studentships in Continental Europe. Only Xiaosong in the outsized red coat was different; she plonked herself at the table with a smile to light up the wintry Mongolian steppe for ever. "Literature," she whispered in a pure, seamless accent. "In Deutschland. You don't speak German?" I didn't.

"Oh yes," Professor Zhang confided in me the next morning. "M-m-m-many Chinese girls want to m-m-m-marry Western men." Outside, the sun shone weakly on to a treeless, snow-flecked land and I wondered why he was telling me this. It transpired that he was carrying in his pocket lists of Chinese women seeking marital alliances with Western men. But apart from me, the only other man in our carriage was a melancholy Yugoslav with a suitcase full of vodka.

The crowded carriages at the other end of the train were more promising for thoughts of marriage. Xiaosong was there for a start. I decided to visit her, hauling open the connecting carriage-doors one by one, exposing myself to the din of wheels and blasts of ferocious winter. In the last carriage, I found her ensconced in a compartment with a group of Chinese boys, also, perhaps, going to West Germany to study literature.

"Oh no. We are going to East Germany," one of them explained. "To work in the mines."

I was mumbling something about short straws when one Erhard Kempe suddenly arrived from the bathroom. He had a morose expression and pronounced Germany "Charmany". East German police? I wish he had been. He turned out to be a flukey West German tourist from Hannover with a berth in the same compartment as Xiaosong.

Undaunted, I returned that evening with a bottle of brandy which I drank all by myself. I ate Xiaosong's chocolates impulsively, admired her tape of Chinese pop music and requested that she write out the incomprehensible lyrics of one of the songs, "Maybe in Winter". Erhard fought back by embarking on a lengthy explanation of the "Charman" education system. Fortunately, we still had the whole of Russia to cross.

The Soviet Union arrived at midnight with lights on the snow, a watch- tower, barbed wire, and soldiers in long coats running beside the train. "I h-h-hate Russia," said Professor Zhang in a high-pitched whisper, as blond men probed at his bulging briefcase. Chugging alongside Lake Baikal later, I sat alone, mouthing the meaningless sounds of "Maybe in Winter", while the frozen lake buckled and cracked and heaped itself into mounds of rubble, shining a mysterious blue against the snow-laden sky.

Professor Zhang was obsessed with my conjugal status. He appeared daily at my doorway, asking when I would marry. Not in the near future, I barked, tetchily. Siberia, and Erhard's long-winded accounts of German history, were wearing me down. For three days, the landscape consisted of melancholy birch forests, interspersed by villages of wooden houses suffocating under the continuous snow. At Novosibirsk I changed money with a man in a dirty coat; at Sverdlovsk I bought a hard-boiled egg. On the last day Xiaosong dropped by to give me a contact address - in Hannover.

There was no red carpet for our final arrival in Moscow. Instead, the platform was covered in a thick, dirty slush. In dribs and drabs, the passengers from China transferred across town to Belarusskaya Station, where I volunteered to stand in a Soviet queue to make our onward reservations to Berlin. I stood in it, heroically, for four hours.

Only in mid-afternoon was I ready for a touristic rampage round Moscow with my Chinese bride-to-be. As it turned out, Xiaosong had already asked Professor Zhang and eight other Chinese friends to join us, along with Erhard Kempe. Never mind. Wet, romantic snow was falling as darkness fell. I saw uneven pavements, pink stucco and tall women on the underground escalators with pale faces and furry hats. In the streets, the last rays of a maverick sun suddenly fell on to the spires of the Kremlin. En masse, we stormed the Hotel Rossiya on Red Square for a round of vodkas, for which I ostentatiously emptied my wallet.

From Moscow to Berlin, we still had another 24 hours of Pot Noodles and Chinese tea, but by now emotional excitement and brandy was destroying my mind. The train was crowded and overheated, and I awoke to the sounds of raucous, collective snoring. Discomfited, I sat in the half-lit corridor to wait for a grey day to slide past over Poland. Outside, on the plains, the last shreds of snow had almost gone.

Professor Zhang was jubilant at having smuggled his dollars through Russia in the lining of his briefcase; Erhard was waxing ever more eloquent as we approached his homeland. But I was tired. And when they appeared, the East German border police - with their fat faces, military accents, torches, peaked caps and shining boots - looked remarkably like unreconstructed Nazis. Our belongings were microscopically examined; Professor Zhang was suddenly ordered to leave the train. Horror! There he was, now speechless with fear, putting on three pairs of trousers, manically packing away his pots and cups and chopsticks. The last we saw of him, he stood alone, a little man on the platform beside a ton of luggage. The winter took on a nightmarish hue.

East Berlin was on us before we knew it, and Xiaosong was the next to disappear. The Ostbahnhof was infernally dark, packed with shrieking, groaning engines and hissing with jets of steam; Soviet soldiers in long coats stood like ghosts in the shadows. One minute Xiaosong was there - the next she had gone. I had visions of a plot. Victims picked off one by one! I blundered about emotionally in the darkness, convinced that no one could escape Communism in winter.

Amid the panic, a familiar face loomed out of the darkness: Erhard Kempe. "Ver is the young lady?" he exclaimed, roughly. Well, at least he didn't know either. Instead he angrily escorted me through the darkness to the West Berlin train where I found the only remaining Chinese, Yu Wei, in a colossal furry hat, mumbling through his hand about wanting to see the West. He had just two minutes to wait. The train creaked through Alexanderplatz and then over the Berlin Wall itself. The ghastly no-man's-land with its floodlights illuminating the death-strip inspired Yu Wei, oddly, to start invoking Proust and Yeats as the embodiment of his Western dream.

I couldn't help thinking that the West was mainly about nice cars and decent accommodation. Or so I told myself, gloomily, as I checked into a hotel later that night. Yu Wei had presented me with his furry winter hat and departed for Frankfurt, while Erhard had bought me a copy of The Times. "A real piece of, ah, `Charman' hospitality," he had said, grasping my hand like a spanner before marching away into the mist.

In bed at last, I drifted into the dreams of West Berlin. Would the skateboarders around the Kaiser Wilhelm Church be feeling the cold tomorrow morning? Would I find the girl from Communist China? The tune of "Maybe in Winter" began playing in my mind. One day, I dreamt, Xiaosong would tell me what its lyrics meant.

Jeremy Atiyah married Xiaosong in 1991Through Russia with love

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Regular trains operate between Moscow and Peking, with connections from Western Europe and to Hong Kong. Most travellers make the week-long journey in only one direction, and fly the other. A basic round trip of a flight from London to Moscow, train to Peking and onwards to Hong Kong, with a flight back to London, would cost about pounds 750 through companies such as Bridge the World (0171-911 0900), Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711) and the Russia Experience (0181-566 8846). There are endless stopover possibilities, but these can add substantially to the cost.

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