The Party Line

The Fall of the Soviet Union, by Train

Laurent Vernhes

Before our co-founder and CEO Laurent Vernhes became obsessed with extraordinary hotel experiences, his preferred method of travel was backpacking, something he still sets aside time for. It’s a philosophy that naturally includes a lot of improvisation — and a belief in serendipity. Over the years it led to some unforeseeable surprises, like the time he ended up inside the Kremlin at a pivotal moment in world history. We’ll let him tell the story in his own words: The Long Way HomeIn December of 1991 I rode the Trans-Siberian railway by myself, from Beijing to Moscow — nearly five thousand miles. I was living in Singapore, and I had been accepted to INSEAD, the European business school. So my plan was to travel by land, backpacker-style, from Hong Kong all the way to Paris, arriving the day before classes began.

My most memorable trips have been the ones where I went without an itinerary, with not much more than a destination in mind. In this case I wanted to feel the true distance across Asia and Europe, and I wanted to maximize the contrast between this backpacking lifestyle and the MBA program I was about to enter. I think a part of me even wanted to arrive at school with no time to prepare, no place to live, and no plan…

Trans-Siberian
Map of the former Soviet Union and Trans-Siberian Railway route

In the summer and fall of 1991, political turmoil in the USSR was all over CNN, and it seemed on the brink of a civil war. Gorbachev was losing his grip on power, Yeltsin was trying to assert his, and the currency had collapsed. So when I left Beijing, I had a bag full of neatly packed one-dollar banknotes — and bags of Chinese biscuits. I was determined to go, but because it was winter my main worry was that things were so chaotic in Russia that I might not be able to find any food, and that I might be left to starve on this train in the middle of Siberia. If nothing else, I would be able to eat biscuits. I had dragged the bank notes throughout China (another story to tell) for the sole purpose of buying my way out of the Soviet Union, if need be.

In the same compartment on my train was a Dutch man, also traveling by himself, so we ended up taking this trip together. And we both became focused on this idea that there might be nothing to eat once we crossed the border into the USSR. So on our way across China and Mongolia we repeatedly went to the restaurant car and stuffed our faces with everything we could get our hands on, accumulating reserves for what might be lean times ahead.

At each border crossing, they changed the restaurant car, so there was an anxious moment at the border between Mongolia and Russia. Naturally, as soon as we were underway again, we immediately made our way to the restaurant car to ask if they had anything to eat, and it turns out our anxiety had been entirely misplaced. Again we ate like kings, ordering every clichéd dish like chicken Kiev. What began as a sort of anxiety about whether we would have food at all became something purely gluttonous. And that was before it occurred to me to ask if they had caviar.

We bought the train’s entire supply of caviar for something like ten dollars, and we were able to do this only because we were the first to ask. We ate caviar from Lake Baikal all the way to Moscow. That’s the last time I ate caviar. Later the actual price of caviar hit me hard — not just relative to the price I paid on that train — and while I liked it, I would never like it enough to spend that much money. Plus, caviar and the Trans-Siberian were connected forever in my mind. I felt I would have compared the experience to the trip, and most times it’s better to let great memories rest rather than try to repeat them.

This Dutch man and me, we became friends, eating caviar all the way across Russia. We ended up having this very intense trip together, though strangely I can’t remember his name — it was harder keeping up with people back then, before email and the internet, so we never saw each other again. I’m sure he’s telling his side of this same story from time to time, though. We shared our compartment with two other people, both Chinese students who could barely speak English. Their trip carried a lot more meaning than ours, which helped us not take anything too seriously. They had been authorized to leave China to study abroad. This was a little more than two years after Tiananmen, so you can imagine how difficult it was to leave China at the time. They had no intention of ever going back, so the goodbyes they said to their family on the train platform in Beijing were likely to be farewells for good.

I remember stepping off the train several times in Siberia, where the temperature was –40°C. At the Novosibirsk station I saw a man wearing an amazing black military dress coat made from heavy wool with an incredibly thick silk lining. Full of the arrogance of carrying many $1 notes, and high on caviar, I bought the coat from him on the spot for a few dollars, and I still have this coat. You could be naked under this coat and not feel a thing.

We arrived in Moscow on Christmas Day, and the first thing we did as tourists in Moscow was visit the Kremlin, wandering late into the evening among these beautiful buildings, seeing the sights in this truly majestic place. There are at least three gorgeous churches alongside the very Soviet Palace of Congresses — it’s truly a surreal place. Later, we enjoyed the monumental subway and parts of the city that felt like Paris — the same elegant Haussmann-style buildings, but everything was bigger, even the doors and the windows.

Trans-Siberian
The Kremlin (Courtesy of Kremlin Tours)

And with a few American dollars we lived as decadently as we could, only to find out that there was no limit. We went to the Bolshoi for a dollar. I bought a huge silk Soviet flag for a dollar. Everything was a dollar. And I bought my ticket for the next leg of my trip, on to Budapest, for a dollar after jumping a huge line — again, because I had dollars. But by then I had less than a week before I was due in Paris, so we saw everything as quickly as we could, in between feasts at underground Moscow restaurants that felt like they were straight out of an Emir Kusturica movie.

It was all so strange and overwhelming, like one big hallucination, that I almost didn’t even notice how bizarre the trip from Moscow to Budapest was. For one thing, I couldn’t understand why they were playing Pink Floyd on the train’s speakers for the entire ride — first Dark Side of the Moon and then Wish You Were Here, over and over again. I was paranoid that my delicately embroidered Soviet flag would be discovered and I would be arrested for trying to smuggle state property or something, so I did my best to avoid authority figures. I still have this flag, by the way. I remember it had been quite complicated to get a visa to enter the Soviet Union, and they made a big show of inspecting it upon entry, but when we crossed the border into Hungary nobody bothered looking at it. In fact, it was almost like there was no border crossing at all.

And when I finally got off the train in Budapest I found out why. At a newsstand I bought a copy of the International Herald Tribune because the story on the front page was about the collapse of the Soviet Union. They had made it official while I was in Moscow. Not only that, but they had lowered the USSR’s flag from the Kremlin’s flagpole for the very last time on Christmas night and raised the Russian flag in its place — and although I didn’t know it, I had been there at the moment when it happened. You can’t plan for something like that…

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And as always, we’d love to hear from any readers who’ve also had unique travel experiences. Let us know in the comments below.

7 Comments
  1. Really loved reading it as well! Super inspiring, thanks for sharing! And always bing us some more!!

  2. Tremendous piece, Laurent. I happened to be on a train from Munich, heading back to Oxford, where my cousin was studying, when the wall came down. When I arrived at Oxford, my cousin asked why I hadn’t turned back and gone to Berlin. I told him that the thought had occurred to me but that I was tired and my resources low after months of backpacking alone, and it didn’t seem like an especially good idea given the uncertainty of what could happen when I got there. I could tell that he was disappointed in me. Laurent, you nicely capture that feeling of uncertainty that can occur when traveling through life, as well your own great spirit of adventure, as you approached a new phase in your life, the start of business school. That cousin of mine now teaches at that same business school. Serendipity? As for me, I have since that long ago time travelled many places (and stayed at Tablet hotels) but I still have never been to Berlin. Thanks for sharing your story, Laurent. My own train story comes to mind every so often and serves as a reminder that travelling well through life, just as travelling well through the world, requires some planning but also a spirit of adventure.

  3. Cher Laurent, I can almost hear your voice recounting this awesome tale. And I concur with you about Serendipity and free-form travel plans. One of my favorite travel events was the night when I traveled from Berlin to Nuremberg to Munich to Sofia during a weekend night while on work assignment in Germany. On this particular Saturday night, I didn’t want to pay for a hotel because I had this 8am flight from Munich to Sofia for a business meeting. So, after my visit to Berlin, I returned to my base – where my firm was located – in Nuremberg. Upon arrival inside the old city walls, had a quick drink with a local friend I previously met at a wine bar; it was well after 11pm by then. After goodnight hugs, I hung out at an Italian restaurant. As they were closing, I asked the owner for a recommendation for where and how I can spend the next four hours before catching my train to Munich. Ended up at a tiny bar owned by ‘Pete’ from Eretria. I met ‘Nabil’ from Iraq and ‘Carl’ from Germany. Over the next four hours, we drink, danced and laughed our way through several nightclubs in Nuremberg. Returned to Pete’s for final rounds before I bid them farewell and headed back to Nürnberg Hauptbahnhof for Munich. This was also followed by a very memorable trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. This all happened on my birthday weekend…Nabil and I shared the same birthday!! How’s that for Seredipidity?!

  4. Thank you, for taking us on such a wonderful journey with you. I find it very inspiring!

  5. Laurent, so lovely to read. A nice escape for moment to ‘travel’ with you. Michelle

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