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:
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.