I am knackered by lack of sleep and cannot think of anything to blog about, so I am reduced to remembering what happened on Friday 3rd May 1985 in Bukhara and Tashkent, in what was then Soviet Central Asia.
I was on a 37 day group tour of the Soviet Union, Mongolia and China. We started in what was then Leningrad (later re-named St Petersburg after the collapse of Communism) and ended in Hong Kong (which was, at that time, still a British colony and not part of China).
In our group, there were Americans, Australians, Canadians, English, Germans and Scots. This is an extract from my diary:
Friday 3rd May, 1985
Our group leader, Jimmy, is a dour and wizened Glaswegian in his mid-fifties who, when not taking large groups of strangers to exotic locations, works as a barman in London. He says he has been coming to the Soviet Union for 23 years and has never been invited into an ordinary Soviet citizen’s home. He has been visiting China for 4 years and has been invited to ordinary people’s homes several times.
“Russians are so completely paranoid,” he explains, “They don’t even trust their neighbours in case they report them for something.”
At the airport in Bukhara, a woman border guard sniffs and wants to confiscate a plastic bottle of water carried by American platinum blonde Carla. Having got through Customs, we are told we cannot sit on any seats in the Departure Lounge because “the Departure Room seats are not for sitting on”. We are taken to wait on the tarmac, separated by several yards from the locals already patiently waiting there, in case we contaminate them or vice versa.
As usual, the locals have to wait while we are first to board the smallish prop plane with its wing above the fuselage. The locals look at us forlornly with something between hatred and resignation. They are seated separately from us and are collected by different airport buses when we land at Tashkent.
In the afternoon, we are taken to a collective farm. Someone asks what happens in years when the crops fail. “We never have crop failures,” comes back the immediate reply. Seeing us laugh, the Party member pauses, taken aback, then adds: “ Once we had a crop failure… Once.”
At each stop, the singles in our group have to share with different members of the group – this is Jimmy’s wise idea to avoid people being paired permanently with people they hate.
Tonight, I have to share a room with one of our Germans – Alex – a boorish old man in his sixties who keeps geese and who, at every stop in Russia, blithely told the Inturist people that he had been in their country once before – during the War. This went down particularly badly at Leningrad.
He leches after any women under 30, sometimes clenching his fist and raising his forearm behind their back: a sort of retired Nazi Benny Hill.
His animal-like snoring is so loud that the walls virtually vibrate and, during the night, it continually wakes me up. I find I can temporarily stop the snoring by clapping my hands, but it soon re-starts. I progress to turning the radio quickly on and off, banging my headboard, throwing headache tablets at him then finally putting the light on above his bed head. All to no avail.
It is like sleeping in a room with a Panzer tank revving up its engines.
I try not to think about what he might have done when he was in the Soviet Union during the War.