On the road to Leningrad

Travel fills me with a desperate urge to trespass. It gets me into trouble, but there’s nothing I can do. One day it will be the swimming pool of a smart hotel, the next you’ll find me wandering through the gates of a military base. In the autumn I took this urge to a new extreme. A whole two weeks were spent getting in and out of places that I oughtn’t to go. Mainly this was in Russia, the country which we’re always told to stay away from if we’ve got any sense, and the couple of thousand kilometres of motorway in between.

There’s no point in flying or catching trains when everyone spends their lives driving, so I hitched 2,220 kilometres to Helsinki, then hired a car and drove it the last 300 into Russia, to Leningrad. Being inside someone else’s car was trespassing in a sense. The driver now has you on his hands, inside his private property, so you have to try and make it worth his while; most drivers are simply after company, which isn’t hard to give. Obviously, I couldn’t hitch across the border, glasnost or not. So choosing the lesser of two evils, I hired a car near the border and drove the rest of the way. If I’d flown into Russia everything would have been set in front of me like a meal in front of a baby: spoonful after spoonful would have disappeared into my memory with little taste and no relish. But my way, there would be only wheels and shoe leather between me and the length of Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Mother Russia herself.

People and places are much more colourful when you see them in motion: they loom up, turn around, and vanish down a highway. The same applies to towns and cities taken at speed: you get a taste of the dynamic of a place, whether it assists your progress and whether it is happy to let you go.

Here are some verbal snapshots from the trip, the trip across Europe, just me and my thumb.

BALLUM, ON THE WEST COAST OF DENMARK

I had a breezy start to the trip. The ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland was plush and quiet and I met three lads from Manchester who were merrily smoking hash and drinking brandy in the corner of the bar. A newsflash would have put them down as ‘high on drink and drugs’, but in fact, they were just quietly winding up for an Amsterdam weekend. One of them, called Willa, had a serious conviction of England as the world’s third most powerful nation, behind the United States and Russia: "It’s amazing for, like, a small country," he said.

Hitching was superb all day. Within ten minutes of leaving the ferry, a major in the British army stopped and took me through Holland to Dortmund in Germany. He was a jolly, bearded man who told me that NATO is firmly opposed to dismantling the Berlin Wall. "A united Germany would be too powerful for NATO," he said. "And anyway, all the old Nazis went over to the East after the war."

Germany is a great country to hitch through. The people seem to go through a hippy phase in early adulthood, as though it were the second half of their adolescence, and then emerge as good capitalists, complete with big fat BMW or Mercedes to get them from one chair to another. So they have in-built sympathy with fools like me sitting on the edge of the autobahn.

I end up spending the night in a large, low, thatched house by the sea, with twelve people from around the world who have come to Denmark to build a windmill. They have all signed up with an organisation called Service Civil International, which started in the 1920s to further peace and co-operation. So, here they are, stuck by the North Sea, peacefully co-operating.

They are a very committed group, full of enthusiasm for renewable sources of energy and bridging the East/West divide. I point out to them how predictable it is that they should be doing this in clean, fresh Denmark, but they barely hear me. All evening they sing folk songs: a Japanese guy called Hiro sings a Beatles song, a German woman called Sonne sings a peace anthem and a couple of Polish guys go on about experiencing your own body.

There is a particular atmosphere which hangs around a group like this one. Language, for one thing, creates a peculiar bonding. Everyone is speaking English and yet it is only the mother tongue for me and an American girl called Nancy. It means that we scale down our thoughts to some universally comprehended level and what results is mostly good-natured, amusing entertainment. What’s more, they treat me with special curiosity and respect, since I was picked up from the road and brought to them like a stray dog.

THE SKAGERRAK TO THE GOTHENBURG FERRY

Thirty-six hours later I’m on the deck of a ferry across the Skagerrak, a choppy stretch of water separating Northern Denmark from the west coast of Sweden and southern Norway. It takes no more than three or four hours, but I’m treated to a prolonged and heated exchange of military boastfulness rarely seen outside Sylvester Stallone movies. An American reels off statistical evidence of the superiority of his army training, school, country, armaments and experience to a Swiss soldier who takes it very badly at first, but fights back by naming a couple of machine guns he has fired which America hasn’t and the size of the bullet sent forth. "It’s nine millimetres," says the American "No, it’s definitely two millimetres," replies the Swiss. "They make them small so they wound and not kill. This means you slow the enemy down. Mean, but I like it." They soon find a common love of both the Israeli and South African armies, saying how envious they are of the active service they get. Followed by a common anti-Semitism. "They call it Jew York," says the Swiss with a sneer. "I hate lefties too," he adds, receiving a swift and aggressive nod from the American. "They should all be shot. I think this new Nazism in Germany is a good thing to balance out all the communist lefties." There is more talk of NATO and who would bomb who: "We reckon Sweden would be gone in two days," says the American. "So we want some gratitude from you guys in Europe. We’ve been protecting you for the last 40 years."

Conversation moves between head butts, to stamping on heads, to several uses for a bayonet. We are a long way from the calm purpose of windmill builders. The two are frighteningly intense, but then people haven’t been too good to me since Ballum.

Denmark turned ugly almost as soon as I left that group. I was stuck on the same spot for as long as two hours, standing in the watery sun by cornfields and woods watching Danish couples in their 2.2 litre cars with two blonde children (one girl, one boy) sitting with inhumanely good temperaments in the back seat.

Some cars even pulled over to the other side of the road to avoid me: old people shook their heads, while young men accelerated off with a look of pride and disgust. After a few hours, there seemed to be nothing but as stream of caravans and cars stuffed with beds and brats and bicycles. Eventually someone let me into the secret. For the past decade there have been sporadic media reports of crazed hitchers creating panic on the Danish highways. Just last Sunday, six days ago, a woman was forced into a wood and raped by a married man in his thirties, so no wonder I was getting the cold shoulder. From my perspective, it’s difficult not to see this behaviour as a sort of sterile isolation which coops everyone inside their own property and forbids any real discovery. Can it be a coincidence that the one English girl I know who adores Scandinavia is probably the only person in history to be on the pill and require her boyfriend to use a Durex.

After a slow succession of brief lifts, I camped outside Frederikshavn for the night, still smarting from the rebuffs of the day. At least the final lift to the Gothenburg ferry in the morning was a fun one: a marine engineer called Herr Geller, who took his dog to obedience school twice a week and who told me that Denmark is in debt by £6,000 per person. "It’s as bad as Poland," he says. "We have no steel, oil, wood...only earth to grow pigs and make some bacon." He is also quite a fan of "Cha-Cha". "Who?" "Maggie Cha-Cha. She likes to sell everything," he says.

STOCKHOLM

I wake up in bed with a Swedish brunette called Clara, in flat by a river on the outskirts of Stockholm. To which I should add that she is in her forties, has been snoring like a camel all night and that we are under separate duvets. It all began with Ismo, a Finnish horse doctor who stopped at a garage in mid-Sweden and nearly fell out of his car.

He was completely out of control, swinging the wheel of his Merc station wagon into the traffic and the trees, fishing out fruit, pictures of racehorses and tapes of reincarnation philosophy from underneath the driving seat.

As night fell and his driving worsened to a careering lurch, he expounded the wisdom of turning in to one’s previous lives. His first, he told me, was 36,000 years ago, "and my last one was as a red Indian in Canada." He was looking forward very much to the next one and his driving seemed destined to assist him. For my part, I was perfectly happy with the life in progress. I’m in no hurry to go through the nappies and toilet training again just yet. Ismo couldn’t put me up himself, so he rang a friend in Stockholm, who happened to be Clara. I wasn’t really expecting to end up in her bed, but this is one of the happy by-products of Scandinavian sexual liberation: there is no perceptible sexual tension underpinning the way people behave towards one another. Her teenage daughter was in bed with her boyfriend when I arrived at the flat and they didn’t see anything strange about this stranger jumping into the mother’s bed.

In contrast to the labour of Denmark, this turn-around is a minor miracle. Hitching at its best is like surfing: you paddle off with bags and maps and whatever else to a point where the biggest and best wave will pick you up and transform a small effort into a long, seedy race to a far-off destination.

Leaving Clara’s flat, I took a subway to Stockholm harbour and ditched my bags in a locker. Two hours later, the city had already started to bug me. But then, what did I expect from a capital city? Well, for one, I expected tramps and graffiti, sex shops and strip shows, drug pushers and pimps and hookers and guys looking me up and down. Dive bars, gay bars, punk bars, clubs...Some kind of scene. It felt odd to be hankering for this, but a hitcher is only, after all, a cleaned up temporary vagrant, and he feels disenfranchised if the world around him comprises suits and briefcases and marble-sided offices.

What vexed me most was that Stockholm is the urban equivalent of the sterile two-star hotel rooms that I set out to avoid by hitching in the first place. Everybody has this blandly prosperous standard of living. They visit their inland holiday homes in the summer and retreat to their city bunkers in the long dark winters to watch a lot of television.

Middle-aged Swedish women all seem to have the same expression. Their eyes and mouths have a slump about them, as though they’ve just been in a car crash and spent all night hanging around in a hospital waiting room. Maybe it’s only the present generation, who had so much sex back in the sixties that they’ve looked shagged out ever since.

FERRY FROM STOCKHOLM TO TURKU, FINLAND

In a region of distressingly high prices for virtually everything, there is one exception. The boat from Stockholm to Turku on the west Finnish coast costs about £16, and is an eight hour luxury cruise through one of the most amazing seascapes in the world.

The ship has eight decks with lifts, three restaurants, a cabaret, a disco, swimming pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and then these unbelievable views over the thousand-island archipelago lying between the two countries. A Finnish friend described it to me as a present from the two governments to the people, to help them get along better. It certainly has this effect, with hundreds of passengers taking a day or two ashore visiting friends or relatives before another eight hours of onboard entertainment.

A folk band are playing in the foyer as I walk up the gang plan, and there are cold storage lockers along one wall where I stash my duty free schnapps. It’s a tough job deciding where to head for but, on the premise that smorgasbord become less good value the more people have had their hands on them, I find the restaurant and sit opposite a huge Fin called Karri who looks like Hagar the Horrible and is piling into his fifth steak. Together we demolish several more plates of salmon, steak and chocolate mousse before doing a runner and getting my duty-free schnapps from the locker. Ferries are not the best places in which to attempt runners, but this one is such a labyrinth that we don’t give it a second thought.

We take the schnapps up to the eighth deck and drink some before heading for the sauna, which gives me an extraordinary feeling of entombment - being may be 20 metres below sea level in a wooden oven. Muscle-bound Swedes with dicks hanging between their knees throw ladles of water onto the coals to boost the humidity. We scamper to the pool and then have a cold beer in the bar.

Finally we storm down to the disco and buy mixers to put with my schnapps, and there meet two cadaverous Swedish chicks who flick ash into their hair and make small-talk seem like a UN summit. They don’t dance and their mothers have told them not to go onto the deck with strangers. Eventually I go up anyway and watch the sun set and the moon rise and the dappled waves, chestnut and blue, ripple between the islands and the sky.

After a derisory amount of sleep I stumble onto the car deck to find a lift. A woman has an empty car. Yes, she is going to Helsinki. No, she won’t take me. Why? "What would everyone think?" she protests. "They would think: 'There goes a green Volvo with two people in it'". "No. No, they would think the wrong thing", she says, all bashful and sad. I spend a while trying to talk her into it, but the opinion of passers-by in a small Finnish village is too much for her, so I walk onto shore determined once more to seek my fortune by the roadside.

HELSINKI, AND THE BORDER CROSSING

From being a poor man in Scandinavia, I now prepare for the role of a wealthy foreigner cruising my way through the cities and fields of Russia.

There is still the nagging worry of the border: the Finnish tourist board in London told me flatly, ‘it is impossible to drive into Russia.’ So despite assurances from Intourist and my Finnish friends in Helsinki, I’m sweating at the thought of the KGB nasties finding loopholes in my visa and returning me to Finland. For one thing, my papers have a made up registration number on them since I had to provide one weeks ago, before I even knew what car hire company I was going to use. I suppose even the Israeli stamp in my passport could be enough if they take a dislike to me.

Armoured cars trundle down the quiet roads leading to the border at Vaalimaa. As soon as I see these I realise how dramatically this trip is about to change. This whole stretch has an enormous political charge to it. There are no other Russian borders with democratic nations in the Western sense: Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan are about as close as they come to non-communist frontiers. So it feels as though I’m approaching a forgotten back door to the largest country on earth, where some ancient retainer armed with cudgel will spit at me in Russian and ask for the magic word. But in the end, it’s a boy who looks no more than 17, with fluff dithering on his upper lip, who comes over to the car and takes a look at my papers before waving me through the machine-gun towers and barbed wire. It would have been harder to drive into Wales.

Russia manages to amaze and confuse me in the space of a couple of hours. At first there was nothing. No houses, cars, people; even the road was barely made up, like a medieval highway, with pot holes and pieces of stray strewn across it.

At length came a town called Viborg, where women sold potatoes from buckets by the side of the road. A young man spotted my car and tried to sell me some roubles on the black market. A friend in London had told me what rate to aim for and the Russian finally accepted 15 roubles to the pound. This was where the strangeness began.

Officially, a rouble changes for £1.02. Yet since there are a great number of things which it is impossible to buy without ‘hard’ currency (i.e. any non-Soviet-bloc currency), there is a massive demand for this money. What goods can be bought with roubles are pretty cheap: my first purchase was a large slice of melon for 15 kopecs - the official equivalent of 15p. And with average wages running at around 150 roubles per month, this is no surprise. The twist is, then, that a few pounds make me into a terrifically rich visitor once I’d scooped up a few hundred roubles. My remaining pounds on the other hand, turned me into a greatly attractive quarry for every Russian sleaze ball and conman who was on the make.

Just outside Viborg, three men beside a car flagged me down in great excitement. Each of them had a different demand: one waved a vodka bottle, another wanted to change money, and the third has his eye on my jeans. Now I know everyone tells you that there will be this pressure to trade things, but what they won’t tell you is that if you refuse and drive on, this carload of guys will come steaming after you at 90 mph to try again.

They came from nowhere, flashing their lights and gesturing towards their bottles and wallets, so I let them pass then slid down into third and swung out past them and off into the woods. They redoubled and followed. We kept this race going for ten or fifteen minutes, dodging past lorries and leaving Ladas crawling in our wake, until they ended up behind a crawling little car and I put some space between us.

Appropriately enough, I was pulled up for speeding soon after this, and charged 10 roubles. How upside-down, I thought, to be rattled by a bunch of lads in a souped-up Lada and then pay off a traffic cop with a 70p fine. All at once I was discovering the pains and pleasures of a rich man’s life. My car was so flash compared to Russian wagons, it could hardly help being noticed. Their engineers haven’t come around to the idea of a wedge-shape yet, so this Mazda, modest enough in Finland, despite its top speed of 140 mph, looked other-worldly beside the boxy shunt-moblies steering noisily around the Russian countryside. Children would gather round and peer at the dashboard; their parents would discuss the number plate or take a quick picture of their kids in front of it. Quite a little celebrity it became.

LENINGRAD

As celebrities will, I kept the company of fellow stars and made straight for the apartment of a rock guitarist called Dimar. We have a friend in London in common and I’d ‘phoned him earlier in the day to say when I’d be arriving there.

Dimar’s band, Auktsion, are definitely a hot ticket in Leningrad. They have toured in West Germany and France, and have often headlined with the other major Soviet group, Zvuki Moo. Even so, there are no white Rolls-Royces sitting outside Dimar’s flat. In fact, he doesn’t have a car at all and lives in a small two-bed place in a grey block several miles south of the city centre. The band have, however, established themselves against considerable odds. It is theoretically illegal to be unemployed in the USSR - indeed, it is an imprisonable offence. Each of the band’s members has had to run a risk for years before the authorities accepted they were doing genuine work.

With Dimar’s wife, Natasha, we take a spin round town in my car. It gives them a palpable kick to be seen in this futuristic machine and it’s good for me too since they save me getting lost in the confusion of intersecting waterways, roads, tramlines and squares.

Dimar and Natasha have a friend called Kiril, a successful artist who designs the sets for the group’s stage shows, and we plan to drop in join him for dinner. "Kiril never eats unless we take him something," says Dimar, buying a smoked chicken from a nearly empty shop. Apart from these skinny birds, there’s only a jar of Polish plum jam in the window and Natasha apologises for the poor standard of food available in Leningrad.

Here comes the money strangeness again: they are relatively well-off, but have no access to hard currency. They feel obliged to entertain me as best they can, yet they know I can entertain them in a far grander style. There are special shops where you can buy western goods like Marlboro cigarettes and audio tapes and Dimar led me to one, intent on me buying him just those things. I coughed up for a couple of tapes, but only bought three packets of cigarettes: they cost twice the UK price, one of the few rip-offs in town. As Natasha saw me pay for these, she rushed out. When I saw her later she was sniffing and her eyes were puffy.

I think any guide to travelling in the Soviet Union should mention this: even well-off Russians, particularly well-off Russians, find Westerners and irresistible source of goodies. There are parallels with the drug trade, where illegality provokes excessive mark ups and a ruthless few exploit a craving many. My small phials of sterling, sold at 1,500 percent above market value, will doubtless be dispersed to the countless addicts of Western currency who slink, gaunt and manic, down the decaying streets of Russia’s second city.

Kiril’s paintings are really quite funny. Nearly all the figures in them are grossly outraged, and the subject will be something like a cow’s udders, or a heap of sausages, or men coming out of hospital with birthmarks on their heads to resemble Gorbachev’s. He describes himself as a pessimistic satirist, documenting an emerging Soviet mythology. It turns out that, far from being electrified with excitement for glasnost, he and his friends see the Soviet people as living in constant fear of a clamp down. They have no real hopes that democracy is possible, or even advisable. "The USSR needs a firm hand to bring order," says Dimar, translating Kiril. "We are heading for chaos."

Before going to bed Dimar gives me an Auktsion T-shirt and tries to sell me three sardine-sized tins of caviar for £25. I refuse. This is a sad and awkward moment for both of us because though I try to explain how little I have to get home with, it doesn’t really make sense to him. I did bring a four-hour video cassette, because these are hard to get in Eastern-bloc countries, but it was probably a bit of a consolation prize beside the idea of £25, which would be like £400 back home in Britain, if cleverly exchanged.

A GARDEN, CENTRAL LENINGRAD

The streets are full of soldiers and sailors: this weekend there is some military parade in town, so everyone has turned up. There are groups of guys sauntering along with their shirts undone, others arm in arm with women half their size who could be wives or mothers - it’s hard to say. Altogether, the military seem a very casual bunch. Not at all what I’m used to. And not at all what I expect.

Pausing afterwards, I sit in a park. Nearby an old man, 70 if he is a day, sits by a tree. Earlier I had seen him working as a photographer taking tourists’ pictures in front of the hermitage museum. Now he has a table with a chess board on it. I gesture to it and we begin to play. After a very tight defensive opening, he snatches a rook advantage. I hit back with some cunning gambits and a series of checks which send him dodging for cover. But I over-extend my lines and he keeps the points advantage, and finally manages to corner me with some pawns and a knight.

Despatched, defeated, I sit on a bench nearby and watch the swanky soldiers lean against the fountains and statues. The air is clear and warm, the skyline beams with golden, blue, green and silver domes, the street is alive with men, women and children striding off to see the summer parade.

Thousands of kilometres through Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Russia are over. Barely a car-a-minute drives along the side of the garden, by the river Neva which flows off into the Baltic, to the grey North Sea, and on to England. The old man looks at me and smiles. I smile back. Looking up, I see a seagull taking wing above the Hermitage. It reminds me of Brighton and I find I like that. I close my eyes and think of home.