Reporter’s Notebook : To Travelers, America Looks Beautiful From Soviet Union

Times Staff Writer

Nothing in books or movies had prepared me for the reality of traveling in the far reaches of the Soviet Union.

Having just completed a three-week tour of that country with Tony Aliengena, the 11-year-old San Juan Capistrano boy attempting to pilot an airplane around the world, I returned to the United States with memories of a culture that few Americans will ever know and a fresh appreciation for things we take for granted.

Like toilet paper, which is in short supply in many Soviet restrooms.

In abundance, however, were beautiful forests of white birch and pine, stretching from Moscow all the way to the Pacific Ocean, at least along the Siberian route we flew. The rivers and streams were wide and clear and seemingly unpolluted.


In the cities, we were intrigued by the public saunas where you can receive a relaxing peppermint-leaf massage, then plunge into warm pools replenished by waterfalls that churn the surface like a giant Jacuzzi.

Then there was the food.

I found Soviet beverages to be an adventure in taste. Most drinks I tried had so much sugar they were difficult to finish. Although Pepsi is sold in Moscow and Leningrad, it is not available elsewhere in the country, so I found myself mostly drinking the local water, which in many Siberian cities was cold and clear from the tap.

The alcohol, on the other hand, was quite good. Russian vodka and cognac, poured after some meals, helped us forget how far we were from home.


Our hosts served exquisite caviar and champagne in each city we entered. And I was delighted by the rich chocolate candy and vanilla ice cream.

But I wasn’t the only one in our party to balk when presented with an evening meal of reindeer tongue served in gelatin.

At a dinner in the Soviet port city of Anadyr, all of the dishes of reindeer tongue sat virtually untouched with our Soviet hosts looking on in consternation.

“Do you know that reindeer tongue is a great delicacy here?” our interpreter leaned over and whispered. I took one bite for the sake of diplomacy and quickly decided that it must be an acquired taste.


In rural areas, as might be expected, cleanliness was sometimes a problem.

One morning at breakfast in Magadan, few of us touched our plates of cold link sausage because they

‘Do you know that reindeer tongue is a great delicacy here?’ our interpreter leaned over and whispered.

were served from a pan where flies had been swarming.


Occasionally we were surprised to receive a more American fare. In the fishing village of Okhotsk, for example, our hosts presented a delicious dinner of fresh salmon steak and mashed potatoes.

Still, by the end or the trip we were all so homesick for American food that we were fantasizing aloud about our favorite dishes.

“I want deep-dish pizza, a big slice right now!” said Susan Eisner, a member of a Los Angeles film crew accompanying Tony.

“And I want a big double cheeseburger with chili and fries,” added Shawn Hardin, a fellow film crew member.


Communication was never easy.

Attempting to place a telephone call outside the country seemed an impossibility in many cities. In attempting to report on Tony’s travels, for example, I was able to get through to the United States only about half the times I tried.

And when I did get through, the connection was usually so bad that I had to shout to be heard. In Anadyr last week I shouted my way through more than half a story when the line suddenly went dead. Since it takes as long as eight hours to get a Soviet operator to place an international call, I slammed down the phone in frustration.

Aleksie Grinevich, a Moscow journalist who traveled with us, had warned me about telephone difficulties. Even he was unable to call Moscow from some of the more remote outposts, such as Okhotsk.


Overcoming the language, naturally, was a bigger problem. I often had to use hand gestures to convey the simplest information. In Moscow one night I resorted to sketching a picture of some puppets to let a cabdriver know I needed to go to the Moscow puppet theater near the Times’ Moscow bureau.

The language difficulty would have been insurmountable had Grinevich not helped coordinate everything from hotel reservations to dinner and entertainment.

There were other rigors of travel. Laundry rooms were in such short supply that we had to wash clothes with coarse bath soap and then hang them out to dry.

And throughout the country, mosquitoes were a pest in our hotel rooms, which rarely had window screens.


The warmth and friendliness of the Soviet people made up for most of our travel woes. Large crowds greeted us at every stop.

But we were all so ecstatic at returning to the United States that on the last day of our stay in the Soviet Union we could barely contain ourselves.

Our impatience was fueled by a visiting Alaskan we met in Anadyr who gave us directions to the best cheeseburger joint in Nome.