Picks and Pans Main: Travel

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Let's get right to the three nitty-gritty necessities of travel within the Soviet Union: (1) a roll of toilet paper, (2) a couple of apples and (3) a bathtub plug—the big, wide kind that will cover any drain. Though the U.S.S.R.'s ability to produce huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons has made it a superpower, the country remains a Third World nation when it comes to tourist amenities. Bathroom stalls may supply sheets of newspaper or something closer to wax paper than what you really need. Oranges and other fruit are about as common as copies of Gulag Archipelago, and while hot water is often plentiful, bathtub plugs, maddeningly, aren't.

There's more bad news. The vacationer who cherishes the typical rewards of travel—firsthand knowledge of a people and its culture or lying in the sand and sipping piña coladas—had better skip the Soviet Union. The rigors of even first-class travel in the U.S.S.R. work against relaxation, and you'll have to work hard to have more than brief unsupervised conversations with the people. (In fact, laws discourage Soviets from having contacts with foreigners.) Try restaurants, accompanied by a Russian speaker. And make sure you take a Russian phrase book—Soviets respond with affection to a traveler who tries to speak their language.

Despite all these warnings, a trip to the Soviet Union may be the most fascinating adventure of your life, a rare look at a people often portrayed as our adversaries whose culture both resembles and differs wildly from the West's. In the freer atmosphere under Gorbachev, the U.S.S.R. may even show more openness to foreigners.

Travel there demands planning well in advance. Your tour package will provide all the basics: food, lodging, transportation and a guide primed with endless lectures. As well as the toilet paper and bathtub plug, you'll want to bring anything you can't do without, from tampons to peanut butter. Chances are you won't find them anywhere in the Soviet Union. Any shopping you do will most likely be at the state-run "Beriozka" shops, which stock everything from souvenirs to furs and vodka and cater to foreigners with hard currency or credit cards. Soviets are forbidden to have either one. Western goods—and nearly anything bearing English words—are widely prized. For that reason, small items like American shopping bags, lipsticks, lighters, T-shirts and gum will make fine gifts, even though Soviet equivalents are sometimes available. You'll find that packs of American cigarettes will be more valuable than rubles as tips for taxi drivers and waiters.

Although cross-country trips on the Trans-Siberian Railway and even camping are options for travelers, most first-time visitors pick a guided tour, which requires less complicated paperwork. Travel can be booked through one of about 50 Intourist-appointed agencies across the country. A 10-day group tour from New York to Moscow and Leningrad costs $1,600, including airfare and meals. A 22-day group tour including Moscow, Leningrad, Siberia and points in Soviet Central Asia runs about $3,000 per person. The state airline, Aeroflot, is generally efficient but lacking in creature comforts. Train travel, however, is an Old World pleasure replete with glasses of hot tea served up by your conductress, though the sleeping berths can be ovens. Most hotel rooms feature hard beds and Spartan furnishings, but laundry service is not bad. Don't drink the water in Leningrad, and before your trip there, buy your mineral water in Moscow—the Leningrad brand contains so much iron it leaves a rust ring around the inside of the bottle. Some Intourist hotels offer excellent smorgasbord breakfasts. Load up. The next place may offer coleslaw.

Tourists often find themselves caught up in a bruising round of excursions to Olympic stadiums and tsarist restorations, with little time for exploring on their own. Intourist—which shepherds all tourists—wants to show off the glorious achievements of socialism while shielding foreigners from everyday life, with its shortages, shoddy goods and sometimes disgruntled citizens. But don't be afraid to leave the group for some unplanned sightseeing on your own, such as a peek at what the Soviet shopper faces each day, a browse through a bookstore or a ride on the excellent subways. Beware the smoothly dressed, English-speaking young men who frequently accost foreigners on the street with offers to "do business," i.e. trade rubles for your dollars at the lucrative black market rate. Currency speculation is a serious crime and not worth the risk.

If you have time, a trip outside of Russia proper to one of the other 14 Soviet republics will give you some idea of the many different nationalities that make up the largest country in the world. Scholars have made careers studying and theorizing about this varied, complex and perplexing land, so you're not likely to embrace the national soul in a single visit. But at least the next time you read about the Soviet Union in the headlines, or hear a politician invoke the Russians' name, you'll know you went to see for yourself.

From Our Partners