Travelers who enjoy touring by automobile may now consider the Soviet Union a likely prospect. Though the roads and amenities don't measure up to Western standards, a Soviet motor tour can be a rewarding experience. Last spring a travel companion and I drove across the Soviet Union and can recommend this journey to those interested in a more intimate view of Soviet life than is available to the usual tour groups. The Intourist (the USSR government travel agency) invitation was persuasive: ``When on an airplane, you can't stretch out your hand to pluck a field flower, nor can you stop a train to have a chat with somebody you happen to meet on the road. But when traveling in a car you are your own master.''
In the first of what was to be a series of contradictions of expectations, a pleasant, businesslike customs guard did a quick luggage inspection and flipped through the pages of some magazines on top of the book bag. He asked if we were bringing in any gold or books written in Russian, and sent us on our way to Leningrad.
The route approved by Intourist enabled us to traverse European USSR from Finland in the north to Romania 1,300 miles south. No digression from the route would be tolerated, and we were limited to 300 miles per day and only daytime driving. The precautions were academic, since we found that socialist highways and driving conditions imposed their own limitations. The asphalt road was bumpy, and a thick smoke screen (caused by 73 octane gas used by most vehicles) enveloped many trucks and the cars that fo llowed. Alongside the road, cars, trucks, and motorcycles were being repaired. On the road were sleek Finnish tour buses and convoys of Soviet military vehicles from nearby Vsborg.
Traffic within cities and on the highways is monitored by state police stationed in telephone and radio-controlled posts spaced 10-20 miles apart. On three occasions we were directed to stop and asked for passports and papers. The officers were young, their conduct well-mannered, and their curiosity aroused by an automobile they had never seen. They wanted to know its name, horsepower, and cost.
The prospective motorist in the Soviet Union had better learn the Cyrillic alphabet and some rudiments of Russian, if only to read the signposts. It is also advisable to stock up on car parts such as filters, spark plugs, fan belts, and, of course, windshield wipers.
Twenty miles out of Leningrad the highway smoothes out and widens to four, then six lanes to accommodate the increased traffic. The visitor must learn not to drive in a left-hand lane, which is kept clear for curtain-drawn Volgas transporting aparatchiks (party officials) between offices and country dachas.
As we approached the city, a young man ran out of the roadside bushes and onto the road waving a fistful of rubles at our car. We did not stop. While no one is eager to pay the Soviet bank exchange rate, which is four times higher than the ruble exchange in eastern Europe, few tourists are willing to risk police encounters.
The first chance to ``chat with somebody you happen to meet'' occurred in the English language section of the Leningrad Dom Knigi (bookstore). Tanya, a divorced engineer of around 30, introduced herself after hearing us speak English. She agreed to meet us for lunch the next day. The locale of our lunch was a problem. In Leningrad and Moscow, Intourist hotels are out of bounds to Soviet citizens. A posted notice on the front door advises hotel guests that they are not permitted to have guests without si gned authorization from the hotel manager. Tanya acknowledged, ``It's possible to get authorization, but the incident would be entered in my file. If, in the future, I am up for a promotion or a foreign trip, it just might lead to questions.''
We had our friendly chat at an overpriced ``literary caf'e'' designed for foreigners and their hard currency.
Incongruity and paradox continued as we slipped away early in the morning from Leningrad. The high-rises abruptly gave way to ancient, well-kept villages. In the warm spring sunshine we passed villages with ornately carved and brightly painted houses. Cows and sheep were tethered to graze in the grassy ditches in front of the houses, and geese with their newly hatched goslings halted us as they crossed the road to go to a nearby pond. No paved roads extended from the two-lane highway to the farmland in the near distance. Frequently we saw women carrying water from wells by shoulder pails. The houses may have no plumbing, but each one sported a television aerial.
Moscow meant the 2,000-room Hotel Kosmos, 50 tour buses at the door, and cadres of Intourist guides shuffling their charges through Red Square, the subways, the Bolshoi, and the Kremlin's museums. It is unlikely that the KGB bugs all hotel rooms or that Intourist monitors every move, but the general belief that this is so contributes to a sense of suspicion. In Moscow the individual tourist faces his greatest test. The solitary traveler unnerves the Intourist authorities. They have sagely recognized the
Western motorist as a potential customer, but haven't gotten the word through the ranks that the solitary traveler is not a national threat.
In small and large cities, if we stopped to consult a street map, we found ourselves with a guide to our destination. No one seemed impatient with our faltering Russian, only pleased at the opportunity for an exchange of pleasantries with visiting US ``imperialists.''
The last leg of our trip to the border town of Leusheny carried us through the lush Moldavian countryside.
Arriving at Customs Control before 9 a.m., we anticipated a swift getaway, but to our dismay the difficulties anticipated at the entrance to the Soviet Union paradoxically befell us at the exit. Our parting scene, in which Soviet customs painstakingly scrutinized printed material being taken out of the country -- and much of it published by them -- defied logic.
But that was characteristic of most of the official aspects of the journey, not the least of which was the farewell signpost in Cyrillic, deciphered as we passed the border to Romania, offering the Russian equivalent of ``Have a nice day.''