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Travel

David Bowie's adventure on the Trans-Siberian Express

@SamWKemp

Dick Cavett once asked David Bowie how he came up with his ideas. “Do you sit at a sketch pad; do you work from your own dreams?” he said. Expecting Bowie to live up to his star-child status and confess that everything he’d ever written had been plucked from his unconscious, Cavett was surprised to hear Bowie’s reply: “Travel,” the singer said without hesitating. “I’m in a very lucky position of not wanting to fly, so I take a ship or a train or something”.

David Bowie, it should be noted, was not a fan of air travel. As a young man, he’d had a premonition that if he travelled by plane, he would end up falling to earth in a great ball of fire. This posed a problem for a touring musician, but somehow, Bowie managed to make it work, using the slow pace of terrestrial and marine travel as an opportunity to read, think, and develop songs. In April 1973, Bowie’s phobia, coupled with a desire to see Russia, prompted him to embark on his longest trip to date. After concluding the Japanese leg of his Ziggy Stardust tour, he decided to return to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Express, the last great train journey in the world.

The Trans Siberian railway is bafflingly huge. Stretching from Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan to the western capital of Moscow, it stitches a line across huge swathes of wilderness, spreading its tendrils into Mongolia, the Gobi desert and China. At 5,350 miles from start to finish, it is the longest railway in the world, and even on the Trans-Siberian Express, it still takes nearly a week from end to end. Bowie started his trip by ship. With his friend Geoff MacCormack in tow, he boarded the SS Felix Dzerzhinsky from Yokohama to Nakhodka, where he is said to have performed an impromptu maritime set with MacCormack on congas.

After boarding the Express In Nakhoda, Bowie settled in for six days of blissful travel. The linear nature of life on the Express clearly enhanced Bowie’s descriptive powers. Indeed, writing in Mirabelle shortly after the trip, his words carry a deeply meditative tone: “I could never have imagined such expanses of unspoilt, natural country without actually seeing it myself, it was like a glimpse into another age, another world, and it made a very strong impression on me,” Bowie said. “It was strange to be sitting in a train, which is the product of technology — the invention of mankind, and travelling through land so untouched and unspoilt by man and his inventions.” Perhaps Bowie was right to take the slower route back from Japan. By its very nature, Flight fractures our psychology – leaving a great gap where the process of travel should have been. In contrast, the railway exists as part of the landscape, gliding through the world with the rapidity of film stock spinning around a projector wheel.

Writing in 1973, journalist Robert Muesel recalls meeting Bowie on the Trans Siberian Express: “Then a passenger made an entrance that stopped onlookers in their tracks as he was destined to do at most of the 91 stops to Moscow,” Muesel said. “He was tall, slender, young, hawkishly handsome with bright red (dyed) hair and dead white skin. He wore platform-soled boots and a shirt glittering with metallic thread under his blue raincoat. He carried a guitar but two Canadian girls did not need this identifying symbol of the pop artist. ‘David Bowie’ they screeched ecstatically, ‘on our train’. Bowie turned their spines to jelly with a smile.”

As the Express trundled on, Bowie watched as landscapes seeped into one another. Frozen rivers speckled with shivering fisherman gave way to vast plains, which in turn gave way to small towns encased in permafrost despite the arrival of spring. At one of these towns, Yerofay Pavlevitch, the snow was so thick that the crew decided to get off the train and have a snowball fight. “A group of soldiers gathered to watch,” Muesel recalled. “Another small group marching by collided with them. They were looking the wrong way, at a vision descending from the train. It was Bowie wearing a yellow oilskin windbreaker with a fun-fur yellow collar and a large floppy Dutch-style cap. He paid no attention to the stares.”

Eventually, Bowie arrived in Moscow. He spent three days in the city, attending the May Day parade, visiting the Kremlin, and generally shocking the locals with his fiery red hair. He then jumped back on the train and headed to Warsaw and East Berlin, where he was nearly sent back to Moscow after being thrown off the train. I can’t help thinking that Bowie would have quite liked the opportunity to start the journey all over again.

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