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Flashback: Epic spring break trips with my daughter
Moscow to Beijing by train, and a week in Iran.
In a separate post — one focused my run-seeing — I talk about my trip to Brussels and Luxembourg with my daughter for what is very likely her last ever spring break as a student. She’s in her final year of law school.
We’ve done some epic father-daughter trips together, including two very memorable ones over spring breaks. One was taking a train from Moscow to Beijing in 2005 when she was just shy of her 10th birthday. The other was a week in Iran six years later when she was in High School. I’ve thought about those trips lately, not just while reflecting on spring breaks, but also because both were to places I wouldn’t travel to now on account of the state of the world.
I’m not necessarily against traveling to countries ruled by pariah governments, although I get the ethical arguments. But, regardless, both Russia and Iran are now off-limits for safe travel, if only because of the risk of being arrested on trumped-up charges and held as bargaining chips. I’m not important enough — by a long way — to be an obvious target for false arrest. And most — although not all — visitors who are falsely arrested in Iran have a connection to the country through dual citizenship. But the risk is nonetheless too high even for someone like me. And I’m not even sure how practical travel to Russia would be with sanctions right now. I assume credit cards don’t work.
It was different when I made those trips. In happier times, post-Soviet Russia was a great travel destination. We took the train initially from Moscow to Irkutsk, the main city in Siberia. It was a three-night journey on the famous Trans Siberian Express, which continues to Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific frontier. Trans Siberian purists maintain one should go all the way to Vladivostok (and the purest of the pure don’t break the train journey at all). But we had a mission to find wild horses in Mongolia. So after a night in a hotel and an excursion to Lake Baikal, we branched down from Irkutsk taking the Trans Mongolian Express across the border to Ulam Bator. And after driving a few hours, and overnighting in a yurt, we did indeed get to see wild horses. From Mongolia, we took another train to Beijing, skirting the edges of the Gobi Desert. The entire journey involved five nights on trains.
The trains were very comfortable. We had our own private sleeping compartments with seats that turned into beds at night. It was cozy to look out for hour upon hour at remote, bleak winter scenes, interspersed with villages and grim-looking Soviet-hangover cities. The catering was interesting on the Moscow to Irkutsk segment. The Russian railways had recently privatized the restaurant cars so that each individual train on the Trans Siberian route was franchised out to a family that operated it for the entire journey like a private restaurant. At the stations, the couple running it on our train would buy chickens and other ingredients from sellers on the platforms. We’d stroll around the platforms at these stops, but always with an eagle eye on the guy with the whistle lest the train might suddenly depart without us.
The trip to Iran some years later proved quite the exercise in overcoming bureaucracy. There was no reason preventing US citizens from obtaining visas to travel to Iran. But the Iranians did not make it easy. After months of waiting, I ended up taking a redeye to Washington DC specially in order to pester the Iranian Interests Section that operated under the auspices of the Swiss Embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations. I hoped that personal contact would speed things up. And it did.
At LAX, the puzzled immigration officer reviewing where we had been remarked: “Most people go to Disneyland for Spring Break.”
Our entire Iran trip fitted within our School District’s one-week spring break. We left on a Friday and were back on the Sunday just over a week later. We were not traveling with a group, but the conditions of our visa required us to have guides and drivers to mind us through all the segments. We flew into Tehran on Emirates via Dubai, and then drove that night to Kashan to the south. The following afternoon, we drove to Isfahan. After a night or two there, we flew to Shiraz, on the Gulf, which was a launching pad for a visit to the ancient site of Persepolis. Then by air back to Tehran for a night and a day. And finally back to Dubai for 24 hours of R&R. At LAX, the puzzled immigration officer reviewing where we had been remarked: “Most people go to Disneyland for Spring Break.”
I recall being quite impressed by the internal flights in Iran. They were on Fokker regional jets. The crews seemed professional. They made safety and other announcements in English as well as Farsi. The flight attendants served decent sandwiches even on what were quite short flights.
We felt very welcome by people we met in Iran. My daughter met a friend of her age she still keeps in touch with even now. There was — and I imagine still is — a great amount of pent-up, pro-American feeling among middle-class Iranians. I do, admittedly, recall one woman saying “Death to America” to us, but it wasn’t clear she was being serious.
The history of US-Iranian relations is, of course, complex. Who knows what might have happened if, the one time the Iranians did have a democratically elected, moderate, secular government — which it did in the early 1950s — the British and American intelligence services, at the behest of Churchill and Eisenhower, had not arranged its overthrow so as to install a compliant monarchy in its place?
Some day it will be possible to do those journeys again. I count them among the greatest travel experiences of my life. It is depressing that all these years later, neither is safe or even feasible. ✈️
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