Bowie, overland to Moscow and Finland

This piece is posted in the hope someone might read it and help me make it better. I am sure there are missing elements and inaccuracies…if you can help, leave a comment or drop me a line…TH

Wir laufen ein in Düsseldorf City
Und treffen Iggy Pop und David Bowie
Trans-Europa Express
Kraftwerk, Trans Europa Express

A fragment of a great life. David Bowie, in between concerts in 1976, travelled from Zurich in Switzerland to Moscow by train, then on to Leningrad and Helsinki. He was with Iggy Pop and other associates of his. Photographs survive, showing Bowie in his pomp, seemingly relishing this Soviet journey that would have seemed impossibly exotic, deep in the Cold War. The video to Kraftwerk’s minimalist tribute to the smooth international rail services of the time, Trans Europe Express, homages and unites Bowie, European rail travel and the retro-futuristic rhythms of electric trains clicking over continental railway lines.

On reading Carol Devine writing briefly about this journey on Calvert Journal, inspired by a comment on the YouTube video for Trans Europe Express, then reading some more on Alan Paul’s site, where there are also some fantastic photographs by Andrew Kent, I became curious as to the logistics of it. Here’s one of the world’s most famous men, albeit one whose reluctance to fly had led him to take the Trans Siberian Railway home from Japan to London in 1973, finding a few days spare in his diary and taking a few mates on a mad railway jaunt into and through the Soviet Union. This wasn’t really the done thing. So how did he do it?

In fact, it was possible to travel to – or more easily through –  the Soviet Union. Both entry visas and transit visas were free, and it seems that Bowie was aware he could get visas for a through journey to Helsinki which involved stopping in the two great metropolises of Russia. So while he’s not around to ask, Bowie could in theory (I think) have bought a ticket to Moscow in Zurich, and travelled north and east from there. The details of the journey suggests that he did just that. The connection entailed hints at a deeper piece of planning, a cunning adventure squeezed in, or possibly a concert itinerary designed on purpose to allow for such a jaunt.

Trying further to tie together Trans Europe Express and this journey, I picked up an old copy of Thomas Cook’s Continental Timetable. I couldn’t find one from 1976, but did get one from 1974. It’s little different in format from the European Timetable published today in many ways, so it is also safe to assume that the information didn’t change that much in two years.

As well as the striking abundance of car-carrying trains across Western Europe – now largely extinct – the other big change since then is the growth of high-speed services since the 1970s replacing the flagship trains of European rail, the Trans Europ Express (TEE) services. These first class only trains at one point comprised 45 services, connecting 130 cities.

Of course, crusty inter-railers would have had to pay a supplement (forever to be said in a French accent with memories of summer de-training incidents: ‘il est necessaire de payer un sooplemon’ ‘je n’avez pas le monnaie.’ ‘au revoir, stinkies!’ (thud onto platform, bags following). Gradually in the 80s and 90s the TEE network contracted, as more trains carrying second class carriages were added, before being disbanded in 1995. In 1976 however it was the way to travel. Did Bowie, Iggy and co hop on the TEE service from Zurich to Vienna? From there, they would certainly have aimed for Warsaw, and picked up the Ost-West Express on to Brest, Belarus – then of course part of the Soviet Union – and then into Moscow.

Alan Paul’s entry on this trip details the briefest of stopovers in Moscow before continuing on to Helsinki, where Bowie arrived a day later than expected. The picture that emerges of Bowie the traveller is of someone who squeezed in adventure where he could, and therefore had to plan quite specifically. Whatever and however, it seems unlikely this trip was made in error.




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