Around the World with Bowie: On the Trans-Siberian Railway

Route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Circled is Nahodka, where Bowie arrived from Japan. Underlined is Yekaterinburg (known as Sverdlovsk between 1924 and 1991), where Bowie and photographer Leee Childers were nearly taken into custody.

Between February and May 1973, David Bowie traveled around the world. This wasn’t a world tour, however. It seems more of an accidental or circumstantial event than the deliberate choice round-the-world trips usually are. The situation was this: since Bowie wouldn’t fly, he had crossed the Atlantic by ship, toured America by bus and train, crossed the Pacific by ship, and toured Japan. To get home to England he had two choices: repeat the ocean crossings and the transcontinental train trip across America, or to head eastwards across Siberia to Moscow, and then to Paris, and then home, effectively traveling around the world.

He chose the second option, and boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway for the 6,650 mile journey. If you want to learn more about the journey, visit Moscow-Vladivostok: A virtual journey on Google Maps.

A spur connects Vladivostok to Nadhoka, where the boat from Japan brought Bowie and traveling companion Geoff MacCormack. Photographer Leee Childers joined the party in Irkutsk. Journalist Robert Musel was also on board.

In 1994, Bowie and collaborator Beezy Bailey painted Nahodka Westward by Train, which was auctioned to benefit Art for Africa in 2009.

 

 

The Ziggy Stardust Companion website offers several articles about Bowie’s trip. “Rail Journey Through Siberia” is Robert Musel’s first-hand account. “David Divines Doom in Moscow” by Steve Gaines appeared in Circus Magazine (October 1973).  Roy Hollingsworth interviewed Bowie on the last stretch of his journey, from Paris to Dover, England, for Melody Maker (May 12 1973).

You can read a snippet of Geoff MacCormack’s account from Station to Station: Travels with Bowie, 1973-1976 here. He notes that the first train they boarded was “wood-panelled and gold-plated,” but that was just the boat train and took them only as far as Khabarovsk. The train that was to be their home for the next week was “all aluminium and Formica” and although they traveled first class, washing facilities and sometimes even food were in short supply.

One incident has been often reported. Gaines wrote that

“David gratefully eased himself off the train for the first time in the dingy town of Sverslovsk. Photographer Childers playfully posed him against the grim surroundings. Suddenly, two uniformed guards appeared from the shadows and viciously began dragging the shaking photographer away. Our lad insane grabbed his own camera and started to film the entire event!”

 Their rescuers were

“two railroad attendants who had taken a liking to the Bowie entourage. The women attendants literally carried Bowie and Childers back to the safety of the train while battling off the furious uniformed men. Heroically, the two husky girls blocked the door to the train until it picked up speed and moved out of the station.”

By all accounts Bowie found what he saw out his window deeply disturbing. He

“was terrified most by the poverty of the Siberian shanty towns. The Russian peasants lived in tiny shacks built of rotted wood and held together with frayed rope. “I don’t understand how they live through the winter,” David exclaimed.”

The entourage arrived on May Day in Moscow and visited Red Square, “a frightening display of Russian artillery prowess that lasted twelve hours.”

From Moscow, Bowie took another train to Paris, but missed the train that would have taken him to Victoria Station (“‘Seven thousand miles,” says David smiling and very, very fresh, ‘and we miss the bleedin’ train on the last leg. From Japan to Paris and we miss the train.'”) Instead, he takes one that involves a hovercraft trip to Dover — but only reluctantly, for even a hovercraft seems too much like flight to him.

On the trip home, he tells  Roy Hollingsworth  of Melody Maker that

“‘after what I’ve seen of the state of this world, I’ve never been so damned scared in my life.’ ‘Are you going to write about it?’ ‘If I did it would be my last album ever.’ ‘You mean what?’ ‘It would have to be my last album ever.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I don’t think I’d be around after recording it.'”

Finally, though, Bowie says: “You know, after America, Moscow, Siberia, Japan. I just want to bloody well go home to Beckenham, and watch the telly.”

To read the descriptions of Siberia in these articles, it sounds as if not that much had changed since these pictures were made (all from the Library of Congress).

Goldi village along the Amur River, north of Khabarovsk, 1895
Street in Irkutsk, 1885

Adapted from “Trans-Siberian Railway metal truss bridge on stone piers, over the Kama River near Perm, Ural Mountains Region” by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, 1910. [digital color rendering from digital files from glass neg.]

 

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