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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Bowie By Sea

I haven’t seen many pictures or reports of Bowie’s trans-Atlantic and Pacific crossings. It is easy to imagine him dressing for dinner and drinking and smoking into the night in the closest approximation the ship offered of a cabaret, occasionally venturing onto the deck to smoke and look at the sky. His Thin White Duke wardrobe would have been just the thing. The bright polyester Ziggy jumpsuits — well, one has to wonder what the other guests at his assigned table would have made of those.

The first time Bowie toured the US, he and Angie arrived on the Queen Elizabeth 2, departing Southampton (London) on September 10, 1972 for the weeklong voyage.

Queen Elizabeth 2
QE2

Once the Bowie entourage was assembled in New York City, Tony DeFries’ approach was that to be a star, you acted like one, and so loads of money was spent on fancy hotels and limos. But I doubt that David and Angie traveled first class on the QE2; after all, their fellow passengers for the most part would not have been in the target audience, and it is not good business to spend to impress the hostile or indifferent.

RHMS Ellinis

Once in the US, Bowie and his band traveled by road and rail from the East to West Coasts, and from the Northwest to Southeast before finally returning to NYC where Bowie boarded the RHMS [Royal Hellenic Mail Ship] Ellinis on December 10, 1972, and sailed home.

If you look closely at the full title of the song commonly called “Aladdin Sane,” you will see it has two subtitles or parenthetical comments: (1913-1938-197?) and (R.H.M.S. Ellinis) so I expect he wrote it aboard this ship.

In late January 1973, Bowie was crossing the Atlantic again, this time for the February and March US Aladdin Sane tour. Rather than returning to NYC after playing the Hollywood Palladium, Bowie sailed to Japan.

Accompanying Bowie on these two voyages was his friend and Spider from Mars Geoff MacCormack. In 2007 MacCormack’s Station to Station with Bowie was published by Genesis Publications (more on that later). Excerpts were published in The Independent:

Bowie and I boarded the SS Canberra at the end of January 1973. I’d only previously travelled on ferries crossing the English channel. The SS Canberra was something else. She towered above us like some giant wedding cake and this mode of travel made what was for me a fantasy journey even more surreal.

Cruising to New York took about a week. Nobody really took much notice of Bowie, apart from a couple of swooning gay hairdressers; they were far too old to know anything about him. The journey was long and languorous; suffice to say, after a while afternoon tea was an occasion to be looked forward to. . . .

Having completed the US, David and I had the delightful problem of getting from LA to Japan. This meant criss-crossing the North Pacific on one of P&O’s finest, the SS Oronsay. Not as grand as the SS Canberra – smaller, older and shabbier – we rechristened her the Old Rancid.

SS Canberra
SS Oronsay
April 5 to 21, 1973, Bowie toured Japan. Bowie and MacCormack then took the ferry from Yakohama to Nahodka. The trip back to Europe would be by train across Siberia.
 
On April 11, 1974, Bowie arrived in NYC on the SS France.  
SS France

When the SS France was scheduled to be scrapped, reminiscences of her glory days included this anecdote about Bowie, reported by the BBC:

Travelling as a first-class passenger, the rock star was not scheduled to play aboard the France but apparently had heard the crew were disappointed, so he turned up in the canteen with an acoustic guitar.

“We enjoyed more than 10 songs and especially Space Oddity which was the first one, and a few crew members took instruments too and played with him,” Bruno [Rabreau, Le France receptionist]  says.

“It was a really, really good time. He was a very ordinary person and very friendly to us. We really enjoyed it.”

In 1976 when Bowie left the US for the Station to Station European tour, he sailed on the SS Leonardo da Vinci. Andrew Kent photographed him aboard ship prior to his departure [see].

The next time Bowie left Europe, it would be by plane. However, in 2002 when he needed to get to Europe for the Heathen tour, he opted for the QE2. You can see a shot from Jason Fraser’s photoshoot of Bowie on deck at arrival in Southampton here.