SOVIET ADVENTURING; THE PARTY TAKES TO THE SLOPES
Olga turned on her family television set in Moscow one Friday night last summer to hear the announcer say, as usual, "Here are the hikes for this weekend." In the Soviet Union, adventure -- like most other aspects of life -- is organized by the authorities. Hiking is no exception.
Next morning Olga and her husband, Ivan, and their 10-year-old son, Boris, arrived at the designated Moscow bus station for the hike they had chosen -- a strip to the prerevolutionary mansion at Archangelskoye, set in spacious grounds just outside the city. They wore old clothes and walking shoes and carried a basket filled with lunch: tea in a vacuum flask, sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers, sausage, and cheese.
Slowly about 20 other Muscovites joined them, having chosen the same hike from the same broadcast. Some were single mothers with their children, others were young families, still others were grandparents.
A bus took them to within 10 kilometers of the mansion. The group then set off on foot across fields and through birch and pine forests. The leader was a middle-aged man who carried a stout stick and a rucksack. He is one of a large staff of hiking organizers at the 31 branches of the Cental Bureau of Excursions in Moscow.
The pace was slow but steady. After two hours, the group spread cloths on the ground and sat down to lunch, everyone sharing. In midafternoon, they hiked two hours back to the bus and were back in the city by dark.
That hardly sounds the height of adventure to rugged hikers of the West. But it is the way large numbers of regimented, city-dwelling Soviet citizens get out into the open air and into the natural environment.
As little as 40 years ago, two-thirds of the Soviet Union (which encompasses one-sixth of the world's land area) was still rural -- vast reaches of land well-populated in the west, thinly settled in the east, hot in the south, arctic in the north and east. But, in a dramatic change, the situation has reversed and the population now is two-thirds urban.
Millions of peasants have flocked into the cities to search for a better life and more opportunity. Too often they are jammed into dispiriting apartment blocks with little contact with nature. Many are glad to take advantage of organized hikes for at least a weekened whiff of the outdoors.
More daring adventures can take tougher hikes, camp out overnight, climb mountains, and cross-country ski. In the fall, a popular national pastime is to take special "health trains" from city stations on Friday nights. Large groups get off at dawn miles out in the country and fan out through the forests, eyes down, backs bent, buckets and bottles in hand, looking for mushrooms. Groups tramp many hours searching for prize specimens about which they have been taught since kindergarten days.
A popular way to ski or climb or hike is for a factory or an office to organize outings ranging from a single day to a week or more, renting or buying basic equipment. With their love of badges and titles, people can qualify for "special tourist" awards, ranging from a simple lapel badge (a "znatchok") to the august title of "master of tourist sports," depending on kilometers covered and hardships endured.
A 48-year-old Moscow civil engineer recently told a questioner conducting a survey on hikers for a Soviet research institute: "I have been going on weekened hikes for 10 years. A thousand people say 'hello' to me, 500 shake hands with me, and 100 have become my friends."
That same survey estimated that about 4 million Soviet people took part in organized hikes. At the same time, the central council for tourism, part of the Central Council of Trade Unions, reports that it has registered 8,000 tourist routes and says they are covered each year by about 30 million hikers. Presumably those 30 million include organized and "unorganized" kinds.
The comments of a section head at the institute, Maya Babenko, to one Soviet publication indicated the Soviet preference for organizing groups rather than letting people simply wander off by themselves as Americans tend to do.
"Unorganized" walking might be all right for weekends, she said, "but what if it is a motor rally in the desert? Or traveling by raft down a mountain stream? Or what if you are planning to visit an underground cave where no one has ever been before? This is where the travel club comes in handy."
The 31 branches in Moscow give six-month courses in various types of hiking and organize hikes complete with first-aid stations and local publicity. The idea that people might be able to organize such expeditions on their own does not seem to carry much weight with Miss Babenko, and therein lies a basic difference between Soviet and American adventuring.
Americans like to take off and go (though many do join clubs); the average Soviet citizen has less money to spend and a simpler life style, and is able to buy fewer camping, skiing, or other items. So he relies far more on his factory , office, trade union, or excursion bureau. In a land of the collective, large groups have better access to both land and equipment.
Every fifth hiker in the Soviet Union is between 31 and 35 years old, according to Miss Babenko. Hikers keep going of an average of 13 years. (The survey results did not indicate how many people were questioned.) Two-thirds of hikers have higher education, half own their own cars or country dachas, which puts most of them way above the general standard of living.
Divorce rates among hikers are low, and -- significantly in a conservative society where male chauvinism runs rampant -- 74 percent of male hikers say they help their wives with all or most household chores. Other surveys put the nationwide average of helpful husbands at less than 10 percent.
Hikers remain a minority of the population; skiers and mountain climbers are even fewer. People are less mobile than in the United States. (The number of private cars on the road today is about equal to the number in the US in 1920.) Young people tend to ignore internal travel restrictions: It can be done, but the average citizen would think carefully before trying it.
Being found outside your city without proper permission could lead to trouble at work, loss of the priceless right to buy a car, loss of promotion.
Soviet officials told me that downhill skiing had begun to grow only in the last 10 to 15 years. The average skier confines himself to the Caucasus Mountains in the south (about the same latitude as northern Spain and southern Italy), or small Baltic ranges or the Urals themselves.
Only the most skilled are permitted to tackle the towering peaks of the Tien Shan and Pamir, ranges down south on the borders with China and Afghanistan. A mere 20 skiing centers operate for tourists in this gigantic coun ry.Valley, 7, 000 ft. Above sea level, about as far south as Barcelona and Naples; Russians say there's plenty of powder as late as March and a subtropical sun as well.
It proved difficult, and finally impossible, to extract from the Intourist travel agency an accurate number of Americans who have come to ski here or to climb mountains.
Several US sportswriters joined a group of 128 international correspondents several year ago for a week's skiing at Bakuriane in the Georgian Republic. They competed in specially arranged events and reported it a novel experience to be skiing in an area noted by outsiders more for its heat and fruit and vegetables than for its ski lifts and trails.
Other Americans have come, usually in groups, though a senior Intourist official, Alexander Simchenko, told me that most Americans and West Europeans still preferred Switzerland and other outside resorts.
"We have to generate more publicity about Soviet resorts," he said. "As it is, first priority is given to our own Soviet people. Intourist arranges sports and adventure tours for foreigners, but in general, Americans prefer to see 10 cities in five days -- and most of the American tourists we get are elderly."
There was an edge to his voice and to our talk: The 1980 Moscow Olympics did not open up new areas to foreigners to the degree that officials had hoped. With the US, West Germany, and Japan boycotting the games, tourists from those countries dropped away. When I tentatively suggested that articles such as this one might encourage Western tourists to ski and to climb Soviet mountains, Mr. Simchenko did not seem impressed. This, he indicated, was a difficult time for detente. It was all, he felt, America's fault. "But we will survive," he said."We have experienced it before."
Among Intourist offerings to foreigners: mountain skiing at Bakuriane, and skiing and mountaineering in the area of Mt. Elbrus (two peaks, each more than 18,000 ft. high, with a wide valley in between) and in the Dombay region in the Caucasus.
A Soviet tourist can stay for two weeks at Mt. Elbrus, skiing or climbing by day and taking mineral baths at night in one of the local spas, for a mere $100 (including three meals day). Foreigners pay a lot more: How much more depends on what you want to do. Skiing in the Caucasus runs from January to March.
Mountaineering continues from June to August. Minimum stay is five days and four nights. Included are three meals a day, ski lifts, ski and climbing instructors, transfers, and porter service for two pieces of luggage per person.
Intourist also offers hunting and fishing tours, but not, as far as I could learn, white-water kayaking or running rivers on rafts. Kayaks and rafts seem virtually unknown in most areas as sporting activities.
Soviet officials say they have marked out 2,000 routes to the tops of mountains, classified into six categories of difficulty. By 1974, the country had 1,419 tourist clubs and 4.1 million people trained in "sports tourism" courses. Finnish tourists were the first to travel from Tbilisi (the capital of Soviet Georgia) to Kazbegi in the Caucasus, visiting Truso Gorge and climbing a glacier on the way.
In 1974, the Soviet Alpinist Federation set up an international camp in the Pamirs at the foot of Mt. Lenin, which is 23,542 ft. high (7,134 meters). Soviet officials say that 170 climbes from the US, Western Europe, and Japan came to the camp, the Achik-Tash central camp, in 1974.
In 1978, two West German climbers are said to have climbed three peaks in the Pamirs within a period of two weeks.
Skilled climbers are said to be able to ascend Mt. Elbrus in two or three days, starting from another international camp near the settlement of Terskol. Also recommended: the more than 20 routes laid out to the twin summits of Mt. Ushba (15,490 ft. and 15,543 ft.). It takes two days' climbing to reach the Ushba plateau from the Shkelda alpinist camp, and another day to reach the northern summit and return to the camp. Officials stress the dangers of bad weather.
Officials also stress that anyone attempting the Pamirs must be fully fit and highly trained. Finally, I was told that 678 foreigners had climbed the three highest Pamir peaks -- Mt. Communism (24,733 ft., highest in the Soviet Union), Mt. Korzhenevskaya (23,446 ft.), and Mt. Lenin -- out of a total 4,226 ascents recorded by the end of 1978.
The toughest climb is Mt. Lenin -- three to six days' ascent from the Achik-Tash camp, which climbers reach by buses and helicopters. Climbers can choose mountains such as Mt. Communism, teams have to get to a camp on the Fortambek glacier. The most favored route goes through the Burevestnik Ridge and Neve plateau to the mountain's shoulder at 22,770 ft. The total climb to the top takes from four to seven days, depending on weather and other conditions.
Officials solemnly emphasize that one-man ascents are prohibited. All climbers must be medically checked before setting out. And all groups must fill out a card giving names, routes of ascent and descent, and the expected time of return. If they do not return that day, search parties are sent out.
The figures generally show that Soviet adventure travel is well behind other countries. With no private enterprise to open up new resorts, the state plods ahead, but many other priorities compete for state funds.