For Soviet vacationers, getting there is not half the fun. Delays are often measured not in hours, but in days
Yelena Kuryagin's quest for a place in the summer sun for herself and her daughter took her to the bustling entrance of a metro station in central Moscow. As Muscovites flowed through the turnstiles to their noontime trains, the blond-haired Siberian woman stood patiently in line at a window to buy airplane tickets. Within an hour, the 24-year-old bookkeeper would come away with slips of blue paper that would enable her and her six-year-old daughter Natasha to jet southward to the city of Krasnodar, less than a day's drive from the shores of the Black Sea, the Soviet Riviera.
``There, I can find three things that I can't get at home: sunshine, fruit, and vegetables,'' said Mrs. Kuryagin.
For the woman from the shortage-ridden northern city of Norilsk, paying 56 rubles ($89) for a round-trip ticket to Krasnodar is only the start of her vacation preparations. Because she wields no particular clout, she said, she can't reserve a room in the popular but overtaxed resort hotels that dot the Black Sea's eastern shore.
So when Mrs. Kuryagin lands in Krasnodar, she will have to check with a local bureau that helps find vacationers space in residents' homes, or haggle with the small mob of boarding house operators who besiege arriving Moscow flights in search of clientele.
For a bed for herself and her daughter, Kuryagin expects to pay from one to two rubles a night, or the equivalent of $1.58 to $3.16, in buildings that can range from a comfortable private seaside home to quarters shared with other sun-seekers in a smelly barn or shed.
Asked where she would find food if she goes to the fabled but jam-packed ocean resort city of Sochi, where an ice cream vendor can draw a line of hundreds of people in minutes, Kuryagin said only: ``We'll see when we get there.''
The 1977 Soviet Constitution guarantees the country's 284.5 million citizens ``the right to rest and leisure,'' including an annual paid vacation. But how Soviets go about actually exercising that right, as in Kuryagin's case, may be largely their own problem.
On the positive side, this country boasts a far-flung network of more than 14,000 holiday centers, boarding houses, camping sites, sanitariums, and other vacation destinations that cater to more than 50 million Soviets a year.
On the negative side, means of transportation like railways are strained to the breaking point, and there are no travel agents to intervene on behalf of individual Soviets to smooth the road to the vacation destination and back home.
Officials say more than 195 million people in this country take a trip annually, and many of them do so during the summer months, traveling south to soak up warmth and sunshine before the return of the fierce Russian winter.
For Soviets, vacations can be cheap, even free. If Kuryagin spends two weeks in the Krasnodar area at two rubles a night, she will have spent only about 84 rubles ($133) on transportation and lodging, or about a third of the 250 rubles ($396) she earns every month.
For other Soviets, the cost of their vacation is largely paid by the trade union they belong to at work. Many factories, offices, and government agencies have their own resorts, in the belief that employees who play together work better together. Some enterprises boast vast recreational complexes, a point they make when recruiting workers.
For example, the Magnitogorsk iron and steel plant in the Urals boasts health and recreation facilities for 2,500 people, and its trade union members have the run of six vacation centers, two health centers near Magnitogorsk, and another two on the Black Sea.
In the looser atmosphere fostered by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, more people are also traveling abroad. On some Pan American flights leaving Moscow, more than half of the passengers are Soviets, flying to the United States to visit family members and friends. However, the possibility of seeing the West still remains a distant dream for many.
What's still largely lacking in the Soviet Union by Western standards is the ability to travel at whim, with the network of amenities that would make individual travel convenient, like nationwide restaurant or hotel chains with computerized reservation systems, or the simple ability to buy an airplane ticket by phone instead of standing in line.
For Soviets who want to travel alone, rather than with a group from their factory, the Communist Party Youth (Komsomol) or some kind of other organized outing, the obstacles and inconveniences can be daunting, and reminiscent of the travails faced by voyagers in czarist-era Russia.
An example: This month, on a muddy slope beside the access road to Moscow's Kursk railway station, a family from the southern Urals camped out for three days because there were no free seats on trains back home. The two young children sat on the ground atop discarded tires as their mother dozed on a towel. The woman's 32-year-old husband, a mustachioed lumberjack, talked to a reporter on a Friday, and said he had gotten tickets home, but only for that following Monday. The family faced at least two more days living inside the cavernous railway station and on the ground in front of it.
Air travel is no more reliable. Burgeoning demand, and Aeroflot's inability to ensure punctual and reliable service, has made Moscow's thronged Domodedovo Airport look like a crowded wartime evacuation point, prominent Soviet writer Chingiz Aitmatov has written. Aeroflot delays are measured not only in hours, but in days, and Mr. Aitmatov has made the very unsocialistic suggestion that a little competition from another airline would make the state-run monopoly shape up.
Finally, travel by car can be a grueling ordeal because of the bad roads and dearth of gas stations, restaurants, and roadside sleeping accommodations. A Westerner who recently proposed a car trip to Vladimir, a city less than 100 miles east of Moscow, was asked by a Soviet acquaintance: ``Why drive when the train goes there?''
Given the remaining uncertainties of travel, Soviet-style, it's little wonder that for many here, vacation means a three-week or month-long idyll at a country dacha within a few hours' drive or train trip from the city or town where they live.
For others, including children, it's just as satisfying to travel with friends or colleagues, and to let someone else do the planning.
At a few minutes after noon on a sunny day last week, pig-tailed nine-year-old Yelena Gaintz, lay on her stomach in a sleeping berth on the Moscow-to-Kerch express, looking out the window and waiting for the start of the day-long rail trip back to her Crimean Peninsula home.
Yelena, whose father works as a fitter in a Black Sea shipyard, has just spent 20 days at a camp in the birch forests near Moscow with other children from Kerch. Because her father is a manual worker, his trade union paid the 96 rubles ($152) it cost to send Yelena to camp.
White-collar families would have paid 30 percent of the bill, with the union picking up the rest.
``It was so much fun at the camp,'' said Yelena, her mouth crinkling in a smile.'' I went swimming every day in a cool river. I hope I'll be able to come back next year.''