Memories About Travelling During the Soviet Times

Mare Ainsaar and Leho Ainsaar describe their trip to Talysh in April 1987 and how many marriages it led to. 

For the students of some faculties of the University of Tartu – the national university of its time – hiking was a part of the mandatory social life. The people from the Faculty of Natural Sciences were definitely the most active. Trips were taken both in an organized manner, where everybody signed up, and unofficially as well, on one’s own initiative. Often enough, medical students ended up as companions for the natural science students – especially when going to the desert, as a doctor with “antikürsa” was needed – as well as students from the Faculty of Economics. The latter were mostly valued because of their availability, as they lived in the same dorm as the students of natural sciences. But sometimes the groups were of unexpected and surprising composition.

In a slightly unexpected (then again, still logical) turn of events, the hiking tended to end up in places with beautiful nature. Unfortunately, such places usually happened to be located in the border areas of the vast Soviet Union territory, which meant possible contact with the army and all kinds of controlling instances and authority figures. The experiences weren’t always negative, but each time the hikers had to find some official reason for being there, as well as bring the all-powerful documents with them that would justify their presence in such a suspicious place.


From Tartu to the nature park of Talysh (Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan). Photo from the book Otsides Spunki.

The story presented here concerns two days in April of 1987, when four students from the National University of Tartu in the Socialist Republic of Estonia had formed an official expedition for the Eesti Loodus (Estonian Nature) magazine to scientifically explore the nature park of Talysh, located in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. The nature park was suitably located on the border of Iran and the Soviet Union, and also, “fully accidentally”, it was a great fit for hiking. The place was exceptional in the context of the Soviet Union, as it was the only spot in the territory that had a subtropical climate.

One might better understand the excitement and tension of these two days when considering the fact that in spite of the imaginative origins and liberal structure of the expeditions, all these days had a specific preset schedule that everybody had to follow so the area could be left in time and all could return back to our secure, cozy Estonia, with tickets pre-purchased. Thus, any vagaries or delays could lead to the cancellation of the whole trip. The ability to deal with various situations and readiness to gratefully accept everything that life has to offer are the two things that these trips have taught us.

Excerpts from the trip diary (1987)

Tuesday, 14 April  

Nothing but a great fog.

Wednesday, 15 April

In the morning we woke up in a nicely cool and humid tertiary forest. The weather was even worse than it had been in the evening, with the mossy treetops of the giant beech trees looking unpleasant through the clouds. Again, people from the “well-behaved” tent cooked breakfast, so it turned out decently. When everybody had eaten and stalled enough, it was time to move on.

But where to move? Initially no one was worried about such a problem. With well-known orienteers/geographers leading along with a less-experienced biology freshman, the cardinal points were determined (after some aimless trotting around), so we could take off to the west in the direction of the village, where some kind of a path seemed to lead. After we had walked for some time and ascended a couple of hundred meters across the mountain, the members of the team were struck by the suspicion that they had been fooled. To be sure, another compass was retrieved, where the N-S direction was clear, and the harsh truth came out – our direction had been 180 degrees wrong!


Mare Ainsaar during the trip to Talysh in April 1987. Photo from a personal archive.

The Sussanins were removed from the position as travel guides and the hiking group could feel free to march all the way back down and choose the right direction. Soon we saw the Bursulom village. After some small formalities that had to do with checking our documents between the fields, we were allowed to enter the village. By the time we had found the path leading to the Lerik freeway and verified that transport was not something one could count on around here it was lunchtime. We were joined by a sheepherder who accompanied us for a kilometer and introduced the local sights to us – for example, some trees, to which somebody had been tied during the reign of the Khan and was probably killed. In the meantime, Külli saw a desert ironwood, a plant of the local area, and quickly managed to ravage it.

The entirety of the road was filled with knee-high mud, and finally it started to rain. Thus, one could understand our joy when we ended up at the Lerik freeway, in a village called “20 kilometers”. But our happiness was fleeting. The locals had already been waiting for people like us, and the eight border offenders were quickly taken “where needed”. For starters, this just meant a firmly closed room in the local post office, so the village people could observe us. Probably some local people could already envision orders on their chests.

In a couple of hours the “fast” and brave protectors of the homeland arrived, and with some help from the armed guys, the travelling bunch was deported for some additional processing. The van took off towards the border guard station of Lenkoran. The interrogation continued without excessive violence, and after some negotiations by phone with Polkovnik Taranenko they became rather polite, although it was clear that our identities, where exactly we had come from, and our life thus far still needed some further validation. As a sign of the border guards’ kindness, we were temporarily transported to the test site of the army people and settled down in a narrow strip between two railroads. We were allowed to camp and build a fire over there and asked not to be bothered by the shooting and train noises next to us.


Trip to Talysh in April 1987. Authority figures in the Soviet Union. Photo from a personal archive.

We established ourselves, put up the tent, ate, and were ready to enjoy the peaceful night when a new border force officer came – this time of darker complexity – introducing himself as Captain Faramazov, and showing interest in our documents. We could make out from his words that he had already spent three days looking for us across the border – and now he had finally caught us. When he had expressed enough wonder over our licenses, joked with female members of our expedition, and chewed us out for our quick two-day escape from the Az branch, we could finally go to sleep with a new hope in our hearts (in tent 1) or adjust to the nightlife (in tent 2).

Thursday, April 16

The wake-up call came at 5:30 in the morning. The more alert ones even had time to wash, and our leader could shave his chin. Our legal position was cleared, and there were intentions almost to set us free, with some control. Considering the hassle of the last days, as well as our heroism and tolerance towards the situation, we deserved a free ride from the border guard station to “20 kilometers”. Halfway there we had an hour of sunbathing; then we went to Lerik by bus. We saw the sights of the Lenkoran River from dizzying heights, as well as the even more marvelous outcrops, at the same time satisfying the fellow passengers’ good-hearted curiosity towards us. This time we managed to pass the “20 kilometers” happily. Our last memories of this remarkable place consisted of the corpulent joker wearing a black kopi and smiling brightly, looking absolutely well-meant. By the end of the bus ride, Helo’s charming smiles could get us local sweets, while Lohe (the Dragon) was invited to a tavern.

Against all expectations, it was cloudy up there in Lerik. We found solace only in the fact that even further up there, in the “kat-lavina”, it was always clear. The bus took us right to the security authorities who wanted to have a talk with us, and then to a hotel (a night there cost two roubles). We were surrounded by the local, slightly clumsy, and quite costly care and attention: 14 roubles in the eatery at the station; then we had a bus to ourselves to travel to Gozmoljon (20 roubles). Speaking of our ascending ride, the canyon was the most memorable experience. We were hanging half outside the windows of the bus, photo cameras in our hands, understandably looking quite puzzling to the locals. The bus driver was a real “son of the mountains”, prepared to take us to the 2,500 meter line with his machine. After we had already had enough of an experience from the first meters of ascending with the bus, we trusted our good old legs for the rest of the road. It was desert, dryness, and sun all around. We had an hour to get to the mountaintop. From the top, we could see a view of Iran suitable for a Soviet person: through the brown curtain of local hills the snowy Sebelean could be seen, 4821 meters high. Despite our trustworthy appearance, they didn’t let us admire the foreign mountaintop for long; we were circled in and taken down to the bus instead. Next to the bus there was a customary checking of licenses. During our trip back, we got out in the canyon. The sun was shining. After a thorough overview of the geological past and present of this place, we had followers after leaving the canyon – some small kids. The local youth was afraid of no hardships and followed us bravely to the mountainside where we had lunch. That’s where they were sitting, laughing at us. We weren’t phased by it at all. We opened another can of “jebezinatso” and had another “13-rouble-round”.


Leho Ainsaar during the trip to Talysh in April 1987. Photo from a personal archive.

We arrived into the town at the sunset. A restaurant located behind the bus station was opened for us, where we “stiffed them” by ordering only tea. Some guys left the bus station to find some beer; the others were dragged to chainaya [tea house] by the militsiya [police]. From there, we went to the neighbouring house where we were offered some sausages and cheese. The militsiya guys soon got drunk and became offended after they were told that drinking beer was a natural part of the Estonian culture, so we were put into their Willys and transported to the hotel, where male bonding ensued. The girls had a lot to do as well – we accepted a mirror as a gift celebrating the friendship. Visiting the loo, as well as washing, caused lots of excitement and titillation. Then a major check for ticks was carried out – twelve specimens were found from the bodies of our group – and now time to sleep.

All in all, the trip had a happy ending. All the young Estonian people who had made it to the border came back, too. As a result of the trip, two people got married and two articles were published in Eesti Loodus (Estonian Nature) magazine.

This is a chapter from the book Otsides Spunki (“Searching for Spunk”).  The book is filled with memories about travelling during the Soviet times. All the stories are written by people who work at the University of Tartu. The book is compiled by Kerly Espenberg.

If you wish to read more interesting adventures like this one, you may purchase the book from the University of Tartu Student Council, UT Bookshop, or the Botanical Garden of the University of Tartu. You can also order it by sending an e-mail to The book costs 15 euros and is written in Estonian. 

Mare Ainsaar is a Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Tartu. Leho Ainsaar is the Senior Research Fellow in Geology, and also the Director of the Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences.


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