In the summer of 1994, I decided to move to St. Petersburg, Russia, to become a writer. I told my friend Kara that if she wanted to stay in touch, she’d have to start using email, since calling would be far too expensive. She had never used email before, so I said, “Just sign up with that service America Online — they make it really easy.”
She did, and that was how Kara Swisher started using the Internet. (Later, she started a conference and website with a guy named Walt and got a bajillion Twitter followers, so, you know, that’s cool. I’m glad I could help.)
At the time, just 14 percent of U.S. households had internet access. And among the world population, the figure was truly minuscule — less than 1 percent. In Russia, where I now lived, not only had the vast majority of people never been on the internet (or even heard of it), the phone lines were often so poor that maintaining a dial-up connection long enough to stay online was a crapshoot.
So, in the fall of 1995, when photographer Gary Matoso told me he wanted to do a real-time web travelogue across Russia, posting updates over the 5,000-plus miles from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, I thought he was insane. How could we possibly maintain a website from the hinterlands of Siberia? How would we upload photos? And for that matter, how was Gary going to develop and scan them? Was he planning to bring some kind of portable darkroom?
Standing in my kitchen in St. Petersburg, Gary showed me his secret weapon: A 35mm Nikon camera with a hardware attachment roughly the size of a Buick. He snapped a photo of me, then ejected a little diskette, popped it into a slot in his Apple PowerBook, and when my face magically appeared on the screen I actually shrieked.
Not only had I never seen this technology, I’d never even heard of it. Digital cameras weren’t widely available in 1995, but Gary had scored an expensive prototype — the Kodak DCS 420.
Gary had a couple of project partners in San Francisco, Tripp Mikich and Chuck Gathard, who had worked with him to design the website, and would maintain it while we traveled. If all went well, our site, which we dubbed The Russian Chronicles (having decided “A Trans-Cyberian Journey” was a little too cute), would be one of the first real-time web travelogues.
We set off for Vladivostok with only the barest notion about how the next few months would unfold. I had managed to scrape up contacts in a few cities, mostly Russian friends of friends intrigued at the idea of hosting actual Americans. The rest of the time we’d be winging it, asking everyone we met whether they happened to know anyone in the next town over, as we made our way across the country on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Over 12 weeks, more than 5,000 miles, several screaming fights and approximately 6,000 vodka shots, Gary and I created a portrait, in words and photographs, of the lives of contemporary Russians.
In the course of the trip, Gary unveiled his second secret weapon: He had made an arrangement with Sprint to connect directly, whenever possible, to the company’s telecom nodes located across Russia. We also carried phone cords and adaptors, so in the rare city where we could dial up through the fledgling Russian internet service Glasnet, we could connect our laptops to phone jacks. Either way, holding a connection long enough to upload our photos and text was a nerve-racking proposition.
To make the uploads go more quickly, Gary compressed the photos to a ridiculously tiny size. The digital camera took photos that were about 1.5MB each, but Gary shrank them to a minuscule 25KB. Even that tiny, the photos still took hours to send; on one memorable occasion, it took us eight hours to upload just 400KB worth of photos. We would watch nervously as they slooooowly uploaded, terrified that after a few hours the connection might drop and we’d have to start over again. Upon finally receiving the photos and text, Tripp and Chuck would then post our updates to the site.
Most Russians we spoke to outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg had never heard of the internet. In Novosibirsk, I asked one woman whether she minded being identified by her real name in my article. “It’s not going to be published in Russia, right?” she asked.
“In theory, it can be read by anyone in the world,” I told her. “They just have to plug their computer into a box called a ‘modem,’ then plug that box into a telephone line, then make the computer dial a specific number ... ”
“Stop, stop, stop,” she said, waving a hand in the air. “Russians will never figure that out. Write what you want.”
Against the odds, Gary and I were able to upload all our stories and photos, and keep in email contact with friends and family, over the three months of the 1995 trip. The website was a success (for the times, anyway), garnering thousands of hits and hundreds of comments. It truly felt like a once-in-a-lifetime trip — which was why, in 2005, I decided I wanted to do the whole thing again.
Gary couldn’t join me because of work commitments, so I brought in another photographer, David Hillegas, to make the journey. WashingtonPost.com agreed to publish our updates as a daily blog, and a communications company called I-Linx sponsored us with a few thousand bucks, a satellite phone and a portable RBGAN satellite Internet terminal.
I didn’t alert the Russians I had met in 1995 that I was coming back, opting instead to surprise them. Miraculously, through a combination of decade-old hand-scribbled notes, Google, manic perseverance, and stupid luck, I found almost everybody we had done stories about on that first trip. The only exceptions were an elderly pensioner in Chelyabinsk (who was likely no longer living) and a truck driver. Everyone else, we were able to interview and photograph.
By 2005, communications in Russia had leapt forward. David and I were spoiled for choice: We could go online at ubiquitous Internet cafés, or by using prepaid internet usage cards, or through services such as Russia Online, which had local dial-up numbers in all but two of the cities we visited. DSL, cable internet and Wi-Fi had also begun popping up, though they were rare outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Phone cards made it easy for us to call home, usually for pennies a minute, and of course we had our satellite phone and RBGAN for more remote areas, such as floating out on Lake Baikal or strolling through a field of cows in a Buryat village. Uploading photos still took time, though, especially since we were now sending multi-megabyte pictures instead of the compacted 25KB photos from the first trip.
In 2015 — 20 years after the original trip — I decided to do this once-in-a-lifetime trip a third time. But now, instead of bringing a photographer with me, I would just take photos with my iPhone. I bought a selfie stick, small tripod, and a trio of tiny clip-on lenses for it, and voila! I was ready to go.
And of course, instead of having to dial up or use a satellite communicator or connect to a Sprint node, I could now simply post photos directly to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook — you name it — using Wi-Fi or even just cellular connection. I could even FaceTime with loved ones back home for free, which I happily did all across Siberia, and even while floating once again on Lake Baikal.
All the necessary equipment fit snugly into a backpack, with plenty of room left over for my laptop and iPad. Compared to the mountain of gear we’d taken on the first two trips — multiple cameras, the satellite phone, the RBGAN and backups of every conceivable cord, cable and software DVD — I was able to travel light.
I’m already planning to make the trip again in 2025. And as excited as I’ll be to see my Russian friends again, I’m equally excited to find out what new technological wonders I’ll be using on that trip …
Lisa Dickey is the author of “Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia.” As an author and ghostwriter, she helped write 17 published nonfiction books, including eight New York Times bestsellers. Reach her @LisaWritesBooks.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.