I had occasion to visit Poland three times in the Seventies. The first time I flew (with the Polish airline Lot on a Russian turbo-prop plane), which was relatively straightforward as I simply had to get a visa from the Polish Embassy and purchase the requisite amount of Polish zloties at the laughable 'official' rate (about a quarter of the black market rate) for every day of the visa's validity. This was a device to ensure the Polish Government got some of your cash too. They didn't give you your zloties in London, of course, as they were not 'convertible', but gave you a slip of paper to take to a bank when you arrived.
This was the time before cheap airfares, and on my second and third visits I went by train. The cheapest way of doing this was to take the 'Poland Express' which was actually a few carriages on a longer train that broke up and went in different directions at different places. Those of us in carriages going to Warsaw shared the train with those going on to Moscow. I wandered into the Russian end and was amused to see little racks in the corridor with edifying pamphlets with Lenin or pictures of heroic Soviet workers on the front.
Before getting to Poland, however, you had to pass through other countries. You also had to get an East German transit visa. For my visit in the winter of 1972-3 I had been able to get this on the train itself, but for my visit in the summer of 1974 they had changed the rules and you had to get your transit visa in advance. The transit visa did not permit you to get off the train, and when some of us tried to get off to stretch our legs during a lengthy delay at some rural junction we were angrily waved back on by armed guards. Not only did one have to pay for this transit visa which forbade you to step foot on the soil of the country you were transiting, there was an additional tax, with two lick-on stamps to prove we had paid it. Below are the pages from my passport that covered that 1974 trip. The East German ('German Democratic Republic' - people laughed then too) and the 'Polish Peoples Republic' visas were fortuitously placed next to each other, almost as though they knew I would one day want to use them in a blog entry.
9am Leave London Liverpool Street.
Approx 13.00 to 20.00 Crossing on ferry to Hook of Holland.
21.00 Leave Hook of Holland on train. Sleeping on couchettes.
23.30 Passports stamped at Dutch/West German border. Various cranking noises throughout night as different carriages coupled and uncoupled.
5.00 Woken up at East German border. Visas checked, some baggage searched.
8.00 Woken up on the outskirts of West Berlin. Train thoroughly searched by East Germans checking for stowaways who might jump off while passing through West Berlin.
9.00 West Berlin-East Berlin crossing (see Friedrichstrasse stamp on passport). For some reason the East German guards were not looking for people going in this direction, but did ask if we had narcotics or pornography. They looked disappointed when we could not produce any.
11.00 East German/Polish border. Some bags searched by Poles but their heart wasn't in it. Same question about narcotics and pornography, though this time with another one about Polish books published before 1939. I'd been asked this question before and always found it weird as you could get them in secondhand bookshops in the country. I did not tell them about the newspapers produced by London Poles I had with me (London was the base of the Polish Government in Exile).
Refreshments on the train were non-existent. People were expected to bring their own. However, on the Polish side an enterprising guy got on (probably gave a backhander to someone) set up a gas ring and a kettle in the corridor and sold glasses of tea (no lemon) for a somewhat cheeky price.
On the two return trips I did it this way (four journeys in all) there was only water in the toilets once. On a couple of occasions they did provide large enamel jugs of water until they ran out. I found this out when a Polish soldier asked me to go into the toilet with him and it turned out he wanted me to pour water from the heavy jug over his hands while he washed them.
Some people who travelled through 'Eastern Europe' at that time (though Poles and Czechs were and are quick to point out they are really Central Europeans) often spoke about its colourlessness, though thanks to the Communist love of anniversaries there were often colourful banners festooning the main stations. For example, on my journey in the Christmas/New Year period in 1972-73 it was the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union that was gaudily proclaimed along platforms in East Germany and (to a lesser extent) Poland. You probably didn't know that the Soviet Union was actually founded in December 1922, more than five years after the Bolshevik revolution. This information came in handy for me a few years later when a left-leaning friend told someone off for saying 'Russia' instead of 'Soviet Union'. 'I know I'm being pedantic' she said graciously, 'but that country changed its name in 1917!' Oh, the pleasure in being able to explain that the Soviet Union actually dates to 1922. Without those banners on that train journey I would probably never have said it!