Preparing For The Showdown At The Irkutsk Corral
As the departure neared, the news I was hearing about the Trans-Siberian made it sound like something out of the Wild West. There were tales of theft, reports of drugged drinks, and three times my mother sent me the same dispatch with a story about conductors gassing compartments and giving thieves keys so they could steal passengers blind while they slept without any resistance. (She kept telling me to bring extra towels for me to stuff under the door so the conductor wouldn’t be able to use a hose to pipe gas into the compartment.) Even the literature from the travel agency urged customers to buy a padlock with a chain for securing their property, watch the backs of their fellow Moonsky Star-ites and to purchase plenty of non-perishable dried food because the dining car on the train was awful.
With so many things to worry about, how do you prepare for a six-day train trip across two continents? By scrambling around, getting all the provisions you need.
It’s not enough to buy a big cup, lots of packages of ramen noodles, some peanut butter (if you can find it), and other non-perishable foods: you also have to think about things to keep you entertained because there’s no stepping out for videos once you board. In addition, even though the Iron Curtain came down with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian government remains highly restrictive when it comes to travel privileges for foreigners, and doesn’t like it when visitors step off the train without advance preparations. Once I got on the train I heard stories about the government going so far as to fly passengers who have gone astray to another stop further down the line just so they won’t stray. As a result, it’s a good idea to stock up on travel games, books, cards and cassettes. The Russian countryside may be pretty, but there’s only so much time you can stare out the window.
Although I had plenty of cassette tapes, I learned about the importance of choosing carefully the hard way when I purchased a couple of compilations of the most popular current English pop songs. Most of the songs were great, but there was one that just drove me crazy from the moment I heard it: The Macarena. From the time I purchased the tape until the end of the trip, I couldn’t escape it. I was so disgusted with the song’s sheer ubiquitousness even before I left Hong Kong that I sent a postcard to a friend that said simply, “IF SOMEBODY DOESN’T DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT DAMN MACARENA SONG SOON, I’M GOING TO HAVE TO START KILLING PEOPLE.” (Ironically, when I called him from Latvia two weeks later he had received the card, but had no reply. “What the hell is the Macarena?” he asked. He wasn’t asking by the end of the summer when almost every major league baseball team had a Macarena night where they tried to set the record for the most people dancing it at one time.)
The Jackson 5 was wrong. One rotten apple does spoil the whole bunch, girl, especially when it’s on a tape and you have to keep listening to it over and over.
Then there’s the whole cash issue. It’s always important to get cash before such a long train trip, but not just any cash will do, according to Moonsky Star. Traveler’s Cheques aren’t much good because there’s nowhere to change them. Rubles are okay, but they aren’t easy to get in China. In fact, American dollars were preferable, but only the right dollars, according to the travel agency’s guide to the Trans-Siberian. They must be bank notes issued after 1993 in denominations of less than $100, with $1s, $5s, $10s and $20s preferred. As I read this I began to wonder if I was supposed to be getting money for a trip or gathering cash to pay off cheap and clueless kidnappers.
Although the guide never said why 1993 was the cut-off, the best I could figure was that it was easier to counterfeit pre-1993 dollars. No one I spoke to could tell me if the U.S. had added any new watermarks to the bills in 1993 to make them harder to counterfeit. It was just accepted that they were better.
Although American dollars were more widely accepted than any other currency, Moonsky Star agents told me not to be surprised every bill would come under a great deal of scrutiny. In fact, they said, if a bill is not crisp or if it’s wrinkled, it won’t pass inspection, even if it’s perfectly fine.
All this may be reasonably sound advice, but just try going into a bank in China where dollar bills may not be all that plentiful to begin with, cashing in $200 in traveler’s cheques and requesting $1’s, $5’s, $10s and $20s all issued after 1993. Not too surprisingly, the teller was irked with the request and called in the bank manager. It probably wouldn’t have been a problem if I had been the only person to make the request, but I wasn’t. The two women in front of me had asked for bills issued after 1993 and the teller was getting miffed because she knew the bank outside the Friendship Store wasn’t exactly the first stop for well-to-do dollars on their way through Beijing.
I only ended up with $80 in useable cash with most of the rest from the 1980s. It would have to do.
I wasn’t the only one who learned an unexpected lesson about the quirks associated with Trans-Siberian Railroad, however. An American father, his wife and three children discovered that Chinese bureaucrats have a sense of humor at odd times. When station officials saw the family struggling with extremely heavy bags as they approached the desk where the family thought the baggage would be weighed, one of the wags told them they would have to go around to a scale at the back of the station. Once they completed the several block walk around the depot, a bunch of soldiers who were standing around stared puzzledly, wondering why they were there until the patriarch explained they needed to get their bags weighed to make sure they hadn’t exceeded weight limitations. At this point I’m sure the soldiers’ faces must have displayed the knowing smiles common to West Point upperclassmen dealing with plebes, fraternity brothers talking to impressionable freshman pledges and any mechanic in the world who has ever had to deal with a new employee who has been sent to get a left-handed wrench. In keeping with the rules of the game I’m also sure the soldiers undoubtedly pretended to be puzzled about why the family walked past the first set of scales and wondered who would have told them to go around the station. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the soldiers at the back of the station then radioed ahead to let their co-workers know the family was headed back their way.
When the family finally returned to the scale 10 minutes to before the train started boarding they saw the soldiers doubled over, laughing. One of them even looked at the father and said in broken English, “We played a joke on you. That was a good one.”
The Truman family was not amused.