Friday, March 18, 2005

Russia with a Vietnam Chaser

As my last major vacation during my stay in Pakistan loomed, I realized that I hadn't really put any thought into where I would be going.  I had 3 weeks to kill and the world at my disposal.  I gazed at the map, and inspiration struck; I decided that I would go to Russia, ride the Trans-Siberian railroad down through Mongolia and then on to Beijing, fly to Vietnam for a week or so, and then pop back up to Pakistan.

This might seem a bit ambitious at first glance, but I think the pace would have been fine.  I was planning on spending a few days in St. Petersburg, a few in Moscow, a few in Ulaan-Bataar (the capital of Mongolia), a few in Beijing, about a week in Vietnam, and the rest of the time in transit.  Of all the places on the itinerary, I had only previously been to China.  As such, the few days I was going to stay in Beijing were mostly just to hang out with my good friend Josie who was assigned there.  In the end, she was delayed in reporting to her assignment and wouldn't be there when I passed through.  This pretty much meant that I had no reason to visit Beijing.  I changed my initial two-day stay to a mere transit.

When my friends in Islamabad asked me about my vacation and I told them where I was going, some of them were excited for me, and a great many were considerably less enthusiastic.  Most people thought Russia was a lousy place to visit.  Of those who could maybe see the lure of Russia itself, many didn't think the train was a good idea.  A lot of people also wanted to know why I wanted to go to Siberia in the winter.  To that, I had a simple response: Why not in the winter?  Sure, it would turn out to be a different experience than a visit in the summer would be, but it wouldn't necessarily be worse.

In any case, I was cautioned against the cold, the snow, the rude Russians, the crime, the heavy-handed Russian police and military, the lack of sunlight, the hookers, and everything else people could think of that was wrong with the place.

My supervisor Kevin had some words of wisdom for me as well.

"You need to get your head examined!" he told me.  "Go to Italy or some place normal!  You are gonna get jacked up or robbed at the very least."

Then he went on to paint several unsavory scenarios for me.

All of this talk only cemented my decision to go.

Of those encouraging me to go, my good friend Ruth, who had previously served in Moscow, was a wealth of ideas and information.

I reserved my flights through the Embassy travel agent and started working on getting the train tickets.  For this, I was dealing with the travel agent at our Embassy in Moscow, with help from my good friend Laurie who was working in Moscow at the time.

I would also need some visas for this trip.  Mongolia allows Americans to stay for 30 days without a visa, so I was good to go on that front.  I still needed visas for Russia, China, and Vietnam, though.  In countries without Vietnamese diplomatic representation, such as Pakistan, it is possible to get a travel letter through a Vietnamese travel agent that allows the bearer to collect a visa upon arrival.  I, of course, opted to do this since it was the only way I could enter the country, short of mailing my passport and visa application back to the U.S. or to a third country with a Vietnamese Embassy or Consulate.  A few of my colleagues had recently vacationed in Vietnam, and they had all used a travel agent who charged around $60 for the travel letter.  I found a travel agent who only charged $15, and everyone was sure that as soon as I gave them my credit card information, I was doomed.  In the end, they turned out to be perfectly legit and my credit card was fine.

With Vietnam out of the way, that left Russia and China which are probably the two biggest pains in the butt as far as getting visas goes.

I had a few weeks left before my departure, and while diplomatic visas generally only take a few days, I knew that it would be a tight squeeze to get both Russia and China done in time.  I was working with the visa specialist at the Embassy, my good friend Raja, and he was totally optimistic.

Since the heart of my vacation was Russia, and China was only secondary, we focused first on getting the Russian visa.

I filled out the Russian visa application, which was similar to the visa request form for any other country, and gave it back to Raja. This form asked for basic information about me and my intended trip.  Raja then took the form, some visa photos, and my passport over to the Russian Embassy.  He returned with a supplemental form that I had to complete.

This supplemental form was pretty ridiculous.  It was more thorough than the form that the State Department had used to grant me a Top Secret security clearance.  Actual questions on the form included: (a) "List all employment, with complete contact information, for the past 10 years", (b) "List all institutions of higher education attended with complete contact information", (c) "List and explain any education or work experience you have that deals with chemistry or biochemistry", (d) "Have you served in the military? List the conflicts in which you participated", (e) "List every city you have been to in the past 10 years."

This last question asking about every city (not country, mind you) that I had visited was a bit much.  Since I would be providing my passport with the visa application, I made sure to include a city that would match up with each of the stamps in my passport.

There were several other probing questions on the form.  It was the paper equivalent of "turn your head and cough," and I dutifully turned my head and coughed.  After all, they were holding the keys and I wanted to get inside.

I gave Raja the completed supplemental form the next day, and he took it back to the Russians.  They told him my visa would be ready in two weeks if there were no problems.

If it were ready in two weeks, there would still have been time to work on the Chinese visa. Still, I wanted to see about moving things along.

I was friends with the Russian who processed all the Russian visa requests in Islamabad. (Since the Russians were only running a one-man operation, I guess Pakistanis weren't flocking in droves to get Russian visas.)  The consul's name was Peter, and he was a fixture on the Islamabad party circuit.  I casually mentioned that I was applying for a visa when next I saw him, and he told me that he wouldn't be able to get it any faster for me since my whole application packet had been sent back to Moscow for evaluation.

Two weeks came and went, and I was still without a visa.

Then, in the middle of the third week, my passport came back – with my shiny new Russian visa!  I was psyched.  It even had that new visa smell.

However, I only had a week and a few days left to get the Chinese visa, so I wasn't out of the woods yet.  Actually, this time frame included a Pakistani holiday, which meant that I had only 5 business days.  In short, I was screwed.

I completed the application form, and Raja submitted all my materials to the Chinese.  He was still optimistic.  He had a good contact at the Chinese Embassy, and he was sure everything would work out.

Raja's optimism was contagious, and I too started to think that it would work out.  The days ticked by.  Then on the Thursday before my Sunday departure, I asked Raja if there was any word on the status.

On Friday morning, Raja had news for me.

"Sir," he told me, "your visa will be ready on Monday; Tuesday at the very latest."  He was all smiles.

This was very bad news, of course, although he didn't realize it.  I explained that Monday and Tuesday were no good since I was scheduled to depart before then.

He quickly grasped my unfortunate situation and went to reclaim my passport from the Chinese so I could travel.

Raja's a great guy, and I had no hard feelings toward him.  After all, it was my poor planning, not his, that had caused the visa mess.

In any case, I had to quickly decide what to do.  The way I saw it, I had three choices: (1) Take the trip as planned and try to get a Chinese visa on the spot in Mongolia; (2) Bag the whole trip and do something else in a week or two; or (3) Take the trip almost as planned, but sidestep China.

I was scheduled to be in Mongolia for 4 days, and I didn't like my chances for getting the Chinese visa there.  If I had more time, I would have probably gone with this option. I didn't have the time, though, so Option 1 was out.

I didn't like Option 2 because I would have lost the money I had put into the train tickets.  I also didn't want to scrap Russia or Vietnam after I had gone through the trouble of getting the visas.

So, I decided to try for Option 3. The Trans-Siberian route from Moscow to Beijing is actually a secondary route.  The main line runs from Moscow to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East.

I decided to ride all the way to Vladivostok and from there head straight to Ho Chi Minh City.  So on the afternoon of the day before I was scheduled to fly, I was back at the Embassy travel agent, laying down the challenge.  On the shortest fuse possible, I asked the travel agents to find me a flight from Vladivostok to Ho Chi Minh City that would fit well with my existing itinerary, that wouldn't transit a country where I would need a visa, and that would cost me the least amount of money out-of-pocket.  There was a flurry of typing as they checked the schedules on their computers, and after a few false starts, they totally hooked me up.  They got me on a flight from Vladivostok to Seoul to Ho Chi Minh City. It fit perfectly in my schedule; I didn't need a visa, and it didn't cost me any extra money over my original itinerary.  Once they booked everything, they dispatched a courier to bring my tickets from their main office downtown.

American Express Travel Services, I salute you.  This was truly fantastic customer service.

In the end, Raja was right: Everything was working out perfectly, even if it wasn't according to the original plan.

The last thing I needed to do was get new train tickets.  The first set for Beijing weren't refundable, so I lost that money.  With a few e-mails, though, I had new ones lined up.

By the time I left work on Friday, everything was set.  I went to happy hour and followed that with a party at the Marine House.  This would turn out to be one of the last (if not the last) all-you-can-drink-for-500-rupees parties at the Marine House.  Around that time, the Ambassador implemented an alcohol policy forbidding such events, and from that point on, the Marines had to charge by the drink.  But, on this particular night, I indeed had all I cared to drink, and it was a good time.

At one point in the party, I was hanging with my good friend Mollie.  She likes to smoke when she drinks, so we ended up talking outside while she lit up.  It came up in our conversation that I had never smoked before, and Mollie, being the bad influence that she is, convinced me to have just one cigarette.  It actually didn't take that much convincing though since (a) I was drunk and (b) I knew that a single cigarette wouldn't get me addicted and that it basically wouldn't make a hill of beans difference to my health.

So I smoked the cigarette, and what surprised me was that I had no trouble whatsoever.  Whenever you see people smoke for the first time in the movies or on TV, they cough and gag.  I didn't have this reaction.  I didn't go for any fake inhaling or for holding the smoke in my mouth.  I sucked it all the way down, and like I said, it was no problem.  This made me wonder if simply having breathed polluted air for the past several years had desensitized my lungs.

After my bout with nicotine and peer pressure, I had a few more drinks and called it a night.

On Saturday, I packed and then hung out with my good friend Julie.  Among other things, we went shopping.   Having been unable to find my ski jacket for use in Russia, I had borrowed a parka from my good friend Cathy.  Since we were out and about, though, Julie and I stopped to look at coats.

I ended up finding one that seemed plenty warm for about $25, but I was on the fence about buying it.  It was supposedly a Nike.

Meanwhile, Julie was busy looking at shalwar kameez suits.  She found one that was quite stylish, and after confirming that it was her size, she started bargaining with the clerk.  She didn't mind stepping on other people – like me – in the process.  She ended up getting herself a nice discount contingent on me purchasing the jacket at full price.

We both made our purchases and had a good laugh about Julie's discount scheme.  Naturally, I would've sold her out the same way if I had thought about it first.

As Julie and I parted ways, I was already late for one last appointment.  I hurried down to the hookah bar where my good friends Portia, John, and Mollie were working on a few pipes.

I stayed for an hour or so, and then I had to get home to meet the driver who would be taking me to the airport.

Almost as soon as I walked in my door, I thought of one last place to look for my ski jacket.  I found it, and ended up using it instead of Cathy's parka or my new jacket.

The driver arrived on time, and we were off to the airport.

Once again forgoing expedited service, I stood in line after line, and finally got to the gate in just a few short hours.  At check-in, the Emirates reservationist told me that my bag was checked all the way through to St. Petersburg.  I had an uneasy feeling about the whole thing, though, since the code for St. Petersburg on my baggage receipt was not correct.  I think this guy was actually sending my stuff to Tokyo. He insisted it was fine, though, so I decided to leave it and check with customer service at my first stop.

At some point over the weekend, I had managed to develop a gastrointestinal problem. (Vacation just wouldn't be the same, though, without my pals, the amoebas...)  I had to use the facilities in the Islamabad Airport several times and then on the plane a few times.

Then three and a half hours later, I was in Dubai.  I checked with the Emirates staff, and they confirmed that my bag had arrived and that it would be loaded on my flight to Moscow.  So far, so good.

I had about 4 hours to kill, and then I was back in the air.

After 5 hours and 15 minutes more of drinking, eating, and watching lame movies, we landed in Moscow.  As we deplaned, there was ice in the walkway leading to the terminal, and a few people wiped out.  The falling people were good for a laugh.

Inside the terminal, the first person I saw was a female immigration officer who happened to be walking by.  She was a tall blond with blue eyes, wearing high heels, a jacket, and a mini skirt.  The outfit was army green; it was in fact her official uniform.  What a place!  I couldn't believe that her official government uniform was so provocative.  She was dressed one step more conservatively than a stripper portraying an immigration officer might be.

Anyhow, I passed through passport control, and everything went smoothly.  As I looked around at my immigration officer and some of the others, it became apparent that not all of them were as attractive as the first one I had seen.  Nor did their uniforms fit the same.  I was beginning to think that that first woman had probably had her uniform modified a bit, with her supervisor's approval, of course.

After passport control, I was on to customs.  Having heard many a cautionary tale, I listed everything of value that I was carrying on the customs form.  Normally, I don't list anything, but I didn't want to take any chances.  It wasn't necessary, though.  The customs officer just threw my form in the stack and waved me through.  He probably assumed correctly that a person traveling with one small backpack couldn't be hiding that much.  At the time, I only had my carry-on.

Once I got to the main airport area, I set about checking on my luggage.  Many Russians do not speak English, but it seemed like there was one person at each counter who could speak at least a little.  I was sent from counter to counter, and no one much knew anything.  Finally a woman looked at my luggage receipt and told me that the code was wrong (just like I thought) and suggested that I go check in the unclaimed luggage room.  This involved me going back through all the checkpoints I had just passed.  I couldn't do this on my own, of course, so the woman from the counter escorted me back.  And in the unclaimed luggage room, my bag was waiting.

I presented my luggage receipt to the attendant in the room to prove the bag was mine.  When she saw that it showed that the bag was checked all the way to St. Pete, she laughed.

"This is Russia," she said.  "You have to recheck all your bags!"

Then we went back out to the main floor.  Since I was carrying an extra bag this time, I had to go back through customs and security.

At the exchange counter, I changed $100 into rubles. Then I sat and waited.

Patience was a huge theme in this entire vacation, and here I came for the first major trial in this regard.  I had 8 hours to wait until my flight to St. Petersburg.  Domodedovo Airport was as exciting as any other airport I've been to, meaning that I had an excruciatingly long, boring wait.

In case you are wondering, the train ride between Moscow and St. Petersburg is about 8 hours, so that wouldn't have saved me any time.  Besides, I only wanted to take the train in one direction.

Anyhow, I briefly looked at the shops and then staked out a chair at the windows.  I sang a lot of songs in my head.  I looked out the windows.  I eavesdropped on conversations I couldn't understand.  I looked out the windows.

I changed seats about 4 times.

Then finally, about an hour before my flight, the monitors showed that check-in was starting.  I went to the designated counter, and there was chaos.  I was flying Pulkovo Air, along with a Russian wrestling team, and I noticed several cases of cauliflower ear in my fellow passengers.  There were about 20 people in the wrestling group, and roughly an equal number of the rest of us.  The wrestlers had a ton of bags and they just kept bringing more and more.  The rest of us were kind of queued up, but people kept getting impatient and would cut to the front of the line.  This made everyone else grumble, and when the line-cutters ended up getting served, everyone started doing it.  Soon the queue had collapsed into an angry mob of people trying to shove up to the counter.

There was such a small number of passengers on the flight, though, that everyone got checked in without much wait.

We all walked down to the gate, and it was immediately clear that Pulkovo occupied the slum gates of the airport.  There weren't even any seats in the waiting area.  We all stood around, and no one much said anything.

Then there was an announcement in Russian, and everyone started walking.  Apparently there was a gate change.

At the new gate, we stood around for a little longer, and then they started boarding us.

I don't know how old that plane was, but the interior looked ancient.  The cabin was pretty small, such that I had to carefully avoid hitting my head on the ceiling.  There were grungy cloth-covered seats, shag carpet, and some totally retro curtains for all the windows.  The whole plane smelled like a basement.  I got a window seat on the first row.

As we took off, there was a good bit of snow falling, but it didn't seem to affect anything.

After a few minutes in the air, the flight attendant started the snack service.  She didn't speak English.  I was one of the first to get served, so I ordered the universal beverage, Pepsi.  The attendant poured my drink and didn‘t say anything, so I assumed that she didn't have any food to offer.

Everyone else knew how to ask, though, so they all got snack cakes similar to what we call Moon Pies in the U.S.  When the flight attendant came back up the aisle after serving everyone else, however, I gestured for my snack and got it.

An hour and a half later, we reached St. Petersburg.  It was still snowing, but the pilot dropped us down like a pro.

St. Petersburg

The St. Petersburg Airport was small and dumpy.  We arrived after midnight, and everyone split pretty quickly.

I got my bag and starting looking for the bus into town.  The airport was maybe half an hour outside the center.

I asked some people milling around in the terminal about the bus, and they didn't seem to understand.  Some taxi drivers who were lurking outside eventually came inside, drawn by the prospect of a fresh sucker.  They told me that the bus was finished for the night and that since our plane had been delayed I had missed it.

I had a strong suspicion that they were lying, but I went ahead and asked them how much they charged.  They wanted an outrageous $70.

I told them I would sooner wait 5 hours until the first bus in the morning than pay them $70.  They thought I was bluffing, so I sat on a bench.  About 15 minutes later, the taxi drivers returned.

"OK, for you, only $50," they told me.

"No," I replied, "for me, only $35."

They refused and walked away.  Two minutes later, they returned.

"OK, OK. $35."

I knew I had some leverage in the matter since I was the last potential customer on the last flight of the night.  I figured that the guys didn't live at the airport, which meant they were going to be going back to the city anyway.  Thus, it would make sense for them to accept my offer rather than to drive back empty, earning no money at all. In any case, I probably still got ripped off.

As we drove, the snow continued falling.  The driver made what small talk he could, and then we drove along listening to the radio.  The windshield fogged up, and the driver kept spraying it with the washer fluid.  The fluid would freeze and then the wipers would knock it off; it didn't help the fogging.

Once in the city, we had to backtrack a few times because the driver didn't know where my hostel was.  He asked a few passers-by for directions, and eventually we spotted the small sign posted on the door.

I paid the driver and went up to the door where I was immediately buzzed upstairs.  The hostel had rooms on several floors in an old building, and the desk was a few floors up.  A young woman named Marsha was on duty, and she checked me in.

I had reserved the cheapest accommodations in the city that I could find – which happened to be a spot in an 8-person mixed dorm room with a shared bathroom – and it still cost nearly $30 a night.  That's pretty pricey for 1/8 of a room.

In any case, being the low season for tourists, I was the only person in the 8-person room.  It was nice and spacious, and it looked out over the street.

Marsha explained the rules of the house and then showed me on her handy-dandy map where I could find the closest grocery stores, cafés, restaurants, all-you-can-eat buffets, bakeries, ATMs, pharmacies, laundry mats, strip joints, erotic clubs, liquor stores, billiard halls, pubs, bars, and clubs.  She was very thorough in her coverage of the nightlife.

Once she had pointed everything out, we chatted for a bit, and at one point, I mentioned how expensive the taxi ride had been.

"Why didn't you call?" Marsha asked.  "We have a driver on call who does airport runs for $10."


I told her that it hadn't occurred to me to call.  It was water under the bridge, though.

After a bit more talking, I told her I was going to bed.  She acted shocked, but in my defense, it was past 1:00 AM, and I had been traveling for the past 24 hours.  What did I have to prove anyway?

I showered and slept like a log.  I picked the top bunk on the beds closest to the windows.  The windows were not insulated well, and a nice draft blew on me the whole night.  I like to be cold when I am sleeping, so this was excellent.

Later on in the morning, I woke up and ate my free hostel breakfast.  It wasn‘t bad.  There were a few types of breads, some ham and cheese, jams, cookies, coffee, tea, and juices.  The rule on breakfast was that it was all-you-could-eat, but only for one sitting a day.  I made a plate and was soon joined by the handful of other travelers in the hostel.  There was a group of four young Brits – Lucy, Robbie, Hugh, and the other guy – who were spending a few months on the road before starting college.  They were having logistical issues, though, so their departure on the Trans-Siberian ended up being later than mine.  They tried to get tickets on my train, but to no avail.  The only other person at the hostel was a German named Max.  He had done the Trans-Siberian from east to west, so he was finished with that part of his trek.  Actually his whole holiday was nearly finished.  All he had left was to cross from St. Petersburg to Finland and then on to Germany.

Everyone was cool, and we talked a long time over breakfast.  Then we split off on our separate itineraries.

For me, the first order of business was to collect my train ticket for Moscow. I would be spending two full days in St. Petersburg and then traveling to Moscow on the night train.

I called the travel agent who had gotten the ticket for me, and I was having a small communication problem with the person who answered the phone.  Luckily, I had the name of the specific agent I had been working with, and the person with whom I was speaking transferred me to her.

To my relief, she could speak good English.  She was also quite chipper.  She asked where I was staying and told me that she would send my ticket over by a courier.  Unfortunately, she couldn't tell me what time he would be coming with any more specificity than before 5:00 PM.  I decided that it would be a good adventure for me to just find the office and pick-up the ticket in person, so I asked her the address.  She found this very amusing for some reason, but gave me the address nonetheless.

Then I set out to find it.

The address was across the Neva River from the hostel, so I started walking, enjoying the scenery as I went.

Eventually, I found the street of the travel office, but that was as far as I could get.  The numbers on the buildings seemed to stop 2 numbers away from the address I needed.  I asked people for help, and they couldn't figure it out either.  There were no alleys or anything that I could see that would allow the numbers to keep going, and the street itself terminated at the river.  I even went back across the river and checked to see if the street continued, but I didn't see that it did.  I finally tired of the search and called the agency back.  My travel agent laughed again and told me that the courier would deliver the ticket to me tomorrow.

Mission not accomplished, I continued walking and admiring the sites.  Nearby, there was a neat looking mosque.  It was built during World War I to look like the mausoleum of Gur Emir (with whom I was not familiar).  There was also a nice park, a big sports center with many Russian youths coming and going, and the famous Peter and Paul Fortress.  The Fortress is St. Pete's oldest building, but I opted not to visit it.

I rode the Metro back toward the center of town.  The subway was excellent – very hardy yet still decorative.  When I got off the Metro and started walking again, it was mighty cold.  During my stay in Russia, the temperature dipped to a low of about –25ºC, which sounds bad, but is only about –12ºF.  That's cold, but not debilitatingly so.  Had I come a few months earlier, in the heart of winter, I would have seen much colder temps.  What made St. Pete particularly cold was the wind.  It was blowing constantly.

I was wearing a t-shirt, sweater, jacket, scarf, gloves, and pants, and I was fine for the most part.  I packed long johns and other layers of clothing, but never used them.  The Russians were a mix.  Some were really bundled up, and some were walking down the street with light jackets that were flapping open.  There was a lot of leather and fur.

And the women…  The vast majority seemed to be trouping around in the cold in their mini skirts and in super high high-heels.  On a lot of these shoes, the heel was supported by something no thicker than a pencil, 4 or 5 inches long, and these women were just cruising over the icy sidewalks like it was nothing.  It was very impressive.

Fur hats were popular with both men and women, but I'd say that less than half the people were wearing them.

Another striking thing to see was the public drinking.  A very high percentage of men seemed to be walking along with a bottle in hand.  I say men, but that may be over-generalizing since there was many a youngster swigging hooch on the street corner.  If I had to hazard a guess, I would have put the legal drinking age at 14.  Some people were drinking vodka (no surprise there) or normal-sized cans or bottles of beer.  The more uncouth ones were the people walking down the street drinking large jugs of beer.  In Russia, there are many cheap beers available, and they come in a variety of sizes – up to large plastic bottles that hold 2 liters or more.

Anyhow, I walked down Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's most famous street.  I saw the Kazan Cathedral, which has two arms that arc toward the street.  It had a full compliment of cathedral beggars camped outside the entrance.  I saw the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, which is also called the Church on Spilled Blood because it was built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.  This church looks like St. Basil's in Moscow with its colorful onion domes.

In this area, there were a lot of interesting things to see.  I ended up just poking around for a bit, and then stopped at a bakery for a snack.  About this time, I decided that I would check out the Hermitage, one of the premier art museums in the world.

I was a bit turned around at this point, so I asked people on the street for help.  Again and again, people would say things to me that I could not understand, and they would point up the street.  I can understand pointing, so I would walk a little and then ask someone else for more directions.  And people kept pointing me up the street.

Eventually, after I had walked a few kilometers, I encountered a Russian who could speak English.

"You are going the wrong way," he told me.  "The Hermitage is that way. It's pretty far from here."

I was a mite bit confused at this.  If the Hermitage was in the opposite direction, then what were the dozen other people who had pointed me the wrong way doing?  Maybe they were saying, "Don't go this way to the Hermitage," as they pointed down the street.  That seems pretty unlikely.  The only other thing I could think of was that maybe there was something else that sounded like Hermitage and they were directing me there because they couldn't understand my Russian.

Or maybe they were screwing with me.

In any case, I did an about-face and started back toward the Hermitage.

Along the way, I came across the Stroganov Palace and Café.  This was one of Marsha's recommendations because the café offered a buffet.  There was also a place called the Museum of Chocolates there.  I went into the café, and the waiter allowed me to look at the buffet before I ordered.  I wasn't impressed.  This was the birthplace of beef stroganoff, and it wasn't even being served.  It was available a la carte, but it didn't look all that appealing to me.  I left the café empty-stomached.

I stopped in at the Museum of Chocolates, and it too was nothing good.  It was nothing more than a chocolate shop.

As for the Stroganov Palace itself, there was a gallery or something inside, but I didn't pay to see it.  By this point, having paid for the taxi and the hostel and odds and ends during my first day of touring, my stash of rubles was running low.  I stopped at an exchange center to change more dollars. That's when I realized I had a problem.

In Pakistan, a popular way to carry money is to stack it and staple it together.  The Pakistani Government is actually working on getting people to stop this practice through public service campaigns, but I don't think the ads are working.  The problem is that when you staple bills together, that puts tiny holes in them, and they wear out faster than need be.

All of the dollars I had gotten from the Embassy cashier had been stapled repeatedly and were full of tiny holes.

Each time I went to a money changer in St. Petersburg, the clerk would put my bill on a light box, and then refuse to change it because of the holes.  It was really annoying.  Naturally, I wished I had changed more money at the airport where they were less strict.

It got to the point where I was trying my dollars at every money changer I saw.  And I got rejected over and over.

Finally I found a sucker – oops, I mean kind-hearted businesswoman – who would change my money, so I changed $200 knowing that would hold me for a while.

When I eventually found the Hermitage, I felt like the bonehead of the year.  The Hermitage is housed in the Winter Palace, which actually touches the building where I was staying.  I could practically look out the window of the hostel and see it.  I had really taken the scenic route.

By the time I did find the Hermitage, though, it was getting late.  I decided that I would just wait until the next day rather than rush through.

The rest of the afternoon, I walked through the streets and looked in shops.

I got back to the hostel around 10:00, and Marsha was again at the desk.  It was pretty clear that she didn't get out much.  As we were talking, the topic of going out came up again.  I asked her for recommendations, and everything she said started with, "People seem to like…" because she had not personally been to any of the nightspots.  During a later discussion, I asked her what brands of vodka were good.  Her response was that she didn't know because she didn't drink.  That explained why she didn't know much about bars.

It was my last full night in St. Petersburg, but I still didn't feel like going out.  It was snowing again and there was still a brutal wind blowing.  Once I got in the hostel, I had no desire to suit up again and go out in the cold.

I showered and went to bed.  This time, though, my brain wasn't ready for sleeping, so I just laid there.  After a few minutes of this, I decided that I would go out.

I got dressed and passed by Marsha as I left the hostel.  She was so happy that I had decided to go out after all.  She really took a keen interest in her guests enjoying themselves.

I ended up going to a bar called The Red Lion.  It was open 24 hours a day.  There were a few other tourists there and some locals, but not much of a crowd.  It was a Monday night.  I talked with some of the other travelers and nursed a few beers over the course of a few hours.  Then I went home.

The next day, I had my free breakfast and sat around waiting for the courier to bring my train ticket.  At about 10:30, he showed up.  Everything was in order, so I signed for the ticket and gave the guy his tip.  Then I headed next door to the Winter Palace to see the Hermitage.  Like I mentioned earlier, the Hermitage is one of the world's top art museums.  It has a collection of over 3 million pieces, and many others that have yet to be cataloged, so I've heard.  The collection is so huge that at any one time less than 5% of the holdings are on public display in the complex of buildings that constitute the museum.  Although its origins predate her, the massive collection really started growing under the rule of Catherine the Great.

As I walked toward the entrance, I passed the Alexander Column which sits in the courtyard of the Winter Palace.  The Russians built it to commemorate when they whipped Napoleon's butt in 1812.  I love this type of monument.

At the ticket counter, there was a variety of pricing options.  The cashier asked if I wanted a discounted student ticket.  I would have gladly taken one, but I figured she would want to see a student ID or something, which I didn't have since I wasn't a student.  I got a regular one-day tourist pass and an additional pass for my camera.

Then I started walking and looking at the art.

The Winter Palace has over 1,000 rooms, and I started feeling like a rat in a maze.  I was just going from room to room to room, trying not to repeat.  Sometimes repeating was unavoidable, though.

Most of the art descriptions were not in English, so I didn't do much reading.  I knew enough Cyrillic to at least be able to pronounce the artists' names, though.  With such a massive amount to see, I would just walk straight around the perimeter of a room and look at everything as I moved.  If something caught my eye, I'd stop and look a little longer, and probably take a photo.  Only a very few paintings were not allowed to be
photographed.  Of these, some were not clearly marked, and I got scolded once or twice for photographing the wrong thing.  A few times, I was also asked to present my photography ticket.  Of course I was legit, but I guess some people try to take pictures without paying.

If someone really wanted to pour over all the art there was, it would take days.  I didn't want to devout more than one day, so my speedy tour was necessary.

As I was working my way through, I ran into Max from the hostel.  We only overlapped in a few rooms, though, since we were working in different directions.

When it comes to art, my feeling is that bigger is better, so I did not even bother going into all the rooms showcasing decorative buttons and miniature paintings and porcelain thimbles and coins and similar tiny crap.  In the end, I spent the whole day there, and there were many cool things to see.  There were plenty of artists I had never heard of, but all the big names – Picasso, Goya, Van Gogh, Degas, Matisse, da Vinci, El Greco, Rodin, and so on – were there.

When I called it quits at the Hermitage, I decided to check out Café Idiot, which Ruth had strongly recommended.  As I passed through the Winter Palace courtyard, some vendors circled me trying to hawk their Russian hats.  I did intend to get a fur hat eventually, but definitely not one of these.  All of their hats had lame KGB or police insignia on them.  No self-respecting Russian would buy one of those.

I walked on.  The café wasn't very far on the map, but once I was walking in the cold, it seemed a lot farther.  I actually missed it my first time by and found it the second time.

I arrived in the early evening, between meals, and the place was all but deserted.  The café was divided into several rooms and each had a lot of books and antiques and things.  I got a whole room to myself.

The waitress came out, and she could speak a little English.  She had an English menu for me.  Café Idiot is a vegetarian restaurant, so I had sour rye bread, baked mushrooms, borsht, potato pierogies, and a few glasses of beer.

The food was served in courses so the meal stretched on.  Unlike most restaurants, the waitress did not collect my menu when I received my food.  I continued to read it, including the pages and pages of alcohol listings.  They offered quite a selection.  As I was looking at the alcohol section, I noticed something at the bottom of one of the pages: The Big Liosha Vodka Challenge.  The challenge consisted of drinking 100 milliliters of vodka served in 40 thimbles in under one minute.  If successful, the prize was another 100 milliliters for free.  If you failed, you had to pay 20 bucks or so.

This seemed criminally easy to me, so I asked the waitress if it was difficult.

"Not if you like vodka," she astutely answered.

Then she left while I decided if I was up to the challenge.

I am not a huge vodka aficionado or anything, but I had no doubt that I could do the challenge. What's 100 milliliters? A few shots I think.

When the waitress returned a moment later, I told her I was ready for the Big Liosha.

The challenge had to be conducted at the bar, so I sidled up.  It was me, the bartender, my waitress, and another waitress who had nothing better to do.

The bartender started setting up.  With laboratory precision, he poured 100 milliliters of vodka into a beaker.  Then he carefully used it to fill the 40 thimbles.  For her part, the waitress put the thimbles in a perfect line on the bar.

Once it was all set, the bartender looked at me.

"Are you ready?" he asked in his Russian accent.

Indeed, I was.

The bartender checked the time and slapped his hand on the bar.

I started sucking those 40 mini-shots down, one after the next, without pause.  Before I was even halfway finished, the bartender could tell that I was going to complete the challenge.  He started measuring out my 100 milliliters of prize vodka.

When I put down the 40th empty thimble, my small audience gave me a round of applause.  My waitress was really impressed.

"Wow, you do like the vodka!" she gushed.

I felt fine – quite fine, actually – after the challenge.  There was just a little numbness of my lips and tongue.

The bartender gave me a shot glass, the cruet with the prize vodka, and a plate full of lemon slices.  In the Russian style, I would drink a shot and eat a lemon slice afterward.  As I drank the vodka, the waitress tempted me with dessert.  At her recommendation, I ordered a dish of fried cheese (similar to a fried cheesecake) served with jam.  It was awesome.

I finished off the prize vodka, and I still felt fine.  I would have taken a second vodka challenge, but I figured that would be an abuse of the game. Instead I switched back to beer.

As I hung out at the bar, the staff asked me some questions, and we had a small conversation.  I mentioned that their establishment reminded me of a hobbit hole.  Naturally, the word hobbit doesn't have a Russian equivalent (at least I don't think it does) so they knew what I was talking about without translation.  They thought this observation was right on the nose.  I had been enlightened by the vodka.

By then, I had spent a few hours at the Idiot.  Looking out the window at the snow flying, I could've stayed there all night.  Not to mention, I was having a good time.

After dessert, though, I decided to head out.

Back out in the cold, I wasn't so cold anymore.  I know that this is only because the alcohol had lowered my core temperature, but it still seemed like a good strategy for feeling warm – provided one wasn't exposed to the cold for a prolonged period.  Just ask those Russians who freeze to death on park benches clutching their bottles of vodka about that.

When I left the Idiot, it was evening – my last in St. Petersburg.  I walked around and admired in the night many of the buildings I had seen earlier in the day.  Then I stopped at a grocery store and bought a few provisions for my train ride to Moscow.

Then it was back to the hostel.

I had some hot tea and chatted with the Brits for a bit.  Then I packed up, checked-out, and started walking down to the train station.  It was all the way at the other end of Nevsky Prospekt, maybe 2 or 3 kilometers away.

About halfway there, a beggar about my age approached me, and I told him that I wasn't going to give him any money.  As it turned out, he was tuckered out from a full day of begging and was on his way home, in the same direction as I was heading.  He asked if I minded if he joined me and practiced his English.  I didn't mind.

This guy's name was Volva, and he was hilarious.  He told me all sorts of stories about the local politicians and the shop owners we passed and whatever else popped into his head.  We had many good laughs.  He was traveling with a jug of beer, and he offered me a swig a few different times.  I didn't want any.

Volva walked with me all the way to the train station before he split off.

At the train station, there was some congestion at the doors.  The culprit seemed to be a security check of some sort.  Anyway, of the people trying to get inside, there were many who seemed to be in a total panic.  I guess their trains were imminently departing.

I got through, found my train, and located my bunk with some help from a platform attendant.

Once we chugged out of St. Petersburg, there was nothing to see and no reason to stay awake.  The 3 Russians in my car talked for a bit, and then we all went to sleep.

And bright and early the next morning, we arrived in Moscow.


Laurie had scheduled a pick-up for me, and the Embassy driver was waiting for me as I left the train platform.

We drove to the Embassy, I paid the driver, and then I waited for Laurie at the Marine Post.  I arrived before working hours, so she came over from her apartment to get me.  She gave me a badge to use, and we entered the compound.  Laurie only had a small one-room apartment, and her colleague Cory, who had a two-bedroom apartment, generously offered for me to stay with him.  Cory's follow-on assignment to Moscow was Islamabad, so the thought was that I could provide him with some insight on the place.  I don't know how much of a help I was on that front.

Laurie took me over to the Chancery building, and I got a mini tour of the lower level which included the cashier, the gym, the commissary, the gift shop, the cafeteria, and the travel agent.  They even had a shoe shine station, like in airports.

We went to breakfast in the cafeteria, but Laurie was already busy tending to things.  We sat with some of her colleagues and, like in Islamabad, a lot of them were surprised that I had chosen to vacation in Russia.

After breakfast, Laurie went to work, and I took care of a few things.  First I went to the cashier and exchanged all of my defective dollar bills that I had gotten in Pakistan.  Then I went to the travel agent and got my train tickets.

Logistics taken care of, I ditched my bag and set out to see some of Moscow.  Like in St. Petersburg, I would only be staying two full days.

For my first day, I started with Moscow's biggest attractions: the Kremlin and Red Square.  They weren't next door to the Embassy or anything, but they were within walking distance.  I hiked on down in the brisk air.  At least it wasn't as windy as St. Petersburg.

In getting to the Kremlin, I walked past the casinos and souvenir shops of Arbat Street, the Lenin Museum, many interesting pastel colored buildings, hordes of Russians trouping through the slush on the sidewalks, and one of the Seven Ugly Sisters (a group of seven massive skyscrapers that Stalin had constructed around Moscow in the 40s to try to rival, or at least approach, the famous New York skyline).

The word kremlin means something like fortress.  The Kremlin in Moscow consists of a large wall with many towers surrounding several cathedrals and churches, museums, the Armory, the Diamond Fund Exhibition, a palace, government buildings, and some other stuff.  The Armory houses Russian treasures, including the Fabergé egg collection, and the Diamond Fund Exhibition houses diamonds and other gems.  I didn't see either the Armory or the Diamond Fund because to see both would have cost me an extra 25 or 30 bucks.  I wasn't that interested.  I opted instead for the basic entry ticket, which pretty much just got me inside the Kremlin walls.

Inside the walls, I got to admire the outsides of the churches and other buildings, as well as see the Tsar Bell and the Tsar Cannon.  These were the largest of each ever made, although neither was ever actually used.

Once I finished my admittedly half-assed tour of the Kremlin, I walked around the wall to Red Square.

On my way, I stopped by the WWII Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Here there is a tomb with the remains of an unknown soldier, an eternal flame, and two soldiers on guard.  There is a changing of the guard every hour, but I didn't stick around to see it.

I continued walking to Red Square, which is a big cobblestone area surrounded by St. Basil's Cathedral, some other churches, Lenin's Tomb, the State History Museum, and a large shopping mall called GUM (which is derived from the initials of its Russian name).

The day I was there, Lenin's Tomb was closed, so I didn't get to see his waxy corpse.

I started at St. Basil's Cathedral, which was very impressive.  The building that stands today was started in the 1550s and since 1670 has pretty much looked exactly as it does now.  That's 335 years which isn't too shabby.  Of course, to put that in perspective, Moscow itself is over 850 years old.

I spent a lot of time checking out St. Basil's from every side, taking a lot of pictures as I went.  Then I bought a ticket to go inside.

There were many nice icons and other pieces of religious art and decoration.  Still, it kind of looked like the budget had been blown on the outside before the interior was considered.  It was interesting, though, to see how the fanciful architecture outside affected the inside.  Many of the rooms were small arched chambers and other unusual shapes.

I left before long, and admired the outside some more.

Then I went to GUM, a large, modern shopping mall, occupying several floors in a cool looking building.  I mostly went because I was freezing cold, and they had the furnaces blazing.  I spent a good deal of time stalling before I went back out, going into shops, but not really shopping.  The sad reality was that the longer I stalled, the later it got, and the colder it became.

Eventually, I went back out into the chill.  Like at the Hermitage, there were hat vendors a-plenty, and they were all hungry for a sale.  I checked out what they had, but still I did not buy.

It was getting dark by now, so I retraced my route back to the Embassy.

That night, Laurie and I went out to dinner.  As we walked, I amused myself by reading easy words written in Cyrillic.  These easy words mostly included English cognates (English words written in Cyrillic).  So, I could read things like casino and restaurant and salon and bar and supermarket, as well as some non-cognates like shop (magazin) and pharmacy (apteka).

We went to a Georgian restaurant where they were serving all the mouth-watering Atlanta specialties.  I'm just being stupid; it was food from the country Georgia.

All of the seating was upstairs, and the hostess station was downstairs.  When we arrived, the hostess told us it would be a few minutes, so we sat and waited.  And we waited and waited and waited.  Other people were arriving after us and being seated before us.  We couldn't tell if they had reservations or not, but either way you sliced it, we were not interested in waiting the whole night for a table.  Then just as we were about to leave and go to another restaurant, we were seated.  We followed our waitress up the stairs.  She, like the rest of the servers, was decked out in a costume that matched the theme of the place.

Laurie expertly interacted with the waitress in Russian doing all the normal restaurant things like ordering the food and sending the overcooked fish back to the kitchen.  Just kidding.  While I'm sure Laurie could have sent food back, it wasn't necessary since everything tasted great.  And it was great catching up with Laurie.

After that, I went back to Cory's and crashed for the night.

The next morning, I went back with Laurie for breakfast at the Embassy cafeteria.  Then I set out for my sightseeing for the day.  On the agenda this time was the Novodevichy Convent and the market at Izmaylovsky Park.  Both of these places were a bit far from the Embassy for walking, so I decided to take the metro.

As impressed as I was with the St. Petersburg metro, the Moscow one was way better.  The subway itself is the world's busiest.  According to Lonely Planet, it serves more daily customers than London and New York combined.  Plus, the Moscow metro looks so much better than either of these.  There are chandeliers and marble and mosaics and works of art in most of the stations.  It's a very grand, ornate, and robust system, and it is now my favorite metro in the world.

Anyway, I bought some tokens and got on the train.  I wasn't riding at rush hour, so there were plenty of open seats.  When we got to the station where I needed to transfer, I got out and started trying to find my onward train.  The transfer station was like a maze, and having all the signs in Cyrillic didn't help matters.  I managed to find the right train, though, and I reached my destination.  When I left that metro station, I felt a real sense of accomplishment.

I wasn't to Novodevichy, yet, though.  I still had to walk a few blocks.

Outside the metro station, I asked some people where the convent was, and all the people I asked shook their heads like they had no idea what I was talking about.  Realizing that no one wanted to lend a hand, I started walking in the direction I thought it might be.

Before long, I could see the domed spires sticking into the sky, and I walked over.  Novodevichy is where Peter the Great forced his half-sister Sofia to remain once he booted her off the throne.  After a family spat like that, holidays at the palace were a little awkward, I'm sure.

Novodevichy has a bell tower, some buildings with exhibits, a few churches, a famous cemetery, and an active community of monks and nuns.

I started by walking around and looking at the exteriors of all the buildings and the graves.  It was a beautiful place, and there were hardly any visitors.  After my face started to freeze, though, I went indoors.  There were two main exhibits while I was there.  The first was a large collection of icons and other religious art works.  I checked this out and took some photos.  Most of the pieces had an explanation in English.

Then I left to see the second exhibit.  On the way, I passed a gift shop that the nuns were running.  I stopped and bought some small icons for myself and my family.  They were Russian Orthodox, of course, but the characters are the same as in Roman Catholicism, for the most part.  That was a fun shopping experience because the nuns couldn't speak any English, but, being nuns, they were super nice and communicated quite effectively with gestures.

After the gift shop, I went to the second exhibit.  This one had a lot of artifacts and things in cases.  When I first entered, the nice woman manning the exhibit approached me.  When she saw that I couldn't speak Russian, she went and got me a sheet written in English that explained some of the exhibit.  She was a larger woman, and she was very smiley.  At both exhibits, the attendants held my winter clothing for me while I looked.  Before I left the second one, the happy Russian woman came over and readjusted everything I had just put on.  She wrapped my scarf much tighter, pulled my toboggan down further, and pulled all the ties on my jacket tightly, making sure the ends of my gloves were tucked inside the sleeves.  Clearly this woman was a mother.  Then she smiled me right out the door.

After that, I walked back toward the metro.  On the way, I stopped at a grocery store.  I was going to be starting my Trans-Siberian trip that evening, so I bought a few rations.

Then I was back on the train and on my way to Izmaylovsky Park.  At Izmaylovsky, there is a large handicraft and souvenir market on the weekends, but it is also open on weekdays with less vendors.  The handicrafts market is inside a gated area, and all around, there are vendors selling junk like counterfeit jeans and bootleg DVDs.

I went into the handicrafts section, and there was a lot of cool stuff.  There were a lot of paintings, traditional wooden crafts, some pottery and ceramics, some antiques, hats, clothing, KGB and other Soviet memorabilia, propaganda posters, military surplus items, a few carpets, knives, jewelry, and more.

I walked through the whole market and chatted with the few people whose wares interested me.  Then I came back through later to purchase.

My first stop was to a woman selling paintings.  I was interested in buying an oil painting of St. Basil's.  The vendor told me the price, and I offered a counter price.  The vendor didn't bite.  Instead, she offered me a painting half the size.  I told her that I really wanted the larger one and made another offer.  She still wasn't interested.  I decided to try the walk-away, so that she would realize she was about to kiss a sale good-bye.  At the very least, this should have opened up the bargaining dialog, I thought.  So I walked away, and she didn't care one bit.  Supposedly, bargaining was recommended in this market, but I wasn't having any luck with this woman.

Once I walked away from the paintings, I didn't go back.  I continued on to a wooden craftswoman's table.  What she had that I wanted was a matryoshka (wooden nesting doll) set that featured the Simpsons.  At this booth, the woman knew how to play the bargaining game, and she made a sale.  In addition to the dolls, I got a little wooden lady with a round base that would make a jingling noise as she rocked back and forth.

Then I headed for the exit.

On my way out, I passed the hat section.  I had intended to get a hat anyway, so I stopped for a look.  One young man called me over to his stand, and he spoke a bit of English.  These shops had a wide variety of hats in a wide variety of materials.  They had everything from wool to leather to mink to rabbit to wolf.  They also had different ages of animal (wolf vs. young wolf, for example).  They carried both men's and women's hats, so in addition to the natural colors, there were also hats dyed other colors – like purple and red, for example – for all the fashionable ladies.

I spent a while trying on these hats and checking them in the mirror.  It seemed to me that the more ridiculous the hat looked on me, the better the salesman claimed it looked.  We were having a good time, though.  As I tried on the hats, he served me shots of vodka.  This was helpful because the sun was setting, and it was really getting chilly.

The salesman would have me inspect the stitching of the hats, and, yes, I was able to confirm that the hats were indeed stitched.  He was also keen on showing me how easily the hats would travel, so he would take them all and wad them up into tiny bundles.  Then he would give them a violent shaking and they'd be back to normal.

I ended up getting a rabbit hat and a leather toboggan for a cheap price.  Of course, rabbit is one of the cheapest furs around since it's a lot easier to raise and kill a rabbit than a larger animal like a fox.  We had a good laugh because the vendor kept trying to add more hats into the sale.  I told him I'd take whatever he wanted to give me, but that I wasn't going to spend any more rubles.  I left with the two hats, and that was enough.

Being the shameless tourist I am, I wore that rabbit hat the rest of my trip.

With my hats and toys in tow, I left the market.  As I passed by the lady with the paintings, she held up some other ugly painting for me to see.  She clearly wasn't understanding the situation.  I wanted the painting that I had discussed with her earlier, but not at her price.  I gave her the big nyet on her final offer.

Outside the handicrafts section, I bought a sausage from a street vendor who was mixed in among the jeans vendors. It was pork-a-licious.

Then I caught the subway back to the Embassy.

Cory, seeing my purchases from the market, offered to mail the stuff back to Islamabad for me so that I wouldn't have to carry it with me for the rest of my trip.  This was very helpful.  I kept the hats with me (so I could use them in Siberia) and he took the religious art from Novodevichy and my wooden pieces from Izmaylovsky.

When he saw my rabbit hat, he told me the problem with rabbit.  Evidently, it starts shedding after one season.  However, I would meet a man later in my trip whose rabbit hat lasted for a good many years without going bald.  Either way, though, it didn't really matter to me.  For one, I had already made the purchase, so looking at its shortcomings wasn't helpful at that point.  And two, if the hat fell apart in a year, I had plenty of other ways to keep my head warm.

That night, Cory and some of his friends took me to a bar.  Laurie expressed interest in joining but decided against it when she heard it was a guy's night out.

The place we went was on Arbat Street, I think, and it was an Irish pub-type place, I think.  Sadly, I'm a little fuzzy on the details on account of the alcohol that was soon to follow.

At this guy's night out, there was me, Cory, a lot of law enforcement people, and a handful of other non-law enforcement people.  Of the law enforcement crowd, most of the Embassy security officers were there, as well as some people from other agencies – FBI or Customs or Homeland Security maybe.  Of this group of law enforcement people from other agencies, there was actually one woman at this "guy's night out".  Being a federal agent, though, she fit right in.  Not that women federal agents are manly, mind you.  They're just tough.

Anyhow, this was the scene.  We all set to work on tankards of beer, and I got to hear a lot of entertaining stories about life in Moscow – stories about dating, partying, oddball personalities, and humorous events.  I was sitting near the Embassy security agents, many of whom were quite animated.

Many people ordered dinner, but I wasn't particularly hungry having just eaten some appetizer bread, and I didn't order anything.  The food came before long; the others ate, and I drank.  Cory ordered a thick, tasty-looking club sandwich, and when he got full and offered me his remaining half along with some fries, he didn't have to ask twice.  That was just what the doctor ordered.

After dinner, we went back to drinking and shooting the breeze.

Then all of the sudden, at the appointed hour, the kitchen doors flew open and out trotted a crew of people.  There were four or five ladies and four or five guys, and they were all showing a lot of skin.

The guys at our table all showed mock surprise and concern at this.

"Huh?" someone wondered aloud, "What's going on here?" (wink, wink)

"I had no idea this place was like this," another responded in mock indignation.  "I am shocked and appalled!"

Of course this got a good laugh because they all knew that this place had nightly floorshows.

What apparently did surprise them, though, was the theme for this night.  It used to be something else, but when I was there, it had been changed to tequila night.  In keeping with the theme, the dancers had on sombreros or cowboy hats and Mexican-looking bits of clothing.

As it was tequila night, there was a tequila challenge.  The challenge was to see which table could take the most tequila shots.  This meant that our table of like 15 was "competing" against tables for two.  Obviously, coupled with the dancers, it was just a ploy to sell drinks.  Yes, I know: I'm a sharp one.

Several of the dancers came over to our table which was a logical choice since we were the largest group there.  They set us up for a round of shots, poured from their holstered tequila bottles.

There was some grumbling from some of the guys in our group when the male dancers came over, but the male dancers stuck close to the female dancers.  I suppose the reason for this was twofold: the guys were there to entertain the female and gay patrons and to make sure that no one got too friendly with the girls.

While most of the dancers were engaged in pushing tequila, there were a few ladies without tequila holsters who were there just to dance in the aisles.

Most of us took our shots without assistance, but some people did body shots with the dancing girls.

It was all in good fun, but, as they say, all good things must come to an end.  I had a train to catch.

Before we had gotten to the bar, I had mentioned to Cory and some of the others that I didn't have any rubles left.  They were going to show me a place to change my dollars that was near the bar, but we never got around to it.  This meant that as I was leaving, I had no rubles to throw into the pot.  I offered to pay my portion in American dollars, but the guys wouldn't hear of it.  They covered me.  It was a generous crew.

The bar was just a few minutes from the Embassy, and I made it back without incident.  I was running behind schedule, though, and the driver was already waiting for me.

I rushed back to Cory's house and grabbed all my junk.  Then I rushed down the street to say good-bye to Laurie and to thank her for all her help.

Then I hopped in the car, and Vladimir and I zipped down to the train station.

The Great Train Robbery

When we got to the train station, Vladimir helped find my berth and to carry my bags.  I was carrying my main large backpack, and he was carrying my smaller carry-on bag that I normally kept stuffed in the bigger bag.

Anyhow, we found my room and Vladimir tossed the small bag on my bunk.  I was booked in kupe (2nd class), which wasn't exactly what I had asked for.  I had told the travel agent that I wanted the cheapest class on the train that came with a bed.  The cheapest class with a bed was actually platskartny (3rd class).  In this class, there are like 50 bunks in an open car, and the experience of staying in this class has been likened to staying in a refugee camp because there are tons of people doing everything imaginable with no privacy.  I didn't specifically order platskartny because not every train offered it.  My train did, though.  I guess that the travel agents had just assumed that I would not want to say in platskartny, even if that was the cheapest.

In any case, I wound up with kupe.  In kupe, there are four bunks in a private room with a locking door.

Once Vladimir dropped off my bag, we walked back out in the corridor.  I pulled out my wallet to pay him and to give him a tip, which I did.

Then, a huge struggle ensued.  It was me versus my jacket.  Specifically, I was wearing my big jacket and my big backpack, and I trying to put my wallet back in my back pocket.  I kept shoving my jacket into my pocket, which wouldn't allow the wallet in.  It was comically stupid.

For like a minute, I was standing in the train corridor, trying to shove my wallet into my pocket, when all of the sudden…

My wallet was gone.  Someone took it from my hand and ran off the train.

As the theft happened, I was standing near the train door, right next to Vladimir, the train policeman, and the provodnitsa (attendant) for my car.

"Someone just took my wallet!" I observed in disbelief.

Everyone casually looked around.  They seemed to be missing the gravity of the situation.

Then Vladimir suggested that maybe I dropped the wallet.  As little sense as this made, I was ready to grasp at straws.  I got on my hands and knees and started feeling around the floor.  Nothing.  Then I got up and checked the area of tracks between the platform and the train car, you know, just in case I dropped the wallet and it magically flew out the door and fell on the tracks.

By the time I started any searching, I already knew the wallet was gone.  And when my quick search was over, I allowed myself an outburst.

I let loose with a dramatic, "C-R-A-A-A-A-P!!!"

I even had the shaking-angry-fist thing going.  It was very theatrical if I do say.

There are very few situations where you can yell at the top of your lungs in public and people don't mind.  This was one.  My outburst was at least as intense as Darth Vader's cornball "NOOOOO!" when his wife dies in the last Star Wars prequel.

I was yelling as much for the loss of my wallet as for the I-told-you-so's that I had just opened myself up to.  This thought instantly crossed my mind, and I felt like the kid in A Christmas Story who shoots himself in the eye with his BB gun after everyone warns him that he will shoot himself in the eye with his BB gun.

After I yelled, Vladimir turned to me.  "Was your wallet stolen?" he asked.

This got no response.

The train cop and the provodnitsa were still just standing there.

Finally the provodnitsa spoke up.  "Time to leave," she said.  "You stay or you go?"

The train started ever so slowly to roll, and I got on.

Now Vladimir was concerned.

"Please come back with me to the Embassy," he pleaded.  "How can you go without any money?"

How could I go without money?  Easily.  I made a quick calculation.  I still had my plane and train tickets, my passport, and rations.  Specifically, I had in my backpack five loaves of bread, a Dr. Pepper, a box of snack cakes, and a bottle of vodka.  This might not have been ideal sustenance for a 10-day journey, but it would have worked.

I recall once hearing a doctor say something to this effect: "Any Joe Blow off the street can survive for two weeks without food.  He might not be happy about it, but he'll be alive."

That's talking about having no food and for two weeks.  I was only going for 10 days and I had some food.  Plus, you don't burn that many calories sitting on your butt on a train all day.

In addition to all of the reasons I felt that I was still prepared to make the journey, I also did not want to abort at this point because if I had not gotten on the train then, I would not have been able to do it at all.  The Trans-Siberian only departs every other day, which would have meant that my whole trip would have been ruined.  I simply didn't have the time in my schedule to absorb rescheduling.  Not to mention, the train tickets that I did have were non-refundable.  I had already wasted my money on the Beijing train tickets and didn't intend to lose any more money this way.

So, I was definitely going to go, with or without money.  I figured that I could surely get access to a phone or to the internet at some point, and then I could fix everything.

I bid farewell to Vladimir, who I would later find out rushed back to the Embassy and blabbed to everyone about my misfortune.  He only did it out of concern, though, so it's all good.

One thing that I found funny about Vladimir in retrospect was that when I had been robbed, I had just paid him.  I know he couldn't return the fare for the ride, but he could have at least given me back the tip if he was so concerned.  That $10 would have gone a long way.  I don't fault him for not offering, but I do find it amusing.  It may have just slipped his mind.

Anyway, the provodnitsa latched the train door, and I went to my room.  The whole incident from theft to departure probably lasted no more than two or three minutes, but, of course, it seemed a lot longer at the time.

Some of you are no doubt thinking, "But you had been drinking before this happened. You kind of brought this on yourself."

To which I would say, "With all due respect, screw you."

For starters, I know that no one is 100% after a night of beer and tequila.  Still, I felt fine and was totally functional.  Even if I hadn't been, though, it doesn't matter.  My failure to take precautions (like keeping money in various locations instead of in just one place) and my decision to cloud my mind with alcohol do not mean I deserved to be robbed or that I had it coming.  That's like the old rape thing where people say a woman had it coming because she was drunk or dressed to sexily or in the wrong part of town.  I am responsible for making myself an attractive target.  The hoodlum who robbed me is the only person responsible for the crime that occurred, though.

You may or may not agree with this, and that's OK.  I certainly don't want any sympathy, though, because losing my wallet ended up greatly enhancing my trip.  Really.

Once I got to my bunk, I went through a quick inventory of what I had lost.  As far as I could tell, the thief got away with about $700 in cash (the Pakistani rupee equivalent of $100 and $600 in U.S. dollars), two credit cards, an ATM card, my Pakistani diplomatic ID card, my U.S. driver's license, my voter registration card, an expired library card for Prince George's County, Maryland, and – oh! the humanity – my CVS ExtraCare card.

This was my most expensive loss to date - way worse than my stolen camera in India.

I did get a good laugh, though, picturing the thief trying to use my DiscoverCard.  Good luck!  They have negligible coverage overseas.  I also derived some amusement in that part of my cash was in Pakistani rupees.  It's not exactly a global currency.

And my wallet itself, while still nice, was nearly 10 years old.  It was a good time for a change.  Another silver lining!

By thinking such thoughts, I was able to cut my brooding time down to 20 or 30 minutes.  Then everything was fine.

I was sharing a room with three Russian men.  Two were traveling together and looked more blue collar.  The third was traveling alone and was wearing a suit.

In the room, there were two sets of bunk beds along the walls and a table in between.  I had a lower bunk.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad on -110 Rubles a Day


The Kindness of Strangers

     (Part I: Moscow to Irkutsk)

The four of us were sitting around the table, on my bunk and the other lower bunk, when the train left Moscow.  It didn't take the guys in my car long to discern that I couldn't speak Russian, and they talked amongst themselves.

Very shortly after we started moving, the provodnitsa came around to distribute linens.  The linen service cost 40 rubles, which comes to about $1.50.  The other people in my room paid and got their sheets, blanket, and towel.  I, of course, couldn't pay, so I told the provodnitsa to skip me.  This woman, who had just seen me get robbed, clearly hadn't understood what she had witnessed, for she continued to request 40 rubles.

I quickly flipped through the Russian phrase book that I had borrowed from my good friend Jody, and combining some phrases, I came up with this statement in Russian: "My wallet was stolen; I have no money."  In actuality, what I was saying was more along the lines of, "My wallet has stolen; I am no ruble."

As incoherent as my statement was, however, everyone understood.  The provodnitsa allowed me to go without linens, and left to tend to the other passengers.  While she was gone, my three roommates took a renewed interest in me.  They could all speak a little English, and they started asking about my wallet.

They decided to pay for my linens, so the three of them got 40 rubles together.  Soon the provodnitsa returned to our room, carrying the sack of linens.  The men gave her the money for mine, but she wouldn't accept it.  In the interval that the provodnitsa had been gone, she had had a change of heart.  She was going to give me the linens free of charge.  I knew how to say thank you in Russian, so I expressed my gratitude the best I could.

Even as I type this, many months later, their kindness still gets to me.

It was already past midnight at the time, so we soon retired for the night.  The train would stop every few hours – sometimes, much more frequently – for a period of between 2 and 25 minutes, depending on the stop.  We all slept straight through the night, though.

The next morning, we woke when a woman knocked on the door to serve breakfast.  The breakfast consisted of four or five dishes in a plastic box.  The woman delivered three boxes of food for my three roommates.  I didn't see them order this service, so maybe they did so when they purchased their tickets.

Now is when I would have pulled out the bread from my pack, but I didn't get the chance.  The man in the suit gave his meal to me.  Unlike the rest of us, he was only riding for a short way.  I thanked him and ate while he put his suit back on.  Then he departed at one of the first stops of the day.

This left me and the other two guys.

Before long, we started talking again.  I told them that my name was Chris, and then one of the guys told me his name was Marat.  His friend also introduced himself.

"I'm Jacque," he told me, "so to you, Jack... no, to you, John."

I suppose he was telling me what his name would be in English.  I could have gone with Jacque, but I called him John as he requested.

So, it was me, Marat, and John.

They started asking more about the robbery, and Marat told me his theory.  He felt that someone had heard me speaking English to the driver and had followed me with the goal of robbing me.  Since I had been robbed in the train car, I had initially thought that one of my train mates had done it.  If this had been the case, I thought that the thief had some real gall.  Once I heard Marat's version, I came around to his way of thinking.

In the time before I came around to Marat's theory, I had been checking the bathroom and the trashcans in the hope that the thief had taken my cash and discarded the rest of the wallet in one of these places.

Marat had the better English of the two of them, and we talked about a lot of things.  He told me at one point that he and John worked in benzene.  I knew this was Russian for gasoline, so I had this vision of them working at a gas station.  Then, as if Marat could see my thoughts, he started doing a charades maneuver to show me that he did drilling.  I understood.  He and John worked in the Siberian oil industry.

He went on to tell me how they traveled to different sites for months at a time and earned about 500 USD a month, which was good money.  They showed me photographs of their wives and kids.

I started telling them about myself by telling them that I worked at the American Embassy in Pakistan.

"Oh, are you a student?" John responded.

So, I decided to switch to Russian to explain.  I found a few phrases in the book, and that helped them to understand.

When John was straight on the fact that I wasn't a student, he inquired about my age.  When I told him 28, his guess had been 22.  His guess was consistent with what I was getting from Russians pretty much across the board.  This was just another example of how people sometimes have a hard time discerning the age of outsiders.

He asked if I was married, and I told him no.  And for once, I wasn't lectured for being "old" and single.

For a lot of the time, we would just sit there, looking out the windows.  Then, when someone saw something interesting or thought of something to say, he would break the silence.

Also, when the train stopped (except for the quick two-minute stops), we would usually get off and walk around on the platform.

At first, I would put on all my winter clothes to go out, but after a few stops, I got lazy.  I would leave my sweater, scarf, and gloves behind, and just put on my jacket over my t-shirt.  I was too lazy even to put on socks with my shoes.  I would wear my rabbit hat, though, which got rave reviews from the Russians.

It was definitely cold, but in the 10 or 20 minutes we had for the break, I wasn't going to freeze or anything.

At the platforms, there were always vendors.  Sometimes, it would just be a lone woman selling rolls, and sometimes there would be several vendors selling food, cigarettes, newspapers, and so forth.  At practically every stop, John and Marat would buy me something either to eat or drink, be it beer or a pastry.

One item that they frequently bought me was fish.  There were these salty, smoked whole fish that were maybe 15 or 18 inches long.  You eat on them for a few minutes, and, voila, you have a fully stripped fish skeleton and maybe some skin.  Sometimes I ate the skin and sometimes I left it.  These were pretty tasty, but they sure left my fingers greasy.

At one stop, we were talking and walking around and John started smoking.  Then he asked me if I smoked.

Like in a movie, I went through a dialog in my head. "Did I smoke?"  That was a good question.  I looked down at my wrist, and noticing my WWMD bracelet, I asked myself, "What would Mollie do?"  And the answer was clear.

"Yes, John," I responded, "I do smoke."

I figured there was no harm in it, and it would be a great socializer.

John was glad to hear, and he offered me a cigarette.  He smoked some Russian brand.  As we were smoking and joking, I observed that he was a fast smoker.  I therefore tailored my smoking speed to match his.

Throughout the rest of our time together, John would always hit me up to smoke at the stops.  He was glad to have me because Marat wasn't much of a smoker and only joined him every few hours.  It always entertained me when John would ask me to smoke because he talked slow and deep, like the giant in the Mickey and the Beanstalk cartoon.

Whenever I'd hear, "CREEESE… SMOOOKE," I had to smile.

John would do the same thing at meals. "CREEESE….EEEEAT."

Speaking of eating, the meal service continued as before.  Marat and John received a plastic box at each meal, and I didn't.  They always fed me, though.  I ended up eating more than them at most meals, but they wouldn't allow me to not eat.  Even after many meals together, though, I never presumed to take any food without being invited.  And I was invited every time.

At one stop, Marat bought a newspaper that featured many naked women in the ad section.  He explained matter-of-factly that these women were prostitutes advertising their services.

This newspaper led to a game that occupied us for an hour or two.  One person would pick a handful of the naked ladies, and then we'd all sort them by age, based on their appearances.  You might think this would be cut and dry, but, it wasn't.  There were many heated discussions on these rankings, but the topic was so ridiculous, it always ended in laughs.

On the first day we spent together, Marat and John decided that they wanted to help me with my theft issue.  Unbeknownst to me, they had arranged with the provodnitsa for me to use the train phone to call the Embassy in Moscow.

They brought me to her room and explained what they wanted me to do.  Yet again, they were going to foot the bill.

I told them the phone number, and they called.  As I used the phone, Marat, John, and the provodnitsa stood around me and watched.  It was after business hours at the Embassy when we called, so the Marine Security Guard answered the phone.  I told him that I needed to speak with the duty officer, and he very briefly put me on hold to look up the number.  At that point, I looked over at Marat.

"Please hurry," he told me with a sad look in his eyes. "This is very expensive."

I felt like a heel.  There wasn't really anything the Embassy could do for me anyway, and here I was wasting Marat and John's money.  When the Marine came back on the line to transfer me, I told him it wasn't necessary, wished him a good night, and hung up.

As if it wasn't obvious that I had accomplished nothing when I hung up, Marat asked, "Can they help?"

I told him that, yes, everything had been taken care of.  My three onlookers were all smiles at this news.

Then we went back to our room.

That night, while we were sitting around, I asked if they liked vodka.  Of course, they did.  In order to thank them, I pulled out my bottle from my pack.  As soon as I did, Marat jumped up and locked the door.  He explained to me how only beer was allowed in the rooms and how hard liquor was only supposed to be purchased and consumed in the dining car.  He was very weary of the guards, who he said would fine us and cause other trouble if they caught us.  I had no reason to doubt him.

With that out of the way, he inspected my bottle.  He seemed pleased, and he asked me where I had gotten it.  I told him St. Petersburg, and he told me that that was good.  Then he warned me to never buy vodka in Russia east of Moscow because people commonly refilled empty bottles with homebrew and resold them.  This homebrew had killed and injured many people.  He said that even bottles with the proper seals and labels on the cap were not necessarily safe because many people had the equipment to reseal bottles so that they appeared like factory-sealed bottles.

Marat and John reached into their packs.  John produced a bottle of some syrupy alcohol that was meant to be added to coffee.  Marat, meanwhile, produced a bottle of homemade hooch that his father had made.  Yessirree, we were going to have some fun.

With our three bottles of booze on the table, Marat prepared the accompanying food.  Between the remainders of dinner, which we hadn't yet finished, and things that he had in his pack, there must have been a dozen different foods with which to chase the alcohol.  There was a little pile of bread cubes, some pieces of fish, some pickle slices, some lemon slices, a few kinds of cheese, some sausage slices, some potatoes, some pieces of cake, and a few other things.

Once the table was set, we started with the fun.

Marat would pour everyone a shot in the disposable plastic cups we had been saving up from the meals.  Then he or John would make the toast, we would all shoot the shot, and then we'd each have a piece of food before moving on to the next round.  In Russia, there is a very specific series of toasts that everyone seems to know, like for example, the third drink is always to the women, and the sixth is always to the Navy, and so forth.  I don't know the order, so my examples are made-up.  In any case, Marat and John knew the order, and everything was going fine.  It got fouled up, though, when they decided to let me join the toasting.

We all had our glasses up, and Marat turned to me.  "Your turn, Chris."

I figured that the toasting didn't really matter, and I didn't know the order anyway, so I just made something up.

"To the babushkas!" I announced.  [A babushka is a grandmother or an old woman in general.]

As I started lowering my raised glass to drink the vodka, I noticed that Marat and John were not joining me.  They were stunned, just sitting there speechless.  Finally, after a moment or two, Marat regained consciousness.  He slowly repeated what I had said, "To the babushkas..."

Then he came around.  "Yes, why not!" he laughed.  "To the babushkas!"

We all drank our portion.  Crisis averted.

We ended up drinking all three bottles of booze, and I got numerous opportunities to lead the toast.  Even after I had botched it three or four times, Marat and John still seemed shocked each time it would happen.  I was pulling out all sorts of stupid things – a toast to the provodnitsas, a toast to Sputnik, a toast to matryoshkas, a toast to the sturgeon and their delicious caviar…

We had hit the point where we were all drunk enough that everything was funny.

Once we finished all the liquor, John put on his coat and concealed the bottles in the sleeves.  Then he unbolted the door and secretly stashed the bottles in the trashcan at the end of the hall.  The fun wasn't over yet, though.

When John returned, he was carrying a few of the two-liter bottles of beer.  Of course, we killed those too.

By now, we were all feeling a mite bit sleepy, so we started getting ready for bed.  I excused myself to "brush my teeth".  While I did brush my teeth, the main reason for my trip to the bathroom was to puke.  I didn't need to vomit, but I wanted to.  Normally, I would have slept the alcohol off, but I didn't even want to fool with it on a train that would be rocking back and forth all night.  In the bathroom, I sent puking vibes to my stomach, and in one fell swoop, I emptied my stomach in the toilet.  It was totally mess-free.

Then I brushed my teeth, returned to my room, and slept like a baby.

The next morning, John and Marat were totally confounded.  Both of them outweighed me by a large margin and presumably had plenty of drinking experience, but they were the ones with the raging hangovers.  For my part, I felt just fine, and I didn't see any reason to divulge to them that I had thrown up the night before, thereby avoiding their fate.

When breakfast came, John couldn't even look at it.  Marat and I ate the two servings.  John would periodically look at me and grab his head, shaking it back and forth, to convey that he was messed up.  Then he would point to me.

"You, no?" he would ask.

Then I'd tell him that I was okay.

John and Marat slept a lot that day.

That night of drinking would be my last real drinking on the train.  After that, it was only beer.

Later during that day, as we were sitting in the room talking, two young women walked by our open door.

Marat looked over at me.  "Hey, there are some Americans," he told me with a smile.

In their two-second pass by the door, I could tell by their movement that while they weren't Russian, these ladies also weren't American.  Marat seemed puzzled that I didn't jump up and go after them, but I didn't see much point in it.

On this train, I was riding from Moscow to Irkutsk, a journey of 5,185 kilometers (3,215 miles) over about three and a half days.  This leg actually spanned five calendar days, but the first and last days were only partials.  We passed through such towns as Nizhny Novgorod, Vyatka, Perm, Yekaterinburg (which people call E-Kat), Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk, along with numerous other little towns and villages.  We passed through pine forests, industrial zones, snowy fields, and grassy steppes.  We crossed the Urals, which divide Europe and Asia, and some other hilly terrain.  We crossed several rivers, with the Volga, Russia's
largest, being the most impressive.  Any train aficionado knows the joy of crossing a train bridge, and we had a few of these to enjoy.

It was a nice landscape to behold.  The wooden houses of Siberian reminded me of American frontier buildings, kind of like Little House on the Prairie.

One thing about the terrain that I also found interesting was the snow, or rather the lack thereof.  I had this picture of Siberia as being covered by feet of snow, but this wasn't the case at all.  The places that had snow didn't have more than a few inches, or maybe a foot at the most.  A lot of places didn't have a bit of snow, like the region of steppes north of Mongolia.  Here, there were just rolling, golden fields of grass as far as the eye could see.  Siberia does get very cold and the ground and water freeze, but the weather patterns don't seem to favor snow.  At least they didn't when I was passing through.

Our train car had about ten rooms, each with four bunks, a bathroom on either end, the provodnitsa quarters, a children's play room, and a samovar with hot water.  There was a train schedule posted in the middle of the car that showed the time, location, and duration of each stop.  I must say that the train kept on a very tight schedule.  I think we hit every stop right on time.

The bathrooms were pretty basic; each just had a metal sink and a metal toilet.  The toilet was a bowl with a trap door which would swing open when you flushed and dump the toilet's contents directly on the tracks.  The provodnitsas (there were two per train car who would manage things in shifts) were responsible for cleaning the bathrooms and they did a pretty good job.  In certain urban areas and during long breaks, they would lock the bathrooms.  I assume this was to prevent people from dumping a lot of sewage in these areas where people lived.

With two bathrooms for forty people, there were frequently lines.  The worst lines were in the mornings, in the evenings, and periods immediately after the bathrooms had been locked.  The bathrooms were important not only for using the toilet and shaving and general hygiene purposes, but people also had to wash their dishes there.  It was funny in the mornings, though, to see everyone standing in line with bed-head, holding their toiletry kits, waiting for their turn.  I would usually wash-up later in the morning to avoid the rush.

My body seemed to take note of the bathroom situation, and my gastrointestinal problems piped down.  They were still there, but without any sense of urgency.

One good thing about the bathroom was that it was cold.  I found the rest of the car to be very warm.  Of course, this is all in the eye of the beholder.  Marat and John seemed to think it was cold.  I spent my days on the train in a t-shirt and shorts, and I was still too hot.  Meanwhile, Marat and John, like all the other Russians, were wearing sweaters and sweats the whole time.  They kept asking me if I was cold.

For diversions, I only had two guidebooks to read (which I never did) and a pad of paper.  I ended up doing quite a bit of writing, and Marat and John were keenly interested.  They asked if I was going to write a story about them, and I told them that I would in time.  They were quite pleased.  At the time, though, I was writing about things that had happened months prior.

Besides writing, I spent the rest of my time sleeping, eating, refilling my Dr. Pepper bottle with scalding water from the samovar so that I could drink it later, smoking, chatting, looking out the window, drinking tea, aging prostitutes in the newspaper, walking on platforms, asking Marat and John things in Russian using my phrase book, and listening to the music the provodnitsas piped through the car.  It was definitely a leisurely 3 ½ days, but I wasn't bored.  I was rather enjoying myself, actually.

Marat and John were not going all the way to Irkutsk, and we parted ways at Tayshet.  Before they left, Marat gave me all his left-over tea and sugar, and John gave me some cigarettes and some slippers.  Marat also wrote his address and phone number on a piece of paper so that I could look him up when I returned to Russia.

I was very sad to see them go.  They were my only friends on the train at that point, and when they left, I had a lonely eleven hours remaining before Irkutsk.

It was late when they left, and I went to sleep shortly thereafter.  The next morning, I woke up and squandered away a few hours.  As we approached Irkutsk, the provodnitsa came to my room to give me the bill for my call to the Embassy a few days earlier.  As you will recall, Marat and John were going to pay for this.  Unfortunately, the provodnitsa brought the bill too late, and they were gone.  So, I had a bill for 400 rubles (about $15), and still no money with which to pay it.  The provodnitsa knew by now that I didn't have any money.  Since she brought me the bill, though, I figured she still wanted payment of some sort.  All I could do was barter, so I started fishing in my backpack for anything of value.  I laid out a few things on my bed – my guidebooks, a t-shirt, my scarf, and a silk sleep sheet – that were worth well more than $15.  The provodnitsa looked everything over and seemed most interested in the silk.  The silk sleep sheet was a thick navy blue silk sheet that I had stitched in Pakistan like a sleeping bag.  I brought it to use in hostels and other places in the event that I found the sheets too gross to use.  I never did need to use it, though.

After she had looked for a few moments, the provodnitsa excused herself.  She came back a few minutes later and told me in her broken English that everything was OK.  She had covered the bill for me.  Yet another act of kindness; I was most appreciative.

The bartering was no longer necessary, so I packed my things.  A few minutes later, we rolled into Irkutsk.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad on -110 Rubles a Day


The Kindness of Strangers

     (Part II: Irkutsk)

Many people stop in Irkutsk, as I did, to see Lake Baikal.  Lake Baikal is the world's deepest lake.  It is supposed to be very beautiful and amazingly clear; visibility in the water is up to 40 meters.  The lake is slowly continuing to grow, and in several million years, it is poised to become the next ocean.  It also supports a wide variety of unique plants and animals.

When I got off the train in Irkutsk, there were a bunch of taxi hacks yelling at me.  When I told them I didn't have any money, they were all suddenly gone without a trace.  It was then that I decided I would like to seek out some other tourists.  I walked the length of the platform to see who I could find, and I came across the two young women I had seen walking past my room on the train a few days ago.  They were the only tourists that I found, and they later told me that they were sure there was no one else (for they had also checked).

I introduced myself and asked if I could hang out with them for a bit.  They were more than happy for me to join them.  My two new friends, the lovely and talented Helene and Larissa, were from the Netherlands, and they were great company.  They were 22 and 23 years old, respectively, and, having just finished college, they were traveling for a few months while they decided what to do next with their lives.  The Trans-Siberian Railroad was pretty early in their trip.  They were going to Beijing, like I had originally planned to do.

As they were backpacking for a few months, they had a very tight budget and were very frugal.  Heck, they made me look like a big spender.  Since I didn't have any money, though, I wasn't a big spender at the time.

The town of Irkutsk was a half-hour walk from the train station across the Angara River.  None of us wanted to take a taxi, so we set out on foot.

While we walked, we shared our experiences thus far on the train.  I told them about getting robbed and about the great time I had had afterward.  Then they told me about their trip.  They had booked two bunks in a four-person room.  When the other people came in the room, there was some dissatisfaction amongst some of the roommates, and the provodnitsa relocated the other people, giving the girls their own room.  They hadn't met a single Russian on their whole trip.  They thought this was great, but I thought it sounded horrible.  They were happy just spending time together – talking, reading, and keeping journals.  To each his own, I guess.

Helene and Larissa seemed to have been a headache to the provodnitsas as well.  They told me how they had taken over the bathroom and rigged some hose to the sink to build a makeshift shower.  This is actually suggested in the Lonely Planet book, which they read like a Bible, but I didn't think it was a good idea.  For one thing, the bathroom is not designed to be used as a shower and as such, everything would get wet.  That's not such a big deal, though.  The other more important thing is that the makeshift shower was a waste of resources and I'm sure a big time-consumer.  If their bathroom was as popular as mine, I'm sure there were people lined up waiting for them to finish.  In the end, they got chewed out by the provodnitsa for the shower stunt.  They both found this hilarious.

We walked across the bridge, and then set out to find the ladies a place to stay.  They had some places earmarked in their guidebook that they wanted to look at.  As we walked, we admired the traditional wooden buildings in Irkutsk.

It was pretty cold, and there was ice everywhere.  The three of us slipped and caught ourselves many times. Only one of us completely wiped out, though, and that was Larissa.

After getting lost, we found the area of one of the cheap hotels they wanted to try.  We found what we thought was the building, but we couldn't find an entrance.  Several people tried to assist, but they were no help.  One couple was walking with their young daughter. She was maybe 10 years old.  Evidently, she was learning English in school, though, because her father called her over to talk to us.  We would speak to her in English, then she would relay back to her father in Russian what was said, and he would tell her what to tell us.  Ultimately, they weren't able to help either.

We decided to continue poking around, and finally we found the front desk to this place.  It wasn't at the same address as the rooms.  I plopped down in a chair in the nice, heated lobby while the Dutch girls talked with the woman at the desk.

Soon they joined me in a bit of a huff.  The hotel was divided into two parts – the cheap side and the regular side.  It turned out that the cheap side was full, which the ladies didn't appreciate, and to make matters worse, the woman at the desk had apparently been rude to them.

Since the first place was a bust, we moved on to the second option.  It was clear across town.  We found it without much trouble and rang the buzzer.

A large, stern woman answered the door.  She showed the girls a room that she had available, and they decided to take it.  When the woman told them the rate, a big ruckus ensued.  The price that the woman told them was higher than what was quoted in the guidebook, and they felt they were being ripped off.  I was cringing at this because there are several disclaimers in Lonely Planet guidebooks that warn that prices change and that the book should not be taken as authoritative in such matters.

The woman gave them a slight discount, but not to the level stated in the guidebook.  They accepted while continuing to grumble under their breath.  All the while, the manager woman kept looking over at me suspiciously.

"You pay for two?  You pay for three?" she asked us.

We assured her that I was only visiting, but that I wouldn't be spending the night.

In reality, though, we had other plans.  The girls were going to get a room and then sneak me inside.  I could then sleep on the floor and secretly use the shared shower.

Once they booked their room, they decided that they wanted to shower right away.  So, one of them stayed and talked with me while the other showered, and then they traded places.

When they were ready, we went back outside.  They wanted to help me, so we set out to find an internet café.  We found a place that was listed in the book, and it was great.  There were maybe a dozen terminals with high-speed internet as well as a coffee bar.

They paid for three machines for an hour, and we all logged on.  This was the first time in the four days since I had been robbed that I got on the internet, and I was a little nervous about seeing my credit card accounts for the first time.  After all, my cards had been out of my possession for four days and I hadn't yet notified the credit card companies of the theft.

All was well, though. There were no fraudulent charges on my accounts, and I was able to e-mail customer service and have all my accounts frozen.

The next order of business for me was to cancel a hotel reservation I had in Lahore for my last night of vacation.  Security rules at the Embassy required that I stay at this hotel in Lahore or one of two others.  However, without money, I wouldn't be able to stay in any of the hotels.  I was going to remain instead in the Lahore airport for the whole night.

In order to get the hotel cancelled, I e-mailed some of my friends at the Embassy.  I didn't actually know any of their e-mail addresses, however, since I usually e-mailed them through my work e-mail account and not my personal e-mail account.  I guessed, though.  The e-mail address naming convention for the State Department is nothing tricky.  For me, the only problem was remembering people's middle initials, but this wasn't a huge problem in the end.

I sent an e-mail to three people – my friends Anton, Kaki, and Traci – quickly explaining my situation and requesting for them to cancel the hotel in Lahore.

While I was online, I read some messages I had received from Laurie.  She had heard about the robbery from Vladimir and was quite worried.  She told me that I should call the duty officer at the American Consulate in Vladivostok as soon as possible, and she provided the phone number.  She also mentioned how Cory and the security officers who had taken me drinking were concerned.  I responded to her that all was well and that I was having a fine time thanks to the kindness of strangers.

Once all those issues were dealt with, I spent the rest of the hour responding to routine e-mails from my family and friends.

When time was up, we shoved off.  The next stop was to the grocery store to get some lunch.

At the grocery store, the Dutch women bought a rotisserie chicken, some bread, and a cake for us to eat.  They kept asking me if I would like anything for the rest of my journey, but I told them no.  They ignored me, however, and tossed some stuff in the cart for me.  They got me some yogurt, some noodles, and some snack cakes.

While we were in the supermarket, we passed some of those smoked fish like I had been eating on the train.  When Helene saw them, she remarked, "You know, we [the Dutch] invented this."

I didn't disagree, but that seemed pretty silly to be laying claim to inventing smoked fish.  That's one discovery that I think was probably made independently in many places around the world.

It was also while we were in the store that Helene and Larissa accused me of knowing how to speak Dutch.  Supposedly, I had responded to something one of them had said in Dutch.  I didn't remember anything like that, but they were both certain it happened.  What I think happened is that they just got confused and thought they had said something in Dutch, while they had really said it in English.  Seeing as how they were fluent in both languages, I'm sure there must have been times when a little mixing of the two languages occurred without them realizing it.

After the supermarket, we walked back to the guesthouse to eat.  When the three of us showed up, the hotel marm was again suspicious at my presence.

"You pay for two?  You pay for three?" she asked us again.  She was giving me the stink eye.

We assured her that I was only going to eat and leave.  I don't think she was convinced, but she left us to eat in peace.

I got the honor of carving the chicken, and then we all had chicken sandwiches.  It was mighty good.  Once we had all finished, there was still some chicken and cake left.  They told me to eat the rest or they would just throw it out.  I gladly obliged.

During our lunch discussion, the question of age came up again.  They pegged me at 23, which meant they thought I was their age, but I told them my real age.

They were also interested in my experiences in China since they were headed there, so I told them a bit about Beijing.

Once lunch was finished, we went back out.  This time, we were in search of a travel agent.  The ladies were going to Lake Baikal the following morning, and they wanted to book a home stay with a local family.

The first place we tried was out-of-business, and the second place was closed.  They decided they would just try to book once they reached the lake.

Our final stop was to the bus station to get their tickets for Lake Baikal.  At the bus station, there were the typical masses of people milling about.  We walked in, and everyone turned to look.  I took a seat while the two ladies tried to get tickets.  The woman selling the tickets did not speak very good or very much English, but I was able to understand what she was saying.  The ladies could not.  When I explained it to them, they thought that I had heard incorrectly.  They started getting frustrated and had the ticket lady repeat everything.  Now the ticket lady was frustrated.  I sat back down.

Soon this simple purchase mushroomed into a huge spectacle.  The participants in the sale were all talking around each other, and there was a crowd of spectators forming.

At one point, a young woman with pretty good English approached me.

"What is your country?" she asked.

"The Netherlands," I responded.

She knew that I was with the two women at the ticket window, and I was not about to have this fiasco associated with the U.S.  Afterall, I wasn't even really involved.

I asked the young woman if she couldn't offer a hand, and she was more than happy to try.  I brought her up to Helene and Larissa, and she straightened out the problem in a jiffy.  Once the mediator, who incidentally was called Svet, stepped up, the Dutch had tickets in hand in less than a minute.

As we left the bus station, everyone watched us go.  There was snickering in the background.

By now, evening had fallen, and it was colder.  We went back to the hotel and were once again met by the bulldog lady.

I chatted in the lobby area with Helene and Larissa, and the hotel lady left again.  It was at this point that we decided that our plan wouldn't work.  The woman was just too nosey for them to sneak me into their room.

We chatted for a little longer while I absorbed enough heat to face another venture outside.  Before I left, they gave me the food we had bought at the grocery store, plus some extra things like tea and ramen noodles that they had been carrying in their packs.  We also exchanged e-mail addresses.  For their e-mail addresses, they had both used the pattern and with their Dutch last names, the addresses were like 50 characters long.

At that, we did the European cheek-kissing farewell, and then I was back out in the cold.

I had scheduled 42 hours for my lay-over in Irkutsk because I had wanted to see Lake Baikal.  Of course, I hadn't planned on getting robbed.  As it turned out, I couldn't even afford the two-dollar roundtrip bus ride from Irkutsk to the Baikal villages.

My day with Helene and Larissa had killed a mere 12 hours.  This meant that I had a whopping 30 hours left to wait with very few options.

I walked back across the river to the train station and settled in for the longest wait of my life.  Remember, patience was a major theme of this vacation.

When I got to the train station, I sat in a chair in an area that was open to the elements.  I sunk my head inside my jacket and went to sleep.  After a few hours, I was too cold to sleep any more.  Then I realized that there were a ton of seats inside the heated building that I could be sitting in.  I relocated.

Inside, there were a lot of chairs, a few kiosks selling food, cigarettes, and newspapers, a ticket counter, and a few televisions.  I got a seat that was close to the wall heaters and that had a good view of the television.  And I sat there and watched hours of Russian musical variety shows.  I also watched a cleaning woman sweep and mop the floors and another cleaning woman clean all the windows with her telescoping squeegee.  These ladies were about as interesting to watch as the musical acts on the tube.

At one point, a Russian man sat near me.  He asked me something in Russian, which I couldn't understand.  I pulled out my phrase book, but quickly abandoned it.  It was a fine book, but not very useful for looking things up.  I just pointed to myself and said "America" (it sounds the same in English and Russian).  When the guy found out that I was American, he got excited.  The reason for this was that he had been practicing English at home for some time and now wanted to practice with me.

I checked my schedule, and darned if it wasn't open for the next 24 hours (for I had already passed 6 hours at the train station when the man joined me).  I told him that I would be glad to talk with him.

He spied my phrase book and asked if he could see it.  I didn't mind.

And that was how he practiced his English.  He read aloud every freakin' phrase in the book, and my job was to correct his pronunciation.

For the first few hours, I took this task seriously and actually tried to help him say things so that he didn't sound like a Russian speaking English.  After that, though, I rapidly lost interest.  He continued reading, and some of the things he said were barely intelligible due to his accent and mispronunciations.  I told him that he sounded like he had lived his whole life in the U.S., and he continued with renewed vigor.

Every now and then, he would read a phrase ("Blood hell!", "What the devil?", etc.) that was clearly British.  I instructed him not to learn these since no one in America spoke like that.

Finally, we finished the whole phrase book, and my companion, whose name was Vitaly, officially graduated from the Christopher Call School of Apathetic Language Instruction, a division of the George Washington University.

There were still many hours left before my train, so we sat and chatted.  Vitaly worked in construction.  I wasn't clear on what he did specifically in construction, but at the time we met, he was unemployed.  He had three sons, and they were around my age.

I told him about myself – about my job, my friends, my family, my visit to Russia.

Noticing that he had spent several hours with me already, I asked him what train he was waiting for.  I never could understand him.

At one point, Vitaly excused himself and returned with some pastries.  He gave me one of these cinnamony treats and had one for himself.

As I was about to eat mine, he stopped me.  "Would you like ketchup?" he asked.

It would never have occurred to me in a million years to put ketchup on a cinnamon roll, but I told him that I would take some.  I figured it was some Russian thing.  He was carrying a bottle of ketchup in his bag, so he pulled it out, and we both doused our pastries in the stuff.

I'm a big fan of ketchup, so I didn't mind it.  For my part, I contributed some of the snack cakes to the meal that the Dutch ladies had just bought me.

There came a point when we were kind of tapped out on the conversation, so we watched TV and slept.

Then we talked some more.

When it came time for the next meal, Vitaly again got some pastries.  And again we covered them in ketchup.

"You know," Vitaly remarked, "I never met anyone else who liked this with ketchup."

That debunked my earlier assumption; a cinnamon roll with ketchup was not a Russian thing. It was a Vitaly thing.

Eventually, my time came to leave Irkutsk.  Vitaly gave me a man-hug, and I went down to meet my train.
It dawned on me that he had stayed with me for 24 hours and that he never did get on his train.  My case was unusual, but most people don't wait that long in a train station for their train.  Perhaps Vitaly wasn't really traveling and was homeless and hanging out in the train station for warmth.  I don't think so, though.  I think that he was yet another outstanding Russian who chose to skip his train in order to keep me company.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad on -110 Rubles a Day


The Kindness of Strangers

     (Part III: Irkutsk to Vladivostok)

Before I get started with this section, I need to give a shout-out to my homies from train 2: Gena, Ala, Kim, Alexei, Janzi, Vladimir, Anton, Sasha, Olga, Elena, Vladi, Stepan, Dimitri, Michael, Hagerega, and the little kids in cabin 6.  You guys rocked!

Alexei, Janzi, Vladimir, Sasha, and Michael were smoking buddies.  I'll introduce you to the rest later.

This leg of my journey from Irkutsk to Vladivostok was 4,111 kilometers (2,549 miles) and lasted a bit under 3 ½ days.  It passed through such towns as Ulan Ude, Chita, and Khabarovsk, and covered similar terrain as the last train.

Getting back to the story, I got on the train in Irkutsk and found my new room and roommates: Gena and Ala Popov and Kim il Son, a South Korean who worked in Siberia.

Shortly after I came aboard, we left the station.  We rounded Lake Baikal, and in the pitch black night, I only got to see a little reflection of the train on the water's surface.  And then just like before, the provodnitsa came by to sell us the linen service.  This provodnitsa was named Olga, and her off-duty counterpart was Elena.  I gave Olga my brief, grammatically incorrect story in Russian, and like before, she left without giving me any linens since I couldn't afford them.

And like before, my roommates rounded up the money, only to be told by Olga that she was going to give me the linens at no charge.

At this, Gena gave me the 40 rubles that he and the others had donated for my linens to hold onto.

Unlike the provodnitsa in the first train, though, Olga went and spread the word throughout the whole car that I had been robbed.  This meant that 40 people knew about me in my first 15 minutes on the train.  This would have a profound impact on my experience.

I had gotten on the train in the wee hours of the morning, so we chatted briefly in the room, and then went to bed.  This train was even hotter than the first one, and I had a hell of a time getting to sleep.  I was sleeping in just my underwear, with part of a sheet strategically draped over my waist area for the sake of modesty.  There was a lady in the room after all.  Meanwhile, the others were heavily dressed and under their blankets.  Kim was the worst.  He was under the blanket, wearing like three pairs of long johns.

I finally did get to sleep, though, and it was good to be back on the rails.  It was also good to have a top bunk.

The next day started what would become three days of constant eating.  I woke up and stayed in bed until Gena and Ala got up.  Then I jumped down.  The bottom bunks are always used as benches during the day, so I didn't want to go down while they were still sleeping.

Shortly after they got up, they started having breakfast.  They gestured to ask if I had any food.  I told them that I was fine and showed them my stash of bread.  To this, Ala gave me the big nyet.  She didn't approve.  She insisted that I join her and Gena, and I didn't argue.  We had some bread, sausage, tea, and pastries.  While we ate, Kim woke up and stared down on us as we ate.  Once we finished eating, we cleaned up the table area so Kim could eat.

When he sat down, he motioned for me to join him.  Then he gave me a bowl of ramen with chunks of sausage added.

As people would pass by our room, they would poke their heads in and speak in Russian.  I could tell it was about me because they would be looking at me.  I think everyone was curious to see the American who had been robbed.

We were in the last car, closest to the bathroom and to the smoking area, so we had a lot of people passing by.

Once I finished eating with Kim, there was a woman standing at the door with more food for me.

This set the pattern for every meal from then on.  I would literally eat like eight meals for every one meal most other people ate.  Everyone wanted to lend a hand, and I turned no one away.

Shortly after breakfast, Gena and Kim asked me if I smoked.  I did smoke, as you know, so I went with them to the smoking area.  I assume the first train had a smoking area too, but I'm not sure since John and I only smoked during stops.  On the second train, the area between cars was set aside for smoking.  It was nice and cool there – so cool in fact that the floor was always slick with ice.

When we got to the smoking area, there were several guys back there already.  When they saw me, a hush fell over the crowd.  Then they started talking again in very quiet voices.  I don't know Russian, of course, but I got the sense that they were saying something like, "So…the American smokes."

All eyes were on me.  The guys tried to act cool about it, but I could still tell they were watching.  They apparently wanted to see how Americans smoked.  For my part, I was obviously no expert.  I was kind of watching them out of the corner of my eye to see what grip everyone else was using and how they were breathing the smoke out and so forth.  Then I started smoking, looking like I knew what I was doing, and that took the edge off.  Everyone got back to nonchalant smoking and chatting.  Unlike John and his Russian cigarettes, every person in this car seemed to be smoking American cigarettes.  They were all keen to show me.

Gena, Kim, and I all finished our cigarettes about the same time.  As we were heading back to the room, however, some of the other guys stopped me and offered me another cigarette.  It was the same phenomenon as with the food.  Everyone wanted me to smoke with them, so for every one cigarette any other guy had, I had several.  People were always coming and going in the smoking room, so it was sometimes hard to escape the continual offers.  When I did want to leave, I'd just take the cigarette and tell the donor that I would save it for later.

One thing about the smoking room was that it was full of smoke, as should be expected.  All this smoke was a bit much on my eyes, and they'd start watering after a few cigarettes.  At first I thought this was just a rookie response, but then I noticed plenty of other people wiping their eyes.

The train stopped many times for quick breaks.  Whereas before John and Marat would buy me a fish or a roll during the stop, I was now receiving several fish and several rolls each time.  At one point, I had like five fish stuffed in my backpack.  It looked as though I had a quiver of arrows.

A lot of the nonperishables like cocoa mix and snack bars also went straight to the backpack.  With so much unstorable food to deal with, I had to triage what I was going to eat then and what I was going to eat later.

This whole spirit of generosity was awesome.  In addition to just being good people, I think they were on some level trying to show me that, unlike the thief, not all Russians were bad.

You may be wondering why I accepted so much and didn't refuse anything.  Well, I didn't refuse anything because it would have been misinterpreted.  I'm sure of it.  For starters, it was no secret to anyone in that car that I was eating like a king.  They could see all the food coming to me, and they still brought more.  Had I turned anything away, the person I refused would not have been thinking, "Oh, he's eaten five meals already; he must be full."  She would likely be thinking that I was rude or that I was proud or that I was picky.  If word had gotten around that I was any of these things, I would have gone from surplus to zilch in no time flat.  People simply don't like ingrates.  It's human nature.  So the way I saw it, I had to keep eating.  It was for the others as much as it was for me.

Pretty much everything else was the same as before.  There was still congestion at the toilets.  I still occupied my time chatting, looking out the windows, and writing.  This time when I was writing, people would come by and ask if I was writing about them. When I would tell them no, they would relieved, like they didn't want to be written about.  It was transparent, though.  They all wanted to be written about.  Some would continue by asking me what then I was writing about.  When I'd tell them what story I was writing – India, Pakistan, China, or whatever – they'd be keenly interested.  All told, I got 65 pages written on the train.

At one point, I was talking with Gena and Ala about traveling, and they asked where all I had been.  I let them see my passport, and they were fascinated with the stamps.  I don't think they had ever left Russia before.

My only problem with my roommates was that they never would call me by name.  When they wanted my attention, they'd always make clicking noises like I was a horse or something.  I think they didn't want to say my name for religious reasons.  Whatever the problem was, I missed John and his, "CREEESE!"

When I had initially introduced myself to Gena, Ala, and Kim, I told them that my name was Chris.

"Christos!" Gena exclaimed, and he drew a cross in my notepad.  I explained that my name was Christopher, not Christ, but I don't think he followed.

My name did lead to a short discussion on religion, though.  Gena drew two crosses in my notebook.  The first was the two-line cross Catholics use.  The second was the cross with the extra slanted line across it like the Russian Orthodox Church uses.  Gena pointed to the first cross.

"You – Catholic." he said.

Then he pointed to the second cross.  "Me," he said.

I told him that he was correct, but I did find it funny.  The fact that I happened to be Catholic was just a coincidence.  His assumption would have been wrong for many Americans he might have encountered.

I spent a lot of time standing or sitting in the corridor watching the scenery.  Having grown up in the 80s, watching probably five hours (at least) of television a day, I was no stranger to staring blankly at a picture scrolling across a pane of glass.  As I stared out the window, I'd narrate in my head, as if I were watching a nature show.

As I watched out the window, I saw a lot of frozen lakes and ponds and rivers, and on many of them, there were vehicle tracks.  A few times, I saw vehicles actually on the frozen water.  The craziest thing I saw was a caravan of loaded dump trucks rolling across a lake.  I'm sure it was frozen solid, but you couldn't have paid me to ride in one of those heavy trucks.

We also passed people ice fishing.

We came to one stop, and one of my roommates bought a tabloid-looking newspaper.  Like Marat and John's newspapers, it had plenty of naked women in it.  It seemed to be perfectly respectable, though, because all three of my roommates read the publication cover to cover and then passed it on to the next room.

I just flipped through it and looked at the pictures.  Then I went back to the windows.

A lot of the times when I would sit at the windows, I'd talk with Anton, who was staying in the next car.  He was a young guy, living a life in fast forward.  At just 20, he had already served two years in the Army and started a cosmetics business in St. Petersburg.  He was headed to Vladivostok to see about setting up a second business in emergency medical supplies.  He had probably the best English in the car, but it was still lacking.  We would be going along in a conversation, and then he would be at a loss for words.  I provided him with my phrase book, and he was continually searching for work-arounds because it didn't contain the words he was looking for.  He showed me his religious paraphernalia.  He was wearing a religious necklace, and he had a form of rosary beads in his pocket.  He told me about his kick-boxing and his girlfriend.  He explained things we saw along the tracks.  He was very entertaining.

I mentioned earlier that he had a cosmetics business.  Well, he carried samples with him, and our conversations were frequently interrupted when he would see a potential customer walking by.  He sold several things to the ladies who pushed little carts of food through the train.

At one point, Anton asked what I thought of Russia.  I told him that I thought it was great.  He asked how it compared to the States.  I told him that I thought life in Russia was probably tougher than in the U.S., to which he responded, "Yes, life is tough in Russia, but good."  He spoke English with a Russian accent that sounds almost Dracula-ish.  Then again, everyone sounds like Dracula to me.  I don't know if I ever told you about my old Italian priest in Islamabad.  He was definitely a Dracula talker.

As we chugged along, we passed many trains that were hundreds of cars long, packed with Siberian timber.  Several people pointed this out to me on this leg of my trip, and all bemoaned the fact that logging was destroying the ancient forests.  Well, everyone bemoaned this except Anton.  When he saw the logs going by, he was envious, not sad or angry.

"I would love a piece of that action," he admitted, "but the mafia controls it."

Then he went on to criticize how the mafia did business.  According to him, they just cut the trees and sold the wood.  If he were the mafia boss in charge, Anton said that he would cut the trees and manufacture things on the spot.  Specifically, he said he would open a stool factory in the heart of the forest.

Anton was a cut-up, and his rowdy roommates, with whom he had been randomly placed, only encouraged him.  Whenever he was with them, you could hear his fake, forced laughter throughout the car.  Kim in particular hated this, and whenever we'd hear it, he would do a quiet mocking of Anton.

Anton also rubbed Ala the wrong way.  There was music pumped throughout the train car, and one of the speakers was in the hallway between our room and Anton's room.  Ala was continually turning the volume way down or off, and then Anton would come out and turn it all the way up.

They had a few face-offs, but Ala was all bark.

Hagerega was a generous woman who gave me a lot of food.  She also slipped me 50 rubles once.  Whenever Hagerega would come to bring me something, the guys in Anton's room would tease her.  I'm sure they were telling her that I was fine and to quit fawning over me.  She would always start defending herself, explaining why I deserved it and so forth.  Then she would bring me a bowl of soup or something.
I thought it was funny that the guys were teasing her because they were some of my cigarette suppliers.

Elena, the provodnitsa, was also very generous with the food.  Her food was the best because being a provodnitsa, she had access to a kitchenette with a fridge, a microwave, and a hot plate.  She made me some borsht once, complete with the dollop of sour cream on top, and it was excellent.

And so the days went by with the women giving me food and the men giving me cigarettes.

At the end of the first day, there was a problem with the kids down the way.  In cabin 6, there were a boy and a girl, maybe four and two years old.  I think both kids were using a small toilet that their mother had brought because she was constantly running back to the bathroom to empty the little plastic bowl.  The gross thing was that if someone was in the bathroom and she didn't feel like waiting, she'd set the bowl full o' wastes on the trashcan and then return to dump it later.

The little boy would visit me a lot and tell me a lot of things in Russian.  It's funny to talk to little kids because they don't seem to understand or care that you don't speak the same language.  They just keep blabbering on.  Plus, kids will hang around anyone who gives them attention, so talking isn't necessary anyway.

On this night, the boy had shut the cabin door on his little sister's hand, and she screamed bloody murder for hours.

Kim got on his bunk and covered his head with his pillow.  He didn't like the kids anyway, and this didn't help matters.

Whenever the little boy would come visit us, Kim would flick him very hard on the head with his fingers.  The little boy would just laugh, though.

Finally, the injured girl shut up and everyone went to sleep. It was another hot night.

The next day, things were pretty much the same.

At one point, we came to a long stop, and the provodnitsas locked the bathrooms.  Dimitri, an Armenian guy, stood outside the bathroom with a razor and a cup of water and shaved at the mirror that was there.  When he finished, he came to my room and did the gesture for aftershave (slapping the cheeks).  I was the only one who had any, and I pulled it out.  From that point on, I was cool with Dimitri.  He started slipping me cigarettes.  He also introduced me to his Armenian friend Stepan.  He was cool too.  Stepan had a cell phone and gave it to me to call the Consulate in Vladivostok.  I tried the number that Laurie had provided, but it didn't work and we forgot about it.  Over the next few days, several other cell phones would be offered to me, but the results were always the same.

On that second day, I actually reached a point where I didn't feel like writing and I didn't feel like looking out the window.  I fished in my bag and pulled out my playing cards.  Then, with the help of my book, I asked my roommates if anyone wanted to play cards.  Not only did no one want to play, they all appeared to have never seen playing cards before. This was a standard deck of Hoyle playing cards – nothing fancy.  They didn't have any interesting photographs on them or anything.  You would have thought they did, though, the way that Kim and Gena and Ala passed the cards around and inspected them.

I tried one last time.  I asked if anyone knew how to play hearts.  Gena fished around in the deck and pulled out a heart for me.  I put the cards away.

A few minutes after I did, Kim motioned to me that he wanted to see them.  I gave him the cards, and he played solitaire for a long while.  I wanted to do something with the cards to ease my boredom, not his, but I didn't mind him using them.  It was the least I could do since he had taken me under his wing and all.

After he had finished playing cards, Kim gestured to me that he wanted to borrow my razor.  We had been drinking out of the same bottles of soda and beer, so I wasn't worried about germs or anything.  I didn't think it was a good idea, however, because of the potential for exchanging blood.  Every man creates tiny cuts on his skin when he shaves, and I take it a step further.  I pretty much cause an actual bleed somewhere on my face with every shave.  I searched around in my backpack, and I had one spare razor.  I gave this to Kim.  Being Korean, he hardly had anything to shave, though.  He wanted to shave his "moustache" which consisted of like ten hairs on his lip.

In a moment or two, he returned to the room and gave me back the razor.  It still had hair in it.  I set it aside in case Kim wanted to borrow it again later.

By now, my room came to be known as the International Room, since Kim and I (the only non-Russians on the train) were there.  Technically, the Armenians were also non-Russians, but they looked like the Russians and spoke fluent Russian, so they didn't count.

Most of the people that I met on this train – and for that matter in Russia as a whole – did not speak English or they spoke very little.  That meant that for us to converse, I would have to look up a word or phrase in my book and show them or say to them the word or phrase in Russian.  Then the other person would have to do the same in reverse for me in order to reply.

This makes for a long conversation, and people would tire of it pretty quickly.  They were still interested, though.  The result was that I had many tiny conversations with a lot of people, and gradually, my story became known.  They knew about my family, my travels, my job, my schooling, my hobbies, and my friends, and I learned similar things about them.

Once I was talking with my roommates, and the theft came up.  They asked me if the Consulate would give me money.  I told them no. [As a last resort, they will give destitute Americans repatriation loans, but I wasn't interested in this.]

Then Ala looked at Gena and smiled.

"Oh, mama and papa," she said, as if my parents were going to bail me out of my misadventure in Russia.

I told them they were barking up the wrong tree.  For me, moving out and living on my own meant that I didn't go running to mom and dad whenever I had a problem.  I still had siblings at home, and my parents had better ways to spend their money.  That's not to say they wouldn't have helped if I had asked them, though.  It just wasn't an option I was really considering.  I had a network of friends who I was sure could provide me as much assistance as I wanted.  Heck, I would do the same for them if the situation came up.
When I told Gena and Ala that my friends would help me, I think they got the idea that I was trying to keep the whole incident a secret from my folks.

We moved on to other topics.

Of all the people in my car, there was only one old guy that I never did talk with.  He looked like Martin Crane on the show Frasier, except he was fatter.  He even walked with a cane like Martin.  He passed by our room plenty of times and would talk about me to the others.  Sometimes he would do the annoying thing where he would get in my face and speak loud, slow Russian to me, as if that would help me understand.

On the second night, he came into our room and grabbed the phrase book from me. (Ever heard of asking, Pops?)  Then he flipped through it and threw it down on the bed with a grouchy "Bah!"  I'm not sure what his deal was.  Perhaps he was illiterate.

I didn't worry about it though.  I talked to other people and looked out the window some more.

Then the second day came to a close.

On the third day, my last full day on the railroad, I pulled my camera out for the first time.  Up to this point, I had basically kept it in my day pack under my pillow.  At night, I slept with the camera under my pillow as well as my pants, which contained my tickets and passport.  This made for a lumpy pillow, but it was the most secure method I could think of.

I had kept my camera out of sight this whole time for a few reasons.  First, I positively did not want it to get stolen, and I figured that the less people who knew I had it the better.  Second, whether I liked it or not, I was playing a role on these trains.  I was the American who was down on his luck.  It just would not have looked right for me to take everyone's charity and then turn around and pull out my expensive toys.  Call it manipulation if you will, but I did not want to remind them of my normal life which was very likely pretty frivolous when compared to the lives most of them lived.

When I brought my camera out, I showed Gena, Ala, and Kim the photos I had taken in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  They enjoyed looking at them.

Then Gena asked me to take their picture.  I thought this was a grand idea.  Ala was a little hesitant at first, but she hopped into the shot without much resistance.  Then I took the photo.

On the afternoon of the third day, we arrived in Khabarovsk.  Everyone piled off the train for the break.  Before I got off, Elena tried to explain something to me.  She traced her finger around the clock and stopped at a number.  I thought she was showing me what minute we were departing.

I thanked her and went out.

When I came back at what I thought was the correct time, the train was still mostly empty.  Elena traced her finger around the clock again.  She was showing me what hour we were departing.  We had a nine-hour stop in Khabarovsk.  Oy!

This was great for the others who had money.  With nine hours to kill, they could catch a show, get a haircut, hit the market, have a nice meal in a restaurant, lounge at a café, or whatever else they wanted.  Khabarovsk was also the final destination for several people, so they bid us farewell for good.

For me, this stop was another good test of patience.  Since I didn't see much reason to go into town broke, I poked around the station for a bit.  There wasn't that much to do there.  Then I came back to the train.  Many people hung around the train, so I wasn't alone.  I hung around with Sasha a long while.

Since we were stopped for nine hours, that also meant that the train toilets would be locked for nine hours.  There came a point when I needed to use the bathroom, so I trekked back to the station (we were parked a ways away from the platform) to use theirs.  At this point, I had 90 rubles on me (the 50 from Hagerega and the 40 from Gena), and I got to use a nice chunk of that on the station's pay-toilet.  The fee didn't even include toilet paper, but I had the sense to bring my own.

The nine hours finally passed, and we got underway.

An hour or two after Khabarovsk, we stopped at a stop that wasn't listed on the schedule.  Then we started moving again.  Seconds later, several uniformed guys stormed into our car demanding to see everyone's documents.  We were at the end of the car, so they came to our cabin first.

A few of the men ordered me out into the hallway.  Then one of them grabbed my passport.  At this point, the funniest thing happened.

Ala started telling this guy my story, with a strong current of nervousness in her voice.  Then several other people started chiming in.  Everyone was talking, and while I couldn't understand Russian, I could pick up some things.  They told the man how I was robbed, how I was a diplomat, how I had six brothers, how I had been to Cambodia and India and China, and so on.  There was all this nervous chatter going on, and most of the things they were telling him didn't have any bearing whatsoever on the current situation.  After a minute or two of this, the uniformed guy put his hand up and everyone shut up.  Then he stared at me, handed my passport back, and told me in English, "Be careful."

When I would later relay this story to some of my friends, they told me that the guy let me go without hassling me because I was a diplomat.  I think the part about me not having any money was what really convinced him that I wasn't worth bothering.

After I was released, I went back in the room, and Ala and Gena gave me a little thumbs-up that no one else could see.

Then the uniformed men shook-down Kim.

Ala and Gena, and most of the other Russians, didn't have to show their documents.  It turns out that the inspectors only focused on foreigners and people who were different for other reasons.  Such travelers were easier to intimidate and to shake-down than Russians were.  Plus, foreigners were likely to be traveling with more money.

As we waited in the room, Gena pointed through the wall toward the other room.  One of the guys next door had gotten his head shaved in Khabarovsk, and Gena indicated to me that this guy would have trouble.

I could hear Anton saying something to the men. Being a wise-guy, I wasn't surprised.

When they finished interrogating Kim, he came back in the room.  They had confiscated his passport due to "a visa problem," and he had to meet with the men in another car once they finished checking the rest of our car.

When Kim told us this, Gena and Ala jumped up.  They instructed Kim to put all his money under the mattress, except for the little bit he was willing to lose during the shake-down.  Kim didn't have time to think about it; he emptied his pockets under the mattress, reserving just 300 rubles (about $12) in his wallet.  This was a good amount.  Had he taken less, they would have known that he was screwing around with them.

Just as he was finishing hiding the money, the men returned with their other victims in tow – the Russian with the shaved head and Stepan.  They called Kim and he got in line.

Several minutes later, they all returned to the car.  Kim was so relieved he was beaming.  They took his 300 rubles, but he faired better than the other two.  They ended up shelling out 500 and 800.

Shortly after the ordeal, a vendor pushed a cart past our door.  She was selling ice cream.  We had not bought anything from these vendors the whole time, but when Ala saw this one, she loudly whistled.  She ordered all of us those premade ice cream cone treats.  Kim protested, though.  He wanted to pay for part.  I think Ala was trying to be nice since he had just lost 300 rubles, but he didn't want the charity.  He paid part, and she paid part.  Then we ate.  That ice cream was damn good, and it moved us past the bribery episode.  I'm sure that's why Ala ordered it in the first place.

After the ice cream, we enjoyed our last evening and hit the sack.

The next day was like the others. We lost more and more people as the stops got closer and closer to Vladivostok.

At one point, Gena and Ala pointed off in the distance to show me where their dacha (country home) was.

When we were maybe an hour outside of Vlad, I was again talking with Anton.  The topic this time was gangsters.  As Anton put it, "Russia is country of gangsters. Everywhere is gangster."  The Russians used the word gangster like criminal, but not necessarily in the organized crime sense.

Some other people came up and joined the discussion.  They were in agreement on this point.  Putin was a gangster.  Yeltsin was a gangster.  And Gorbechav?  Yup, you guessed it: gangster.  Apparently every Russian politician at every level of government was a gangster, along with corporate leaders, religious leaders, military, the mafia, law enforcement, celebrities, and anyone who had money or power, or who was seeking these things.

I asked Anton, "And are you a gangster?"

"Me?" he asked.  "Yes, I too am gangster."

By now, one of the ladies was doubled over in a fit of laughter.

"Stop, stop!" she cried out to Anton, once she caught her breath.  "You are going too far!"

"Really?" he replied.  "Name me one person who is not a gangster."

She paused for a moment.

Anton jumped on this.  "See," he said, "she can't think of one person."

At this, she was cracking up again.  We all were.

Then we came to another stop, and we lost more people, including Gena and Ala.  We had a good hug.

Once we got moving again, Hagerega called me to her room.  Inside, was her roommate Vladi.  He was a clean-living body-builder type of guy, and he was very quiet.  As I entered the room, he motioned for me to come closer.  I did, and he handed me a stack of rubles.  I told him that I couldn't take it, but he wouldn't listen.  I tried to explain to him that I was soon going to be in Vladivostok, and then I would no longer be destitute.  He still wouldn't listen.  I tried explaining again, but he cut me off.

"Just take it," he said.  "You don't know what might happen."

I took the stack of bills.  I could tell he was the kind of guy who didn't like a lot of fuss, so I shook his hand and thanked him.

Then I went back to my room to pack.  Once I was alone, I counted the money.  Vladi had given me ten 100-ruble notes. 1,000 rubles.  That's around 40 dollars, which is not chump change for most Americans and is definitely not chump change for most Russians.  I felt like a dirtbag for having taken it.

With this thousand rubles, and the 90 I had received earlier, I had a grand total of 1090, which is where one of the titles of these last few chapters (The Trans-Siberian Railroad on -110 Rubles a Day) comes from.

By now we were very close.  I stripped my bunk and turned in my linens.  Then I grabbed my pack and stood in the corridor with everyone else.

Anton was there. I asked him if he was going to ride the train back to St. Petersburg once he had scouted out the market in Vladivostok for his emergency medical supplies business.

"One time is enough," he anwered.  "I will fly."

This was sensible enough.  I think it was actually cheaper to fly (compared with a 2nd class sleeper ticket), and it was definitely quicker.  The Trans-Siberian is for people who have the time to stop and smell the roses.  I had thoroughly enjoyed myself, but like Anton, I wasn't looking to repeat the journey any time soon.  Maybe one day, though.

As I stood with Anton, Elena called me to her room.  In her broken English, she told me that she was meeting her daughter Olga at the station in Vladivostok.  She told me that Olga spoke good English and that she would help me straighten things out.  I thanked her and went back out to the corridor.

As we approached Vladivostok, we could see the Sea of Japan out the window.

As we entered town, we slowed down considerably.  Some mischievous boys took the opportunity to mouth off to us and pelt the train with snowballs.  They knew that there was nothing anyone could do to them.  Some of the women on board were outraged and gave the boys an earful.  This naturally resulted in apologies from all the boys.  Yeah right.  They just laughed and threw more stuff at us.

Then we arrived at the station.

Vladivostok only opened to foreign travelers in 1992 after going into lock-down in 1958, and it was cool to be there.

All told, I had gone 9,296 kilometers (5,764 miles) across Siberia on the longest railroad line in the world.  With the St. Petersburg portion added, the total came to 9,946 kilometers (6,167 miles), from one side of Russia to the other.  That's a long distance.  To give you a point of reference, the distance from Boston to Los Angeles is only 3,026 miles, less than half my trip.  A train line from Washington, DC, to Paris wouldn't even match this distance.

I had spent seven and a half days on the train, not including layovers.  Perhaps my greatest accomplishment, however, was lasting ten days without a shower.  That was the longest time in my entire life that I had gone without bathing.  (All of you athletes out there surely understand the sense of accomplishment that comes from setting a new "personal best".)  As far as I could tell, I at least didn't smell like I hadn't showered in ten days.  That was good.  My hair was as greasy as an otter's coat, though.

When we parked at the station, there were hugs and handshakes all around.  Then I waited around for Elena to lock everything down and introduce me to her daughter.  As I was waiting, some of the ladies from the train offered to take me to the Consulate.  I thanked Elena and went with the ladies.

The Kindness of Strangers: Part IV: Tara and Bill

When I arrived at the Consulate, it was around noon on a Saturday.  The guards told me to come back on Monday because the Consulate was closed.  In case you aren't familiar with how American Embassies (and Consulates) help American citizens overseas, I will tell you.  Each embassy has specific business hours in which they will help Americans.  If you have a true emergency, you can reach an embassy official at any hour.  There are guards at the building at all times, and they can always summon someone to help you.  The main phone menu of the embassy also usually provides a 24-hour phone number to call for emergency situations.  If you come to the embassy after business hours and don't have an emergency, though, you will be sent away and told to return when American Citizen Services (ACS) opens the next business day.

When I arrived, I didn't really have an emergency, and the guards correctly told me to leave.

Rather than leave, though, I wanted to sort some things out.  Specifically, I wanted to talk to the duty officer.  I wasn't seeking help from him at this point, but I wanted to close the loop that I assumed Laurie might have opened.  When she e-mailed me and told me to call the duty officer in Vladivostok, I thought she had told him about my situation.  It would turn out that she hadn't.  When I finally reached him, he hadn't heard anything about me.

In any case, I showed the guards my diplomatic passport, and they allowed me inside.  Once inside, they tried to call the duty officer for me.  Just like when I tried calling from the train, the number did not work.
I would later find out that this was because the duty officer did not really want to be the duty officer, so he had programmed the duty cell phone to forward incoming calls to someone else's cell phone.  Unfortunately, he programmed wrong, and the calls weren't going anywhere.  Nice scheme, slick.

When the guards couldn't reach the duty officer, they decided to have me talk with an Embassy employee who just happened to be in the office on the weekend catching up on some work.  I waited while they called upstairs and explained to the person on the other end of the phone how a diplomat had washed up on the Consulate doorstep.

A few minutes later, the lovely and talented Tara appeared downstairs.  She was understandably confused.

"Now what is going on?" she asked us.

I started into my whole saga.  Once I finished with the two-minute version of things, Tara had a big smile on her face.

"Wow!" she exclaimed.  "That sounds like quite a trip!"

Then she took me up to her office so I could finally talk with the duty officer.

When we got upstairs, I met Tara's husband, Bill.  He was a big wig in an organization called The Asia Foundation.  On this day, he was just keeping Tara company while she worked.  Tara told him my situation in a nutshell, and he asked me where I was going to stay.

I didn't have a room yet, but I was planning to stay at the cheapest place in town, which was a hotel near the train station.  On hearing this, Bill offered for me to stay in the spare room at his and Tara's place.  I gladly accepted.

Meanwhile, Tara was trying to reach the duty officer.  When she tried the duty phone and it didn't work, she called the duty officer on his regular cell phone.  Then she put me on the line.

He asked me a series of questions, seemingly from a checklist, and I described the events whereby I lost my wallet.

"That's bizarre," he remarked.  "I've never heard anything like that."

I hadn't yet filed a police report, and I didn't really care to.  Once the duty officer heard my story, he agreed that it probably wouldn't serve any purpose, especially since the crime was already ten days old.  He asked if I needed any immediate assistance.  I didn't, and this concluded our conversation.

When I had interrupted and called her downstairs, Tara had actually been wrapping up her work.  So, when I got off the phone, she shut down the office and we headed homeward.

As we drove, they asked what I planned to do for money.  I told them that I would ask my friends to wire some from Islamabad.  At this, they offered to loan me some money so that I could avoid the expense of a wire transfer.

Tara added with a laugh, "After all, I know where you work."

I graciously accepted their offer of a loan.

Tara and Bill lived in a great yellow house on a hidden side street off a main road.

When we arrived, one of the first orders of business for me was a shower.  (No surprise there!)  Tara showed me the bathroom and the towels and all, and I could have cried - for what stood before me was no ordinary shower.  They had one of those fancy showers with numerous nozzles and numerous spray settings and a waterfall effect.  It was all incased in a futuristic plastic tube, and it was beautiful.  I would have been happy to have a bucket shower at that point, and here I was face-to-face with the Rolls Royce of showers.

The hot water took a minute or two to fire up.  Once it did, I entered the chamber.  It was heavenly.  I shed ten days of grime like a snake sheds its skin.

Then I went downstairs and joined my hosts.

Tara was working in the kitchen.  She asked if I had any laundry I wanted to do, and I did.  Everything I had was dirty.  I went upstairs and fetched my things.  As I dug in my backpack, my loaves of bread were there staring back at me.  With all the food people had given me, I never did touch the few rations that I had brought on the train.  Now the breads were all molded, so I threw them away.

Then I went downstairs and loaded the washer.  Tara and I chatted in the kitchen while the washer ran.  Tara had actually joined the Foreign Service at the same time as my good friend Sumera, who was one of my best friends in Islamabad.

Tara and I talked about a lot of things.  We could both speak fluent English, so no books were needed and we didn't have to limit our conversation to three minutes.  We talked about friends, travel, where we had been, where we wanted to go, how we liked working for the State Department, what we did before we joined State, what it was like working in Islamabad and in Vladivostok, and so forth.  As we talked, Tara put out a bunch of food for me to snack on.  It was quite a spread.

Bill soon joined us, and I got to learn more interesting things about the two of them.  Bill and Tara met in Angola where they were both working prior to Tara's coming to the State Department.  They could both speak Portuguese (the language of Angola) and Russian, although Bill's skills were more advanced in both languages. Bill's Portuguese, in particular, was basically fluent.  He had at one point taught college courses in it.

I found Bill to be most inspiring.  He's one of those guys who never limited himself to one job.  On the contrary, he had held a variety of jobs, and he didn't seem to have any fear of picking up and starting over.  Unlike so many people, he didn't cling to work once it lost its charm just for the sake of having a job.

He was also very encouraging, like a less obnoxious Tony Robbins (the self-help guru of infomercial fame).  For example, I once mentioned that as a child I had wanted to be an animator.  Bill looked at me.

"You know," he told me, "it's not too late.  I mean, why not?"

If I had told a hundred people that as a kid I wanted to be an animator, I doubt more than three or four would have responded like Bill did.

We eventually moved from the kitchen to the living room, and I admired their decorative pieces from Angola and elsewhere.

Then I checked my e-mail for the first time since Irkutsk.  My three Islamabad friends wrote back, telling me that they had cancelled the Lahore hotel for me.  They all also offered to send me money.  Having accepted Tara and Bill's loan offer, however, I told them that it wouldn't be necessary.

I received e-mails from both my credit card companies acknowledging my earlier messages about the theft and confirming that my accounts were frozen.  They instructed me to call them as soon as possible to verify pending charges and arrange for new cards.  I would get around to this ten days later.

I also received a message from my good friend Matt who worked in Lahore.  He offered for me to spend the night at his house rather than spend the night in the airport.  I accepted his offer and sent him my flight details, for he was also arranging my pick-up.

When Tara and Bill had invited me to stay with them, they had also invited me to join them in their weekend plans.

On the agenda for Saturday night: go-carting at a facility that had recently opened in Vlad.  In the late afternoon, we headed out to meet up with their friends from the Consulate who were also going carting.  The crowd included Tara, Bill, and me, maybe five or six other Americans, a Russian lady who was a friend or girlfriend of someone, and a Russian guy named Dima who worked at the Consulate.

The carting facility was nice.  The track itself was a curvey circuit completely outlined in bumper tires.  It had electronic timing.  In addition to the carting track, the facility also had a bar and restaurant, a place to race remote-controlled cars, and a game room.  Everything was shiny and new.  The staff were all dressed in racing-related attire.  Besides our group, there were only a few other customers there.

It seemed that once I got off the train, my amoebas woke back up.  Soon after we got to the track, I needed the bathroom.  At this place, they were too cool to just use the standard outline of a man and of a woman to designate the men's and lady's rooms.  Instead, the lady's room had a silhouette of a high heel shoe on the door, and the men's room had a silhouette of a water faucet.  The high heel made more sense to me than did the water faucet, but I didn't really have that much time to scrutinize the doors; I had to go!

In the bathroom, there were a few state-of-the-art squat toilets.  That was good enough.

Soon I rejoined the crowd, and we registered to race.  We had too many people to all go at once, so we split into two groups.  We were racing for time, so it didn't really matter who was in what group.

Once we had entered our details into the computer, we suited up.  We were required to wear a jumpsuit, balaclava, gloves, and a helmet.  Bill opted not to race and instead served as the photographer.  He took a group shot of us in all our gear.  I never saw the photo, but my suit was just a little too small and I'm sure I looked silly.

After the photo, we loaded into the cars, and the race was on.  It took me a few laps to get things down – like when to break in the turns to get the optimal turning skid – but after that, we were all looking sharp.  Every now and again, someone would eat the wall, and then we would all have to slow up while the attendants pushed the person back out.  I had one crash myself that gave me quite a jolt.

All in all, though, it was a total blast.  It was especially exhilarating to be going down the straight-away at full speed, and then sharply turning just before the wall.  Every time, I half expected the cart to flip, but it never did.

It was also great fun to pass people.  Sometimes, you'd have to shadow someone for several laps before you could get a chance.  Then once you got by, you could give a look or gesture to rub it in.  Unfortunately, though, the gloating was frequently followed by a mistake, which would allow the person to pass back.

Each session on the track lasted for several minutes.  Once it was finished, we would go back upstairs, and the attendant would print out the results showing everyone's lap times.  Everyone's best lap was highlighted, and the person with the fastest single lap was the winner.

We all raced two or three times, and each round, our times improved.  The track had a wall of fame where they listed the best times of all the people who raced at the track, and these peoples' times were only slightly faster than ours.  I think that any one of us could have been on that wall if we had a little more time.

In the end, we tallied up all our scores for the day, and I was the third fastest overall.

With the racing finished, we returned our gear and hit the bar.  After a few beers and some fries, we left.

All this time, I still only had the 1,000 rubles from the train.  Tara and Bill knew that I was low on funds, so once I used this money, they opened a tab for me and started paying for me wherever we went.

After carting, we went to dinner at an Italian restaurant and had brick-oven pizza.  It was good, but it too was fast-tracked through my digestive system.

As we ate, some interest developed within the group in going out to a club.  Not everyone was interested, but I was game as were several others.  Bill opted out, but Tara was in.  Bill had recently had a long night at the bar, and didn't fancy another one so soon.

After a stop by the house to drop Bill off, we drove to the club.  They took me to a place called BSB.  It was a dark, hip place with a cover charge and everything.  There was a dance floor and a stage for musical acts to perform.  Our group – Tara, Dima, 3 other Americans, and me – was by far the oldest in the place.  The crowd here was very young – like undergrad level.  We ordered some drinks and sat at a table and talked.  Dima entertained us with the story of how he met his wife during college.

"And we were in the library, and she saw this charming and handsome guy. It was me…"

His wife, meanwhile, was home with the kids while Dima hit the club.  Having grown up in Vladivostok, he had spent a lot of time at BSB in years past.  It was no longer his venue of choice, but he came along to hang out with us.

Dima, like many Russians, was a heavy smoker, and he asked if we minded if he smoked at the table. The others gave him some lip service about the dangers of smoking and so forth. I got the feeling, though, that they gave him this lecture with some regularity because it almost had the tone of an inside joke. Dima's response: "So what. I will die sooner, but I will be happy before then. What's so good about being old?"  Then he lit up. For my part, I gave up smoking when I left the train. And after my 10 days in flavor country, I never had the slightest urge for another cigarette.

Before long, the DJ started playing some songs that my companions couldn't resist. It was 80s, and it was right up their alley. Everyone went to dance except me and Dima. My companions were the only people dancing, and they attracted a lot of stares from the youngsters.

For my part, I never really could enjoy myself as BSB. This was supposed to be one of the best clubs in Vlad, and with its young clientele, I was sure that some of the people from the train would be there. I was constantly scanning the crowd for familiar faces.

Everyone on the train knew that I was going to come into money one way or another once I reached Vladivostok. They also knew that I would resume my vacation, spending money and having fun.

It was just too soon, though, and I hated the idea of running into Anton or any of the others while I was at the club. Just 12 hours earlier, I had been accepting all manner of charity and here I was putting down beers at a nightclub. It felt frivolous and hypocritical.

When my companions came back to the table, we had another round of drinks and talked some more. Tara told me that we could leave whenever I was ready. And I told her that I was ready. I never told her about my guilt in possibly encountering my train mates because I didn't think that it would make much sense to her. I told her instead that I was tired from the long day.

We were the first of the group to call it a night, but Tara said that she was ready to go anyway. She probably said this for my benefit, but there's nothing wrong with tact.

The next day, we all had a hearty breakfast.

Tara and Bill were having a dinner-and-a-movie party that night, and as luck would have it, I was invited. During the day, Bill and I were going to go touring, and Tara was going to stay home to prepare things for the party. Her main focus was making a big pot of chili.

Bill and I hit the town. He showed me the waterfront of Golden Horn Bay where there was a land-mounted Soviet submarine-turned-museum and a World War II memorial. There was also an anti-aircraft gun that people could crawl on. In the bay, there were Navy vessels.

He also showed me another portion of waterfront overlooking the Sea of Japan. There was a park and restaurants and things, and in warmer weather, I'm sure that this was a happening place. While we looked out at the sea, we saw a person cross-country skiing over its frozen surface. Further down, there was a whole colony of ice-fishermen (and women). At the place where we were, there was also a pen where some wildlife was trapped for people to gawk at. I don't know if there were dolphins or seals or some other types of animals in the cage because Bill and I didn't go to see.

As we walked back to the car, Bill took me through a few fish shops and bemoaned how the Russians froze all of their fish before they sold it. Fresh fish was hard to come by.

Then we drove around and looked at things from the warmth of the car. While we drove, Bill told me all sorts of things about Russians and Vladivostok. He told me how religion was en vogue these days, and people really wanted to be seen at church and so forth. This reminded me of Anton showing me his rosary beads. Sex sells big time all across Russia from floor shows in restaurants to porno kiosks to prostitutes to erotic clubs to strip joints. Bill told me about some of the crazy places that he had heard about in Vlad, like the establishment where naked women writhed around underneath your glass tabletop as you enjoyed a drink, or the numerous places that charged customers not a room rate, but a sheet rate.

Bill told me about the robust Russian airlines like Aeroflot that never cancelled because of weather. They would delay a flight as long as need be, but would never relent to a storm. We touched on fur hats and vodka etiquette. He told me some of the interesting places he and Tara had been to in Russia. Bill was a wealth of knowledge.

We went to a coffee shop where we ran into an Aussie friend of Tara and Bill. This man had a tall Russian wife and two kids. He was a very successful business man who was living in Vladivostok, and he was also the Australian Consular Agent. We have these in the U.S. State Department also. A consular agent is a private citizen who lives overseas and is hired by his government to handle limited citizen services on a part-time or emergency basis in cities where that country does not maintain an official diplomatic mission.

I believe the Australian guy's name was Martin, and even if it wasn't, that's what I will call him.

We joined Martin and his family and ordered a snack.

While we drank our coffee, Martin told Bill about his newest business venture. He was going to try to start a coffee bean roasting operation in Vladivostok so the city could get a taste of some real coffee. The only coffee available at the time was from canned grounds. One of the hurdles Martin foresaw in getting started was the mafia. Apparently, there was already a syndicate that controlled coffee – but not the roasting thereof – in the city. He figured they would stand clear, though, for the right price.

On the day we met Martin, it was his birthday.

We left the coffee shop, and walked around for a bit. Then Bill took me to a Russian military store. This place was cool. It had all of the different Russian military uniforms and coats as well as patches, hats, medals, pins, t-shirts, and other souvenir stuff. The shopping was a cinch since Bill could talk to the clerk in Russian. I ended up getting a patch, a t-shirt, a long-sleeve shirt, and a real must-have: camouflage Army underwear.

One thing that I never did find was a Russian beer t-shirt, but the stuff I did buy more than made up for this.

After the shopping stop, we went back home.

Tara had finished the chili by then, so Bill and I helped with the rest of the preparations like cutting slices of bread and cheese and sausage and setting the table.

Soon the guests arrived. It was pretty much the same group as the night before, minus Dima. We ate first, and the chili kicked ass. Then they started the movie, which was Jamie Foxx's Ray. As the movie played we continued to snack and drink wine. It was a fine time.

About midway through the movie, Martin and his wife came. I think they had come from Martin's birthday dinner.

In time, the movie finished and everyone went home. Then we cleaned up the food and the dishes.

The next day was Monday, a workday for Tara and Bill, and the day of my departure. Before we left the house, they tallied up my tab. Then they asked me how much extra money I wanted. At first I asked for $200 for my week in Vietnam. They thought this was too low, and correctly pointed out that it was probably better to take more than I needed. I ended up taking $300 extra. They didn't have that much cash, so Tara was going to cash a check at the Consulate.

Bill also told me to be sure and make a copy of the first page of my passport and my Russian visa, which he said I would need at the airport.

Then we took off. Bill dropped me and Tara off at the Consulate, and went on to his job. At the Consulate, we went up to Tara's office where I stashed my backpack. Then she went to cash the check. Once she did, she gave me the money, and then wrote me a quick e-mail reminding me of the sum.

Then she took me around the Consulate and introduced me to the few remaining people I hadn't met over the weekend. In the end, I think I met everyone there except for the guy serving as duty officer. There's a pretty small crew working there.

Once we finished the introductions, Tara arranged for a taxi to take me to the airport at noon. She was pleased to tell me that the rate the dispatcher told her was lower than usual.

Then I left to tour around the area so she could get some work done.

I went back to the Golden Horn Bay waterfront and walked as far as the train station. In the vicinity, there was a big square with some statues in it. I looked at these and then started back to the Consulate. On the way, I stopped at GUM (the department store). It was nothing like the Moscow GUM, but it still had a few floors of merchandise. I got a few last minute gifts and left. I was going to get some bottles of vodka for my Islamabad friends, but I quickly decided that was a lousy idea since I would have to carry the bottles in my backpack for another week. On the street, I stopped for some Russian cigarettes to give to my brother for his cigarettes-of-the-world collection.

Then I reached the Consulate. I was about 30 minutes early so I read a magazine in Tara's waiting room and had a cup of tea. I also made the photocopy of my passport and visa.

When it was time to go, we hugged and I left.

Tara and Bill were super people. They had taken in a complete stranger, and could not have been nicer about it. They gave me hospitality and friendship, and I gave them friendship and a crazy story to tell their friends. Hardly an equal exchange, I know.

The ride to the airport was long and quiet except for the radio.

I was back on track, though (no pun intended). My Russian adventure was drawing to a close, and you can probably see now why I said that my stolen wallet actually enhanced my trip. I got the chance to meet a lot of super people, to see a lot of neat things, to eat a lot of different and tasty foods, to smoke and drink and carouse, to reflect on things, to learn about Russia and it people, to write and relax, to learn a dab of the Russian language, and to generally enjoy myself. I had no complaints. Could I have done all of this without having been robbed? Possibly so, but it would have been a totally different experience. The experience I ended up having in Russia was as real and rewarding as any, and I wouldn't trade it.

And who knows… maybe the thief I encountered really did need the money more than I did.

Getting back to the story, I arrived at the airport. My flight was a bit after 3:00, and I had to wait outside for a while until they started checking us in.

At the counter I got my boarding pass and checked my bag. Then I proceeded through security and on to passport control. Everything was in Cyrillic, so I didn't know what line I was supposed to be standing in. For all I know, I was in the Russian Nationals line. In any case, right when it was my turn to present my passport, the woman in the booth started speaking to me in what I perceived to be an angry tone. I think that she was trying to go on break, but I'm not sure.

"Angliyski?" I asked her.

I guess she didn't speak English, though, because she stopped ranting and took my passport with a huff. She quickly hit me with a departure stamp and then left the booth. That's why I assumed that I had delayed her break.

No one ever did ask for my photocopies. Sometimes I suppose walking around in a fog works in your favor.

Soon we loaded up and took off.

Da svidaniya, Rusiya!

On the plane, I got the middle seat. I was seated between a young, attractive Russian woman on my left, and an older Russian woman on my right. After take-off, I was listening to music, minding my own business, when the young lady on my left tapped me. She gestured for me to remove my headphones. I thought that she was going to ask me a quick question, like for me to move so she could get out, so I lifted one side of the headphones to hear what she had to say.

"Take those off," she instructed me.  "Let's talk."


I put my headphones away and listened.

This woman's name was Natalya, and she worked at a fisheries research facility on Russia's eastern coast, north of Vladivostok. She located her town on the map in the in-flight magazine, but, of course, it wasn't marked. At the research facility, she provided administrative support. She wasn't a scientist. She was also looking for a new job.

We talked about the usual things like traveling and family and age and whatnot. She was keenly interested in my large family. She had me say the names of all my siblings, and she clapped and giggled like a little kid when I finished. She had only one sister (whose name was something very close to hers), and she hated her.  She also hated her mother, yet she couldn't bring herself to move away from her mother, because even though they fought, she couldn't live without her and blah, blah, blah.

She spoke pretty good English, but there were many things that we couldn't communicate. My Russian phrase book was in my checked bag, so I couldn't pull that out either.

She continued on with all her talking and giggling. Then meal service started.

We were on Korean Air, and appropriately the food was Korean. I love Korean food so I was happy.

Natalya and I ate like normal people. The woman on my right ate like she was eating for the first time without an instructor. She was having her first solo meal as it was. I say this because she watched me during the entire meal and did exactly what I did. I put my napkin in my lap. She looked over and copied. I buttered my bread. She looked over and copied. I asked the flight attendant for one of those tubes of Korean pepper paste. My shadow copied. I doused my food in the paste, and so did the woman. She couldn't handle it, though, and tried to scrape it off. That'll learn 'er! Pretty much every little thing I did, she would copy, and she was very conspicuous. I looked over at her once as she waited for my next move. She gave me a big smile. We ate our bread at the same time, then our salad, then our main course, then dessert. It was sort of fun, like playing copy cat.

Finally we finished the meal. This woman immediately called the attendant over to remove her tray. I got the impression that she had never flown before.

This woman was also a bit nosey and I caught her a few times craning her head to look at me and Natalya while we talked.

After the meal finished and they collected all the food trays, Natalya started talking again. She offered me a stick of gum, which I took. The woman on my right reached over and also took a piece.

A little later, Natalya told me what she was doing on the flight. She was heading to a Thai island with one of her colleagues from the research facility who was also paying for the trip. She was 22, and her host was a Swedish man in his late 60s. Age is just a number, so they say, but this pairing was a bit questionable in my book.  It was questionable in Natalya's book too apparently.  She explained that she knew her sponsor was only after sex. She had only accepted his offer to go to Thailand once he was clear on the fact that nothing would ever happen between them. Supposedly he understood this and still wanted her to come along "as a friend".

"I'm sure you've seen my colleague," she remarked.  "He has walked by here 5 times now."

I actually hadn't noticed before she mentioned. Afterward, I saw him walking by every few minutes. It's perfectly normal for a guy to be jealous when his "friend" is talking to another guy, no?

Before long, Natalya turned to me with a most unusual request.

"Can I touch you?" she asked.

I was a bit confused.

"Huh?" I replied.

And then as her geriatric suitor walked by, she planted a deep kiss on me. Luckily, my breath was minty fresh from the gum she had given me earlier. As we are in the kiss, the Swede with a heart of gold stood outside our row and started clearing his throat. I disentangled myself from Natalya and turned toward him. I put my hands up to indicate that I had nothing to do with it. I didn't have much fear of such an old guy, but I didn't want to get in the middle of whatever bizarre thing these two had going. It was just awkward.

The first-time flyer on my right was staring as well. Hell, any normal person would have been staring.

While the old man was standing there, Natalya antagonized him further.

"Oh, go sit down!" she shouted.

And he actually did. As he broodingly went back to his seat, he kept looking at us, giving us the evil eye.

Natalya giggled some more. She was really amusing herself.

About this time, we started our descent into Seoul. Thank God!

She asked me if I had minded her kiss, and I told her that it was a little awkward. She thought this was hilarious.

"Why was it awkward?" she asked.

"Let's hear some more about your sister," I replied.  "Is she a good cook?"

Natalya thought this was hilarious too. One beer and she was loopy.

I'm a pretty square guy, so the whole incident gave me the feeling that I was on Candid Camera. Or to be more contemporary, I guess it gave me the feeling that I was on Punk'd. No one ever popped out with the hidden camera, though.

When we landed, Natalya walked with me through the terminal and gramps followed several paces behind. She was obviously just using me to cheese him off, and I could respect that.

I was heading to Ho Chi Minh City and they were heading to Bangkok, so we all needed to go through the transfer lounge. I explained this to Natalya, but she thought she knew better. She headed toward passport control, which was for people whose final destination was Seoul. Before she left, she gave me one more kiss and her phone number.

I got in the transfers line, and it was outrageously long. As we slowly inched toward the security checkpoint, I could see Natalya and her friend in their line. I saw them get to the counter, and then I saw the agent there direct them to my line. Tough break, but I had tried to help them.

By the time they got to my line, I was out of sight and they didn't have the chance to try to cut line.

I passed security, waited around for my flight, and then I was off to Vietnam - a cool 6-hour hop.

Ho Chi Minh City

In one day, I went from wintry Vladivostok to jungly Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and I practically melted when I got off the plane.

I filed through the terminal with everyone else and presented to the immigration officer my Vietnamese travel letter along with $25. And he issued my visa. It was a very simple process.

At the baggage carousel, I waited and waited and waited, and my bag was nowhere to be seen. Once the carousel was emptied and they turned it off, I started to get concerned. I went to the lost luggage counter, and the guy there couldn't tell me much. While I was answering his questions and describing my bag and all, he asked to see my passport. When he saw that it was diplomatic, he was amazed. His amazement was because I was so low-maintenance and orderly. Evidently, most diplomats that he encountered were grade-A jerks looking for special treatment. That's surely a sad, ironic thing that people whose job it is to represent their country in a positive light overseas are perceived as jackasses by the people they meet (and apparently abuse). The guy took the phone number where I could be reached and told me he would call when he had any news.

All I had was my carry-on bag, which basically just contained my camera and a few toiletries.

I exchanged some dollars for Vietnamese dong before I left the terminal to catch a taxi. The dong is one of those ridiculous currencies with lots of zeros. There are around 16,000 dong in one American dollar, so my $100 exchange left me with over 1.6 million dong. What with my millions, it was like I had just won Survivor. I was always double-checking what I was paying, though, because the bills were easy for me to confuse. For example, there were 500-, 5000-, and 50000-dong notes. If I wasn't paying attention, I'd just see a 5 with a bunch of zeros, and I could have ended up way overpaying. Same story for the 1000-, 10000-, and 100000-dong notes.

It was close to 1:00 AM by the time I reached the taxi queue, but there were plenty of people waiting for customers.

I ended up getting a tuk-tuk, which was cheaper than a regular taxi. I told the driver the name of the guesthouse I was going to be staying at, and we were off.

Then, like I've mentioned in other stories, he started claiming that this place had burned down. I knew, however, that this was just a ploy he was using to get me to go to a hotel of his choosing, one where he'd get a commission. I told him that I didn't mind if my hotel had burned down and that I still wanted to go there.

And he shrugged and took me there.

I'll be damned if the place wasn't totally fire-gutted when we arrived. I checked the address to make sure it was the right place, and it was.

I guess I wasn't so smart after all.

The driver didn't miss a beat, though.

"I know cheap place," he told me.  "Close by."

We went to have a look.

Most of the guesthouses and cheap hotels were closed by the time we arrived, so the places he took me were all locked up. He had to bang on the doors and wake someone up. I felt bad for the few people that we woke up who didn't have anything available. We had bothered them for nothing.

After a few places with no rooms left, we woke up a woman who did have space. She showed me the room, and it was a typical no-frills cubicle. Her price was too high, though, so I walked out. Another person woken up for no reason.

I walked across the street and picked a hotel at random, and we banged on the doors. This place had the same small, junky rooms, but the price was more appropriate. I booked.

I brushed my teeth and hit the hay.

The next day, I showered in the shared bathroom and dressed again in my one and only set of sweaty clothes. Then I hit the town.

My total time in Vietnam was only four days, and that was split between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. I just wanted to have a quick look. If I wanted to come back, I would have plenty of chances.

As I started into my first morning in Ho Chi Minh City, I passed many little eateries and street vendors. I bought some of my favorite rice dumplings stuffed with barbequed pork and ate them as I walked down the street.

As I walked I passed entertaining signs, like this one at a barber shop:


It's so hard to find a good ear-picker these days.

I walked down to a market area which was near a traffic circle with a strange statue in the center of someone on a horse.

The market was pretty good, and I got some nice casual shirts for cheap. The women running the shop where I made my purchase spoke some English, and we had a good time as they tried to talk me into buying more things. They could tell that I was finished shopping, though, so they told me to visit them the next day. Then they showed me the best way to get to my next stop which was the Reunification Palace.

I found it without any problems.

The Reunification Palace was the former South Vietnamese presidential palace, and it was here that Viet Cong forces of the north officially defeated the U.S.-backed forces of the south in 1975. The name was changed to the Reunification Palace since the country was now controlled by the same government in both the north and the south. It was communism for all.

Everything in the palace is pretty much preserved the way it was in 1975.

I joined an English-speaking tour. The Vietnamese woman who led the tour had some serious pronunciation issues, and I had to serve as the interpreter for the others in my group, translating her English into our English.

The tour covered many rooms in the mansion: the dining room, the conference room, the official VIP receiving rooms, the kitchen, the president's office, the VP's office, the president's wife's entertaining room, the war room, the casino room, the movie room, the map room, the telecom room, the official bedrooms, the president's bunker bedroom, and a few others. In the map room and the war room, there were several different maps on the wall, many marked to show troop positions or to show Agent Orange areas. We also saw the helipad and some of the network of tunnels in the basement. One of the last things we saw was the president's Mercedes, parked in a tunnel, ready to zoom out when needed.

While we were on the tour, we saw a lot of Vietnamese school kids in their white shirts with red handkerchiefs around their necks.

After the palace, I headed for my next destination, the War Remnants Museum (also known as the Museum of American War Crimes). As soon as I left the palace, I was harassed. The museum was only a few blocks from the palace, and a cyclo (bike rickshaw) driver followed me almost the whole way offering to give me a ride. He was a pain in the butt. The other annoying guy was a coconut juice vendor. I eventually relented and bought one of his coconuts, and I didn't find the juice very refreshing at all.

At the War Remnants Museum, there were a ton of people, mostly Anglo. I bought my ticket and checked it out. It was a good museum, full of photographs documenting every part of the war. The exhibits were divided into a handful of sections. There were all kinds of thought-provoking and disturbing photographs and exhibits showing soldiers breaking down with grief or showing massacred civilians or showing people being tortured or showing mutilated bodies.

The most disturbing thing by far, though, was the Agent Orange exhibit. The areas that we sprayed with these chemicals are still not safe, and even today, over 30 years after the fact, there are all kinds of horrible birth defects coming out of these areas. There were a variety of photographs showing babies with hands coming out of their shoulders but with no arms and people with huge, deformed skulls and kids with flippers and people who had no legs. There were a lot of people who looked like their skin had melted. The range of birth defects this stuff caused was truly appalling to see. Beyond that, it caused a lot of mental retardation and blindness. Whole communities in these areas are dying out because a whole generation has been born with such severe maladies that none of them will ever reproduce. This exhibit was a very poignant example of how disgusting chemical warfare is.

At the War Remnants Museum, there were several American military vehicles on display from tanks to earth movers to planes to choppers. There were also bombs and other ordinance.

Once I finished at the museum, that was pretty much all I specifically wanted to see in Ho Chi Minh City.  I walked around without purpose.

One thing I needed to do was get a ticket to Hanoi, so as I walked, I stopped at a travel office and booked a flight with Vietnamese Airlines. I had initially planned on riding the train up the coast, but it had only recently derailed and killed several people. I figured it was best to fly.

Then I spent the rest of the day walking around, checking out shops, and eating from the street vendors. There are many Catholics in Vietnam, and in many a shop, there would be a Virgin Mary statue perched behind the cash register, painted in bright neon colors. It definitely wasn't the traditional presentation.

One thing that many street-food vendors were selling were these baguette sandwiches. They had several layers of tough unidentifiable meats, some pate, and a ton of fresh herbs (mostly basil) on top. It was the basil that made the sandwiches palatable. After I had eaten a couple of these sandwiches, I happened upon a list of ingredients. I lost my appetite when I noticed head cheese.

I did eat a lot of great food, though.

I squandered the rest of that day and returned to the hotel. In talking with the man at the desk, he asked what all I had done that day. I told him about going to the palace and the museum and about eating all the tasty food. Then he asked me if I wanted to try some dog. If I had, he simply wanted to inform me that I shouldn't because it was the unlucky time of the lunar cycle for eating dog. He went on to give me this advice for when the time was right: "The black dog is the luckiest."  I told him I'd keep that in mind.

I went to bed and woke up early the next morning. My bag was still lost, so I wore the same sweaty clothes again.

I set out in search of breakfast. Actually, there wasn't much searching to it; I went straight for the rice dumplings with pork again.

Then I returned to the hotel and called the lost luggage desk at the airport. My bag still wasn't there, but they said it was expected later that morning. My flight to Hanoi was around noon, so I was doubtful that I'd see my bag before I left.

That morning, I poked around another street market and bought a few more things. Can you ever have too many dollar t-shirts? I checked out all the fish and produce and things. I got my brother some Vietnamese cigarettes.

Then I went back to the hotel and checked-out. To get back to the airport, I hailed a motorcycle taxi. It was even cheaper than the tuk-tuk I had hired when I arrived.

At the airport, I checked with the lost luggage desk, and my bag had indeed arrived. In order to receive it, I had to sign a release form stating that nothing was missing and that I would not file a claim at a later date.  After a quick inspection, everything seemed OK, and I signed.

Then I rechecked the bag for Hanoi.

Once I checked in, I shopped around in the airport as I waited for my flight. I got some durian candy to take back to the office. Durian is a South Asian fruit that is said to taste like heaven and smell like hell. The smell of durian is so repugnant it is banned in many hotels and on airplanes.

Before long, my flight was called and I loaded up.

That flight was great. The food was good, and there was plenty of legroom in the economy section. This was a curious thing to me since I was in a country of tiny people. What Vietnamese person needed all that legroom?

Hanoi & Halong Bay

In Hanoi, my bag arrived with me. Also in contrast to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi was cool and misty and not hot and sweaty and steamy.

I left the airport and took a mini-bus with a dozen other people into the Old Quarter where I would be staying. I found a cheap hotel and booked a room. As I was at the hotel desk, I read some of the flyers for excursions they had advertised on their bulletin board. These were consistent with offers I had seen as I walked to this place.

I went ahead and booked a 2-day trip to Halong Bay, north of Hanoi. For around $12, the trip included transportation from Hanoi to Halong City (around 4 hours by mini-bus), a boat ride from Halong City to Cat Ba Island (5 hours), visits to 2 caves, a hotel stay on Cat Ba, the 5-hour return trip to Halong City by boat, the return mini-bus ride to Hanoi, and all meals. This was the basic package. There were many upgrades available – like a better hotel or a smaller group size or a private room at the hotel – for additional money.

After I booked my trip, I went up to my room. As I was pulling a fresh shirt out of my pack, I realized that things were missing. Specifically, my cool leather hat from Izmaylovsky Park, my scarf, my gloves, and a sweater were gone. I'm sure they disappeared somewhere between Vladivostok and Ho Chi Minh City, but it was too late to do anything. Besides, I had signed that release form at the lost luggage counter in Ho Chi Minh stating that nothing was missing from my bag.

I wrote off this latest theft and went for a walk around the Old Quarter. I was staying near the center of the quarter, near the Hoan Kiem Lake. This lake is supposedly the home of magical giant tortoises. I didn't see any tortoises, but there was a nice temple in the lake.

Near the lake, I caught a water puppet performance. This is a neat local style of puppetry where teams of people control wooden puppets in a tank of water.

The rest of that night, I did the walking, shopping, and eating routine. St. Joseph's Cathedral was impressive. There were also a lot of neat shops. The Old Quarter had a nice mixture of traditional shops and modern ones. There was also a healthy measure of souvenir stores tossed in. At one store, I found some water puppets that I liked. I wanted a dragon and a boy riding a buffalo. The prices were very high, though. I told the woman what I would pay. She balked, so I told her to think about it for two days and we would talk when I returned from Halong Bay.

I had some good street pho (noodle soup) that night and some other less successful samplings. For dinner, I went to a woman's tiny restaurant. She had many different bowls of things, so I pointed to what I wanted to try and she fixed me a plate. I pretty much took some of everything. Some of the stuff was great, some was disgusting, and some was unremarkable either way. I could identify maybe half of what I was eating. The cook seemed quite pleased that I was eating there, though, and she should have been. By my eating there, I think I doubled her business since many of the people who stopped to gawk at me actually ended up buying food.

After dinner, I bought some shampoo and went to bed.

The next morning, the mini-bus to Halong Bay picked me up bright and early. We stopped for a few other people and then we hit the highway.

On the bus, I met several interesting people. There were the Vietnamese Americans, Twan and his new wife, who were in Vietnam on their honeymoon, along with Twan's cousin Y (sounds like EE), and two of Twan's sisters, An and the other one.

There was Anthony, a backpacker from Australia. He grew up on Australia's surf coast and was an avid surfer. Since he had graduated college as a mining engineer, he had only worked for three months at his job. Then for the past three years he had been backpacking around the world. Whenever he ran out of money, he would just take a job wherever he happened to be and then a month or two later he would continue traveling. He was actually working his way back to Australia when I met him, since his sister was getting married there during the summer.

There were Eric and Alex (female), a backpacking couple from France. They had been on the road for a few months. Eric had a long ponytail and a goatee.

There were Kenneth and Maria, a backpacking couple from Scandinavia (Sweden, I think). They each worked in a tourist resort back home and were at the end of a three-month trek across South Asia.

There were Blair and Martha from Las Vegas. Martha sold real estate, and guess what Blair did. He was a professional card dealer for the World Poker Championships or the World Series of Poker or whatever it's called. He only worked three months a year. Unfortunately for him, though, he was not camera-worthy, so he only got to deal in the earlier, non-televised rounds.

And finally, there were two Russian women. They couldn't speak English, and they talked amongst themselves.

With the four-hour ride to Halong City, we had plenty of time for talking. Early on, someone mentioned how there was a real lack of Americans traveling in South Asia these days. Before meeting Blair, Martha, and me, many of the backpackers claimed to have hardly seen any Americans in their travels. Blair and Martha took this question and launched into a big explanation on how they felt that many Americans feared the area because it was so different. "Americans like to be comfortable."

Then they went on to say that Americans were still fearful of all travel after 9/11. What I thought was amusing was that they were Americans, so in a sense, they were patting themselves on the back. Essentially, they were saying that unlike their countrymen, they were not afraid of Asia and they liked to experience the unfamiliar.

I thought their explanations were only partly valid, so I interjected my opinion. I told them that an important factor was time. Americans still take the shortest vacations in the world when compared to the citizens of similar countries, and I think that young Americans are also less likely to spend the "gap year" backpacking as many people from Europe and Australia do. Since getting anywhere in Asia and getting back to the States kills 2 full days of a vacation right off the bat, many Americans who might otherwise go to Asia look to other, closer destinations like Europe, South America, and the Caribbean.

Some people liked this answer; some didn't.

On the bus ride, I got to hear a lot of where everyone had been. Most of the backpackers had done the same route – Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Of the three, everyone recommended Laos, heads and shoulders above the others. I made a mental note of this.

About halfway to Halong City, we stopped at a tourist-trap handicraft pavilion so that people could use the toilets, purchase snacks, and get hassled by the craftsmen. One thing that can be said about people who sign up for $12, two-day, all-expenses-paid excursions is that they are cheap. No one spent a dime at the handicraft place.

A bit after the rest stop, the people in the back seat started complaining. Whenever we'd hit the slightest bump, the back of the van would bounce and toss these people into the ceiling. It was a pity; all of the seats were full and no one wanted to trade with them.

When we arrived in Halong, our guide finally collected our tickets. He came first to the Russian women, and they couldn't understand. Before the frustration escalated, I told them "ticket" in Russia. This was one of the words I had picked up. They handed their tickets over, and I was their new best friend.

The rest of us handed our tickets over, and then we went to lunch. Our guide led us to a restaurant that was jam-packed with other tourists and their guides. Our group sat around a big round table, and then they brought the food out. We had all eaten better, but as they say, you get what you pay for.

I was sitting next to the Russians, and they soon learned that I wasn't the Russian speaker they had hoped I was. Beyond ticket I didn't know much else. I did have my handy phrase book, though, so I was able to provide a certain level of assistance.

The meal consisted of rice, stir-fried greens, stir-fried tofu squares, a fried fish, and some mushrooms and other vegetables in a brown sauce. Nothing much tasted of anything, so everyone was dousing it in chili sauce. The fish was somewhat good, but it was impossible to get anything off of it. It looked like a piranha, with a big mouth full of sharp teeth. The body of the fish was so full of bones, it was an exercise in futility to get a piece of meat. Many tried; all failed miserably.

Drinks were not included, so the restaurant was hoping that a lot of us would order soft drinks and beers. A few did, but most people didn't drink or else sipped from their water bottles.

After lunch, we walked down to the docks. There were tons of ships lined up, and tons of tourists loading up.

Our guide led us to our boat. To access it, we had to walk on planks and hop from boat to boat. This was definitely not handicap accessible.

Once we got on the boat, we were joined by a few other groups of tourists. There were a few other Westerners, but mostly the add-ons were locals.

Then we shoved off. The Russians got on another boat, so I assume that they had not signed up for the two-day trip. Either that or they got on the wrong boat by mistake. Blair and Martha also went somewhere else.

Halong Bay is part of the Gulf of Tonkin. The bay contains over 3000 limestone islands and supposedly also houses a dragon creature – like the Loch Ness monster. Of the limestone islands, many contain caves which formed due to the action of the wind and rainwater.

As we got underway, most of the Westerns in our group climbed up on the roof level.

Soon after we started, we reached our first stop, the Grotto of Wooden Stakes. This cave got its name because it's supposed to be where Tran Hung Dao and his men prepared a bunch of bamboo stakes that they later submerged in the sea and used to skewer the attacking fleet of Kublai Khan. The Mongolians got a thrashing in that encounter.

After that, we went to a second cave, for which I forgot the name. At both caves, there were roughly a million other boats and a million others tourists filing through. Both caves were gussied up with colored lights like – how does the saying go? – a 50,000-dong whore.

Once we had filed through the caves, we piled back on the boat and joined the masses en route to Cat Ba Island.

Before long, the boat traffic started thinning out because all the day-trippers started turning back toward Halong City.

Our day on Halong Bay had started out nice and sunny, but the weather soon changed. As the day progressed, it got cloudier and colder.

A few hours past the caves, we stopped at a floating fishery. This was like a floating wooden building with a floor that looked like the lattice topping on an apple pie. All the holes in the floor served as pens. There was netting under the holes and different types of sea life were trapped in each pen. There were also fish tanks full of smaller aquatic life like shrimps.

We all got off of our boat and checked out the fishery. It was pretty neat to see all of those different fish. One thing they had, however, wasn't so neat. There was a pen that contained two sea turtles. They were chewing on the netting.

One of the Vietnamese guys who worked there grabbed one of the turtles when it surfaced for air. Then he held it up in the air, and it flapped its flippers like mad. This guy was smiling from ear to ear. Meanwhile, all of the Western tourists were horrified, and the Eastern tourists were delighted.

Around the fishery, there were numerous boating beggars and boaters trying to sell produce and other things. Where there are tourists, there are always hawkers and beggars.

Most everyone just looked around and took a few pictures at the fishery, but Twan and his crew purchased some critters.

They gave these to the cook on our boat, and he fried them up.  When the food was ready, An invited me to join them. I was happy to. First we had some tentacled creature – a squid or an octopus – and it was excellent. The second thing we ate Twan called an abalone, but An kept telling him it wasn't. Whatever it was, it wasn't so good. Some was chewable, and some was unbelievably tough. Either this animal wasn't meant for human consumption, or the cook screwed up the preparation.

We ordered some beers and washed down the abalone as best we could. On those really tough pieces, it was easier just to swallow them whole.

After the snack, we went back out on the deck. By now, it was freezing cold and sprinkling and dark. For some reason, we were making awful time on our way to Cat Ba.

As we sat on the deck and talked, everyone was super interested to learn that I had just finished the Trans-Siberian. Of all these hardcore trekkers, none had done much of anything with Eastern Europe. Of course, I highly recommended that everyone go.

I could also dazzle them all with my stories of Pakistan. Pakistan is not on the trekking circuit, and none of them had been there either.

At one point, I was talking with An and we got on the subject of family. When she heard that I was the third of ten kids, she was excited. She was the third of five. I didn't think that was such an amazing coincidence. Later on, she found out that we were both Catholic. Again I thought, "So what."

Later on, An mentioned something about what she had done on her birthday in January.

"What day?" I asked.

And, yes, we had the same birthday, although she was 2 years older than me.

Later on, I mentioned that my knee was hurting.

"Oh, my God!" An exclaimed.  "Which knee?!?"

And, yes, we both had right knee pain. I think the cause of my knee pain was general deterioration of the cartilage. (I have since been on a regime of glucosamine chondroitin, and things are much better.) An, on the other hand, had a much more tragic cause behind her knee pain. She had been riding in a car with her younger sister, who was also on this trip, when the sister crashed. An messed up her knee among other things and was comatose for a while. Her mother and two sisters were killed in the crash. She, her little sister, and Twan were all that were left of the family.

Once all of our connections were revealed, An spend most of the time talking to me. She was a social worker in some coastal city in California, but I don't remember which. I mentioned to her that I would be traveling around the U.S., including California, in June, and she insisted that I look her up. She had a boyfriend, but she offered for me to stay at her apartment. Supposedly, I would have fit in great with her friends.

She was funny because while she was born in Vietnam, she was totally out of her element on her visit. She was admittedly a high maintenance traveler and she was having real issues with the conditions in Vietnam. She was dying to get back to Cali.

One neat thing about her was her super short name. Her whole name was only four letters long: An Do. She didn't have a middle name or anything; just four letters. Her cousin's name was even shorter. His whole name was Y Do. Pretty cool, eh?

While we were talking on the deck, Twan came out with a bottle of champagne. As you'll recall, he was on his honeymoon. His wife wasn't as keen on the idea.

"Are you sure you want to use that now?" she asked him.

"Sure, why not?" Twan answered.  "I like these people!"

And so we had a toast to the newly weds. Twan was a fun guy and his default facial expression was a smile. He always looked like he was up to something.

As the night wore on, it got so cold that everyone went inside the dining area away from the wind.

When we finally arrived at Cat Ba Island, everyone piled off and stood around waiting for a bus to come and take us to the hotel. Eventually, a mini-bus came, and it could only hold half of us. Our tour guide pointed at several people and told them to get on the first bus.

Then Eric piped up.  "I see what you're doing here," he ranted.  "You're letting all of your Vietnamese friends go first. Let's just do first come, first served!"

Then he started getting on the bus.

Not only was he going against what our guide wanted, he had also spoken to him in an accusatory manner.

Our guide tried to explain that, yes, he was sending the Vietnamese first, but this was because they were all staying together in a different hotel than the rest of us. They were going first also because their hotel was closer, so the bus would be able to return quicker for the second trip.

Eric mouthed off again, and the two of them actually lunged at each other. We had to pull them apart.  An would later site this as an example of how the French were always out of control.

The first bus left with the Vietnamese like our guide wanted, and then it came back for the rest of us.

At the hotel, we were all placed in shared doubles, and I was put in a room with Anthony.

We threw our bags in the room and went to dinner. The dinner that came with the tour was almost identical to lunch. Everyone grumbled and ate it.

After that, a group of us went out on the town, or what passed for a town. Cat Ba was pretty much just a bunch of hotels and a few stores and restaurants and bars. There were also some massage parlors and an internet café.

Our group consisted of Anthony, Eric, Alex, Kenneth, Maria, An, and me. When we passed the internet café, we lost An.

We walked a little further, and by the time we reached the end of the street, we lost Kenneth and Maria because Maria started feeling nauseous. So, the four of us continued on.

We passed a pool hall, and someone suggested that we stop in for a game or two. Since Eric and Alex were a couple, they became one team and Anthony and I were the other. Vietnam is one of those places where the cheapest thing you can drink, water and sodas included, is beer. So, as we played, we all had a few beers.

The guy that ran the pool hall was a short (like 4 feet tall), deformed man. He had a condition where his sternum projected several inches out of his chest. His shoulders were also pulled back and he seemed to always be leaning back.

Besides our group and the owner, there was a group of young Vietnamese guys at another pool table and a random woman standing around.

Once we got into the game, it was obvious that we all sucked. It was a very long and painful game to watch. At first everyone else was watching us, but they quickly lost interest.

In the midst of our awful playing, I happened to make one good shot. The short owner guy saw this and got it in his head that I was good. He kept challenging me to play him for money, but I politely declined.

The random woman that was hanging around was either the owner's girl or more likely, the house prostitute. At one point, he was standing with his arm around her waist – being so short that meant that his arm was extended straight out – and he got our attention. Anthony and I both looked over, and the little guy smiled a sleazy smile, opened his eyes wide, and started darting them toward the woman. The meaning of the gesture was as clear as if he had said, "You guys wanna hit this?"

I answered by shaking my head no, and Anthony just laughed. I should mention that this woman was no prize. She looked pretty scary, especially with her blackened teeth.

Anthony and I won the pool game, meaning that we sucked a little less than Eric and Alex.

After that we left.

Next we found a bar and started drinking. There was only one other guy in the place at the time.

After a few drinks, Alex wasn't feeling well, so she and Eric called it a night. The other guy also left, so only Anthony and I were left.

We decided to finish the night on Vietnamese spirits, so the bartender poured us some local whiskey. It wasn't bad.

As we drank, we talked. Anthony tried to convince me to become a real backpacker like he was and to quit being a desk jockey. I told him that I just didn't have it in me to quit my job and go on the road; until I win the lottery, I'd just have to keep seeing the world one week at a time.

He told me about his three years on the road, and it was impressive. He had seen all the Western European countries, the U.S., Canada, and now South Asia. After he returned to Australia to go to his sister's wedding, he was planning on working and saving for a trek through Africa.

As we talked, American rock was playing on the radio. During one song, Anthony jumped up.

"I love this song!" he shouted.

Then he headed for an electric guitar that was propped up on a stage at the end of the bar. It didn't have strings, though, so he wasn't able to perform. He returned to his seat and told me how he also used to have a band. I was beginning to grow weary of Wonderboy.

We had a few more drinks and went back to the hotel.

The next day, Anthony slept through breakfast, and I wished I had done the same. It was the same as the other meals, only the fried fish was replaced with toast.

After breakfast, we loaded back in the mini-bus and went back to the dock. Kenneth and Maria and some other people were on a three-day trip, so they stayed behind. Our guide also stayed behind with the three-dayers.

At the dock, there was some problem with our boat. It was decided that we were overweight or something. Whatever the issue was, I was directed to a different boat with a handful of my original companions, including Eric, Alex, and Anthony. We got relocated to a bigger, better boat, and all of those we left behind cried foul. On our new boat, there were deck chairs on all the levels, so we all camped out on the roof again.

Our boat took off at the same time as the other one, but we totally left them in the dust. We got so far ahead that our captain stopped and let us swim in the bay, which had clear, frigid, green water. There were a lot of Brits on the boat we joined, and they also swam. The funnest thing was to run and jump off the top level. Luckily, the Loch Ness monster thing didn't eat us.

After maybe half an hour, the slow boat approached us. Our companions saw us swimming and again started whining. We got underway, and once more left them in the dust.

The next time we saw them, we were all at a restaurant in Halong City, sitting down to our final lunch. Everyone knew exactly what would be on the menu.

After lunch, some people went to the nearby convenience store in search of food that wasn't fried bony fish and tasteless greens.

Then it was time for us to load up in the mini-bus for the ride back to Hanoi.

I commented that if our bus happened to be overweight, I would gladly move to a faster, nicer bus. All of the people from the slow boat booed me, which is just the reaction I was seeking.

This time there was a mad dash to the seats in order to avoid the back row. I got a good window seat in the middle.

During the ride back, I talked with An some more. That ended when she got car sick. She was sitting in front of me, and had been half turned in my direction as she talked. So, she said it was my fault that she got car sick. Right. After some sleeping and pulling her knees up to her chest and whatnot, she recovered.

We stopped at the same handicrafts place as before for our rest stop. Then we drove the hour or so remaining to Hanoi.

Once we got back to the Old Quarter, the driver told us that he wouldn't be able to drop us off at our hotels because of the time of day. Either buses weren't permitted on the side streets at certain hours or else he was saying the traffic would be too bad. I wasn't really clear on this.

In any case, he kicked us all off near the lake and we went our separate ways. After it was too late, I realized that I hadn't gotten An's e-mail address. I wouldn't be visiting her in California after all.

I walked around some more and ate some more street food. One thing I saw but didn't try was the snake-blood drink. There is a practice in Vietnam where you select a snake out of a cage, and a guy slits it open and drains the body into a shot glass. Then you do the shot for longevity or something. If you are really hardcore, you then eat the snake's gall bladder. And if you are really, really hardcore, you put the snake's still beating heart in the shot glass and shoot it with the blood, and then eat the gall bladder.

Like I said, I didn't try this.

I went back to the woman's store to discuss the water puppets again, and she remained unreasonable. She basically told me that I was pretty much screwed because she was the only vendor around. With a smug attitude like that, I would have sooner done without the puppets than dealt with her.

I left to find a better puppet vendor.

Within maybe 20 minutes, I found one. He had both the dragon and the boy on the bull, but the latter piece was in pretty sorry shape. I told him I was interested in the dragon and a fish. The price he quoted me was lower than what I had been trying to get the woman to accept. Even so, I had to bargain with him further, since it's bad form to accept the first price.

We quickly reached an agreement, and I was a happy customer. Those would be my last souvenirs of this vacation, as I was departing Vietnam the following morning.

I checked my supply of dong, and set aside enough for breakfast and the mini-bus back to the airport. I didn't have much left after that, but I knew just how to spend it. I hit an ice cream parlor.

I ordered two scoops, paid and ate. Then I ordered two more, paid and ate. After about eight scoops, I was all donged out. I was at an ice cream parlor serving Fanny's, a French ice cream, and it wasn't bad. Besides the usual flavors like coffee, Bailey's Irish Cream, and mint chocolate chip, I tried some different ones like young rice, cinnamon, and licorice.

After that, I went to bed.

The next day, I checked out of the hotel and had a bowl of pho for breakfast. As I walked down to the mini-bus stop, several motorcycle taxis followed me the whole way trying to get me to hire them. They finally got the hint when I took my seat in the van.

At the airport, a problem arose at check-in. My onward flight was to Bangkok, and I was traveling on my diplomatic passport. Countries like Thailand that don't require a visa for a traveler with a tourist passport will sometimes require a visa for a traveler with a diplomatic passport. Many of these countries wave this requirement, though, if the travel on the dip passport is personal in nature.

Some people I knew actually got Thai visas in their diplomatic passports, and not once did the Thai immigration officers ever look at them.

I never had gotten a Thai visa, but I had still successfully entered and exited Thailand on three previous trips. I showed the reservationist the Thai stamps that I had in my passport, and after more hemming and hawing he finally relented.

The Final Days

Less than two hours later, I was in Bangkok. I went through passport control, and they didn't give a hoot whether or not I had a visa.

I had about 30 hours to kill in Bangkok, so I hopped in a cab, found a cheap hotel, and took a shower.

Then I set out in the sticky Thai air.

There was nothing specifically I wanted to see in Bangkok, so I walked toward the large shopping malls.  Once I got there, I looking around and made a few purchases.

Then I decided to catch a movie. I hadn't seen anything that was playing, and I didn't really have any preference, so I bought a ticket for the next movie that was showing. It turned out to be this children's movie called Lemony Snickett: A Tale of Tragic Events. This movie happened to be playing in a VIP theater. When I went to the theater, everyone was waiting around in a nice lounge because the theater doors were not yet open. As I took a seat, an attendant brought me a free smoothie. A guy could get used to this. Soon, it was close to show time and they opened the theater doors. I bought some popcorn and went inside. In keeping with the VIP theme, there were fewer seats which translated to more room for everyone.

The movie itself was OK, but nothing great. I did enjoy one character, though. It was a baby that would bite everything and also make smart remarks in baby talk. In the end, everything wrapped up nicely, as children's movie are wont to do.

After the movie, I walked around in search of some grub. Somehow or another, I had managed to split a gum in my mouth in the hours before I came to Bangkok. With this in mind, I was trying to avoid spicy foods. I ended up ordering some white rice with what looked like a chopped liver sauce from a kiosk in a market. I told the woman that I didn't want spicy, and she had recommended this dish.

As I was eating, the food kept going right in that cut in my mouth, and it hurt like the dickens. It didn't have anything to do with spiciness, though. I didn't stop eating, and in a matter of minutes, the tears were flowing down my cheeks. The Thai people who were sitting at the table with me were all staring. They probably thought I was the biggest pansy in the world to be crying over liver.

I cleaned my plate and wiped my face. Then I went on my way. Next stop was to get a massage. That was just what the doctor ordered.

Later that evening, I went to a bar to have a beer, and as I was sipping it, some of the bar girls came over to my table. I told them that I was fine and that they could leave. They started acting all pouty and asked if they couldn't join me. I told them it was fine with me, but I wasn't going to give them any tip.

At this point, they thought I was joking around.

"How 'bout 200 each?" the leader asked.

200 baht is about $4.65. I told her no deal.

She kept lowering her request until she got down to 20 baht, which is less than 50 cents. When I said no to this, she turned vicious.

She got up in my face to give me a piece of her mind.

"You are cheap bastard!" she told me.  Then she took her salty attitude off to harass someone else, and her friends followed.

Hallelujah! I could drink my beer in peace.

I had a good night's rest and spent the next morning and afternoon in much the same way as the previous day. I went to the mall, cried my eyes out over a Whopper, and had a massage. Then I skipped the bar. Instead, I went to a small store, bought some beers, and drank them on the curb out front. I didn't have to sit on the curb long, though, because the owner woman brought me a chair. Then I went back to check-out of the hotel.

Before I departed for the airport, I stopped in a little restaurant for a bowl of soup – the one made from coconut milk and prawns. Unfortunately, it was a disappointment.

Soon I was back in the air on the way to Lahore. Five hours later I arrived.

As promised, Matt had a car waiting to take me back to his house. I had arrived after midnight and would be departing the next morning at 8:00 on the first flight to Islamabad, so my visit with Matt didn't include much more than a shower and a few hours of sleep. I was grateful to be at his house, though. Even an hour in a proper bed is better than a night in an airport chair.

The next morning, I was back in Islamabad. I went home long enough to change clothes, and then I was in the office.

I opened the durian candy and put it on my desk, and it went over like a ton of bricks. I was the only person who would eat it.

Since I had already told three people at the Embassy about being robbed in Moscow, the story was widely circulated by the time I got back. I could laugh at the situation along with everyone else, so it was all good.

That whole day, I was constantly telling my colleagues the highlights of my trip, and there were many.

When I finally saw Ruth, I presented her with a little trinket from Russia – a small wooden whistle that was shaped like a bird and painted in the Russian style – and we talked about my trip. When I finished my synopsis, Ruth was duly impressed.

"Your experience was unlike any other," she laughed.

Amen, sister!