The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

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This blog entry about the events of Friday, August 06, 2004 was originally posted on August 10, 2004.

DAY 293:  The day before in the Yekaterinburg Guide Center office, I had met a South African guy doing the Trans-Siberian trip like me.  He too was somewhat upset that so far it hadn’t been the international party on wheels of vodka and chess that people made it out to be, but was happy enough that he had lucked out in his compartments with nice people.  “I haven’t been stuck with three drunk Russian guys,” he said.  “But I suppose with all my good luck, the bad luck is sure to come.”

THE NO. 56 TRAIN WAS STILL IN EASTBOUND MOTION when I woke up in one of the top bunks that morning.  I had a cup of ramen noodles for breakfast and sat in my bed to continue writing in my notebook quietly as the train continued to stop and leave from stations on the way.  Underneath me, the three Russian mafia types I was sharing the compartment with were stuffing their faces with their big picnic they had brought with them.  They offered me some food — and some of their vodka — but I politely declined with body language; my rule is to never drink alone or with people I don’t trust.  Most of my communication with them was through body language or my occasional “Da” or “Nyet,” although I managed to figure out when they were asking if I was Chinese or Mongolian (they didn’t buy my answer of American) of which I just said, “Filipino.”

The Russian mafia types were like a trip of thirty- and forty-something delinquents, closing and locking the door to smoke illegally in the compartment or to through their garbage out the window — all while drinking shots of their vodka.  They pretty much left me alone with my notebook in one of the top bunks — that is, until the big fat guy with three gold teeth stood up to try and tell me something with body language.  He held up some ten rouble notes and rubbed his middle finger to his thumb to signify “money.”  I didn’t know if he wanted to give me some or was asking for it. 

“Um… ”  Smile.  I just played dumb tourist.

The big fat guy with the three gold teeth — let’s call him “Tiny” — tried asking again, but I didn’t understand him.  The guy below me stood up to talk to me in Russian in the top bunk, completely shit-faced — let’s call him “Mr. Shit-Faced.”

“Um… ”  Smile.

Mr. Shit-Faced continued to badger me in Russian and I recognized the phrase “Sto roubles.” (“One hundred roubles.”)

“Um… ”  Smile.  I tried to continue the dumb tourist bit, but it was started to run thin.

Mr. Shit-Faced started getting angry, almost shouting to me in Russian — at one point he grabbed my bottle of Coke and tried to pour it down my shirt.  Over and over, he tried to tell me something in Russian.  “[Something something] sto roubles [something something].”  He started with the hand gestures and I deduced he was trying to tell me, “Give me a hundred roubles or I’ll throw you and/or your bag out the window.”

“Um… ”  Smile.  “I don’t know what you’re saying.”  The more I played dumb, the angrier he got in his slurred speech.  He gave up on talking and just did hand and arm gestures.  He pat my big bag on the top shelf (which I had no regrets locking up to a bar with my steel cable lock) and made the “throw out the window” motion before rubbing his middle finger to his thumb to signify “money.”

“Umm… ”  Really, what do I do here? I thought to myself.  “Tiny” was busy making a cell phone call and the third guy was out in the hallway, behind the closed compartment door, probably on guard. 

“Sto roubles!” Mr. Shit-Faced demanded.  Jesus, won’t this asshole just pass out already?  He was really pissed off at the point of reaching for the insides of my pants pockets.  I moved and slapped his hand away.

“Nyet!”

“Sto roubles!”  He went to reach for my pockets again.

Slap.  “No!  Nyet!”

Fuck, how do I get out of this one?  I was very aware that there was a knife in plain sight that they used to cut their food with.


AND THEN, THERE WAS A KNOCK ON THE DOOR.  “Passport control!”  Two officers came around to check passports.  I never thought I’d be happy to see Russian police.  The officer check the passports of the three mafia types and eventually mine.  “Oh, you are American,” said Officer #1.  “You speak English?”

“Yes.”

“Filippine!” Mr. Shit-faced exclaimed in his slurred, drunken speech.

The officer had my passport and the one of “Tiny.”  “Please come with us,” Officer #1 asked me.

“What’s the problem?”

“No problem.  Just come with us.”

Sure, anything to escape that room and Mr. Shit-Faced.  Perhaps the police are going to ask me to work undercover for them, spy on the Russian mafia and report my findings.  How cool would that be?

The two officers escorted me down the train car aisles (picture above), car after car after car.  The sound of sliding the big heavy metal door to the entry/exit vestibule was followed by the sound of the sliding the big heavy metal door to the area between two cars, followed by the slam of the first door and then the second.  All of this was repeated shortly thereafter as two doors opened and slammed to get into the next car. 

Footsteps, footsteps.  Open open, slam slam.  Open open, slam slam.  “Where are we going?” I asked, marching down the aisle with one officer ahead of me and one behind.

“Just follow us.”  Open open, slam slam.  Open open, slam slam.  Footsteps. 

“Is there any problem?”

“No, no problem.”  Open open, slam slam.  Open open, slam slam.

Shit, is this all some elaborate scam?

We arrived at the last car before the dining car and they escorted me to just a regular second-class passenger compartment that did not look official at all for police work, and closed the door.  Fuck.  The fairly young guys started chuckling to each other, which also tipped me off that a scam was in progress.

“Officer” #2 looked through my passport and my supporting documents inside.  He read my identification section and perused all my other stamps.  Holding my tourist card, he made a rolling motion with it.  “Do you…” followed by two sniff sounds, signifying “...snort cocaine?”

“No no no.”

“Okay.”  He looked at the passport again.  “Oh, America!  Winchester, bang bang.  You have Winchester?”

“No.”

“Me, I have Winchester right here,” he said.  He made it evident that he had a gun in his holster.  I didn’t know if it was fake or not, but that’s not the sort of thing you know until it’s too late.

“Do you have any identification?” I demanded of the “officers.”

“Don’t worry, no problem, no problem,” said “Officer” #1.

“Let’s get the conductor in here.”

“No.”

“Please, let’s get the conductor.”  I stood up and opened the door. 

“No.  Sit,” “Officer” #1 said.  “No problem.  Sit.”

“No, let’s get the conductor.”

“No, there is no problem here.”

“If there’s no problem, then we can get the conductor in here.”

“No.  Sit.”

I sat only for the sake of getting my passport back, keeping my leg in the doorway to keep the door open.

“Move your leg,” “Officer” #1 demanded.

“No, let me see some identification.”

“You want identification?!  Here,” “Officer” #2 interrupted.  He showed me his badge in a flash before I could see if it was an EPSON print out or not.  “Officer” #1 let me read his — but how was I supposed to know what a real police ID should look like?

“No, there should be some sort of metal badge or something,” I said.

“You want to call the consule?!” “Officer” #2 said.  “Here.”  He gave me his cell phone.  “Go ahead, call the American consule in Moscow.” 

Fuck, these guys were good; they knew what tourists are supposed to say to threaten them.

“Okay,” I said.  “I have to get the number.  It’s back in my room.”  I stood up.

“No, you sit.”

“No.”  I stood in the doorway, trying to call down a train staff member at the end of the hall, but she wouldn’t respond.

“Sit down.  No problem.” 

“No.”  I kept on looking for help.  On a train, you can’t really go running off to the nearest real police or threaten to handle everything back at the station.  A passenger walked by.  “Vy gavarite-pa angliski?  (“Do you speak English?”)

“[Something something],” in Russian.  He moved on.

“Please sit down.  There’s no problem,” said “Officer” #1.

“No, let’s get the conductor first if there’s no problem.”  A man and his little boy walked by and I seized the opportunity to follow the boy down the corridor to get the conductor — but “Officer” #1 physically grabbed me like a wrestler and shoved me into the seat in the room. 

“Sit!”

I quickly put my leg in the doorway to keep it open.  “Officer” #2 dangled his handcuffs in front of me with one hand while still holding my precious kidnapped American passport in the other.  He pretended to call in information on his cell phone.  The rhythmic sounds of the train — tha thump tha thump, tha thump tha thump — continued as the green scenery whizzed passed the window.

Suddenly, the big, gold-toothed Tiny showed up casually at the doorway.  Shit, now what?  He smiled and said something in Russian to “Officer” #2 and gave him some roubles.  He got his passport back in a clear example to show me what I needed to do to persuade the fake police from getting my passport back. 

Fuck, they were all in it together, probably communicating over cell phones right in front of me when Mr. Shit-Faced was harassing me.

“Officer” #1 told me to empty my pockets and lay the contents out on the bed.  I initially refused, but I was going nowhere fast, and did as instructed, only showing off my non-valuable things.  It didn’t really work because he frisked me several times, after of which I had to reveal the real goods:  my camera, my secret pocket with about $200 worth in cash, a credit card, travelers checks and my ATM card.  (I really don’t get the purpose of money belts and secret pockets; muggers and robbers know about them, and rob you accordingly.)

“Officer” #1 pretended to analyze it all, thankfully confiscating nothing.  “Officer” #2 was more interested in a visa sticker in my passport for South Africa.  Yeah, Russian passport official, my ass.

The only thing I could think to do was just play along.  “How did that other guy get his passport back?” I asked.

“Money,” said “Officer” #2 with an evil smile.

“Sto bucks,” said “Officer” #1.  They wrote a figure on a scrap piece of paper:  $100.

“No no no no,” I gasped.  “That’s too much.”

“Okay.”  They wrote down another figure.  What was this, a mortgage negotiation?  1000 pyb.  (1000 roubles, about $34 USD)

“Fine,” I sighed.  I gave them one of the 1000 rouble notes they knew I had, and they released my precious American paper hostage.

“See, no problem,” said “Officer” #1.  I was already halfway out the door.


OPEN OPEN, SLAM SLAM.  Open open, slam slam.  Again, five more times.  I opened the door to my compartment just as the three Russian mafia types were raising their shot glasses for another toast, possibly celebrating their victory over scamming me — Mr. Shit-faced had 200 roubles in the 1000 5-way split instead of the original 100 he asked me for.  Tiny motioned me to join them.  Yeah right, motherfuckers. 

“No, I’m going to the dining car.”  I grabbed my bag on my bed, which I had secretly packed up and locked with quick thinking while the “officers” were “inspecting” their passports.  The fact that I shoved all my loose valuables in the bag at that time kept me sane during my “interrogation.”

Open open, slam slam.  Open open, slam slam.  Again, six more times.  I ordered a bowl of soup, some chicken and a beer, but I still felt queasy from what hat just happened.  I survived with my passport and lived to tell the tale, which was the most important thing I guess.  I made small talk with the young friendly waiter there that was happy to meet me; he told me he had a friend also from the New York/New Jersey area.

I sat and wrote, dreading going back to the compartment.  I figured I’d just stay in the empty dining car and kill time until arrival.  My big bag was locked by cable anyway.

“Gdye tualet?” (“Where is the toilet?”) I asked the waiter after two hours or writing, with two hours to go.

“They are closed,” he informed me.  “We are near the city.”  Toilets on the train were closed in big cities so as not to flush shit on the tracks where people might live near.

“What city is this?” I asked.

“Novosibirsk.  In five minutes.”

“Novosibirsk!?”  It was my stop and the train was slowing to a snail’s pace into the station.  “But we’re not supposed to come until nineteen.”  He showed me his cell phone.  “18:53.”

“Fuck!”  I had forgotten about the time zone change.  Everything was confusing with the zone changes (all train tickets use Moscow time), and the fact that my printed itinerary said Novosibirsk was +4 of Moscow, when it was actually +3.

Open open, slam slam.  Open open, slam slam.  Again, six more times, in a hurried, frantic pace.  The conductor gave me a scolding look in the corridor.  “Novosibirsk?”

“Da.”  I rushed over to the compartment; the mafia-types were already with their bags in the hallway, telling me I needed to hurry.  I unlocked my chain, grabbed my bag, and scanned the room.  The only redeeming value of the mafia types was that they had returned my bed sheets for me already.


“MR. TRINIDAD” WAS PRINTED on a sign held by a big Russian guy at the arrival platform.  He motioned me to follow him through the crowd.  “Gavarite pa angliski?” (“Do you speak English?”) I asked him.  He grunted No.

We rode through the city of Novosibirsk, a fairly big modern Siberian city with a population of almost two million.  We rode on without conversation across town to the homestay he was instructed to bring me to.  He got lost twice though, in residential and industrial areas, having to use a map and radio for directions.  As he pulled near an abandoned area where some guys were burning garbage, a thought entered my mind:  Did “Officer” #2 phone my name in to someone to print out a “Mr. Trinidad” sign?

Finally the taxi driver found his way, to a nicer high-rise apartment building complex, where a member of my host family greeted me at the door.


YOU’VE NO DOUBTINGLY FIGURED OUT “The Bad” and “The Ugly” in this story so far (take your pick) and to balance it all out, I really needed some “Good” in the day, before it ended.  I totally lucked out with my homestay as soon as the first door to the apartment swung open, revealing an ultra clean Westernized-looking household with shiny like-new wooden flooring, bright lights, lots of space and a TV in the corner of the living room playing MTV.

My gracious hosts were Julia and her mother Lugmina, both generations born on Russian soil on Sakhalin Island, off the east coast of mainland Russia, north of Japan.  Their Asian faces were contributed to their Korean ancestry, although it was hard to tell just where English-fluent Julia was from exactly because she was so Americanized in terms of style, behavior and musical interests.

“My mother raised us with a Western upbringing instead of a Russian or Asian one because she thought it would be more beneficial,” she told me.

“Wow, I feel like I’m at my friend’s house in New Jersey,” I told my hosts.

My room for the night was Julia’s brother’s room, who was away for two weeks in the city of Tomsk, visiting friends.  His room was just like one I might have seen in American suburbia, with his karate awards on the wall, a comfy bed and a nice big computer desk with a rolling office chair by a window overlooking the outside — a perfect place to work on my laptop and catch up on Blog duties.

“We’re going to have dinner in fifteen minutes,” Julia told me.  “Care to join us?”

“Sure!”  Only breakfast was required by the host according to contract.  I really lucked out; there really was a balance of Good in the day.

Over tasty mashed potatoes and meat balls, we sat around the dinner table as music videos of Pink and No Doubt played in the corner.  “Do they play Russia artists on MTV here?” I asked.

“Yes, but I think it ruins MTV.”  I told her about the Russian version of “Brooklyn Zoo” I had heard on the train.

“‘Brooklyn Zoo?’  ODB?”

“Yeah.”

Wait a minute, am I really in the middle of Siberia?

Julia was a 20-year-old student of the University of Tomsk-Novosibirsk campus, studying international relations and world history.  Not only could she impress me with her wealth of knowledge of American pop culture, but she knew many things about Russian, American and world history too.  She was just like any American 20-year-old I might speak to in the States, with subjects ranging from the latest prank on MTV’s Punk’d to the woes of a dial-up connection for instant messenger programs and downloading movies and MP3s off KaZaa.  She had also talked about the American movies Road Trip and Half Baked.  I suppose I could relate to all of it being what Sebastian (Morocco) called, “the youngest 29-year-old [he’s] ever met.”

I was in her brother’s room writing on my iBook at the desk and she came in to hang out that night.  I showed her the in’s and out’s of an Apple computer — she had only heard of them but had never seen one before in person — and my photos from Africa.  She had photos of the time she met and held hands briefly with Mariah Carey, backstage at a concert in Moscow, which she showed me the next morning.

Being in the home of Julia and her mother, even just for the first couple of hours, I really found the “home” in “homestay.”  Julia had been in a family homestay in Minnesota before and knew what I might be going through, easing my transition into Novosibirsk — which was a great thing after the bad and ugly events earlier that day.  Where the Russian mafia types or the “officers” ended up that night with my 1000 roubles I didn’t know, but I was too comfortable to care.






Next entry: Bowling For Siberia

Previous entry: The Things Between Europeans and Asians




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Comments for “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”

  • YEAY!! Happy ending to the day!! SWEET!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/10  at  08:25 AM


  • wooah! ... way to come out of it with your passport, camera & virginity still in tack .. You da man !

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/10  at  05:17 PM


  • wow - that’s scary :(  Makes me definitely want to go first class when I go - then no one will be sharing the room with us.

    Posted by Liz  on  08/10  at  06:23 PM


  • crazy shit bro…

    nice to keep your cool….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/10  at  07:21 PM


  • What a nice ending!  What a shady, horrible train experience.  Can you ever just change cars if you don’t like your train-car mates?  I guess if the train is full and you don’t speak Russian, that would be pretty hard to do…Glad you ended up OK!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/10  at  11:03 PM


  • Whew! You really had me worried there. I’m impressed at how you handled it. Good thing my Mom gave up reading this since South Africa! She’d be yelling at ME for you’re adventures!

    Nice to dodge the bullet, and only be out $34.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/11  at  12:34 AM


  • Erik,
    Glad you are sharing the good, bad and ugly with us!  It’s too bad but for us blog readers that are planning on travelling more, it helps that your experiences show to be very careful!  Thanks for sharing but sorry you have to experience this! I wonder what would have happen if this was a woman alone or 2 women travelling?? Uhmmmmmm.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/12  at  12:56 AM


  • ROSE:  I think train travel is best done in pairs for Trans-Siberian… as for two women, I’ve met two who are doing the train (NZ and UK) and they have gotten by fine…  that’s not to say they haven’t met shady characters too…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/13  at  05:35 AM


  • Wow. Thank GOD you’re okay.  Seriously, I was thinking, “what would i do??” I think I’m bringing a big buff guy with me if I ever travel the Trans-Siberian Railway(and a baseball bat).

    Posted by Alyson  on  08/16  at  09:52 AM


  • wow, that is one hell of a story! yikes!!  i’m actually planning on doing the trans-siberian next spring… i hope i dont have anything like that happen to me!

    is there any way of subscribing to your blog so i could get emailed when you update?

    *v

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  11:36 AM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.


Next entry:
Bowling For Siberia

Previous entry:
The Things Between Europeans and Asians




THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY

Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

NIZ: acronym for "No Internet Zone"; a place where there is little to no Internet access, thus preventing dispatches from being posted.

SBR: acronym for "Silent Blog Reader"; a person who has regularly followed The Global Trip blog for years without ever commenting or making his/her presence known to the rest of the reading community. (Breaking this silence by commenting is encouraged.)

Stupid o'clock: any time of the early morning that you have to wake up to catch a train, bus, plane, or tour. Usually any time before 6 a.m. is automatically “stupid o’clock.”

The Trinidad Show: a nickname of The Global Trip blog, used particularly by travelers that have been written about, who are self-aware that they have become "characters" in a long-running story — like characters in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

WHMMR: acronym for "Western Hemisphere Monday Morning Rush"; an unofficial deadline to get new content up by a Monday morning, in time for readers in the western hemisphere (i.e. the majority North American audience) heading back to their computers.

1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.




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