I think I’m a pretty cautious person when it comes to watching out for myself. But when I think back to the summer I traveled to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, I thank my lucky stars that I made it out of Moscow in one piece.
It was a month before the fall of the USSR and I’d just come off a week-long train voyage on the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Beijing. No sooner had I stepped onto the platform in Moscow than a young woman approached a guy from the train. Was he looking for an apartment to rent? Sure, he said. And he asked those near him, including me, if we wanted in. Since I had no where to stay, I readily agreed.
So two guys from the train and I followed Katya to a waiting car, which inched through rush hour traffic until we reached an apartment building near the Akademicheskaya subway stop. Just before Katya left us off at the apartment, which looked like a safe house, she asked if we needed anything like a train ticket out of Moscow. I quickly raised my hand.
Five days later, on the day I thought I’d leave Moscow, I heard the front door open. My flatmates had already left Moscow, so terrible thoughts flashed through my mind. Soon I was face to face with a burly Russian guy a bit older than my 20 years.
“You need a train ticket?”
“To Budapest?” It wasn’t a question, but somehow it came out that way.
“Fifty American dollars and your passport. Stay here.”
Even before I’d arrived in Moscow, I’d heard it was almost impossible for non-Russian speakers to purchase train tickets in those days. While I was still in Beijing, I’d booked an Aeroflot flight (without paying for it) from Moscow to Budapest in case I really couldn’t buy a train ticket.
I don’t like to feel trapped.
So I waited in that apartment for the rest of the morning and all afternoon with nothing to eat but a vat of raisins in the kitchen. I picked out the ants before popping the raisins into my mouth.
Hours passed, maybe five or six, and I’d gone beyond panicked at that point. The $50 was upsetting, but it didn’t wipe me out–not yet. It was the passport that would be a pain. I’d have to find the US Embassy, which also wasn’t a huge deal. But waiting longer in Moscow? I’d still have the issue of finding a train ticket out or paying US$300 (which I didn’t have) for that one-way Aeroflot ticket.
But sure enough, my Russian friend reappeared as the evening rush hour waned. He handed back my passport (I checked to make sure it was mine) and a train ticket I couldn’t read except for some numbers and the Cyrillic words for Moscow and Budapest.
“You have one hour. Have a good trip.”
I raced out of there with my oversized green backpack and splurged on a taxi, which arrived at the train station with 15 minutes to spare. When I showed a conductor my ticket, he shook his head and pointed to the head of the train.