Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Saved by beer again!
This is a complicated story, and one that you may need to be a traveler to appreciate, so bear with me...
I've already said that the beauty of Russian/former-USSR trains is the stops, where women young and old descend to sell everything a weary traveler might want, from bliny to beer. The ugliness is Customs, which, due to the vicissitudes of Stalinist borders, we had to go through four times (count 'em!) on this train (Aralsk, Kazakhstan to Moscow, Russia). I'd carefully stockpiled some Kazakh tenge from Almaty to cover food and drinks en route, but, since I hadn't been to Russia yet, I had nothing in the way of roubles. As the last border stop drew on and on, I began to worry about my ability to feed myself, as we were forbidden to leave the train, and would soon be out of Kazakhstan. Finally, after the Customs officers had removed ceiling panels and unpacked bags and brought in dogs, and the Immigration folks had had their way with our passports, we were allowed, after nearly two hours, ten minutes of freedom on the platform.
Gleefully, I descended, pouncing on the first food--dumplings--I could find, hesitant to pay in Kazakh tenge now that we were in Russia, but the saleslady accepted my Kazakh note and gave change in roubles. I moved on to another seller with another note to purchase beer. Again, a successful transaction with change in roubles. Once more I tried for mineral water: success and Russian change once more. If I could just buy one more thing, I thought, I could get rid of all my Kazakh money and have enough roubles to last me till Moscow. So I went to yet another vendor and bought another beer. She was a bit put off by my large Kazakh bill, but she agreed, and, under the supervision of several young Kazakh men, issued me the "correct" change in roubles.
I never did see the moneychanger I'd been hoping for, but who cares? I now had more delectable dumplings than I could eat, more beer and mineral water than I could drink, and more roubles than I could spend, all without ever so much as touching an ATM card or trading currencies.
I had one Kazakh and one Russian beer, by the way: neither was great. But the dumplings were a gourmet experience--so fresh and hot they melted together in the plastic bag the lady dispensed them in. Just beef and onion and dough, but magic occurs with the labor of assembly.
Note on photo-verisimilitude: I'd tried the fish earlier--I felt I had to, since little old ladies push it on you at nearly every stop. In a nutshell: I'm glad I had beer to wash it down.