"Riding into the Sunrise - Recollections of a bicycle journey across Russia" - by Gregory Yeoman

The e-book and paperback of the Trans-Siberian Cycle Expedition have now been published. You can read the introduction below. To sample and buy the e-book, follow this link. To sample and buy the paperback, follow this link.

“Oh, just take the whole bloody lot and sort it out yourself!” I exclaimed, thrusting all my remaining dollar bills through the grille at the stony-faced woman. Our immediate fate lay in her hands.

I was trying to leave Russia, and it was not going very well. I had thought getting here would be the difficult part, securing invitations and visas for a six-month visit during which it would be impossible to say where and with whom we would be staying, and when. But here I was, struggling to convince this hangover from a previous (though clearly still too recent) era that my money was good and would she please just sell me the tickets for the flight.

The problem, apparently, was the quality of the paper. Not the issue dates of the bills – we had been careful about that and only had 1991 issue or younger. It was something about the paper. In front of the woman on her desk was a small black box with a narrow slot in the side. One by one, each note was carefully placed in the slot and the machine pulled it in hungrily. A split second later it spat it out, and either a green or red light would shine, depending on whether or not the note met the machine’s requirements. The process was tediously slow, and we had rather a lot of notes to get through – tickets for Kate and me cost $335 each, and those for Sasha and Valera $100. Over the previous six months we had grown accustomed to the many annoying aspects of bureaucracy (offices not being open when they should be, decisions made according to the person’s mood rather than the facts, generally abrupt behaviour) and had developed some sort of coping mechanism. Plus, of course, there was the fact that we had chosen to visit the country to experience all that was different about its culture and way of life, and we had chosen to do it in a way that meant we would be here for a long time. If we did not like it, we had two options: go back home, or deal with it. Complaining was not going to achieve anything and would only obstruct our view of the country and the people who live there.

However, I had now reached the end of my long trip. I had successfully cycled across the biggest country in the world, and now I wanted to go back home and experience decent food and a comfortable bed. I felt justified in becoming more than a little peeved with the impervious cow looking back at me from her position of strength on the other side of her desk. $690 were, apparently, acceptable. The other $80 had been rejected. Even some that the machine had passed had been turned down by the human element in the process. On the basis of what? The notes had the wrong smell? Clearly I was not about to be let into the dark art of dollar acceptance, and despite my protests that I had no more money I could tell that she was not going to give any ground at all. Very reluctantly I took the money back and endured the eight-mile return trip in the packed trolley bus to the flat we were staying in, where I picked up all of our remaining cash. Back in the Aeroflot ticket office the process began again. With a bigger pile of money this time I was confident we would crack it. Slowly, the pile of dollar bills that met the company’s tough selection criteria grew. Things were looking good. We were through the $700 barrier. $750 came and went. A fair number of bills lay forlornly on the reject pile, denied their birthright, to be used in the ages-old tradition of financial dealings, and the pool of spares was disappearing fast. $760; surely we were home and dry. $765; visions of the green pastures of southern England floated before me. $769; I could feel the crunch of my first juicy apple in six months between my teeth. $770. Yes! We had made it! I reached out to accept the tickets, already feeling the surge of the plane’s jets lifting me into the skies above Vladivostok. But wait. What was this? Suddenly I was back on the runway. Worse than that, the plane was still in the hangar. I did not have a ticket in my hands at all. I had a dollar bill. One single dollar. $769 was on the clock and she had rejected the last dollar! And this time it really was the last one; I had brought all our money from the flat. This was too unbelievable for words – words that could be repeated in polite company, at any rate, somewhere I clearly did not believe I was at the time. Although she spoke no English I reckon the woman behind the desk got the gist of what I was saying.

One dollar. One lousy dollar. This country was on its knees. The rouble, or as it seemed more appropriate to call it, the rubble, was going through the floor. Russia needed dollars; here I was doing my best to give them some and they were being thrown back at me. I thought it best to quieten down as it was obvious my behaviour was doing nothing to break down these tenacious remnants of Iron Curtain intransigence. Valera, who had been standing beside me patiently throughout all this, stepped in to sort things out. I was not sure if he wanted to apologise for me and restore cultural relations, or if he realised it was his ticket home as well that was hanging in the balance. Whatever his motivation, he managed to persuade the woman to retry some of the notes. At last she found a one-dollar bill that passed muster.

I took the tickets before she had a chance to change her mind and smiled as genuinely as I could. It was not easy to combine real glee at having the tickets with complete disdain for the person who had issued them. Anyway, we were on our way home. What could possibly disrupt our plans now? Well, tanks on the streets of Moscow for one thing. It seemed this huge, fascinating and frustrating country would keep testing us until the very end.

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'Riding into the Sunrise' - to sample and buy the e-book, follow this link. To sample and buy the paperback, follow this link.

Adventure - Expeditions - Inspiration