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The Ural Mountains: Where Credit Cards stop working

Stranding without money in provincial Russia

sunny -28 °C

Travel writers often believe that: “You [the reader] don’t want to hear about the traveller’s fun; what keeps you reading is the traveller’s misery, outrage and near-death experience.” (Poul Theroux: The Tao of Travel)
I tend to agree. The bad stories are the best stories to tell the readers. The obvious exception being my parents who’d prefer easy-going and un-dramatic travels.
Anyhow, things only seem to go sour, when I’m not prepared. Not that this should be a big surprise, however, my troubles are rarely connected with the preparations that I’ve failed to do. Take my latest misery at the Perm train station in the Urals for example:

I’d had a solid day. I’d spend the morning visiting Russia’s best preserved Gulag camp and the evening watching one of Russia’s best opera and ballet schools performing Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The sun had shined from a blue sky all day, and I was feeling truly trouble free. Not often, as there’s usually some small piece of travel duty nagging in the back of my mind – something in need of being done or figured out.

Perm Theater

Perm Theater

Done at the theatre around 22.30, the train leaving at 00.30. Transport, stocking up on provisions for the 35 hour ride to Tomsk and buying the ticket would quickly take up those two hours. But I was confident. It would be manageable. Note that, with the exception of getting my body and backpack the three kilometers from opera house to the train station, the rest could (and should) have been prepared in advance. That would have given me plenty of time to deal with unexpected events.
In good accordance with Murphy’s Law: Arriving at the station half an hour before departure, there’re the usual automats you stick your credit card into and after a step-by-step guided in English the ticket comes out. I’ve done it before, this time however all I got was a screen saying “Credit card not valid”… Not really the response you hope for in the middle of the Urals Mountains – certainly not because I prefer riding the Trans-Siberian low on cash, so I don’t have to worry about keeping it safe. All in all I had about 30$ left in Rubles – about half the ticket price.

The train at Perm

The train at Perm

I tried the ticket window: Card got rejected. I tried the two ATM’s at the station: Same message delightful message. Have my bank finally got suspicions about all those foreign transactions and blocked my card, closing the account? I’m more than a month into my trip, but they might just be sluggish. Or maybe my last purchases did go through and I got blacklisted by the Russian Railway? The station had free wifi and I had 20-minutes of power on my laptop. I’ll just buy the ticket online and get the automat to print it. The internet will save me!
Nope. Somehow, even on the World Wide Web, the Russian Railway’s homepage doesn’t think my card as valid. A cocktail of about two parts frustration and one part anxiety, shaken (not stirred), would be the best way to describe my mood. Maybe even with a bitter, bitter piece of lemon added. I’d used the same website, the same credit card two days earlier, and at this exact moment my train just rolled out of the station. Murphy, you’ve timed it perfectly!
Next train was leaving four hours later, giving me an unexpected and annoying 6-hour wait at a station in the middle of nowhere. But that was honestly just water under the bridge compared to me not having any accessible money! Sure I got 300 emergency dollars I can get changed in the morning, but they won’t last me long if this credit card situation isn’t fixed.
Since my card seems to be the problem the solution should be simple, since I travel with a backup. A Visa Electron set up to another account without money on it. I mostly use it to make my fake wallet look more credible in case of a robbery, but it suddenly comes in handy.

Last night's beer tasting forgotten

Last night's beer tasting forgotten

Next problem is surprising: finding a plug and recharging my dead laptop. The attitude of Russian train station seems to be: No freeloading on our electricity! Only a few plugs in the entire station, security threw me away from the first one I find, the two next doesn’t work. I do manage to find a coffee automat around a corner in a little visited part of the station, unplug it and plug in my laptop. Not wanting to draw attention from would-be angry station personnel and people passing by, I leave the computer in my backpack, hiding the cable to the plug and pretend to sit on the floor reading for half an hour. Back in the waiting room I can finally log on to my bank and transfer the money. I’ll be able to buy myself a train ticket.
But Russia wanted it differently. The now familiar “Card not valid” is again triumphantly paraded on the screens of both the ATM’s and the ticket automat. And all I get at the ticket counter is a sympathetic look and a shaking head from the women behind the glass, but no ticket.
It is time to call my bank! In the middle of the night, in the waiting area of the train station I plug my headphones on and dial my banks number on Skype. Not being able to hide my very Danish conversation to the people around me I get plenty of curious looks and half a dozen kids gather around me to investigate this strange creature with the familiar looks of a fellow human, but making incompatible sounds. A low voice and polite and apologising smiles seems to be enough for my fellow passengers to accept this unusual behaviour.
The first call is fruitless. My card should work fine, the bank hasn’t done anything to them, and I haven’t exceeded the monthly amount I’m allowed to use. The payment to the Russian Railway has gotten through, so that can’t be the problem. I’m passed on to technical support.
Nothing seems to be wrong, with the exception of my laptop running out of power again. Finally the person at the other end of the line has an explanation that might be right (it is no solution, though): The Visa-connection might not reach all the way from rural Russia to Denmark where it needs to be verified. So much for the so-called international credit card!

Finally leaving

Finally leaving

Finally remembering that I’ve had the same problem in an ATM in Murmansk, where one bank would give me money and another wouldn’t, I see a way out. Only problem is the long work back into town to look for a branch of that bank in the middle of the night in the freezing cold.
Instead I give my laptop another 30 minutes in the plug behind the coffee automat and Skype home to my roommate back in Denmark. Given the time difference it’s still before midnight there. Walking him through the steps of buying a train ticket on the Russian Railways’ homepage (in Russian) takes about 25 minutes, and it’s a nice opportunity to call home and say hi – something I hadn’t done earlier on the trip. At last I’m able to get my ticket printed in the automat that has denied me any form of tickets for the last hours. Revenge is mine and it tastes oh so sweet!
Tired, very tired I board the train at four in the morning – looking forward to an über relaxing 35-hour rail journey through Siberia. Boy was I wrong about that - but more about that next time...

Posted by askgudmundsen 08.03.2013 01:18 Archived in Russia Tagged train credit_card stranded troubles perm ural_mountains misery

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