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August 22, 1982 TOKYO

And now I'm going to tell you about the travel BARGAIN of the Decade. It is so good that it simply can't last, and by telling you all and spreading the word around will only hasten the disappearance of this bargain. As soon as the authorities discover what is wrong, they will certainly cover up this loophole in the eastern European currency system that allows, in effect, to legally buy Roubles at a Black Market Price. But I think it is safe to tell you all because I doubt that many of you will have the time to attempt it. To Play it safe, I would recommend allowing at least two months preparation time, and more if you have never had any experience of dealing with Eastern European Bureaucracy. I was able to do everything starting only five weeks before departure date, and then only with luck and coming very close (one half hour) to missing the whole show.

Most people arrange Russian trips through their friendly local travel Bureau. For a simple transit like I did, it costs them at least 400 to 500 dollars. Whereas, by the way I did it, the total cost for the 12 days was 180 dollars. That includes the price of the train tickets, Boat ticket and food bought on the train. It should have been 50 dollars more for the hotel, but that got canceled out luckily. You could perhaps also add on the costs of the HUNGARIAN VISAS that you use up going in and out of the country, and at 5 dollars per entry they add up. But it wouldn't be fair to add on costs of living during the waiting time because you would be paying that wherever you were waiting. Besides, if money and time are important to you, then simply get down to ATHENS and fly to Tokyo, I saw flights from there for 350 dollars in the off-season, probably 400 by now, and such Bargains are probably also available from London or other places with a bit of Looking. But the idea of this trip is to stay on the ground and get the feeling of getting there.

So how does it work ? Basically all you need is a RUSSIAN VISA valid for the time period necessary. There is more than one way to get a RUSSIAN VISA, but for those of us without friends there to officially invite us, then we must get a RUSSIAN VISA thusly. It is necessary to have transportation tickets, and Hotel Vouchers that completely cover the time of intended stay in the U.S.S.R. After those are arranged, the VISA comes automatically in 2 to 4 weeks depending on the consulate, free of charge with 3 photographs.

In Budapest, you deal with the State travel Bureau - IBUSZ. They do the communications with INTOURIST, the RUSSIAN TRAVEL Bureau. For each different ticket, there is a separate IBUSZ office, and they are in different parts of town.

For the TRAIN TICKETS, you have a choice of offices, IBUSZ or MAV the Hungarian Railway office. I had the IBUSZ train office order my train tickets just in case the Soviet EMBASSY recognized only their tickets. But I believe there is no problem by using the MAV office. In both places, the price of the ticket is the same, and they were both busy to the same extent. It was the peak busy season of the summer, but there was an answer to my reservation requests in only five to seven days which was amazingly fast. The train from Budapest to Moscow is booked up solid for about 2 to 3 weeks ahead of time during this summer season. I don't know what the busy season is for eastbound traffic on the Trans Siberian, but it certainly had plenty of space at the time I went.

At the IBUSZ office fore boat traffic there was also a helpful clerk to order tickets as at the TRAIN office. The answer to that Reservation request took 10 to 14 days to come through.

But the office for Hotel Reservations was another story indeed. I'm not sure what I did wrong, but from the very beginning the clerk there was NEVER very helpful. I was always nice to her and controlled my Anger whenever she tried to discourage me. As I was ordering the one night I needed in Chabarovsk, she told me that the answer would be back in 3 weeks time. I was back in town after two weeks and I went in everyday for 3 days to check on it just in case it came through early. On the 3rd day, she got very mad at me, refused to even see if an answer was there and simply said, wait for 3 weeks to elapse, then the answer would be there. Fortunately on that day, the man at the [Russian] embassy started the work on my VISA, so it was then not necessary to wait there for the Hotel. I don't know if the embassy simply forgot to ask about my Hotel, or whether it is really not necessary. It wasn't easy to communicate with him as he only spoke Russian and Hungarian, with only bits and pieces of English, German and French. But it was lucky for me that he began to process my VISA application because there wasn't but a few days more before it would have been too late. On the day of the three weeks elapsed time, I called this lady in the Hotel office on the telephone from Berlin.

There was still no answer. As I returned from Berlin it was four weeks time and no answer. I was careful not to bother her too much. Only checking on it the day I went to pick up the Visa. Fortunately again the embassy had no questions about the Hotel. So, on the last Friday afternoon that the office was open, I went in to check one last time. This was now four weeks and 5 days. They said they had an answer, that being that there were no rooms available.

They refunded my fifty dollars and then I began to wonder what would happen in Chabarovsk that night. As it turned out, there was no problem that night. I could have gone with the small group of people on tour with the TRAILFINDERS from London to the Intourist Hotel. Their group was one short, so they always had an extra hotel room. But I wanted to stay at the station, it was more interesting. (Lesson learned, Get hotels through a western european travel office, same price, no hassle.)

Now the tricky part and the secret to the cheap cost of the trip. The train and boat office calculate their prices in Roubles, then convert that to Hungarian FORINTS, and convert the FORINT to Western Money.

For the train it is approximately:

138 Roubles at 17 FORINTS per ROUBLE = 2345 FORINTS,

at 33 FORINTS per dollar = 71 dollars or the equivalent of about 51 cents per ROUBLE.

The boat office uses a different ROUBLE-FORINT price for reasons as yet undiscovered:

106 Roubles at 26 FORINTS per ROUBLE = 2770 FORINTS

at 33 FORINTS per dollar = 81 Dollars or 76 cents per ROUBLE

The train is second class with sleeper from BUDAPEST to Nachodka.

The boat is Category 5 (the cheapest is category 6 -> 15 Roubles less). There are 8 price levels on the boat, A,B,1,2,3,4,5,6 ranging from 237 Roubles for A class, to 90 Roubles for category 6.

Comparing these Rouble-Dollar prices, in RUSSIA the official dollar prices is $1.35 per Rouble, almost 3 times more than what I paid for the Train. And in the Banks in Vienna or Berlin, the Rouble costs only 29 cents. Too bad there isn't some way to pay with 29 cent Roubles.

MOSCOW $1.35

The black market in Russia is like the price of the Western banks, approximately 29 cents per ROUBLE.

I am going to check here in TOKYO at the IBUSZ office to see if they can order tickets through BUDAPEST with the resulting savings for a Return trip from here. If you do want a return trip, order it from Budapest at the same time with the same savings. (NEVER GOT AROUND TO IT)

Also it appears possible to bring Roubles along from the west for the expenses during the trip. Although you are warned that if you are discovered carring Roubles on entry to RUSSIA, you may be turned back, and lose all the cost of your tickets. I did bring along 20 Roubles from Berlin, but I also have a very good hiding place inside the frame of my pack. Although that is silly thinking because customs officials are supposedly trained to know all the good hiding places. But it looks like the officials don't care whether or not it looks like you've spent money in RUSSIA. One kid did the trip with Black market money and didn't spend any Western money while in RUSSIA. But he made a mistake on exit, not knowing the rules, and tried to take out more western money then he had entered with. He had sold some of his extra ROUBLES to another traveler and so had more real money. This is basically the rule that the customs officials operate from, take no more out than you brought in, and it doesn't matter if you spend or give it away while there without a record to show where it went. (i.e. you can buy Black Market money there). But on exit, they simply took the extra money away from him, and gave him a receipt for it and he can pick it up on entry next time within three years. No interest though, what a lousy bank. He also had some Feathers with him, some kind of souvenir from Germany, And the customs officials kept these also on exit, again with a receipt to be picked up within three years. I can just see those feathers sitting in the Nachodka Customs office for three years, how weird.

Another reason for coming from Budapest is because of the Train schedules. From what I know, there are three trains to Moscow from Central Europe. The TISZA express from ROME, the OST-WEST express from LONDON through BERLIN, and a TRAIN from Helsinki. The OST-WEST express arrives in the evening, thus requiring at least one night in a Hotel in Moscow.

The TISZA express is scheduled to arrive at 07:15, thus, if it is on time, allows 2 hours 45 minutes to get across town to the Trans Siberian. The TISZA express that I was on was late, it arrived at 09:00, thus I had one hour to get across town to the other train station. I was very lucky it wasn't late by 30 minutes more, as it took 30 minutes by subway to get directly to the Trans Siberian train leaving at 10:00 sharp. The train from Helsinki also arrives in the morning before the Departure of the Trans-Siberian, but I think its scheduled arrival time is about 09:00 so that's cutting it too close.

By the way, during your waiting time of arranging the trip, it is very cheap to take train trips to the other socialist countries for the same reason as outlined before. They always calculate the trip in Roubles first. For example it is only 12 dollars round trip to Berlin. (The Czechoslovak double TRANSIT VISA COSTS ITSELF 18 DOLLARS !) ROUND TRIP to SOFIA BULGARIA is about 20 Dollars, these are student prices. You can buy an Eastern European Student card in Budapest at the "EXPRESS" student travel bureau with 3 dollars and one picture, no questions asked as to your student status. Also ISIC Student cards are available at 5 dollars and a picture. And a ROUND TRIP to the SOUTH of Yugoslavia is about 30 dollars, Yugoslavia trains are more expensive, because their currency is not tied to the ROUBLE. And I would estimate the cost of a ticket to Helsinki, Finland transit through RUSSIA at about 30 dollars one way, cheapest passage from SOUTH to NORTH EUROPE. I didn't use the Student card for the Trans-Siberian as I didn't want to run into any trouble with that as I certainly don't look like a student anymore. [I was already grey-haired at this age of 31] It would have saved 25% on the train ticket, about 15 dollars.

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