Kiev – The Crazy Passport Roller Coaster

by have0limits

IMG_0755In a previous article I described how I managed to find my passport five hours after losing it in Seoul. But this feat pales in comparison to what my friend has accomplished 7 years ago in Kiev.

Kiev was at that time a peaceful city in a pretty isolated Ukraine, but like in all post-soviet countries small criminality thrived there. We met in Kiev with Tom to spend several days there, complete our equipment for the expedition to climb Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains. The plan was to get there together on train. The expedition itself and my extreme experiences on Mt. Elbrus I have described earlier in another article.

This is just a prelude, and what a prelude this is!

I arrive to Kiev on plane and here I experience the first surprise: my luggage is lost! Usually, lost luggage is not a big problem in other parts of the world. But having some items getting stolen from my luggage by the airport staff several years earlier in other east European capital tought me that in the Eastern Europe your luggage isn’t safe. The chaotic lost baggage office and its manual workings don’t tune me optimistically about the chances of actually finding my luggage. The problem is: In the luggage I have all my equipment and special clothing necessary for the mountaineering expedition, to attack Elbrus and its death zone. Without this no chance of achieving the goal or even surviving there. On top of it, the airport is a 2 hour drive from Kiev, where our apartment is located. Fortunately I have 3 days till we plan to depart from Kiev.

I decide to give it a chance. And luckily the next day I get a call from the airport. The luggage arrived and I can pick it up there. I go to the airport again, spend 5 hours for the trip but I have my luggage. Nothing is missing and the adventure can continue. Little I know about the upcomming trouble, which will turn out to be much more serious.

It takes 36 hours to get on train from Kiev in Ukraine to Mineralnye Vody in Russia at the feet of Caucasus. We need to leave on Wednesday at 3pm in order to arrive there on Friday in the early morning, to be pickted up at noon by the rest of the expedition. The long distance trains are all couchette coaches and you need to have a bed reservation.

There is one peculiarity in the (post)russian train system. When you look at the train schedule, they don’t show arrival time. Since the long distance trains are usually more than 24 hours on the way, some of them as long as a week, the arrival time would leave you clueless about what day you actually arrive. So the schedules show the travel time in hours. It can be intimidating to see your train arriving say in Moscow in 54 hours or in Vladivostok in 156 hours, especially considering the horrible sanitary conditions offered in these trains.

According to an old soviet tradition you can’t get the train tickets in advance. You can get them only on the day of departure at the main station, starting at 8am. Usually by noon the tickets are sold out.

It takes about one hour to get from our apartment to the main station. We need to move out at noon. So the plan is to get to the main station as soon as we can, buy the tickets when it opens at 8am, return, pack and move out at latest at noon.

In order to buy an international ticket, a passport is required to confirm your name on the ticket. We were advised, to keep all money and documents in the apartment, due to high risk of pickpockets on the streets and in public transportation. We religiously apply to this despite the official duty to carry your documents with you. But for this one occasion some money and a passport is needed, so we make an exception.

We board the metro to get to the main railway station. Underway, our metro wagon gets strangely crowded. There is also a guy with strange, crazy eyes standing next to us, peeking at Tom frequently, which makes Tom uneasy. The next station many people get out and we travel further in an almost empty wagon. Then Tom reaches inside his jacket, and shouts outraged:

“Alex I’ve been robbed!”

I look at him with disbelief, smiling. Surely he is pulling my arm. But his face expression shows despair. He claims to have put the pouch with his passport, the insurance, and most of his money into the inner breast pocket of his zipped jacket when we were leaving the apartment and now the zip is open and the pouch isn’t there. For me it looks too fantastic. How would anybody be able to steal anything from a zipped inner pocket? I am sure he forgot his pouch in the apartment. We just need to get back there and get it. But Tom is incessant. He says he can remember putting the pouch into the inner pocket and closing the zip.

We can’t get tickets without his passport. He pushes me out the train. Tom believes to understand the psychology of a pickpocket: “They want money and avoid potential trouble connected with stealing documents, so they may have taken the money and thrown the pouch with the documents away.”

So we get back to the station when the “crowd” left our wagon and scan through the floors there and look into each trash can inside and outside the station. We find nothing.

The time is running. I convince Tom to go back to the apartment and check there for the pouch. Maybe the cause is trivial. We travel back. But we don’t find his pouch in the apartment.

Now we know he has been robbed for sure and need to face the reality and response accordingly to now changed situation. Apparently the guy with the crazy eyes distracted Tom’s attention, as well as the rest of the crowed who were pushing around. All that for their swift pickpocket to unzip Tom’s jacket in this tumult, then unzip his inner pocket and take out his pouch in a fraction of a second without Tom or me noticing it. It seems unbelievable, but it happened exactly like that. I can’t believe it myself, but I was present there, know what happened, how I perceived it and now I see the results. These guys are freaking geniuses in what they do. They could work for a circus and earn good money with that. Despite all the trouble they caused us, the anger and the grief, I feel a deep respect for their performance and ingenuity. It was just a demonstration of professionalizm and a feat of perfect illusion.

Tom calls the embassy and finds out, he can get a temporary passport from the embassy in several days, but this passport will allow him only to return to his country, and he surely won’t be able to obtain a Russian visa for it. It doesn’t help anyway for the expedition, since we need to leave TODAY if we want to be on time to join the group and climb Elbrus. What if somebody finds the passport and turns it in to the police? The police is obligated to turn it in to the embassy, which itself is obligated to stamp holes in it and make it invalid. A lost passport can’t be used again due to security reasons. Well it looks pretty hopeless.

I am pretty forlorn. If he doesn’t have the passport with his visa inside it, he surely won’t be able to enter Russia so there is no way he can travel with me to Mineralnye Vody and participate in the expedition. This expedition is a big dream of mine. I have been preparing for it for half a year or longer, training, equipment, logistics, everything. That’s the reason I convinced him to join, because travelling alone in Russian trains is a licence to being robbed, especially as a foreigner. Now if he doesn’t come with me, I won’t be able to leave the compartment for the toilet, otherwise my belongings including the equipment I spent months to complete will surely be stolen. But how am I going to travel 36 hours without satisfying my basic physiological needs? A torture! The backpack with all this mountaineering equipment and some food cans for the expedition is extremely cumbersome and heavy, surely around 30 kg. I just can’t take it everywhere with me, especially not into the narrow, dirty, wet and stinking Russian WCs.

I am close to giving up on the Elbrus mission and just want to stay in Kiev, helping Tom to return home, partly due to the security reasons and partly due to pure solidarity. But Tom convinces me to return to the main train station and buy a ticket for myself while he will be doing everything to get his passport back. He assures me he is not giving up on finding his passport and we still have a miniscule chance of going there together. I am extremely pessimistic about this plan and don’t feel good leaving my friend to his lot but decide to come along. After all this expedition has been a big dream of mine, I have done so much for it and I think I should take some risks to successfully complete it, even if it isn’t with a full team. Well, I could be robbed in the train or later and not be able to climb Elbrus without my clothes and equipment but I can still give up when I actually do. I think as long as there is a slight chance of successfully completing what I have begun, I should continue.

We get to metro and get into the train direction main station again. Tom gets off at the “critical” station to continue with the search, while I continue until the main station. I need to quickly get my ticket and return, so I manage to pack everything before we have to move out at noon. Tom promises to be back in the apartment before noon no matter what.

I buy the ticket, return, pack my stuff together but Tom isn’t coming. It is half past eleven already, I begin to get nervous. It is twelve and he isn’t there. 12:10pm, nothing! Finally he arrives at 12:15pm happily announcing:

“Alex! I have the passport!”

I am speechless, I am without speech. The only word I can articulate is:


How on earth was he able to regain his passport in just three hours after being robbed by criminals in an eight million chaotic, corrupt and treacherous post-soviet capital? Yes, he speaks some Russian, but he can be clearly identified as westerner, as foreigner, as an easy victim, a perfect goal of any criminal act. That got him into trouble in the first place. He was specifically targeted as foreigner overly trying to protect his pockets, apparently trying to hide something precious in them. That’s exactly why he got robbed.

Now follows what happened when we parted as good as I can remember his recount:

He goes to the station where the “crowd” got off the train. Seeks again for the passport to no avail. Then goes to one station before that and does the same. There he encounters a cleaning lady. Asks her if she didn’t find his passport. She smiles kindly and tells him, she knows who the guys were. These are “known suspects” in the metro. She wonders how he could be so naive and careless to get tricked by these small criminals. She advises him to go to the central police station responsible for the metro. He does.

It is probably 2-2.5 hours after he got robbed.

There he finds a muscular police commanding officer sitting behind his desk. He tells the officer the story. The officer smiles mockingly. He calls another policemen and tells him he should shell out the passport. It looks like the other officer has not only the passport, but the whole pouch with all the documents. He is but hesitant to give it back to Tom. He expects a monetary “reward” from Tom for finding his documents. He is corrupt to the bone. Tom figures out they apparently work together with the pickpockets letting them go away with money they have pickpocked as long as they return the documents, which then the police can sell back to the tourists. A viable business model, you could say.

But Tom is persistent to get his documents from the police for free because it is their duty to do so. The thickish police officer tries to blackmail him they could return the passport to the embassy where it would be invalidated so it would cost Tom anything a bit to get a new one. It doesn’t convince Tom. The commanding officer sees a risk of getting into trouble, since Tom speaks Russian and apparently can find his way through the strange structures of this society. What if he reports to the embassy or some anti-corruption authorities? He gets into argument with his subordinate and forces him to finally shell out the stolen pouch.

The other guy throws it furiously to the floor. Tom gets it happily. Looks inside. All the documents are there, but apparently no money. “And what about the money?” he asks delicately. “Well the documents are found, so all good, isn’t it?” the commanding officer goes. Tom can’t argue this. Money is a small problem in comparison. He has some iron reserve and he buys his ticket with it and then he returns to the apartment.

He managed to find his stolen passport in just three hours of being robbed in this wild city. With that feat of perseverance and ingenuity he gained my lifelong respect.

We was a little bit late with moving out, but we were able to get to the long distance train on time and get on board of our big adventure. There was just a small technicality we needed to solve. To exchange beds with somebody, so we can stay in the same compartment and keep an eye on our luggage when the other person leaves the compartment.

Also the travel itself didn’t lack incredible adventures. I may describe it some day in another article.

Such is the story of my friend’s astonishing adventure, proving again that nothing is impossible if you really try, put your heart, your wit into it, persevere and fight to the very end.

I wonder how this story inspired you. Please share your impressions, remarks, conclusions with me and other readers in the comments below. I will also happily answer your questions.