On the night sleeper from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok I foolishly left my money belt in the loo. An hour and a half later, I realised I no longer had it with me. Panic. I was without passport, credit cards, return plane tickets, $500 and £50, not to mention a quantity of Russian rubles and South Korean won (I had reached Khabarovsk by way of a stop-off in Seoul). The attendant in my coach was sympathetic and helpful. We had to hurry, she said, because in a quarter of an hour the train would make its first and only stop. The money belt could easily disappear without trace, leaving me with little to do but wonder how to find the British consul (if one exists) in Vladivostok. So much for the romance of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
As we hurried back down the train, she unlocked every loo we passed (regardless of whether it was occupied), until I identified the one I had been in. (It was quite a way back, because the train had been an hour late into Khabarovsk, which caused excess demand when the passengers waiting on the platform were finally able to board.) Most probably, the finder of my belt would have been seated in this coach. But the attendant there said that no one had handed it in.
I could not hear what the two attendants then said to each other. All I know is that a door opened, I was ushered into a compartment, and the door closed behind me. There was only one person in it, which means (I realised later) that it was an attendant’s compartment; on my journey back through the train I had seen the full complement of four people nearly everywhere.
It was a woman, probably in her thirties, wearing dyed blonde hair and a navy blue adidas track suit. She retrieved the belt from under the mattress where she had hidden it, and asked how much money I would give for its return. It soon became evident that she expected the lot. ‘After all,’ she said with a smirk, ‘I could have pocketed the money and thrown the rest out of the window. I’m doing you a favour.’ Taken aback by her triumphant enjoyment, I did not think to try grabbing my property from her by brute strength. And I knew better than to look for the policeman who should have been (but fortunately was not) accompanying the train: he might have found a pretext to take the money for himself. In Khabarovsk I had watched the police flag down motorists every five minutes to demand payment for not issuing a penalty fine on some made-up charge, and in the Russian press I had read much nastier stories about police extortion.
So I capitulated. I got my belt and the wallet it contained. She got the money. In its own way, it was a fair bargain. I was relieved of much bureaucratic bother in the Russian Far East, trying to obtain a substitute passport and plane tickets, telephoning long distance to report the loss of credit cards. Financially, as measured by spending power and the work it reflects in two very different countries, she gained considerably more than I lost. The attendant in my coach told me that she knew the woman’s name. Evidently, she was not going to report her to the police. But was that from benevolence towards me, or because the woman had already arranged for the attendants to receive their cut in return for the privacy they had provided for her?