Travel: Something to Declare - The column that saves you money

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Warning of the week:

Areas with a hijack risk

Following yesterday's attempted hijack of an All Nippon Airways domestic flight in Japan, it is timely to point out a couple of areas with a recent history of hijacking. The US State Department has just updated its advice on flying within Turkey:

"Domestic Turkish Airlines (THY) flights were hijacked in February and September 1998 by unstable individuals who each falsely claimed to have a bomb or weapon. Both incidents were successfully resolved without injury. Neither represented a breach of airport security. Another THY flight was hijacked in October 1998."

Across in Colombia, the Foreign Office warns about terrestrial abduction:

"Violence and kidnapping are serious problems in Colombia, as shown by the church kidnappings in Cali on 30 May. Visitors should not stray from major urban areas or from established tourist routes, and should be aware that even these can become dangerous without warning. It is safer to travel by air than to risk a road journey."

Currency of the week:

The Russian rouble

If you were in the USSR back in the olden days (pre-1989), a 10-rouble note would buy you a midnight train to Georgia or a midday plane to Leningrad. It went far in another sense, too, being legal tender everywhere from Estonia's Baltic coast to the Caspian shore of Azebaijan and the Pacific at Vladivostok (not that you were allowed to intrude on the Soviet Pacific fleet's base). These days, Rbs10 might buy you a beer. But it will be a very different note from the one shown here.

The USSR may have had many disadvantages, but from a currency point of view it was blissfully stable. One rouble equalled pounds 1, and had done so since the Sixties. Each rouble note carried the name and value in 15 languages, one for each of the constituent republics in the Soviet Union in which it was valid.

There was, however, a considerable disparity in what you could buy; in the Baltic republics, a great deal was on offer, while in the back of the Russian beyond you were lucky if you could find an old copy of Das Kapital in the local Marx & Lenin bookshop.

Conveniently for overseas visitors, the rate of one rouble to pounds 1 was an economic fiction. If you found a reliable black-market spiv (and such people did exist), you could get three, five or even 10 times the official rate. There was a huge demand for hard currency which could be spent in Beriozka shops, the only bright spots on a bleak retail landscape.

While local people risked imprisonment for illegal currency dealings, the worst that generally befell a foreigner was a stiff fine (payable in Deutschmarks or dollars, not roubles).

The collapse of Communism led to a dose of reality for the rouble; its official value dropped to one-10th, matching the rate on the parallel market. But at once the individual republics began to overprint roubles in their national treasuries, so that roubles procured in Ukraine were worthless across the Russian border.

In the less stable former Soviet republics, the rouble took on a new role as the local hard currency. But galloping inflation meant that during the 1990s the rouble devalued repeatedly, sinking quickly to around 5,000 to pounds 1. Last August, when the Russian economy went into free fall, the rouble went with it. Once the currency had settled at the bottom of the financial trough, it was dusted down - and three of the zeroes were deleted, returning it to around 14 roubles to pounds 1, not far from its value at the start of the 1990s. The kopek, too, came out of retirement, since one- 100th of a rouble was no longer an immeasurably small amount of money.

For visitors to Russia, the effects of years of turmoil have not been entirely without benefit. The upsurge in bars and restaurants means that there is now plenty to spend roubles on.

Life on the streets of Russia is currently cheaper than ever, in every sense. But neither the notes, nor the streets, are as elegant as they used to be.