Part four of my nostalgia tour across Siberia involves the famous Russian visa. Obtaining a visa requires a “sponsor” or certified travel agency to set up travel arrangements, like my journey on the Trans Siberian Railway. Each day, and each night’s hotel stay is documented, and must be followed. I did not enjoy the freedom of a Jason Bourne or James Bond.
Let me explain. When a person on a visa issued by Russia checks into a hotel, the “authorities” are notified. Likewise, when I check out, they are again notified. And I cannot check into another hotel unless I have been officially “discharged” from the previous one. In addition, each of my days and nights on the Trans Siberian were likewise documented.
In other words, the Russians want to know where I am at all times. But there are ways around this. The most frequent method is to find a “resident sponsor” who will attest to having you as their house guest while in Russia. Another less appealing method would be to marry a Russian, and apply for permanent residency, citizenship notwithstanding. I thought was rather extreme!
Side bar: It turns out that being an Asian American in Russia, while rather rare, revealed another insight. Many Russians look quite “Asian” in appearance, with darker skin, dark hair, and a definite “non-European” appearance. Of course, I read about it before my trip. Then I encountered numerous people, particularly in sushi bars, farmer’s markets, and on the street. When I had sushi in Russia, I figured the wait staff would speak Japanese? No, only Russian, no English or Japanese, even though they looked like me!!
But things get complicated, even on a straightforward trip on the Trans Siberian. Here are a few incidents to provide some insight into the visa limitations, and overall Russian attitude.
Upon landing in Vladivostok from Tokyo (via Seoul), I bought a airport to city train ticket to downtown Vladivostok. After boarding and getting settled, I see about a dozen “transit agents” or Russian police enter my train car. They ask to see my ticket and passport, though I am the only one in the car. They seem rather upset, and point for me to move to another car. I finally figured out that I mistakenly seated myself in 1st Class, and had a 2nd Class ticket.
So, I grab my bags and move into the 2nd Class car. Again, I am the only one in the car, and perhaps the only passenger on the train. They basically march me from 1st to 2nd, as if I committed a major crime. The only difference between 1st and 2nd, as far as I could tell, the numbers on the wall! And just as quickly as they appeared, they disappeared from sight. Totally invisible!!
Checking into my first hotel in Russia, I was forced to give up my passport, as they explained that I must be “cleared” through the Russian visa process. Not having any idea what this means, I reluctantly agreed. But now, I am worried about walking around Vladivostok without a passport!! No explanations of any kind were given to me!
After an uneventful afternoon and strange sushi dinner, I headed back to the hotel and ask for my passport. The young lady at the counter finally explained the process to me. The Russians keep my passport, to control my journey. They want to know exactly where I am at ALL times! She explained that I cannot check into my next hotel (or in my case the Trans Siberian) until I have been checked out of the first hotel. I was beginning to understand their method of control.
My second problem began in Yekaterinburg, when I missed my train, and had to downgrade to a later, second class only train. You would think I started a war or rebellious uprising. Every person in the train station scowled at me as I tried to rebook to the later train.
Finally, a nice young Russian man spoke enough English to help me when I reached the counter after a two hour wait. I was rebooked, given a refund, and told that I must wait until my rebooking was cleared by the Russian visa authorities. I was finally cleared, retrieved my passport, and given about two minutes to make a ten minute trek out to my train!
Problem three started in the Lake Baikal area, where I was staying for two nights. My ATM card did not work, my tablet would not work, and I was rapidly running out of rubles. My hotel has my passport, and none of the Russian banks will speak to me without a passport and visa!! And it is the weekend, so nobody was around to help me, either in Russia or the US!!!
My last issue was probably my fault. Upon leaving Moscow for the train station to St. Petersburg, I asked my hotel to arrange a driver. I gave my passport, and prepaid for the trip. When the driver showed up, he did not want to see my passport, nor confirm my destination. It turns out there are numerous train stations in Moscow, and each go to different regions of the country!!!
Well, he took me to the wrong station! He left so quickly, I could not find him. I had to hire another taxi, and arrived at the proper station too late for my trip to St. Pete. I had to exchange my ticket for a more costly one, and wait 4 hours for the next departure! At least the agent spoke English, gave my passport back, and did not yell or scowl at me!
Word to the wise: If you go to Russia, stay on schedule, or find a Russian who will sponsor you!