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WeeCheng's Russian Adventure Starts Today; The Russian Visa Blues

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  • tanweecheng
    WeeCheng s Russian Adventure Starts Today! Tonight I will be taking a three-night-two-day bus journey across northern Europe to Moscow. This is the beginning
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 29, 2002
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      WeeCheng's Russian Adventure Starts Today!

      Tonight I will be taking a three-night-two-day bus journey across
      northern Europe to Moscow. This is the beginning of the last phrase
      of my year of travelling, i.e., from London to Singapore overland,
      through Russia/Siberia, Mongolia, China, Laos, Thailand, and
      Malaysia.

      ========

      The Russian Experience Starts From Getting The Visa

      For most people who have been to Russia or are planning to go to
      Russia, the Russian experience wouldn't be complete if they haven't
      tried getting the visa themselves. It isn't the most difficult one
      to obtain in the world (try North Korean visa) but trying to get one
      is certainly a frustrating exercise for those trying to get it in
      summer time, the most popular period for travellers to visit Russia.

      Let's start with what sort of visa I wanted to get. Russia only
      issues visas to those who either have a tourist or business
      invitation, or joins a package tour. So if you want to avoid stuffy
      package tour, you need an invitation letter. I intend to do side
      trips to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan while in Russia, and so I needed
      a double entry visa. In addition, I might spend more than a month in
      the country as I wanted to do little trips in various parts of the
      world's largest country while travelling east along the Trans-
      Siberian railroads. But Russia doesn't issue double entry tourist
      visas or tourist visas longer than a month. So I had to get a
      business visa, which means a more expensive invitation letter- I
      shopped around and found a provider who charges US$60, for an
      invitation which takes 2 weeks to arrange. If you wanted it sooner,
      you have to pay more.

      And so I got the invitation, which was certified by the Russian
      Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by fax. Next, I need to present the
      invitation to the Russian Consulate to get the visa. Theoretically
      this should be the easiest part. However, it's summer time and
      everybody goes to Russia in summer. On the first week of June, after
      my return from Latin America, I popped by the Russian Consulate in
      London's leafy Bayswater area, for a recce visit. Wow! A line of
      more than 100 people outside the Consulate at 11:45. At 12pm, a flood
      of people came out of the Consulate building - it's the end of the
      day for the Consulate which opens from 9am to 12pm. Even people who
      managed to get into the Consulate building earlier are not guaranteed
      to be served. At noon, the Consular staff simply pulls down the
      shutters and calls it a day. OK, no panic, I still had time. I
      would come earlier, before 9am another day and I would probably have
      a chance, or that's what I thought.

      Gone on a 5 day trip to Faroes, a long weekend trip to Zurich, and
      then back to London. Got a handful of Balkans visas done and now
      ready at the Russian Embassy. I arrived at the Consulate at 8:10am
      and wow - I was number 50 in the line. At 9am, the Consulate gate
      was opened by a burly man with a permanent nasty stare in his eyes -
      the sort of people night clubs employed as bouncers in London. He
      let in 20 people and then stamped the gates shut. I waited for
      another hour in the line. No chance, reckoned a travel agent waiting
      to pass some documents to his colleagues already in the Consulate
      building. He says I really need to be within the top 20 to be
      served. But no panic - there is a special on the spot service in the
      afternoon, possibly around 3pm - no one really knows what time they
      would open their gates for that. If you are willing to pay £120,
      they would do the visa for you on the spot and you get it the same
      day. Well, that's a huge sum of money. Why not come and have a
      look ? I thought.

      So I went off for lunch and came back at 2:20pm. A line of about 30
      people outside. Everybody's speculating what time the Consulate
      would open its gates. At 3:15pm, the "bouncer" appeared and open the
      gates. All rushed in. Into the Consulate's lobby, there were five
      counters, all with their shutters down. Nobody had any idea which
      would open for business, or if all would. So five lines were formed
      immediately anyway. It was like jackpot! OK, pull the handle, and,
      oh gosh, only 3 shutters were lifted. One was for travel agents,
      another for collection of passports already approved and payment of
      fees, and only one for the lodging of visa applications.
      Unfortuantely I was in the wrong line. The problem was, even at this
      point, you don't really know whether they might serve the unopened
      lines later. So I was advised to stay within the line. You wouldn't
      want to join another line only to find that your previous line
      actually works too. But after 20 min, we realised that it was going
      to be a futile wait, and everybody "abandoned boat" to join another
      line. A lot of frustrated faces - some have been here the 3rd time
      and yet haven't gotten their visas. I chatted to a travel agent and
      asked him to check my documents for completeness. The Russians are
      known to be very thorough and rigid about documentation, and many
      people are turned down simply because of slight discrepancies - that
      could be very frustrating if you have been queuing for 7 hours.
      Another guy in the queue told me that the last time he was turned
      down because the embassy says his photo was too glossy. Another says
      they didn't like his company letterhead. Hmm... I was supposedly a
      self employed banking consultant according to my letter of
      invitation, the justification for my business visa. I looked at my
      self-employment letter - it wasn't very professional looking - it
      surely needed a corporate logo. Maybe I would re-do it, but let's
      see if I managed to get to speak to the Consulate staff, who at the
      moment was questioning a guy to verify if he's indeed a CEO as he had
      specified in his application. An agent also pointed to the piles of
      passports beyond the counters - the pile that gets processed first
      are those who have paid for same day service, and the Russians would
      only process those first. In the peak summertime, the consular staff
      wouldn't even work overtime for you. If you pay for the standard 2
      weeks service, you might not have a chance to be served, because the
      staff would never reach your pile during the day, and would start
      from a new "express" or "same day" pile again the next day. You
      might get your passport back maybe 3 or 4 weeks later even if you
      have paid for 2 week service.

      But there was no chance at all for me, even though by that point the
      idea of paying £120 for immediate service was becoming acceptable,
      just to avoid hassle and wasting more time. Suddenly at 3:45pm, all
      the Consulate counters shut their shutters as sudden as they lifted
      them. End of day for them - they had only served 4 visitors! So,
      even if you are willing to pay £120, you might not have a chance to
      be served!

      Lots of angry complaints from the crowd, some of whom were supposed
      to be travelling the next day. The bouncer refused to answer any
      questions or make any exceptions. OK, I will come back again the next
      day. Let me come earlier. I also noticed that the travel agents get
      served continuously, with their staff coming in with more passports.
      The Consulate clearly know them very well; OK, that will be my last
      resort. You have to pay them £65 on top of the visa fees to get
      their services.

      The next day I came at 6:30 am. Guess what ? I was number 25. At
      9am, the bouncer allowed only 20 in. No chance, no chance no
      chance! The first in the line was here at 10pm the night before, and
      the 21st guy at 5:45am. This was getting ridiculous! I have since
      re-done my self-employment/introduction letter but even then, I
      figured out the consular guys might reject me on flimpsy reasons even
      if I queue up at 3am and managed to be allowed in as among the first
      20 people. The crowd was getting rowdy - a lady was supposed to fly
      to Moscow in the afternoon and another guy thought he could just walk
      into the Consulate and get the visa right away - he's flying the next
      day. He's desparate too, and the bouncer stuck his index finger at
      the guy when he emphasised on his "special circumstances". Why were
      the travel or visa agents given privileges, some shouted. The agents
      were continuously bringing more passports even though no individual
      applicants were allowed to get in now. I realised that what others
      had warned me might well be true - that the Consulate was probably
      having some kind of understanding with the visa agencies - We would
      make it tough for people and you guys get the business. Well, for
      what rationale, use your imagination.

      I have spent enough time trying to get this visa, and unsuccessful
      even on my 4th visit. I might get rejected even if I get in, because
      they usually scrutinise business visa applicants strictly and they
      are well known to make life difficult for people. I rang up a visa
      agent, and passed my passport to them. The next day at 1pm, I got my
      visa! Amazing efficiency! This confirms my suspicions. How much
      have I spent on this visa ? US$60 or £40 for the invitation, £120
      basic on-the-spot-visa fee, £20 premium for a double entry visa, £18
      premium for non-UK citizens and £65 to the visa agent. Wow, a
      whopping £265 or US$380 for the double entry business visa!

      That's why many people have given up going to Russia. It's simply
      too expensive and troublesome. A Russian once pointed out that this
      was how they were treated by Western consular officials when they
      were applying for visas to visit Western embassies. That's
      unfortunate, but why can't governments look beyond that. More
      pragmatic governments either dispense with visa formalities because
      they think tourism revenues are more important than rules of
      reciprocacies, or if equal reciprocal treatment is important with
      regards to granting of visa-free pivileges, make visa a mere
      formality which could be obtained with minimal hassle, e.g., Turkey
      and China. That's why Russia gets so few tourists, certainly less
      than what this beautiful country deserves.

      ========

      With that, I am finally ready for Russia. OK, you will hear from me
      again, next from Mother Russia!

      Best regards,

      WeeCheng

      London
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