Thursday, December 27, 2007

Maybe Possible, For a Fee

In many of the countries we've just recently travelled, there have been varying entry and exit requirements.

When we travelled Europe, we didn't have any issues because we were on European passports.

But obviously throughout Asia, we needed special permissions etc to enter certain countries.

Some visas are simple to acquire. Our Australian visa was done online, without us having to send out passports anywhere or get a photo of us looking very deer-in-headlights. It was a multi-entry as well, which made it very simple for us to come back after two weeks in New Zealand.

Vietnam wasn't that bad. We were able to leave our passports with a travel agency and they came back with the visas the next day. No hassel really. And we didn't have to waste anytime heading to an embassy and filling out forms.

China wasn't as stringent as we thought it would be. We were able to get the visa when we were in Australia and it only took 4 days. The more time consuming part of the Chinese process is probably the entry-exit forms. There is so much paperwork to fill out, you begin to understand how they keep 1.5 billion people employed.

For the most part, this visa stuff just seems to be a way to make more money. Sure, it can be cloaked with the desire to register travellers coming in and out, keeping a close eye on who wants to visit the country before they even arrive, getting up-to-date statistics for random government agencies across various countries. Happy to be just another number.

I can certainly say, the country that has been the most difficult, confusing and of course money making has been Russia.

Even before we arrived, we were beginning to realise that the 'transition' from communism to capaitalism is paved with a road of visa money.

You need an invitation to get into the country. If you decide it's worth planning your trip, spending money on a reservation and having a hotel invite you BEFORE you have even been given entry into the country, by all means, go ahead. The hotel will probably keep your deposit if you are denyed AND also the fee that you are charged for the invitation in the first place.

You can go online to an organisation that can get you an invitation which, essentially, you will probably never use. For a fee. But, nonetheless, at least it's only a fee and you don't have to decide right away where you want to travel.

So, now you have this invitation. Great. You're on your way to getting your visa.

Out you go, to get your photos (for a fee), download the forms (for free!) and off to find the best embassy to apply to.

This can be an interesting experience because besides all of the embassies have completely different guidelines and forms, they also have, you guessed it DIFFERENT FEES. So, the amount you spend on your visa can vary depending on where you live.

Once those costs are sent, you're on your way to a Russian visa! You can pick it up for free or, for a fee, (self-addressed envelope) have it delivered to a home address.

I suppose I shouldn't be unfair. Apart from the invitation, Vietnam and China were the same costs, same fees. And if it just ended there, well, then I probably wouldn't have even blinked an eye.

But there is something far more confusing, complex and budget-busting once you enter the country.

It is known as REGISTRATION.

As immigration lets you in to the country, you're given an entry card, which you must surrender when you leave the country. On this card it states that any foreigner must register themselves at an immigration office within 72 hours.

This registration is usually done by your hotel or hostel...wait for it....FOR. A. FEE. So, not only have you paid to be invited, paid to have your picture taken and paid to have documents to let you in, you are now being asked to pay BECAUSE YOU ARE HERE.

And that's not all folks. Somewhere amongst the murky law, there is something clear, that states what needs to happen next.

The immigration office told a nice Russian lady that was helping us that if you are in a city for more than 3 business days, you must register. In order to register, you must, (okay, not even going to type it again as you all know where this is going).

If you are just doing a whistle top tour through Russia - St. Petersburg, Moscow, train for 4 days, Irkutsk - you may only need to do the first registration. If not, you may have to do it in every city. And trust me, they add up.

But what will also burn a hole in your budget is the fact that if you DO NOT get these registrations, you can probably face a fine (another fancy word for fee) at the border or even better, a dodgy cop who's looking to make a few extra bucks of his own after he sees that you card carries no stamps.

So far, we have been as diligent as we can, if only to protect our travel karma for the length of time we have left. It seems to be the law. We're in another country. Let's obey.

But it certainly bears the question, why make it so complex and difficult for people to see your country?

I'm sure if I could take some time to speak to a Russian about the situation, they might be able to shed some light. I'd just be afraid I'd be charged a fee for their time.

Monday, December 24, 2007

And to all a Good Night

I suppose there is a lot I have yet to write about our current adventure. Right now, I'm just enjoying the televison in Moscow.

As it is Christmas tomorrow, it's only fitting that I wish all of you a very merry and happy holiday, wherever you may be, whatever time it may be.

The snow and the lights and the flu have made me feel like I'm right at home. Christmas in Canada is only really different by language. And well, family.

Which of course I am missing. But I know I will see you all soon. That includes the little one that my baby sister H is still waiting to arrive (PEOPLE! HAVE YOU BEEN CROSSING YOUR FINGERS???)

In a weeks time, it will be a new year and I suppose I'll be able to reflect more over what the last year has brung.

Right now, popcorn calls.

What better way to spend Christmas Eve if you can't be with family and friends? Food and tv are a good enough 2nd best.

Happy Holidays.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Siberia - in Decemeber

People, I am here. I am in the last new country on our list of places to be during this epic journey.

And we're looking at 10 days to Christmas, 9 days to Moscow.

Do you know how LONG we've been talking about Moscow? And now, it's only 9 DAYS AWAY!

I'm loving Russia. The people are so friendly, the weather is mildly cold and the food is so hearty. I'm definitley digging the cold lifestyle. Never realised just how Canadian I was.

Russia has added a bit of a twist to the internet, though. You not only pay for minutes you use but you also pay for MEGS you use. And there really is not way to tell HOW many megs you've used until you're finished. D and I were on the same computer for 8 minutes yesterday and used 5mgs. Who knows how.

So, a couple of things. If you know me, I will not be checking my email address as it seems to be adding megs. You can reach me at the address which has the beginning part the same as except take out a 'b'. This microfiche will self-destruct in 10 minutes.

I probably won't be updating my blog very much. And definitely no more pics on facebook.

I suppose this will leave me more time to enjoy Russia and all it's excellence instead of spending it in front of a computer screen.

Will be back before Christmas. Until then, I have three trains and two cities before Moscow. You can think of us on the rails. Avoiding too many shots of vodka. And practicing our Russian.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Train-ing It

There is something quite romantic when you think of riding the rails. You do conjur up all these visions of being on the train, glancing out at stunning landscape, laughing and joking with your travel companions.

It's bascially like this. Except maybe companions bit. Because if you can't really communicate, laughing just makes you check to see that you don't have anything on your face and the jokes, well, lost in translation.

I was pleasantly surprised by our journey from Beijing to Ulaanbataar. So many times when you set your expectations for things you are let down, either because you have been imagining it too long in your head or because other people's imaginations and descriptions have not been exactly justified.

But this was exactly what was written on the box. They could have guaranteed it. There we were, in this berth all to ourselves, snacking away on sunflower seeds and potato chips, watching the Chinese landscape go by. And it is breathtaking.

We saw parts of the Great Wall that were not yet touched. After stepping foot on a part of the wall, I was taken aback by the appearance of it outside my train berth window.

And then there was the mountains. And small villages inserted into the mountains.

The evening and darkness came so quickly, as our relaxing journey turned out to be just that. What else is there to do on a train but sit and watch the world go by? How often do you really ever give yourself permission to do that?

And when you travelling, siteseeing, checking things off your list, you give yourself even less time to do that.

The sleeping was hypnotic. Kind of like an adult baby rocker, lulling you to sleep. And since our train didn't arrive in Ulaanbataar until 1:30pm, you might as well sleep in!

Even the annoyance of the closing of the dining cart before I had eaten dinner or the nighttime border check didn't really take away from my enjoyment. I fell asleep by 2am - I didn't wake until 10am.

And when I did, it was magical.

Outside my window, was the Gobi desert. Miles and miles of barren land. Flat. Dry. Frozen. Deserted, except for a few goats here and there.

And then there were these villages, out in the middle of no where. People in houses that reminded me of row houses in northern England, just plunked down.

What did they do? How did they survive? What was THAT like?

It was almost too soon when we got to our final destination. I wanted it to keep going, to continue taking it in, never letting go of this adventurous feeling that I thought perhaps I had travelled-out of myself.

We have 5 more journeys. And another one tomorrow. And this one is into Russia. What many people associate with the true TransSiberian Railway.

I just hope the rest of them live up to our first journey. If not, I know it's something I will never forget.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Home Sweet Home...Sort of

We arrived in chilly Mongolia yesterday and I have to say, the best part about it is the fact that we are in an apartment.

Do you know I watched tv last night in my LIVING ROOM and then retired to my BEDROOM. A WHOLE NOTHER ROOM.

That's not even including the fact the fact that I also made dinner in my KITCHEN. Count that people. It's THREE ROOMS.

Oh! And I also had a nice hot shower in my BATHROOM. That's four.

Are you following me here? I guess I'm enjoying the comforts of home away from home. It's cold enough to feel like home. And so for now, it will be home.

Tomorrow we're doing a day trip out into the Mongolian wilderness, which we've been told is beautiful and magical and scenic and breathtaking get the picture.

If it was anything compared to the train ride from Beijing, I imagine it will be all it's cracked up to be.

On a more personal note, if you could all cross your fingers for my sister H that her wee one will hurry up and just arrive! as I think she's quite ready to be done being pregnant.

And I selfishly want her to go in the next 6 days because then I can chat to her ON MY PHONE that is in my apartment in my LIVING ROOM.

Didn't I mention that?

More on the train trip another time. Wine, tapas and TV calls.