It might sound unbelievable, but due to circumstances mostly beyond our control, this is our third attempt at planning a Trans Siberia journey. Our problem hasn’t been so much with Russia itself, but more with our failed attempts to emigrate to the United Kingdom.
Last year we managed to travel between Beijing and Ulan Bator, but due to timing with my wife’s UK visa application and a string of Japanese and Russian public holidays, we ran out of time to apply for a Russian visa and was forced to end the rail journey from China in Mongolia and to fly to Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. I say ‘forced’, but it was a memorable holiday visiting four fantastic countries.
Even though this time we were also incredibly limited with time, receiving my wife’s UK visa a week before we were scheduled to leave Australia, we managed to finally receive that special sticker in our passports. But, that’s not to say that it all went smoothly…
It started so well. We purchased our invitation letters from Real Russia, which was smooth and incredibly fast once I’d spent a little time and worked out an itinerary with hotels and trains that we’d like to catch. Unfortunately, contrary to the information shown on the Russian Consulate of Sapporo’s website, a confirmation phone call proved that as an Australian I would have to apply for my visa in Australia, as this time I was travelling to Japan as a tourist, not as a resident – more on that later. I completed all of the electronic documentation required for the visa application, and together with my invitation letter from Real Russia and my Australian passport, I was ready to apply. Except, I’d left it to the last minute and realised that they only accepted money orders for applications submitted via mail, which required a massive favour from a friend purchasing one for me, and then posting my application to Sydney while we were off to the Gold Coast airport for our flight to Tokyo.
You might be thinking, how are you going to travel to Tokyo if your passport is being posted to Sydney? Fortunately I have dual citizenship. However, foolishly I’d applied for the application letter using my Australian passport, because at the time my British one was with my wife’s UK visa application, somewhere in Manilla. This left me with two options: either I had to either apply for a new invitation letter (more money), or attempt to travel out of Australia on my British passport… which is what I was going to attempt…
Checking in at the Gold Coast for our Jetstar flight to Tokyo, the attendant wouldn’t allow me to check in, as I didn’t have a residency visa for Japan, nor an exit flight out of Japan, which was required for me to be issued a 90-day tourist visa. This left me an hour to purchase my exit flight, which in ordinary circumstances would have been trivial. However, there were complications – there are always complications. Our monthly phone contract expired the day before we left, so we had no mobile reception. Not a problem, there is Wi-Fi at the airport… except it was down for maintenance. So, we could use a public kiosk… except they’d all been removed now that there was free Wi-Fi! I had to approach a random young couple and ask to borrow their Internet connection. Fortunately they were familiar with technology, and were happy to let me tether to their phone. I was online, and I’d found the flights that I wanted to buy to Vladivostok… however, Visa was flagging the Russian airline (S7) as potentially high risk, and was blocking the transaction. I had to borrow my new friend’s phone to call my bank and have that block lifted. However, I’d already failed enough times that my card had been blocked, and was now useless. I tried again, this time with my wife’s credit card, and again I had to call my bank to have the block on the transaction lifted. And again it failed. I now had less than ten minutes before check-in closed to purchase a flight. So, I purchased the cheapest flight I could find out of Japan – a Vanilla Airlines flight to Taipei for $100. Of course, had I been thinking clearer, instead of a state of panic, I would have paid the extra for a fully flexible flight, as there was never any intention of catching this flight… But, it was only $100, and it was enough for Jetstar to allow us to check-in.
Next was immigration. They gave me a hard time for trying to leave Australia on my British passport, asking how I’d entered the country (as I’d used my Australian passport to enter Australia). They pulled us aside, sat us down and made us sweat it out a little. People came and went, but the conversations were all out of earshot. Close to twenty minutes later, and with the plane already starting to board, they returned my passport and allow me to leave, but after a stern warning that I should use my Australian passport in Australia. Noted.
Once we’d arrived in Japan, my wife applied for hers from the Russian Consulate in Sapporo, and to my surprise, not only was it free, but the questions that were required for the electronic application were much simpler than the ones I had to answer (for example, I had to list all the countries I had visited in the past 10 years, as well as details of my parents and employer).
Now we both had visas, and could concentrate on booking our travels. I was originally going to book all my train tickets through Real Russia, until I realised that there were much cheaper (much much cheaper) alternatives out there. Specifically through Russian Railways direct. They have a special English portal, and the booking process is simple – choose the start/stop destination, choose the dates, choose the train (times are in Moscow timezone), choose the seats, enter personal details then pay. All was going so well until it came time to pay, then the same protective Visa policy kicked in, and blocked my purchase. At least that is what I thought was the problem. I called my bank, and I tried over, and over again to make a purchase, each time resulting in a cryptic ‘System Error Pos’ message. The bank swore that the transaction was unblocked, and that the fault lay with Russian Railways. I called the railway, and after being passed around a few times, I found a lady who spoke English. She gave me a number to call for the booking service, and after what felt like a 15 minute wait on hold music, I was greeted by a less friendly sounding lady who wasn’t able to help me in English.
So after nearly a week of stress, I finally gave up, and realised I was going to have to pay an inflated commission. But!! Just as I was about to pull the trigger and purchase through Real Russia, I found a forum thread that mentioned another Russian portal that only charged 300 ruble commission, tutu.ru. And, the cherry on top was the ability to pay with PayPal!
We leave my wife’s parent’s house tomorrow for a few days in Tokyo, and it’s nice to know that we have at least the first few tickets booked for when we arrive.