I really had the best of intentions, and thought I had "most" things planned out. However, the best laid plans... as they say.
When I started planning the trip, I obviously did some thinking about the novel places I could go. When it came to Europe, I really wanted to explore the Eastern block a little bit, with the crème de la crème being setting foot in Russia. I'm old enough to remember the cold war, the suspicious animosity between two equally matched superpowers, the nuclear arms race, the actual Star Wars, the meetings of Regan and Gorbachev (and the birthmark), the fall of the Berlin wall... hell, I've seen Rocky 4 about 50 times. The thought of walking through Red Square and seeing the Kremlin was just too enticing to pass up.
However, wanting to get there and actually setting foot on Russian soil are two different things. Getting a tourist visa into Russia is difficult - even warranting special sections in many guide books to aid prospective travelers. While many things have changed in Russia, apparently bureaucracy is still thriving.
I've had a few people ask via email: "How do you do research on stuff like this?" "Where do you get a Russian visa?" or even "What the hell is a visa?" Good questions to be sure, as I was fairly ignorant on such things not too long ago.
First things first. A visa is essentially documentation from the country you're going to outlining the terms of your stay. In most cases it's a stamp or a sticker that goes in your passport, including the arrival date, the number of days you're allowed to stay in the country, and other such things.
Most of the countries you'd think of as "tourist-friendly" don't require visas for US citizens - the majority of Europe being the best example. They understand the more hoops you have to jump through, the less likely you are to come and spend money.
Visas vary in shape and size, with some being no more than an ink stamp in a corner of a page in your passport and a few hand-written notes from the immigration officer. Others, like Brazil and China are official printed stickers which take up a whole page.
In addition, there are usually charges for each visa, more or less depending on how long you want to stay or how many times you want to enter and exit the country. In some cases they are free. In some cases (Brazil) they cost over $100. It just depends. To make it even more fun, sometimes the immigration folks will only accept US dollars.
In terms of the length of the visit, most countries will allow you to stay for 30 days on a single visa. Some up to 90 days. If you're going to be in-country longer, you can extend it, but it obviously costs more, and there is more paperwork to go through.
In terms of research and finding out requirements for each country, guidebooks are invaluable. The good ones will list out entry requirements for each country, and explain the differences for US, UK, Australian, Irish and other citizens. Also, the book I've mentioned before, Rough Guide's "First Time Around the World" contains a primer on the same information. Outside of guidebooks, you can always turn to the web. Nearly each country has a diplomatic website and more specifically, a website for each consulate in each country if it exists.
Once you figure all that stuff out, you have to figure out where to go. Now actually knowing where you can get a visa can be a challenge in itself. In places like Kenya and Tanzania, visas are available at the border. Just hand them your passport and $50, and you're in. In other places, they have to be arranged in advance, like Brazil, Russia, China, Vietnam, etc.
Now, if you're planning a one or two week trip to a country requiring a visa, like Brazil for example, you'd probably send all your paperwork, your payment and your passport to the Brazilian consulate in Washington, DC a month or two before your visit to have it processed and sent back in time for your trip. If you're a freak-show traveler like me, you have to get them on the fly.
To do this, you have to visit an embassy (aka "consulate") for the country you want to go to in the country you are currently in. As a recent example, I had to get my Chinese visa from the Chinese consulate in London. Let me tell you, there's good fun to be had in: finding out what city the consulate for your destination country is in, finding the address, then finding a map and then figuring out the directions to physically get there, getting an idea of the absolutely ridiculous hours they have set up to handle visas, noting the amount of time it takes to process the visa (as that time means you'll be without your passport), the cost, etc. And, to make things even more fun, in most cases you can't apply for a visa more than 90 days ahead of your planned visit. In other words, it would have done me no good to arrange anything in advance before I left the States.
Got all that? I had absolutely no idea about all this stuff before the trip. If you want to travel though, you have to figure it out pretty quick.
So now comes Russia. A place even the guidebooks warn about. And for good reason. To get a Tourist Visa to Russia you must have:
- A passport valid for at least 6 months beyond your proposed exit date, and with at least two blank pages remaining.
- A visa application filled out perfectly (and, by the way, the normal applications aren't applicable to US citizens - we have a special form to fill out)
- A passport photo meeting a whole bunch of anal requirements
- A letter of invitation from a tour group or a hotel in Russia
- A tourist voucher from the same tour group or hotel in Russia
- A fingerprint, blood, urine and stool sample
Right, well, they didn't actually need #6, but everything else is required. To top it off, it takes seven working days to process the visa. Seven! What the hell are they doing for seven days? It didn't take God that long to create the universe! A pain in the ass to say the least. I thought Brazil sucked at the time, but compared to this it was a breeze. Hell, I got a visa into communist China for filling out an application and throwing 30 British pounds at them. But Russia, with all its problems and struggling economy make tourist jump through hoops like no other place on earth. No wonder they lost the Cold War.
Anyway, after getting my Chinese visa from the consulate in London, I thought about applying for the Russian visa there as well. It was then I found it takes seven business days to process, which would push my plans out a little further than I wanted. Plus, there is no guarantee they will even give you a visa at the end of the seven days - all the crap above is just for them to look at it. To persuade me even further, I'd been watching the news for the past few weeks and had been following the turmoil brewing between the Russians and the Brits. Turns out they aren't necessarily on great terms at the moment due to all the spy-killing stuff going on right now. So, I figured I'd find another place to apply. I was headed to Ireland next, but didn't think I'd be there for a full seven working days. However, my next planned stop was in Sweden.
I've always wanted to hit Sweden. First of all, the ol' Olson family roots extend back to Sweden, and several of my family members have visited the old farm my ancestors used to call home in the 1600's. In addition, we have some family still there, which I had heard are extremely nice people and accommodating hosts. Add to that the fact that my sister had been in Sweden studying one summer, and a cousin of mine played professional football in Stockholm for a couple years and still makes frequent visits to see old teammates and coaches, I simply had to go.
Now, as some of you may know, Sweden isn't cheap. Pretty much all of Scandinavia is relatively expensive. And, after being on the British pound and the Euro for a while, I wasn't looking forward to getting hammered by another currency. So, I started looking for cheap hostels in Stockholm around the first of July. Unfortunately, the cheapest ones were like $50 USD a night. For a damn dorm room bed! Thanks, but screw you guys.
Besides, I had a couple accommodation angles I'd been working in the background for a while. The key was to set up shop in Stockholm, as that's where the Russian Embassy is located. The father of one of my good friends from work had a contact in Stockholm that he put me in touch with. The trick with them was that they were traveling between their summer house, and their house in Stockholm, so timing would be the issue. A second option was the friends of my football playing cousin. I was hoping to bum some floor space from them if the occasion presented itself. Thirdly, I met a cool couple from Sweden when I was in Costa Rica. Unfortunately they lived all the way over in Gothenburg, but I figured I might be able to stay with them if the opportunity came. Finally, my great aunt Vivian armed me with contact information of three or four different sets of relatives in Sweden. They too lived a good way outside of Stockholm, but I definitely wanted to meet up with them at some point. However, I couldn't help but envision the Griswold's visit to their relatives in Germany in European Vacation.
Ok. So, with the knowledge of the Russian Visa taking at least seven working days, I booked a flight to Stockholm on Thursday the 16th, hoping to drop off my passport on Friday the 17th, and picking it up on the 24th. Simple as that.
Now, flash forward to Dublin, Ireland. Stress levels have been elevated. I'm less than a week out from my flight to Stockholm. My first contact fell through. The couple from Stockholm wasn't to be back home until Friday (which would have worked), but threw out a little nugget about not having room for me due to other family being in the house. Crap. One option down.
My cousin's contacts still hadn't emailed him back. It's getting close to crunch time, and I figured I couldn't really count on them coming through. After all, they didn't know me at all. Option two on life support.
I got an email from my friends in Gothenburg, but unfortunately with bad news. They were just ready to head to the States for a months' vacation. They offered to leave the key with a neighbor and let me stay, but they lived all the way over in Gothenburg. Plus, I felt a little weird about staying in their house without them being there. Besides, I didn't really hear back from them after that anyway. Option in critical condition.
There was one shining light in the darkness however. I mentioned I sent out a few emails to the family members in Sweden. Well, thank God, one of them replied. Annika Jorgensen, a relative of ours way down the line, sent a note saying she'd be happy to have a visitor from the family. Awesome. The only bummer was that she was all the way down in Malmo, Sweden, which is at the very tip of the country on the Baltic Sea.
I really needed to spend time in Stockholm to organize the visa, so I did another check of hostels in Stockholm, to find the ones which were available at $50 a night were now completely gone. Everything was booked up. Starting to get a little concerned.
Dublin, the 16th of August. All the other options had kicked the bucket. I'm about to get on a plane at 5:00 pm to Stockholm with absolutely no place to stay. Awesome. So, I worked out the following plan.
- Fly to Stockholm, getting in around 9:30pm. Stay in Stockholm - Sleeping/staying preferably at the airport, but secondarily at the bus or train station until making my way to the Russian Consulate at around 8:00 Friday morning.
- Drop off my passport at the consulate and begin the 7 day timer.
- Find a bus to Malmo, Sweden to visit Annika and the rest of the family for a while, which seemed to be on track, and the only solid thing in my plan.
- A week later, hop on a bus or train back to Stockholm, and hope that one of the other options in Stockholm opened up, or bite the bullet and pay for a couple nights in a hotel for $100+ a night
- Pick up the passport from the consulate - hopefully with the visa
- Head to Finland for a couple days before heading into Russia.
Simple as that, right? Right?