I flew Ryanair to Stockholm, which meant it landed at a super-small secondary airport with only two gates about an hour outside of Stockholm. After hopping on a $20 transfer bus, I ended up at the bus/train station combo in the center of Stockholm at around 11:30. I started looking for a nice cozy corner to set up shop in for the night, and saw a few others doing the same. About an hour and a half later, a husky blonde lady in a police uniform started barking some Swedish at me. After discovering I'm uni-lingual, she told me in English that the train station was closing, and that I'd have to leave. Sweet.
So, 1:00am and I'm on the streets in downtown Stockholm. I walked across to a McDonalds which was thankfully still open. In fact, it turns out they're open until 2:00am. I treated myself to a McFlurry, and did a little writing while I waited for them to kick me out. Fortunately, others were apparently in the same boat. McD's was pretty well full of people with backpacks and suitcases. They probably all had the same idea as I did, and were as surprised as I was when the station closed.
At 2:00, I was again on the street. I wandered over to a 7-11 (yes, they have a few 7-11's in Sweden), and sat on a little concrete block next to an Indian couple who were sitting on top of their suitcases. There was a chill in the air, but fortunately it wasn't too cold, and the rain clouds kept to themselves. I found out from the couple that the bus part of the station opened at 3:30, as they start running buses to the International airport at 4:00. Excellent. Just have to make it for another hour and a half.
Fortunately, everything went fine, and other than a couple drunks walking by muttering to themselves, I was unmolested for the balance of the time. I followed a pretty large gathering of people into the bus station (most of them I recognized from McDonalds), and found myself a little bench away from the noise. With my arms around my two bags, I managed to get about an hour and a half of intermittent sleep. Not to bad considering.
Fortunately, the station was pretty nice, and had all the amenities. Unfortunately, few of them opened until around 6:00am. One thing that was open was the bathroom, which ended up costing almost a dollar to use. It was an interesting experience though. There was no male/female division in the bathroom. It was simply lined with about 12-14 stalls with full-length doors, in which men and women would take care of their business side by side. Call me old fashioned, but that seems weird.
Anyway, around 6:30 or so, things started moving in the station. I walked up to the domestic bus lines, and found a timetable for a ride to Malmo later in the day. I then headed to find some breakfast, then wandered to the metro system. Fortunately, I had done some research on the consulate ahead of time, and knew the metro stop and the street names. After a little deliberation with a stocky, dark haired metro attendant, I found my way onto a west-bound subway toward the Russian consulate. The only pain in the ass was the fact that I was carrying all my stuff. I had no place to put my bags, so I still had 50+ pounds of backpacks on me as I traversed the parks and streets of Stockholm.
I'm starting to get pretty good at navigating large cities, as I found my way to the consulate with little trouble. I reached the gates at about 8:00, and was the first one there, as it actually opened at 9:00.
About 20 minutes later, a little text-book Russian lady walked up. Short, overweight, dark hair and a scowl accenting a couple of large moles on her face. She was dressed up though, and looked to be trying to make a good impression on the consulate officers. I said hello in English, and to my surprise, she responded likewise, and actually flashed a yellow-toothed smile. We actually ended up talking for a good bit. She was apparently trying to move over to the US with her daughter, and was working on getting her exit papers from the Russian government. However, she'd been working on them for the last five months. When I told her of my plans, she recommended a bunch of places to visit in Moscow, and also some places to avoid.
As we talked, another five or six people joined our queue. And, as the Russian lady would say later, the people inside the consulate aren't all that interested in quick service, so it's good to be at the front of the line.
At about 8:55am a prototypical Russian guard came out to the gate. Stocky, buzz-cut hair, no smile and a puffed out chest. He stood in front of us for a while, looking us each over, then went back inside. At 9:00 exactly, the gate buzzed, then opened and we went inside. I headed straight for one of the three little booths, only to find they were all vacant. I then heard the people behind me pulling numbers off of a little paper-number dispenser. Damn! I hustled back over to grab one. Instead of first, I was now fourth. Not a big deal, but I was afraid my 10 minute visit might have just been pushed to a couple hours.
Fortunately, the people ahead of me were fairly quick, and about 20 minutes later my paperwork and I were buzzed in to booth number two.
Now, you may be asking, "did you have all the right crap to give them?" Well, yes. And, it was a pain in the ass to get. While in Dublin, I found the website for the Russian consulate in Stockholm. I downloaded the US application, and attached my passport picture to it. I then did some research into a place to stay in Moscow. The "Napoleon Hostel" seemed pretty cool, and I went with them. Plus, they offered tours to St. Petersburg, among other things. They offered visa support through a partner, called GetRussian. And by visa support, I mean help with obtaining the Tourist invitation and the voucher. So, I filled out the online form, and submitted my details. In return, I got a PDF of both documents, which I printed out at an internet café.
Back to the present - proudly, I handed over all my stuff to a dark-haired lady in her mid-thirties behind the counter. She smiled, and began to look everything over. She asked a couple rudimentary questions, and commented on the number of stamps in my passport.
I knew I was in trouble when she asked "and where did you find this company?" holding up the tourist voucher. I explained to her the hostel, and the visa support, etc. She said, "Yes, I know, I have dealt with them before." Crap. That didn't sound good.
"Do you have a receipt for your hotel stay?" This sent a wave through me. On GetRussian's website, it states plainly you don't have to have a hotel booked to apply for a visa to Russia. I explained this to her, and she started laughing. She then went into a long rant about how it is of course required, and that the tourist voucher I gave her says the hotel rooms are paid in full already. Now, I couldn't really know this, as it's all in Russian. She went on to say that it's pretty much illegal. Son of a...
"It says you are going to visit St. Petersburg. Do you have an itinerary for your trip to St. Petersburg?" Nope. This wasn't going well at all. I told her I planned on figuring that out once in Moscow. Again she laughed - "You cannot do that. We must have a detailed itinerary of every day of your stay in Russia." Seriously?
It was at this point I figured I was screwed. With all these questions, there was no way I was going to be able to submit my stuff. Two seconds later, she confirmed it.
"So, what to do, what to do" she said. She grabbed a piece of paper, and started checking boxes. "You must bring back all of this" - pointing to the boxes. "Since it will take at least seven working days to process, you must update everything with your entry date into Russia being no earlier than the 28th." Son of a... "You must bring back an updated application; get a new voucher with the updated entry date, a new invitation with the updated entry date, and a detailed itinerary of your stay in Moscow, along with travel and accommodation plans in St. Petersburg. You also need to submit a receipt for your accommodation from the hotel."
"Have a nice day."
I sat outside on the steps of the consulate office for a few minutes. Basically, I have to do everything over again, and resubmit it all right back here on Monday. And oh, by the way, I don't have a place to stay in Stockholm this weekend. Shit!!!! And, even if I do get to submit it all, there's no guarantee I'll get a visa. They could keep all my stuff for a week and then tell me to do something else. Son of a...
I got back on the metro, and headed back to the bus station. I called Annika, and told her the situation. We talked for a few minutes assessing the situation (Which I thought was very cool of her by the way, as she doesn't know me, and I don't know her, but we're related way down the line somewhere). We ended up thinking about geography for a minute. Malmo is just 20 minutes by train from Copenhagen, Denmark. Annika, sitting in front of her computer, quickly found that as I expected, the Russian Consulate for Denmark is in downtown Copenhagen. She said to just come on down to Malmo, and we'd figure it out together. Done and done. I booked the next bus out of Stockholm.
I had time to think about things on the bus. I'll give the Russian visa another shot in Copenhagen, but if I'm denied again, the hell with them. I'll just have to figure something else out - which would be a bummer for a few reasons, not the least of which was an already booked flight from Moscow to Beijing.
Over the course of the next couple days, I worried about it a lot, and got all the necessary paperwork, with no help from GetRussian, who apparently take weekends off. I had to get another set of documentation by paying again for it. The more I thought about the whole ordeal, the more I got pissed off. Nothing should be this hard. I mean, I want to come into your country to spend money, take photos and write stories to share with others. Secretly I was almost hoping to get denied a visa again so I could just stop worrying about it and make other plans. And, of course, bad mouth Russia.
The following Monday, armed with great directions from Annika, I made my way to Copenhagen and found the consulate. To make a long story short, they made my decision easy. Again, the paperwork wasn't perfectly aligned to their liking, and they asked me to change a couple things and return the next day. The hell with it. I don't need to see the Kremlin that bad.
I walked around Copenhagen sorting out alternative plans in my head. I was in Copenhagen, which isn't far from the eastern block countries. I did some quick mental geography, and then looked for an internet café. I spent the next couple of hours on the phone with Expedia canceling and re-booking flights. When I walked out of the building I had a plan, and actually felt pretty good about it. Instead of Russia, I'm now going to Poland. I'll spend a few days in Warsaw, then head to Krakow where I'll take a day trip to the Auschwitz camps. I'll then make my way to Prague, where I'll just hang out for about a week. Then, finally, at long last, I'll fly from Prague to Beijing.
In hindsight, I don't know if I could have done anything differently, other than go with a different hotel or join a proper tour, all of which would cost a lot more. And, all in all, the whole ordeal only set me back about $100 and a lot of headaches. A lot, but not compared with them taking my passport for a week, and me paying them another $100 only to be denied later.
So, there it is. The combination of accommodation problems and the travel and the stress of the visa made it one of the most difficult couple of weeks of the trip so far. However, I've learned a lot. The primary thing being, don't go to Russia.