Unless you've trekked across Africa from north to south, sailed halfway around the world, or crossed the Arctic on food, you can not begin to imagine the size of Russia.
From June 24 until August 7 1999 I was on holiday, traveling through Poland, Belarus and Russia, I mastered close to 33,000km going places like Murmansk, Sochi, Vladivostok, but of course also Moscow and St. Petersburg. It definitely was a trip of a lifetime and I did have the time of my life. Meeting a bunch interesting people, shooting some 1500 pictures and basically learning a lot about humanity and Russians particularly. In short, it was great.
The one thing I realized during my trip was, that although at first its not easy to see, but that where you are now, just like anywhere else, people live, love, work, play, are inspired, hate, kill, steal, die, just like anywhere else. Although you might not think it, the whole world is one. Different but equal.
My adventure actually started way before I even decided going to Russia. Originally I had planned on taking a holiday at the other side of the globe, the US of A. In April '99, I was still working for Procter & Gamble in Brussels. I already had announced I was going to leave, and I was planning for my 'major' summer holiday, not limited by a certain number of days I was allowed to leave for, according to the rules of slavery.
P&G here in Brussels have their own travel agency, and at that time it was announcing some deal, offered by United Airlines, to go to the States and back, to any destination, for 10,000 BEF (that's $250), including taxes. The ticket would have been valid for 45 days, making it possible for me to fly to, say, New York, then travel over land to San Francisco or LA and then fly back to Europe. Offering myself as a driver to Hertz or any other rent-a-car agency as a drive-back individual would require me to only pay for gas for my overland trip. So, all in all, traveling expenses would be very, very reasonable.
United made their offer public on a Friday morning. Both Sabena and American Airlines met that offer only hours later. I decided to take them up on the offer on Monday, after some planning from my side. All flights where booked up to September. However, not being turned down by this bummer, I tried getting cheap tickets via several low-cost airlines such as Ryan air, Iceland Air, some budget agency at Zaventem airport and others. However, the best I was able to get was a ticket for 17,000BEF excluding airport tax, giving me 37 days in the States. Needless to say, I opted out.
So I decided to go to Russia. Travel expenses are less, hotels and food are cheaper so what else would you want? Okay, the risk might be a little bit higher; Chechens willing to blow your head a part, people bashing your face in for an evening meal, etc. But hey! That's all part of the adventure!
A total of no less then six different types of visa exist for going into Russia. The best type to have is a business visa, since that allows you to go almost anywhere, without having to pre-book your hotels.
Yes, that means that for, say, the tourist visa, you legally have to specify where and when you will be staying in Russia. Before going there. Considering that the process for applying for a visa starts way ahead of your trip; When you need a tourist visa, you need to do some major planning quite a bit in advance.
Lucky for me, I was still working for Procter & Gamble. Since they officially have an office in Moscow, they can issue invitations, so that people working for P&G can visit Russia 'on business'. Some smooth talking with Janna Abdelhag at that agency left me with a loss of $80 and, three weeks later, with an invitation. Next step: The Russian embassy.
Mind you, not that I knew Procter officially had an office there. I knew some Russians working for P&G in Warsaw (I worked closely with some people in Warsaw) and asked them what possibilities existed for visiting Mother Russia. They pointed me to Janna Abdelhag who also arranges visas for them, for leaving the country.
Armed with my valid passport, passport sized photographs, a filled in application form, some cash and a telex number specifying the telex that was sent to the embassy with my details, I was off to the Russian embassy. Of course, they weren't listed in any directory, so I had to call them for the address. I called them, they gave the address, I went, it turned out to be the wrong address.
They had pointed me to a 'rue Robbie Jean', number 78 in the south of Brussels. I couldn't find exactly that street on the map, but did come close to it. Figuring I slightly misunderstood them (or their Russian impaired their ability to speak French), I was off. Only to discover there was no number 78 in the rue Robbie Jean. It went up to 52… Calling again, doing some searches on a map I had in my car, it turned out to be the 'Rue Robert Jones'. I finally arrived and waited some 90 minutes in line to have some babushka tell me I had to come back the next week and bring 4600 BEF ($120) in order for me to get back my passport and a visa. Having no choice, I did just that and yes, a week later (this time only having to wait an hour) I received all essentials and was released from my well-earned dosh.
Already that was a bit of luck, getting a visa there and then. When I handed over the registration papers the week before, I got a glimpse of the papers of someone next to me. On the paper, they ask for nationality and whether you're married or not. However, they mixed up their Dutch wording and, in effect, they ask for your nationality twice. So I filled it in twice (how could I have known?). So when I got a glimpse of the papers of the guy next to me, I noticed that the second time the papers asked for his nationality he had filled in 'married'. It dawned on me I had filled in my papers incorrectly and I was mere seconds away from handing them over to my babushka. Figuring that deciding, at that point, I wasn't going to hand them over would be very conspicuous, I handed them over. Still, I got my visa without any problems. My very first encounter with a typical Russian babushka (over weight, short, glasses, dyed hair, a sack painted with flowers for a dress) and Russian bureaucracy, ended quite okay.
The first time I was at the embassy though, I met a Belgian guy who was living in Moscow. I hadn't filled in the registration papers correctly and had to do it again. Having no pen, I borrowed one from someone else filling in his forms and we started talking. For about 45 minutes we waited in line afterwards, he almost continuously was complaining about Russia and Russian bureaucracy specifically. Point was, he is married to a Russian girl and has a Russian and a Belgian passport. Result is that in Belgium, he is treated as Belgian and has to get a visa for Russia, in Russia he is treated as Russian and he has to get a visa to get out of Russia. He actually told me that Russians have to get a visa too for going, say, from Moscow to St. Petersburg, but from a different, quite reliable source, I learned that that is a load of bullocks.
Mark and I arranged to meet, once I would get to Moscow. Matter of fact, he actually offered a bed. Knowing that Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world, I gladly took him up on the offer.
My visa used to be an A4 paper cut in two. Not A5 sized, but the A4 cut in two along the long axis. Twice a passport sized photo was attached to it, with exactly the same information on that part of the visa. As you can see in the picture above, my visa has been reduced in size along the way. When I noticed that, somewhere really in the middle of Russia, it had me scared shitless! Was I to get caught by a daily police check and put in a cozy Russian jail for the rest of my still youthful life?
More about that on the Rostov on Don page.
Arranging the trip
So my next step was to get to Moscow. I had planned to do a stop over in Warsaw, where I would be visiting a friend of mine, so I first thought of using the Eurolines bus service. They where offering ticket sales via the net, which made me happy. Entering the right page, I was told to call them. Suckers. Not being put down by this, I decided to call them. To find out that they didn't take American Express. Additionally, it's impossible to order tickets in Belgium for busses leaving from, say, Holland. Something I did have in mind. Anyway, they weren't as dirt cheap as I expected them to be.
Some surfing led me to a website of a German bus service, that had daily services all the way to Moscow, at lower prices than Eurolines was offering. They must have gone bankrupt, since I'm not able to find them on the web anymore. Anyway, I decided to take that service to Warsaw, stay there for a day and then take a train to Minsk and continue on to Moscow.
I had been trying to rent out my apartment during my stay abroad but without success. On the day before I had planned to leave, me being in Holland, I got a call from someone at P&G. It turned out someone needed a room for three months. So, I had to race back to Brussels, arrange a contract (the guy renting my apartment wasn't in Brussels yet, everything had to be arranged via an in-between) and make room for the guy in my apartment. However, the extra cash made it possible for my to fly to Warsaw and I decided on LOT polish airlines. A good thing was that they offered a ticket with an open return date. I could return from Russia whenever I felt like it. It seemed like the proverbial cat had landed on his feet.
Well almost. During my working for P&G, I had collected enough air miles to buy myself a return trip to Warsaw. Turned out they had neglected to add most of the miles to my total. That is, until after I got back from Russia…
Traveling in bits and pieces, the total distance traveled was about 32975 kilometers, at a total cost of $744.34.