26 October 2008

Russia before Russia, and the perils of ‘ethical travel’

My first experience of Russia was in The Hague. We were there to get visas as the Russian consulate, an anonymous doorway in the city’s embassy district. A man in a shiny suit opened the door and said nothing, but his eyes were saying – in an accusatory tone – what do you want? We waited for some words… and waited, the silence being a game of who would flinch first. ‘Is this the consulate?’ we flinched. Our reaction produced no words from our Russian companion, but he reached behind him and thrust two visa application forms into our hands. He requested a photo, monosyllabically (quite an achievement for a two syllable word). We didn’t have them. His stare was eloquently unimpressed. Eventually we managed to communicate that we simply want to ask some questions about visa applications, and were ushered in. The woman at the counter was exceedingly helpful and friendly.

One other vignette to set the tone for my trip: it almost didn’t happen. The ‘ethical’ travel agent I was advised to use for bookings to the conference, who then claimed to have booked my trip, called me back after I was told I had a confirmation and unilaterally cancelled it: ‘the itinerary was too complicated, and how about I take a plane instead?’ The delay killed off any plans to travel via Mongolia, and confirmed that I would bypass Belarus, since getting the visas for those two countries plus Russia and China would prove too time consuming. So in the end I bought up the tickets separately, with the aid of seat61, Amsterdam station, a Trans-Siberian specialist (Trans-Sputnik in The Hague), the China International Travel Service (for the return leg - rather delightfully for this age of streamlined bureaucracy, you collect the tickets from a filing cabinet on the 8th floor of a Beijing skyscraper), a much improved Rail Europe website (for my final leg from Italy), and the rest en route. In the meantime, I gained two wonderful travel companions for the outward leg.

ps. at some point I will get around to augmenting this blog with pictures – and maybe even some videos.

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