Frequent traveller: Russian rouletteBack to Forum
Anonymous20 Jan 2012
In which our correspondent finds that even the most seasoned of travellers cannot prepare themselves for the absurdity of bureaucrats…
Emerging markets aren’t easy. Client availability demanded I go on a tortuous business trip that had me schlep from London to Moscow via Beijing in 36 hours. Flight schedules meant I took British Airways out to China and back from Russia, with an Aeroflot flight from Beijing to Moscow Sheremetyevo in between.
Flying to Beijing in Club World was fine – some work, nice food and a couple of movies before grabbing a few minutes’ kip on the flat bed while my computer and iPad charged up. Landing in the morning meant that a US$20 Starbucks venti quadruple shot latte in the hotel lobby had me supercharged and chatty like a bad gameshow host ready for my client pitch, which went well.
An early dinner in Beijing saw me crunching down on all sorts of things with a nod and a smile, as I insisted to the client that chicken combs were now firmly in my food top-ten list. Having been veggie for more than 15 years, I am now truly omnivorous and have found Japanese uni sushi to be the only food I don’t like, and only then because of the texture (raspy cow’s tongue) rather than the taste. So beaks, claws and gizzards are all fair game, especially when swilled down with expensive red wine mixed with coke (full fat, not diet, which would be disgusting).
Out to Beijing’s enormous airport, slightly giddy, where I checked in for my late Aeroflot flight. Unlike Heathrow, where even if you print out your boarding pass online you still need to get it scanned before clearing security, along with any necessary visas, at Beijing I got my docs reviewed and waved off with no more than a yawn from the bored check-in staff. I understand arriving in a country without the right documentation results in a fine for the carrier airline, and so BA is thorough in a way the Beijing handling agent wasn’t. I passed out on a brand new Aeroflot A320 with comfy reclining chairs, which aren’t quite beds but good anyway.
At 5.30am local time in Moscow I was first off the plane and had carefully completed the immigration form with my valid visa, as I have a passport full of the old versions (NB: this form filling is now automated at customs but having a valid visa is still a prerequisite). I raced to the immigration officer, who swiped it unsuccessfully several times before throwing back all my paperwork with a “nyet”.
I showed him my visa had two months left to run and he explained via sign language and bad breath that the American date convention of MM/DD/YY prevailed and I was out by two days. I was then parked on a bench off to one side and asked to explain myself to the duty supervisor.
In fairness, she understood the mistake, but the person with the gift of temporary visas (not a certainty either) wasn’t on duty until 9am, just when my Moscow meetings were due to start. My problem was compounded by my return to London being with BA from Domodedovo airport, not Sheremetyevo. In distance terms, it’s Stansted to Gatwick, but more importantly it meant me entering Russia to make the connection, which I couldn’t do without a visa.
After 45 minutes on the phone to my emergency travel department, I booked Aeroflot to London mid-morning from upstairs at Sheremetyevo – all good. A few emails and voicemails to clients explaining that I wouldn’t be there for the meeting, and I started to calm down.
It was a false dawn. The supervisor came back, and as I was explaining to her that I was now booked to depart without the need to enter Russia, she said that was great, and I just needed to pay the fine for trying to enter the country illegally. I offered my credit card and she laughed, then kindly offered to have me marched under armed escort to an ATM landside.
And so I was. A choirboy in a uniform made for a man – yet holding a big, shiny, scary Kalashnikov – guided me to a machine where I withdrew the cash, before he escorted me back through customs and immigration to the bench airside. Then, the final line you’d expect: “And, of course, you don’t need a receipt.” You’ve got to love capitalism.
I spent the next two hours in the nasty lounge watching polyester-clad businessmen generate enough static on the awful carpet to get blown away as they grabbed the metal exit door handle. Welcome to Russia.20 Jan 2012
What is absurd about an immigration department refusing entry because of an out of date visa?
Anonymous was lucky that s/he did not try this in some middle eastern states, where a sojurn in a prison in the desert, rather than a fine, may have been the outcome.20 Jan 2012
At Heathrow they might stll be waiting in a transit camp.
I agree with you DoS, we may all be seasoned travellers but we have all done stupid things before now and then amd had to pay the consequences but these are little learning experiences not to do it again, like flying Air France.
I cannot understand however how one can blame the Russians for one’s own incompetence.
If you ever play real roulette, take a tip and don’t bet on 37.20 Jan 2012
I’m reminded of a story from a colleague about entering Bulgaria when it was still Communist and every Western businessman was a source of gadgets and hard currency.
My friend had his suitcase and briefcase emptied onto a desk and was asked to identify every item and their use. When he opened up his Sony Walkman it was quickly confiscated by the supervisor for “testing”, he never saw it again. His Levi’s were taken for “checking” again gone for ever, finally he was asked to pay a fine in US Dollars for “customs violations” when he asked how much it was, the reply,
“How much have you got? “20 Jan 2012
If you want to experience the true nightmare of bureaucracy
– get citizenship from an emerging economy (China, India or Russia, for example)
– apply for a UK visa
– travel (maybe thousands of miles) to the nearest British embassy to be interviewed for a visa on the day of their choosing, not yours; bring six months of payroll slips and bank statements, invitation letters, copy of your ticket
– get refused because they can’t contact the bank to verify the statements
– cancel ticket and pay massive penalty
– re-apply (buy another ticket — you need it for the visa) and travel back to the embassy for another interview
– arrive at Heathrow, queue for hours
– get refused entry, despite having a visa, because some Borders Agency official is trying to make a point during their next leak to the media about under-staffing
– get charged for your ticket home
– dream of dealing with Russia and its nice, clear rules for getting a visa and being admitted
I know Indians who have been through exactly this experience — well, we’re guessing about the motivation of the Borders Agency official but we’re sure about the rest20 Jan 2012
I thought the only thing absurd was the article. I have done plenty of travel in emerging markets but I have never turned up with and expired visa.
This is what gets business travellers a bad name, someone too full of his/her own importance to focus on the mundane details we all have to attend to.21 Jan 2012