Staraya Russa

ed note: I wrote this a day ago, in SR. I’m actually in Moscow now – just arrived by overnight train. I couldn’t post this from SR because the internet cafe there was disgusting and I didn’t want to spend any time there. and no wifi. anyway…here it is. more about Moscow when I’ve got it.
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Staraya Russa, the little town south of Novgorod where I’ve spent the past few days, is a Russian reinterpretation of the Three Little Pigs. The oldest part of town, where the Dostoevsky family lived until Fyodor died, is filled with lovely wooden houses. Some are kept up beautifully, while others tilt and sag at odd angles for lack of a foundation. Each house sits on a small plot of land, most with a neat garden for tomatoes, potatoes, or what-have-you.

The other end of town, towards the bus and railway stations, is slightly more urban. The buildings are larger and closer together, built of brick beneath painted stucco facades. Between these two, unfortunately at the center of town, sits a decaying, colorless ghetto of unmistakable Soviet blocks, their cheap concrete crumbling into trash-strewn paths.

Originally I wanted to come here to seek some quiet, to try to read and write and clear my head. “A 19th-century village along the river” seemed like the right sort of place. As it turns out, I also needed to clear my sinuses (see previous post). So after a day in my Novgorod sick bed, I took the 2-hour bus ride here to finish getting better. I’m glad I did. Novgorod was too small to be exciting and too big to be peaceful. Like the American suburbs.

I’m staying at the Hotel Polist, a friendly place in the center of town. It also happens to be the only decent place to eat. It seems my arrival – a foreigner! who doesn’t speak Russian! – spread quickly through the staff. During my first trip to the restaurant I was immediately handed an English-language menu (thank god – I was still too sick-headed to try to decipher the menu in Russian). Word of my tea-needs also spread: When I show up with my travel mug and tea bag, the waitress on duty nods and takes it from me, knowing to fill it with hot water and return it to me before I finish my meal. After a day of consomme, sleep, and gallons of tea, I feel like myself again.

Yesterday (May 6) I visited the Dostoevsky Museum. It’s just his old house furnished with his things – his writing desk, photos of his children and wife. But it was peaceful and comforting, somehow, to see how he lived and where he wrote, looking out large windows at weeping willows sagging into the molassas Porusya River.

All around me, since I arrived, spring is doing its thing. When dad and I were in St. Petersburg, the trees were bare, the landscape a thousand shades of nothing. A week later, on my first walk through Staraya Russa, I noticed some early buds, still bashful, at the tips of each tree branch. Overnight the buds became leaves, and from then on, seemingly with each passing hour, the leaves grow larger, changing color from lemon to summer green. I keep doing double-takes: “Is that the tree that had such delicate, tiny leaves this morning?” Perhaps it’s my years in the city, but I’m taken aback by what I’m witnessing here. It’s like watching grass grow, but actually seeing it grow.

As wander the town, my eyes stinging from exhaust fumes and pollution despite the new greenery, I’m transported back to my first year in Hungary. I keep wanting to greet babushkas with “keszi csokolom” (“I kiss your hand” in Hungarian). When I enter a cafe or restaurant, it takes all my control to not ask for the “etlapot” (menu). I can’t shake the feeling that I’m simply traveling in a part of Hungary I’m not familiar with. But then I’m confronted with Russian cold stares, grudging service, and bursts of language I don’t understand, and I know I’m a bit too far east for that. I’ll just have to crack the Russian code.

St. Petersburg seems like a dream, a blur. It was all too much to absorb – the new culture and language, the almost excessive art and architecture – given my frayed state of mind. I will have to go back, with perspective.

Indeed, over the past few days I’ve come to terms with the too-muchness of Russia itself. There is so much history and complexity here, impossible to unravel. What’s the phrase? A riddle wrapped in a mystery in an enigma? Reading my guidebook and other travelogues (Through Siberia By Accident, by Dervla Murphy, and, at the moment, In Siberia by Colin Thubron) I feel like an overexcited puppy yapping at nothing and everything: I’ll go to Murmansk, on the Arctic! I’ll go to Astrakan, to see the Caspian and the land of sturgeon! I’ll go to Kazan, for East-meets-West and the Volga! I’ll go to Suzdal, for ancient Rus! I’ll go to the Altai Mountains, to hike! I’ll go to Elista, to see Russian Buddhists! It goes on and on.

Like my writing, my travels need editing. I only have three months, after all. (Less than that! In 2-1/2 months, on July 22, I’ll be in Wuhan, China, for the eclipse.) And before you scoff at “only three months,” consider that the world’s largest country covers 13% of the globe. A telling opening line from a Lonely Planet chapter: “Just 260 km from Novosibirsk…”

Beyond the physical vastness of the country, there’s the complex political and cultural history of both Russians and the many minorities that form the patchwork of distrcits, autonomous regions, semi-autonomous territories, and so on of the new Russia. (As an aside, I’m a bit mortified and how ignorant I am about this country. While it’s fine that I didn’t know much about, say, the hill tribes of Southeast Asia before I went there, my lack of knowledge about some basics of Russian history is ridiculous. All we learned in school was essentially, “USSR = bad!” And I never filled in the details. Sad.)

Anyway, I remembered last night that I’m seeking the offbeat, the odd Russia. So I’m ditching my half-assed idea to do the Trans-Siberian from Moscow in Vladivostok in one go (I’d miss too much!) and I’m doing it in chunks. At the moment the plan is to take the train to Moscow tonight, spend about 5 days there, and then leave European Russia behind. I’ll go to Kazan (capital of Tartarstan), then Tomsk (in western Siberia) and then…probably all the way to Irkutsk. I’d like to have at least a week – maybe two – in the Lake Baikal region. I want to get up to Yakutsk, especially if I can be there for their summer solstice festival (June 21-22). Other planned highlights would be Kabarovsk and some combo of Sakhalin Island, Magadan and/or Kamchatka (all along the Pacific coast). Then to Vladivostok and China.

Already that’s too much for the 10ish weeks I have left. But it’s only the first round of editing…

Privyet from St. Petersburg

My dad and I arrived in St. Petersburg, safe sound and sleepy, yesterday afternoon.  There was a bit of excitement at the border, of course: There was an *error* on my visa – the date of entry was for April 23 instead of April 22. Can you believe it? After all the bad craziness around getting the visa, someone along the way effed up.

Anyway, I went to the consul’s office in the airport, wrote a letter explaining the “clerical error,” paid a $25 fee, and received an amended visa. Dad was nervous, to say the least, but it all worked out in the end. In case you’re wondering about the final cost of the visa: $505. I’d cry if I wasn’t laughing so hard.

But that’s over now. Dad and I are all settled in at the Petro Palace Hotel, a reasonably friendly hotel just a 2-minute walk from the Hermitage museum. The weather is perfect – sunny and around 50 degrees – and there’s no rain forecast for the week.

This morning we took a walk up to the Hermitage buildings (there are three) along the Neva River, to get our bearings. The Neva is dotted with ice floes, which I hear are the seasonal attraction in the early spring. The buildings, boulevards and cars here in the so-called “historic heart” remind me of Budapest – mostly 18th and early 19th-century European architecture, Ladas and Mercedes triple-parked on the sidewalk, etc.

St. Petersburg is a relatively new city, founded by tsar Peter the Great in 1703. The story (briefly) goes like this: While Peter was traveling in Europe, trouble-making Muscovites tried to instigate a coup by questioning his claim to the throne. He cut short his trip, sent about a thousand of the plotters into exile, and decided that he would turn Russia westward, embracing European values.

Evidently he was in love with Dutch culture, so he decided Russia needed a great city by the sea – in this case, the Baltic. So he went to war with Sweden to kick them out of the region, started building the city, and moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The nobility was pissed, but what could they do? They picked up and moved north to St. Pete, a city built on what was once a swamp. St. Pete remained the Russian capital until Lenin moved it back to Moscow in 1918.

Tomorrow (probably) dad and I head to the Hermitage. We’ve got a two-day ticket, but that probably won’t be enough. There are 120 rooms in three enormous buildings. There’s European art the Middle Ages to the present. There are rooms and rooms of prehistoric, ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artifacts. There’s the Oriental collection from the Middle East to Japan. And possibly more – it’s too overwhelming for me to even consider.

Stay tuned.

Mental note

I admit it, I’m foolish for trying. I tried to outmaneuver the Russian visa process, and it’s costing me – in time, frustration and lots and lots of money. Mental note: Don’t try to outfox Russian bureaucrats. They’ll leave you weeping and penniless.

The following post is a blow-by-blow account of my quest, as yet unfinished, to acquire a Russian visa. It’s probably confusing, definitely frustrating, and at times amusing. Read at your own risk.

I began, back in mid-February, by trying simply to understand how to get a visa. Straightforward? Ha. Getting a visa to Burma was much, much easier! I checked my Trans-Siberian Handbook, which gave me my first clue that this wouldn’t be easy. To get a Russian tourist visa, you need a mysteriously vague “official” invitation from a Russian tour company. Easy enough if you’re on a package tour. But what about us independents?

To the Internet! It will know! But alas…each helpful website I visited – from the official site of the Russian consulate to random blog postings – contained slightly different information. I did manage to find out that the invitation would be in two parts – an invitation letter and a tourist voucher. I also found out that the process itself would take two steps and involve two costs: First, pay a service for the visa support documents. Second, go to the Russian consulate with these documents and the application and pay for the actual visa itself.

But other info was sketchy. Do you need the original invitation, or will a fax/email do? Which tour company is reliable and honest? Will the Russian consulate in New York grant a visa in my Greek passport (cost: $50), or do I need to get it in my US passport (cost: $131)? Unsurprisingly, a phone call to the consulate bore no fruit: one phone number, (212) 348-0926, gave only pre-recorded, generic information that was also available on the website. Calls to the other, official “visa information” phone number, (212) 348-0629, resulted either in a busy signal or (minutes later) no answer.

[Was the second phone number simply a transposition of the first? Nope – I got the second number by calling the first. It was one of many encounters with dizzying circular logic.]

The guide book doesn’t say so specifically enough, but the bottom line is: Independent travelers have to pay a tour company to provide visa documentation. There is simply no other way. Thus ended a week’s worth of research.

Next order of business: What kind of visa do I need? A tourist visa is only valid for 30 days. Since I want to explore the vastness that is Russia in a leisurely manner, I’d need a business visa, valid for up to three months. But should it be single- or double-entry? After spending another few days with guide books and train schedules, my very rough itinerary told me: single-entry would be fine.

After hearing some reassuring policy on the recorded phone message (“The Russian Consulate General processes all types of visas for…[non-US] citizens, as long as their stay in the US is legitimate.” ), I decided my Greek passport would work. For my support documents I chose Way To Russia, a well-reviewed service. On Feb 25, 2009, I submitted my visa details online, paid the $75 fee, and waited.

Oh – forgot to mention. For some inexplicable reason, the consulate will not process business visas more than 45 days before the visa start date. (Tourist visas, I think, are no problem.) For some reason, Way to Russia also wouldn’t start the document processing until 45 days before entry. I still don’t know why – maybe it has something to do with the Russian Federal Migration Service, to which they have to submit my application. In any event, they didn’t even start processing until March 10, and told me the documents would be ready March 27.

All of a sudden I would be on a tight schedule – visa processing takes six-10 business days, and I hope to leave New York April 13. So I decided to do a test run with my dad’s much simpler visa – staying just 8 days, all in the same hotel, on a US passport. Together my dad and I fill out the two-page application – a hilarious read; download it to see! – which asked crazy details including if he had ever served in the military (yes, the Greek army, back in the early ’50s) and the names, addresses, supervisors and phone numbers of his two previous jobs. No one will actually use any of this info, of course. It’s just payback (called “reciprocal” on the RusCon website) for the equally absurd process anyone has to go through to get a US visa.

Anyway, on March 10 off I went to the Russian consulate. I could tell I was in the right place by the long queue shivering outside the 12-foot high oak door under the Russian flag. Here was a perfect metaphor for the conundrum that is Russia. From the outside, the consulate building is elegant and lovely – a neo-classical gem half a block from Central Park on the tony Upper East Side of Manhattan. Outside in the cold stood about 30 Russian-Americans from New York and New Jersey, dressed cheaply but neatly in tight polyester, colorful faux-fur and tacky patterns. All were there to apply for Russian passports. (I didn’t push anyone for their details on their citizenship status.) The locked door provided crowd control – periodically an official unlocked the door and let a small number of shoving applicants seep through the partial opening.

Under direction of the friendly Russians outside, I started another, non-passport queue. When the official opened the door (to let those inside out – crowd control goes two ways!) and refused entry to the passport seekers, one of the kind women yelled in Russian that I was there for a visa, and that he should let me in. Gruffly he agreed, to the consternation of the other, pushy woman behind me who had elbowed me out of the way when the door opened.

(Sadly, having moved from Eastern Europe more than nine years ago now, I am out of practice in dealing with disinterested bureaucrats and desperate, pushy women with an air of entitlement. But it all came flooding back!)

Continuing the consulate’s metaphor for Russia: Inside, the once-lovely hallway was painted a drab yellow, ill-lit by flickering fluorescents. An out-of-commission metal detector served as the threshold to the passport department. Instead I took the immediate left, through another grand oak door on which a paper sign marked “VISAS” was affixed with yellowing tape.

Given the scene outside, I was surprised to find no line for visa applications. I handed my dad’s documents through an opening in the thick bullet-proof glass, the dude on the other side checked to make sure I had everything I needed, and that was it. “Come back March 24,” he said.

Then I ruined it all by asking about getting a visa on my Greek passport. “Impossible,” he said. “If you have two passports, you must get your visa in your US passport if you are in the US.” I argued, cajoled, pleaded. He just walked away.

$@#&*#.

On the bus ride home, I came to grips with the fact that not only was my $75 fee to Way to Russia lost, but I would also have to pay the higher visa-processing fee for my US passport. So much for doing this on the cheap. When I got home submitted a new visa-documentation request, this time for my US passport. When will it be ready? Friday, April 10 – two business days before I plan to leave New York. So yes – I will have to pay the Russians *extra* for rush processing.

Then yesterday my Greek invitation document came. And I thought, “Why not just go, with money and application, and try to convince them to take it?” I had to go pick up my dad’s passport anyway. Thank goodness I did, because not only did the surly bottle-blonde refuse to process the visa, she told me that I would need the original invitation (ie not a color printout of the emailed PDF) for a business visa. I pointed to the policy posted right next to her window, which stated that only multi-entry visas required originals. She just stared back at me with dead eyes.

So yes – you guessed it – this means another outlay of my scarce cash. It’ll cost another $60 and (more critically, at this point) two business days for Way to Russia to UPS me the original invite. And then I’ll either have to postpone leaving New York for Boston (which will distress my family) or ask a NY friend to pick up my passport and then FedEx it to me in Boston – mo’ money.

To summarize:

Dad’s tourist visa: $131

What I expected to pay for my visa: $125
– $75 for documentation
– $50 for visa processing

What I will actually pay: $360 – $410
– $75 for useless documentation for Greek passport
– $75 for documentation for US passport
– $60 to get originals mailed to me
– $150 or $200 for five- or next-day rush processing

I guess now I need to sell a story about all this that pays at least $410.

As an aside, I do want to mention that through all this, the people at Way to Russia have been very helpful, responsive and sympathetic. I highly recommend them.

However, I must also point out that their business (and that of all other visa-documentation services) is, in theory, illegal. For a fee, they provide a false document – a business invitation from a company I don’t know and have nothing to do with. This cottage industry of providers of false documentation is done openly, with full knowledge of the Russian Migration Service.

So think about it: The rationale for the documentation (and the visa!) is so that the Russians know where you are and whom you’re with. But for a fee, they will accept documentation that they know gives false information, thwarting the whole point. It makes no sense at all.

Which is my mistake in all this. I was trying to understand the process rationally, forgetting all anyone’s interested in is sucking as much cash as possible from tourists.

Cynicism, don’t leave me again!