Crossing into Russia
From Beijing the train headed southeast and over to the coast before turning northward and heading up towards Harbin and then finally cutting westward towards the border with Russia. We had three nights and two full days on the train as it moved through the Chinese countryside, and we sat and watched the scenery roll by as it alternated between massive Chinese construction of apartment complexes and fields of rice patties. The third night we went to bed knowing that the next morning we would finally be crossing into Russia.
The schedule has us leaving Chinese customs shortly before 7 am and then moving into Russia where we would clear Russian customs and then have a 6 hour wait while the bogies on the train cars were exchanged with sets that fit on the wider Russian tracks. We would have the ability of stay with the train so that we could watch them changing the cars over, or we could head down into the waiting area where you could grab a snack and wait for the exchange to be done. The one problem with heading in with the train is that once you are in the station the bathrooms are closed off, so you’re looking at potentially a six-hour period when you can’t use a restroom.
At least that’s what we thought, it turns out that they lock the bathrooms about 15-20 minutes before the train pulls into any station – you can’t use the bathrooms when in the station since the toilets flush directly out onto the tracks. The thing that we didn’t know, or I missed when reading the schedule, is that we pulled into the Chinese border station at 4am, so when we were awoken around 6 to hand over our passports to check out of China it was already too late to use the bathroom. And that’s how our day stated.
Well, let me just back up a minute on this, the previous night the carriage attendant passed out the forms for entering Russia, and when we were filling them out that’s when we noticed a slight problem. The Russian Visas that were in our old cancelled passports, the ones we verified with the Russian Consulate were still valid to get us entry into the country, were incorrect. As we found out as we were filling out the form, actually as the women was helping and filled out Tina’s form for her, the Visas had a very short visit date period. The would only allow us to be in Russia until June 23rd, two days after the date of the end of our train tour. This didn't include out time to see World Cup matches, and we had further adjusted the length of our stay to spend more time sightseeing in St. Petersburg. We now had a confirmed flight out on July 2nd. So, the option of entry on our Visa’s was out, we would have to use our Fan-ID passes that we had received which allows for Visa free entry if you have World Cup tickets.
So, we knew that we had a potential confusing issue when we would be dealing with the customs agents the next morning. We joked with a Norwegian that we were talking to in the dining car that if they didn’t see us the next afternoon on the train it meant that we had been turned away at the border and we were still stuck in China. The Chinese took both sets of our passports and checked us out, and after about 20 minutes the train lurched forward into Russia. Once there a Russian security team comes through the train just doing a spot check, we had heard that they can be pretty thorough in going through luggage and really inspecting everything, but this was just two guards and a small black Spaniel that very quickly sniffed through our stuffy cabin and moved on. This was followed by the customs guards, two girls that took everyone’s passports and paperwork and moved on to have everyone stamped into the country. By the time they got to us their satchel was fairly filled with peoples passports and it appeared that most of the Chinese that were on the train with us were also entering on Fan-ID’s since we could see a bunch of them tucked in with their passports. We showed them both our passport and Fan-ID’s and did out best job of explaining that the ID’s were tied to the old passports and that we had just gotten the new passports. They seemed to understand, and they took all of our information and moved on to the next cabin.
As we wee waiting another team of inspectors came through the cabins, these once were more thorough, even bringing a ladder into the cabin and opening up the panels on the ceiling to make sure that we hadn’t hidden anything inside. Shortly after they passed a man came to our cabin holding our passports and ID’s and held them out to us and said “What? What is this?” We explained, showed the recent issuance dates on the passports and Tina used Google Translate to show him that statement “We talked to the Russian Consulate in Beijing, we can enter with the Visa from the old passport.” His response to this was to shake his head, put his forearms together in an X formation and state “You, Russia, no.”
I think at this point I did one of those nervous laughs that don’t really help to diffuse the situation and said something like “It’s okay, we can use” to which he replied “Follow me” and he led us off the train and over to the main customs hall in the train station. We were the only people in there, he pointed to a sign about the Fan-ID’s which even stated that if there were any discrepancies between names, passport numbers, or other information that there was a 24-hour hotline you could call. He tried calling but we could hear that he was stuck in a loop of automated options and after a few minutes he gave up and told us to sit and wait. We were left alone in a room with the Spaniel that had earlier checked out the train, at least for a few minutes before someone must have said something and two guards came into the room to stand there and make sure we didn’t do anything crazy. After 10 to 15 minutes of waiting, the first guy came back out let us know that we needed to go and get our luggage off of the train since we weren’t going to be entering Russia today.
We were lead back out of the waiting area to the train so that we could collect all our belongings, at this time there was a third set of inspectors heading through the cabins and I had to open our one suitcase and answer a few questions about how much cash we had, what electronics, and something else before one of the guards that had lead us to the train interrupted her questioning and had us just grab everything and follow them back to the customs room. This did still up some confusion from the other passengers, seeing us leaving, but we didn’t really have a chance to explain why we were being pulled off the train. Once back inside we could see the other passengers getting off the train and going towards the waiting area as the train pulled out of the station to be converted to ride on the Russian rails.
This time they moved us into a small waiting room and there were about 6 young recruits that drew the short straw and the task of watching over us. Another man came in and started asking questions, what our trip was, how we paid for it, how we were paying for everything since we weren’t working, and as he sat there documenting everything just looked at us as he opened is palms gesturing to our passports saying “Why? Why… Is no good, why?” Explaining the lack of pages in our passports for visas he just shook his head and headed out with everything.
The original agent had come back into the room and as he had previously asked for our phone numbers was asking if we had received any SMS texts, explaining that our phones didn’t have any signal just prompted another “Then today, no Russia” response from him.
At one point we explained that we had emailed in for new correct Fan-ID’s but that we couldn’t check emails, so he set up his phone as a mobile hotspot so that we could check our emails but there had been no response from the Fan-ID department other than their initial response stating that they would fix the issue. Then his phone’s data plan or something had issues and disconnected. He moved over to a window to try and get better signal, and then leaving his phone there so we could try and stay connected, he left again. As much at his seems painful, well it was to some degree as the minutes turned into hours, everyone was amazingly friendly, and you could tell that they were trying to help and find a way that they could legally allow us to enter the country. At one point there were three different people that had let us link into their phones so that we could check for emails, every 20 minutes of so the original agent would walk in and say “SMS? E-Mail?”
Most of the younger recruits had a solid grasp of English and would ask us questions and also help with translating, and finally they brought a woman in who fired up a computer in the corner and started to, what it appeared to me, process new visas for us. I was fully fingerprinted and had mugshots entered into the computer and then after she entered in some more data she left the room. She came back with someone else and then they started looking at the network cables connecting the console into the wall, apparently everything was having issues connecting that day. Eventually it seemed they just gave up and she walked out never to be seen again.
Sometime around the 3 and a half hour mark another guy walked into the room with his phone and put it down in front of us, he was calling the fan-ID hotline again and wanted us to go through the menus and see if we could get any information. We put the phone onto speaker, stepped through a few menus and then finally got the “Please wait, we will connect you with an operator” and a switch to a ringing line. The line rang for seemingly forever, probably at least 3 minutes, but eventually someone picked up and I was able to explain what our problem was, he gave us another number to call and told us that they would be able to help. We called the number that we were given and immediately my heart sank, on the other end of the line a girl had picked up and just said “Hello?” followed by something in Russian, it seemed like we had written the number incorrectly and just dialed someone’s local number. I asked if they spoke and English and if we had called the FIFA hotline and we were relieved when she quickly answered, “Yes, how can I help you.” We explained that we needed a corrected electronic Fan-ID and told her the tracking number that we had received on the reply to our original email. “Ah, yes. I see your information, please wait 5-6 minutes and I will email the corrected information to you." Five to six minutes she says like it’s no problem, we’ve been sitting here for hours, we sent the original request 5 days prior with the exact date we were entering Russia, and nobody bothered to do 5-6 minutes of work until we called them. Back to a new mobile hotspot and within minutes I’ve received an email with an updated ID. The agent looks at the information and say’s “No problem, no problem.”, then looks over to Tina, back to the email on my phone, and back to Tina stating “Problem.” Tina says, “Guess I’ll just stay here with the boys while you head into Russia.” This gets a laugh from everyone in the room letting us know that even the ones we thought couldn’t speak/understand English had understood most all of our joking the whole time that we were waiting in this tiny roomed purgatory.
We connected Tina’s phone to the internet and checked to see if she had received an updated ID, nothing. Eventually one of the men with my phone realized that in trying to help they had sent both ID’s in two separate PDFs in the single email that was sent to me. The next question was “Where are your passports?” We don’t know, the guy who asked us all the questions took them, they scramble out of the room with my phone and once again we wait. Five minutes later a girl walks back in with my phone needing me to unlock it for her, and once done off she goes again. Another 10 minutes and, properly stamped passports in hand, we’re saying thank you and goodbye to a gathering of 15-20 people as we are moving all of our luggage back out to an empty train platform.
Ah, we are through, we wander into the waiting room and are meet with questions from the people we had been on the train with. A total of four hours sitting in a tiny room laughing while in the back of our heads worrying that we might not get through. About twenty minutes after we are released the train pulls back into the station, the bogey exchange completed, one of the things I was most excited to see had been missed.
We struggle through our first real Russian interaction with the counter girl at the café and order a simple lunch, and then a short few hours later we are on the train cruising through a vastly different looking Russian countryside.
How do we celebrate? By ordering a bottle of Russian Champagne in the dining car…