We were on the move again after a brief but enjoyable stay in Mongolia. Our next stop was Irkutsk along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Excited about what’s in store for us in the next few days, my friend Choi and I were also a little anxious about our passage to Russia.
The night before, he had noticed that that our Russian visa entry date was the day we were getting off at Irkutsk and not the day we were crossing the border. It was also the entry date stated in the letter of invitation by our travel agent to the embassy; a small but important detail we neglected to check before the trip.We couldn’t re-book our tickets because that required at least three-days in advance notice. Anyway despite the mess, we decided to board the train the following evening and take our chance at the border.
A few minutes after the train left Ulan-Bator, the Provodnitsa approached then spoke to us in Russian. By the look in her face, it was as if she said, “you guys are in deep S#%t”. Luckily, there was a young lady on board who translated for us; we asked if we could get off at the Mongolian border and then wait the following day to catch a bus to Naushki, in the Russian border. Provodnitsa and young lady conversed for a few seconds; afterwards they said we can stay on the train but we might need to pay a penalty upon entering Russia. With that option we became less anxious, however there was still the cost of the penalty to consider. Still, we managed to find humor in our situation and surprisingly, even slept soundly that evening.
By early next day, we were at the Mongolian border where immigration procedures went without a hitch.
As expected, it was different at Naushki.
Thank goodness the fierce female immigration officer who first inspected our passports didn’t speak any English that she had two colleagues take over. “Why did you come early?” the tall and younger immigration officer inquired. Choi was tempted to jokingly say “uhmm because we’re excited!” But instead, I said “I don’t know, our agent stated that date to the embassy” as I handed over our itinerary and visa invitation letter. A few minutes later we were off the train and inside the bright yellow yet bleak station where our fingerprints were taken, asked questions and then made to sign documents. “Do you realize that everything printed in this document is in Russian? What if it says we brought something illegal like drugs” Choi remarked but we continued to sign anyway.
“This paper means you entered Russia illegally but it is not your fault. You will keep a copy” The immigration officer said afterwards. “Do you understand your violation?” he added as he directed our attention to a large board indicating the of list immigration violations and penalties. “Yes. We do and we’re sorry.” We uttered in unison.
After instructing us to pay the lowest fine of $40.00 each at any bank in Russia and to mail the proof of payment (or else we will never ever be able to enter Russia again), the immigration officers smiled and wished us a good trip. Except for that one hard-nosed female officer, the rest were very polite and nice to us all throughout. In retrospect, our experience at the Russian border crossing was un-complicated and pleasant compared to that in the China-Mongolia crossing that was a pain even under normal circumstances.
After an hour we were back on the train much to the relief of the Australian couple who shared our compartment. They were so nice to have minded our bags while we were away but were so worried that we would be left behind. All settled, everyone was in high spirits; even the fierce looking Provodnitsa was all smiles while she cheekily sold souvenirs and vodka to passengers.
As for the rest of the trip, I took pleasure in observing the rural Siberian landscape of endless birches and villages.
By eight in the morning of the following day, we arrived at Irkutsk.
Coming next, Part 3