Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Getting There Is Half The Fun

Your Papers, Please

For most visitors to Russia you need an entry visa, Americans included. Since Americans are routinely allowed to waltz in and our of most European countries with no notice at all, with no visa fees, and are granted visas that cover a stay of 3 – 6 months, most people I have described this process to have trouble grasping it.

The visa process that is currently in place is about the same as in the Soviet time. To enter Russia you must have a visa, to have a visa you must have an invitation. The Russians grant a visa for the period of the invitation only, and for specific calendar days only. As once described to me by an American Embassy employee, just before I took a $50,000 ruble taxi ride to the airport and bought a ticket for anywhere: “Overstay will result in imprisonment, during which time you are at the mercy of the Russian officials, and eventual deportation, after about a week or so, in the custody of the US Department of State.” They apparently buy the most expensive one-way ticket possible, and you will be billed for it.

So what exactly is an invitation? Can a tourist visit Russia? The invitation is simply someone in Russia, an individual, business, or governmental agency taking responsibility for you during your stay. For an international tourist this includes buying a “package” that includes hotel stay, in advance. So, no “showing up” and checking things out first, you need a plan in place before you are allowed to enter. For the casual tourist, these plans can be rather affordable, considering they usually include a hotel room, a flight, some excursions. I would say as someone who has wondered the Streets of Moscow, in most cases the excursions may be more effectual then trying to stumble onto something. Often times the seasoned traveler resents being told what to do, no problem don’t go on the planned excursions, in general the packages are loose.

In this case, I had managed to be invited by a state run language school. In return for their efforts, I have agreed to give some English lectures. This keeps my travel plans flexible. In my off time I also intend to visit some private language schools, and see if they can offer any work in the future. They are fabled to pay $25 or more an hour for experienced English teachers. In a city where the cost of living still hasn’t caught up with Portsmouth the idea of doubling my pay, and cutting my expenses is worth looking into.

So, I had to fill out a form for the invitation. Then there was a delay, someone said at the college that there was a minor problem, but it would be straightened out. Eventually it was, but the process took too long and threatened to delay my trip. Actually each step of the visa process threatened to delay my trip. I then got the form for the Russian visa. It was part biography, part job interview, and part the usual grilling you get while crossing most boarders. It was two pages in length. It needed to be completed, and mailed with $100, and 2 optical passport sized photos. Digital photos were not allowed. So why am I paying for that Triple A membership? They wouldn’t tow my car unless I was with it, and now they only take digital photos. At work there are some Polaroid cameras kicking around, and I got someone to snap a few pictures of me during a break, cropped them to the right size, and hoped they were acceptable.

The paperwork continues, once you arrive in the city you are supposed to be in, you are limited to being 100km, about 60 miles, of that city. And you must register as having arrived at the appropriate office. Once again, this service is taken care of with a package tour, but this paperwork must be generated. For this process I need two more passport-sized photos. Smile!

Previously when I stayed in Russia for a long term, my registration involved physically appearing in person, and completing an interview with an official looking person. One such interview went like this: What’s your political party? Independent. (this was 1994) A Ross Perot supporter? No, it’s not a party, it means I don’t belong to one. What is your father’s political party? He’s deceased. What was his political party? (Not about to let this technicality get in the way) he was a democrat. And your mother’s political party? She had none. Independent? None, she was not a citizen. (He looked at me strange) She was Canadian. Kanadskaya? He then sighed, and got yet another form to fill out.

So, for me, in both the invitation process and the visa process there was a delay. This threatened my trip all together. The problem is most cheap tickets are unchangeable, un-refundable, and get more expensive as the departure date approaches. I watched my ticket price nearly double from what I had originally budgeted. I needed a cheap ticket, so I turned to the Internet. Most Internet travel sites give you exactly the same price, but they employ what I’ll call, “fuzzy math” to make you think that one is cheaper then the other. From what I can tell the airlines themselves usually offer the same prices to you directly from their own sites, or on the phone. Most importantly when you buy your ticket directly from the airline, they are responsible for the “customer service” portion of you ticket, whereas if you buy it from a web site or consolidator, if there is a problem, this “not the airline’s problem.”

So, I finally found a cheap ticket to Moscow, but it was from New York. Now I had to get to New York on the cheap. There was only one answer:

The Chinese Bus

Perhaps you’ve heard of the legendary Chinese bus. Fabled to travel from Chinatown in Boston to Chinatown in New York City at break neck speeds for almost no money. Loved by students and other willing to sacrifice conveniences and perhaps a feeling of safety for a smoking deal on a trip to New York.

Most of the rumors are true. The bus often gets to New York in a record time of under 4 hours. They have gotten some notoriety for being broken down on the side of the road, or in a few instances (3 I have personally heard of) catching afire. But in proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the pictures in the newspapers of a buss with smoke coming from behind the wheels, only made people say, “a bus to New York for $15!?! Where can I get my tickets?!? The usual cause of these small fires, and breakdowns is that the buses run Constantly, from Boston to New York leaving hourly, they probably never have even been turned off in years. How do they do it? Volume.

The 4 hour travel time includes a stop half way. The restroom on the bus can only be counted on for emergency use only. Sometimes they are fine, sometimes in some state of disrepair. At the travel stop there is a 10-minute break. This is not a suggestion. Take this warning very seriously. In 10 minutes, the bus will leave with our without you. I have a theory that the bus driver gets to keep your stuff if you don’t make it back in time, that’s why he adheres to the strict leaving time.

Contrary to the fact that all Chinese busses are referred to at the same time, these busses are not run by one company, but at least 4 that I know of. They compete fearsely to fill their buses, this has driven the average fare down to $15 each way, sometimes less, and even less for a round trip. At least two of these bus lines now leave directly from South Station in Boston. This makes them easier to connect to, and makes the whole affair a little less clandestine feeling. Instead of walking around Chinatown, going into a certain bakery and buy a hand written ticket, then stand on a certain street corner and wait for a bus to sweep you and all the passengers up in a matter of moments. Now you can even buy tickets on line, or at the bus terminal. One company has now even made their slogan “Licensed to Operate by the Federal Government.”

So the buses leave hourly, on the hour. The two rival bus companies leaving from South Station even leave at exactly the same time. The only difference in the service that I can tell is which Kung-Fu movie you’ll be watching on the way down. Unfortunately, that information was not available when I decided which bus to ride. Hmm… and which one has broken down lately? And should I take that one, or the other one because it’s already recently broken down so statistically it’s probably less likely. Not important, they’re more or less the same.

I had an hour-long ride on the Portsmouth Bus to South Station for $16. And then boarded a Chinese run bus for the remaining 200 + miles to New York City for $15 The Chinese buses are modern interstate coaches, although I have also in the past ridden a Chinese “short” bus to New York as overflow in peak travel time.

Take the A Train (the other way)

From the Chinese bus stop in New York City, which is on the unassuming corner of Canal and Christie, it’s a short up town walk to the Grand St Station. From here to the Westside uptown, my destination for a night’s stay, as well as Brooklyn and beyond to JFK airport is easily assessable. The New York City subway is one of the most dirty and depressing subways in the world. The homeless and mentally ill wander through out the trains, and the stations, and New York is just used to it. Having spent my first 22 years in Maine, I can never shake my county bumpkin distain for the situation, but most New Yorkers are beyond un-phased. As a matter of fact, the iPod craze has made it that much easier to ignore the subway situation. About ½ of the riders will sit silently, gently bobbing their heads, and passing the time until they get there.

For all of this the New York subway system is still a barging even at $2 a ride, it will take you anywhere, trains come quickly, and you are never far from a stop, most of it runs 24 hours. The transit workers and transit police are usually helpful and their general mood contrasts that of their gloomy surroundings.

I spent the night in Harlem and had a dinner at a corner convenience store on 125th street. Finding bad food in New York City is very difficult, despite the appearance of the store, my sandwich was rather good. I stayed up way too late with my friend Mike, drinking a Jack Daniel’s knock off called George Dickel, and taking about life, ours, yours, whatever amused us.

So, to get to the Airport from the Chinese bus, take the Far Rockaway via JFK downtown A train. Of course the Chinese bus is about as downtown as you can get, but that’s what the sign says. The train is really outbound. So, in the morning, I backtracked downtown. The ride out to JFK is long and uninteresting, until the train goes above ground. The Stop for the airport reveals yet another train, this time going to and through the airport in a loop like fashion.

The airport is an airport. Airports specialize in being stoic and boring. This is only worsened by limited, unimpressive attempts at sprucing them up, usually with bad art. I know, everyone’s a critic, but for me at it’s best it only reminds me of the absence of soul in the rest of the d├ęcor, and at it’s worse makes me yearn for a long off white corridor of nothing.

24 hours after my journey began, I now sit in an airport, waiting to begin my journey.

Jet Airliner

Finnair is the national airline of Finland, a strange airline from a strange nation. The best part about flying to Moscow on Finnair is it’s not Aeroflot. Aeroflot is the national airline of Russia, and is quite frankly, often times a bit scary. Big old Soviet jets shimmy through the sky on a daily basis and surprisingly no accidents happen. They are I suppose the Mexican taxicab of the sky. The funny thing also is along with the big old Soviet jets, they have some new Boeing 767 and 777 planes. They are thoroughly modern and safe. Although the soviet era logo painted on the side does stir up old memories.

The Rule on Aeroflot is as follows: Go ahead, fly their international service, you only live once, if that. But do no, never, ever, fly their domestic service. On the domestic flights all international regulations are gone. The real horror stories you may have heard are about these flights, like goats and chickens wandering the aisles, landing gear getting stuck, and general disrepair. My personal favorite Aeroflot story is, loading up the plane, taxing out on the runway, then hitting up all the passengers for gas money.

Anyway, Finnair is reminiscent of an American carrier of years gone by. Skirts for the female flight attendants, suit for the men, all in shades of blue, that we have not even seen in North America in 30 years, no to mention the silly looking hats. Whenever possible I flight with European based airlines to Europe. They don’t make you pay for the crappy food, the drinks are not only complementary but generous, and the food, well it’s airline food, what do you expect. Personally I like Lufthansa. Why? Because they have only ever had one very minor accident in all their history. The same German perfectionism that magically pushes my 1972 BMW around to this day makes for a quality airline.

In the flight to Europe the 8-hour time difference is exactly the time you would have slept. Via Helsinki I arrived in Moscow at 9 am. Oh well, sleep if for lazy people. As you step off the plane, it’s a local custom to “light up,” this is Moscow, and smoking is allowed almost everywhere. Even where it’s not allowed it’s often done. After enjoying a Marlboro, once progresses to the passport control lines. Unusually no big deal, because all the difficulty involved in getting a Russian visa, has already straightened out all the confusion. Pick up your bags, be sure not to wake up the napping customs agents as you stroll by, and step out in to Freedom, Russian style that is.

Back In The USSR

In the airport, taxi drivers wander about trying to get the jump on the competition, offering taxi rides. The airport is far from the center, and I think these drivers have to pay for a special airport license, that and some sort of Mafia kick-backs makes the ride expensive. The going rate at least used to be $50, so they’re for emergency use only. Just as easily there are “short bus” expresses busses to the center of town. These cost about a dollar, and leave whenever they have a dozen people in them. They are everywhere in Moscow.

As for me the feeling that I was there, was premature. Like in New York, a bus ride to a subway station, a switch over, and then another bus, and then some walking, and two or three hours later (by this time who’s counting anymore), I was finally at my destination. I left my home at 3:00 on Wednesday afternoon and arrived at my destination at 3 on Friday afternoon, nearly 2 days later, and it was a 9-hour flight.