For this year's holiday we plan to fly to Moscow, then travel south to Kiev, and on from there to the Crimea, and finally back to Moscow for the return flight. The tickets are already bought, and we leave on August 25. However, our Russian experience has already started. I'm not referring to the Russian language course that we've started, but the hotel booking and visa application.
Getting a hotel reservation
The first thing we needed was a hotel reservation. It turns out that hotels in Moscow are either expensive or cheap, and there are few if any mid-range options. Many hotels are also located quite far from the city centre, so it's important to pick the right one. We eventually chose Hotel Ukraina, a huge building that is one of the Seven Sisters. (Who could resist a hotel that can boast of hosting "famous Latvian rock band Zodiac", and "the 31st World championship on hairdresser's art"?)
Strangely, there seem to be no online reservation forms that are "live". Instead, they all just send a request for a reservation, and you get a confirmation later by mail or email. We didn't like this, and so called the hotel directly, at which point the following conversation occurred:
LMG: Hi. Do you speak English?
Nice hotel lady: Sure.
LMG: Good. I'd like to book a room.
NHL: Then you need to send a fax.
NHL: You need to send a fax to the reservation department. They will check if we have any rooms free for the given dates, and send you a confirmation.
LMG: silent while trying to digest this
LMG: Ok. Thanks. (hangs up in despair)
So that was that. We put the hotel thing on hold for a while, and turned to arranging our visa.
To get into Russia we need visa, which is fine. However, there are some complications with this. It turns out that to get visa to Russia you need an invitation letter first. These can only be issued by travel agencies registered with the Russian Foreign Ministry. So how to get one? A Google search revealed an agency that could sell one to us. Problem solved, it seemed.
However, we are leaving Russia to go into the Ukraine, and then back again. This means we need multi-entry visa. Normally (say for China or Vietnam or other countries who believe in visa) this is as simple as just checking a box in the application, but the Russian form does not have any way to indicate that you want your visa to be multi-entry. So we called the embassy, and were told that the embassy didn't issue multi-entry tourist visas. And further, they could only issue the first visa now, and not the ones for the second entry. Those we would need to get in the Ukraine. However, Intourist (the old state travel agency of the Soviet Union) could issue multi-entry visa for us.
At this point getting a travel agent to just handle it all for us seemed like an increasingly attractive option, and so we jumped at this.
We called Intourist and were told that, sure, they could handle all of this. They could make us an invitation letter, tourist multi-entry visa, and book a hotel for us. However, we would need to decide which dates we were going to be in Moscow before this could be arranged (of course). We hung up in order to do a little planning so we knew how much time we needed in Moscow. At this point it seemed that our troubles were over, and so after we returned from København we sat down and worked it out.
This morning we called Intourist again, only to be told that it was impossible to get multi-entry tourist visa. That Intourist itself and the embassy had told us something different did nothing to persuade the person we spoke with. So we called the embassay again. And the embassy confirmed that there was no such thing as multi-entry tourist visa.
Well. At least they can book a hotel for us. If we send them an email. So tomorrow we will send them an email, and they will get us the invitation letter that we need for the visa applications. After that we'll try calling Intourist again to see if by luck we hit one of the people who think that they can issue multi-entry visa, and then order very, very quickly.
Once we get there
Of course, even if we are that lucky there is one further complication. It's not enough to get an invitation letter, apply for visa, get the visa, and then pass immigration bearing the precious document. You must also register the bloody visa within three working days of arriving in the Russian Federation. It's just a little stamp on the visa, which they could have done at immigration, except they choose not to.
Lonely Planet claims that the hotel can usually take care of this, for the fee of one night in their cheapest room. That would mean roughly 200 Euros for us... The alternative is to go to the local OVIR (Department of Visas & Registration) and get it registered yourself. (Except, of course, that it's called UVIR in Moscow.) This, of course, would cut into our holiday time, and probably even do it twice.
More research shows that the OVIR are now gone (presumably they took the UVIR with them), and their duties taken over by the police. Yet more research indicates that the registration fee in hotels is now max 5 dollars. So maybe we've wasted a lot of time on something that turns out not to be a problem after all. Or maybe not...
Clearly, there is no sensible reason why things have to be this way. And equally clearly, having to deal with all this is pretty frustrating. So far I've decided that what's happening is that we are encountering Russian culture (which is what we are going to Russia to experience) before we've even entered the plane. I hope to maintain this attitude throughout the entire holiday...
Ukraine: some travel advice
Parvez Khan posted a long list of questions in the comments, and I thought I'd take a separate blog entry to reply to them, since he had quite a few questions
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Holiday in Russia and Ukraine
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Jinie Min - 2006-07-28 07:33:54
Cooooooooooooooooooooooooool to Russia! Lars. I'm also afraid of those complicated things, but I believe you(both of you *^^*) will do and be well. That's the POINT! The conversation btw you and hotel made me laugh till I cried. (!^___^!) Good luck to you~~~~~!
Knut Albert - 2006-08-01 13:04:44
Have you considered countries where they make you feel more welcome?
Lars Marius - 2006-08-01 13:12:37
Thank you, Jinie. I think we will be OK. Whether I will be calm is another question... :-)
Knut Albert: If we hadn't already bought the tickets we might indeed have considered to visit some country that's easier to enter. On the other hand, the obstacles are kind of fun, too. Gives me something to write about... :)