One of my missions here is to get a Russian visa for when my girlfriend and I take the Trans-Mongolian Express from Beijing into Mongolia and Russia and eventually through to Moscow. I set out to do this today. Unlike all the other visas I've had to get on this journey, I had outside help with this one. My girlfriend has done all the hard work in the extraordinarily complicated task of getting a visa to Russia. One must have an invitation from a Russian travel agent and several other completed forms. There are no visas-on-arrival, one must get it beforehand. My girlfriend had secured the invitation and the other forms for me and emailed them. So I thought I'd be all set for the fairly simple process of printing the paperwork out and taking the forms into the Russian consulate here. The omens were bad when last night I asked the hotel to let me use their printer to print out the forms and they simply said 'no' without saying why. After pleading with the hotel reception staff they eventually let me but I was surprised how difficult this seemingly simple task in the process turned out to be.
Anyway, this morning I set out in a taxi to the Russian consulate with all the paperwork, still confident that all would be well. This was the third taxi I'd been in in Shanghai and like the others (and most of the taxis I've been in in Asia actually), the driver drove like a maniac, much too fast given the dense congestion of the traffic and pedestrians in the city. As we were hurtling towards an intersection with a zebra-crossing for pedestrians, there was a man halfway across the road but who suddenly changed his mind and walked backwards just as the taxi was going past behind him. I gave a yelp as the taxi thumped into the pedestrian. We slowed, the taxi driver looked out the rear window and saw that the man was still standing but rubbing his arm and leg, and then the taxi driver continued. I took a deep breath, wondering which was more incredible, that we had hit the man or that we hadn't even stopped.
Just as we got to the Russian consulate and I escaped from that death-carriage, my phone rang. It was my bank in New Zealand telling me that they had messed up. They were supposed to be sending a replacement ATM card for the one that was stolen in Indonesia (I've been using only a credit card since then) to my girlfriend who was going to bring it over with her. Instead they have sent it to my post office box in Christchurch. So they are cancelling that one and needed to issue me with a new one. For some reason this had to be done right then, probably to get it sent to my girlfriend in time before she leaves, so instead of entering the Russian consulate, I sat in the cafe in the lobby of the nearby Astor Hotel and went through the bank's convoluted process of ordering a new ATM card which involved a phone call with an automated service, hanging up and waiting to be phoned back by the automated service.
Once that was done I entered the Russian consulate, past a Chinese guard on one side of the gate and then a very Russian-looking official on the other side. After some queue-chaos (in which voices were raised including my own) I got to a window and handed over my passport and forms. The official looked through the forms, thrust the invitation back to me barely looking at it, flipped through my passport and said 'sorry you cannot have a visa.' 'Why not?' 'We can only issue a visa if your China visa is for more than 90 days.' My China visa is a typical 30-day tourist one. I couldn't quite believe it so asked him to repeat what he had said. I have read through the visa sections in several travel books and done some searching on the internet to investigate getting a Russian visa from China and I had never heard of such a rule. Other people at the consulate were elbowing their way to the window and I stumbled away somewhat dumbfounded. There was an American there and a Belgian and a Tunisian and I asked them if they also had such a problem but they were all living or studying in China for a year or more. I went back to the cafe in the Astor Hotel, did some more searching on the internet and still could find nothing about this rule so went back to the consulate to ask again. Again the same official gave me the same answer.
I've tried to work out what my options are and have come up with this list (in no particular order):
1. See if I can get an extension of my China visa to 90+ days and then go back to the Russia consulate. I already looked into this and it's highly unlikely.
2. Go to Beijing and try the Russian consulate there, hoping they don’t insist on same rule. Apparently different embassies have different rules.
3. Send the visa application by International Courier to NZ for urgent same-day processing and then have it sent back to me in Beijing.
4. Try for a Russian visa in Mongolia and hope they don’t insist on same rule.
5. Try to get a 90+ day visa for Mongolia, then apply for a Russian visa in Mongolia.
6. Go to Hong Kong and apply for a Russia visa. Apparently it is easier there, but this would involve getting a visa to Hong Kong and then another visa back into China.
After mulling these options over along with my friend here in Shanghai, I've narrowed them down to two. First, I will cut short my stay in Shanghai and go to Beijing to try the Russian consulate there, hoping they do not have the same rule. Second, if that fails I will ask the travel agent in NZ who has been helping my girlfriend get her visa if I can courier my documents to them, get an urgent process, and then have it couriered back to me. That seems to be the most rational thing to do but if anyone has any other suggestions, they are most welcome.
So as you can see, it was quite a stressful day with the taxi incident, the bank botch-up, and the Russian visa saga. Then I also had the ordeal of getting a train ticket to Beijing as early as possible, but I had my friend to help me with that, though not without some major headaches. By late afternoon I was ready for a beer and tried to be philosophical about the day's events.