I met with Visa Guy last Friday.
No. Back up.
I met with Visa Guy the Thursday before last.
No. Wait. From the top.
Russian visas are hard to get. At the best of times. Especially for Canadians (who the Russians do not currently much like) and an order of magnitude more so for people trying to do the kind of crazy (сумасшедший, adj.: crazy, lunatic, demented) things for which I am known, like riding a bicycle across the whole damn continent.
So I always knew that this (of all things) was going to be one of the hardest parts of the process.
Russia has a couple of different classes of visa available to Canadians.
Setting aside things like Transit, Diplomatic Visas, and some other specific-purpose ones, the easiest (by far) to get is a Tourist Visa. These are typically for 2 weeks, and max out at 30 days. Clearly no good for me. Especially because the inviter (you must be invited to receive any kind of visa) is typically either a Russian hotel or tour company, and will/can only issue visas for the precise length of time that you will be staying or touring with them.
The next easiest — in some ways — is the Частная Виза (“Private” Visa). Maxing out at 90 days, they are for the purposes of visiting friends or relatives (who do the inviting).
Then there is the Employment Visa. You must be invited by the company for which you want to work, and they are also good for 90 days. However they can be double entry (which is to say: they can be “renewed” once, basically by leaving the country, then coming back in).
Finally there is also a variant on the Employment Visa, which I have heard called a Специальная Виза (“Special” Visa — although I don’t know if this is an official term; I think it’s just a variant of the above). For special-purpose use, it is basically an Employment Visa that doesn’t let you take up employment. Leave it to the Russians to come up with this idea!
So my plan all along was to get a Special Visa (seemed the most appropriate). In a happy accident, there’s an optional ~185km stretch of highway (there is basically only one highway across the first ⅔ of Russia, at least as far as Omsk) that briefly dips into Kazakhstan:
So a perfect place to leave the country, come back and renew that visa, right? So anyway, this was my plan. Get the Special Visa, do the exit-reentry into Kazakhstan to give myself an extension of sorts, and thereby have 4.5 months to get across the country. (With another 1.5 months to cover the rest of Europe.) Perfect!
I had this worked out with Visa Guy back a long time ago and he passed my application along for processing on November 1st while I was all still in the middle of stressing about E.
(Visa Guy: ostensibly a travel agent, he is basically “attached” to the Russian consulate. Actually he’s more attached to ILS Canada, which is Russian Visa Application Center in Canada. According to the consulate, “the Consular Division of the Embassy of the Russian Federation accepts visa applications submitted through authorized Russian Visa Centre [ILS Canada] only.” ...and... “The visa applications submitted to the Consular Division [via any other means] will be returned without processing.” Right.)
So I met with Visa Guy the Thursday before last. At which time he broke the sad news that my application for the multi-entry visa had been rejected. Basically because I “didn’t give a good enough reason for needing one.”
Okay, fine. I can’t say I was entirely shocked. The upside, though, was that it was only the multi-entry visa that I was denied. I was still approved for a single entry. Which still would give me 90 days to cross the country.
Said country is about 9,700km across. So 9,700km in 90 days works out to something in the range of 110km a day. A little tighter than I would have liked (not much wiggle room in the case of illness, or any of the other myriad reasons I might be delayed en route) but still eminently doable.
Barrel across the country from Vladivostok to the Belarussian border in 3 months, then spend another 3 lazily twirling around central and southern Europe. Sounded like a plan!
So I met with Visa Guy last Friday. At which time he broke the sad news that no no; I had misunderstood. The consulate had not approved me for a single-entry visa. Rather they were telling me I was still eligible for same.
In other words: just because the one application was rejected, didn’t mean I was being banned outright.
But I would still have to start a brand-new application.
Sigh. One step forward, two steps back. (Russian bureaucracy, amirite?)
Which is where I am now. Except: decision time.
I don’t think the Special Visa remains the best way to go. In fact — and it is unclear to me — it may be that I’ve been rejected outright for that kind of visa altogether. Either way, if I’m not getting a multi-entry, it is less obviously advantageous. Visa Guy is basically saying “No,” anyway. So the point is moot.
Which leaves an Employment Visa or a Private Visa.
Visa Guy can get me an Employment Visa “very easy – is no problem.” But he is cautioning strongly against it. He says he can get one, and that will get me into the country with little hassle, but after that, I’m on my own. And if the police were ever to stop me (I have no doubt that they will do so, and probably often — given the circumstances) they would immediately ask for ID, passport, visa, the whole works. The next question would be the obvious: it says I’m there for business; what on earth am I doing on a bicycle in the middle of nowhere? “Nothing good comes of this,” sternly warns Visa Guy.
So, then: Private Visa!
Except... who is going to invite me? My very-distant relations, who we left behind in Russia 150 years ago, and who have only met one or two of their Canadian cousins, have yet to hear of me and my crazy idea for a vacation, and indeed probably don’t yet even know I exist?
Or... the family of one of my Russian friends here in Calgary? I have several friends who are (varying degrees of) supportive of the trip (although supportive of me in general). Of, again, varying degrees of closeness. Almost all of whom have relatives and family in Russia, and who have encouraged me to visit if/when I pass anywhere near.
Which is one thing.
But asking them to arrange an official invitation for me is quite another.
My friends themselves, sure (in some cases). But their families (who, again, have never met me)?
Either way, this is the direction I’m exploring for now. Wooing (ha) a couple of my better Russian friends, trying to bribe them with meals and exploring the possibility of getting an invitation.
But I’m running out of time here.