Trouble at the Russian Airport

Wayy back I used to work in Russia in a city called Novosibirsk.  To get into, and out of, Russia, you need to have the correct paperwork. Visas etc.

So, my first time in Russia I didn’t get to travel home for about 10 months.  My visa was up and I had to go home for a while to get a new visa.  Flying at the time was a bit different, this was pre- 9-11, so you could take all kinds of things on-board.  I had a guitar tucked in by the crew quarters, and I was flying Aeroflot.  The service was – nice.  Proper cutlery with the meal, and after the meal an air steward came through with steamed towels to refresh oneself.

And then we landed in Sheremetevo.  If you ever get the chance to visit it – don’t.  Terminal 2 is chaos, and Terminal 1 (local flights) is worse.  There’s minimal sinage in English, there is no queueing system (you just push into the crowd and hope you don’t get your pockets picked). Terminal 1 is a relic of the 50s.  Cramped, and full of bad-tempered officials.  Terminal 2 was probably supposed to be a tribute to the industry of the Soviet Union.  The ceiling consists of thousands of brass cylinders each containing a lightbulb.  The effect is grim, cold and dark.  Of course T2 also contains the bad-tempered officials.  The trip from Terminal 1 to T2 is about 30 minutes by cranky old bus, and then you try to check in.  That’s when the trouble began.

Turned out that I didn’t have the correct exit visa stamped into my passport.  “what can I do?” <non smiley guy shrugs shoulders>.  It turned out that I could go up to the second floor and pick up a phone just to the left of the escalator.  That I did and a grey suited guy came out, looked at the passport and said I could have the visa for US$200.  I probably started sweating at this point.  I had (barely) the cash, luckily I had been working for an American company and they paid well enough.  (by the way US$200 was probably 30 weeks wages for a Russian teacher at the time). But the anonymous man (no ID, no uniform) didn’t inspire confidence.

I didn’t really have too much of a choice, so I coughed up and got my passport. Without any fuss he disappeared and returned with the correct visa.

A year later I was back in my favourite airport <ahem>, and came across two Irish girls very upset.  Turns out that they had been travelling to Belarus, and had left the passport control area.  So they were now on Russian soil without the correct visas, and couldn’t find out what to do.  This time I didn’t have the money for 2 sets of bribes.  I phoned the Irish embassy and one of the officials came out and paid for the girls exit visas.  By the way, this is one reason why it’s good to know where the embassy is in whatever country you’re visiting.

A happy ending for them, but you have to wonder how many people this happens to in just one airport in Russia.

It’s just funny how something that happened 15 years ago can still be so clear in the memory.

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