This trip from the start took more effort than most. To start with the plan had been to do St. Petersburg and Moscow in Russia followed by Kiev in Ukraine. We soon found though that this wouldn’t be possible due to border closures, and so we spent the next couple of months rethinking our plans.
Eventually we decided replacing Ukraine with Mongolia to make this a Trans-Siberian adventure would be a good idea – though the only company that didn’t require us to go to Beijing as part of the trip was Audley – the company we’d used for Antarctica. Once we started talking to them about this we soon found that getting a visa for Russia might be a problem. My friend being in Canada, and not yet having a Canadian passport or residency meant his ability to get the visa in Canada was unlikely at best. Fortunately though there was a chance that he might be able to get this over the Christmas break when he’d be back in the UK briefly.
After much back and forth between the embassy and himself, he eventually got the information he needed to know he’d be able to at least try to get a visa whilst in the country. With his visa later confirmed I was then able to begin this process myself – taking a day off work to travel down to the embassy in London. Before I got there though we found that the entry requirements for Mongolia had changed and we’d now require a visa for there also. The only problem though was that it seemed this would need to be done at their embassy in London too; but potentially would allow a family member to apply in person.
The next challenge was flights. Over the Christmas period I’d tried to get some booked via the United website but no matter what I tried their website kept breaking (no matter what browser I used). Eventually I decided to call them. First time I called I got through instantly and was asked how they could help – I explained but was then met with silence. After a couple of minutes of awkward silence except for some background noise I decided to hang up and try again. This time I sat in a queue for 10 minutes and when I got through I again started to explain the issue – before I’d even finished I was put back in the queue for another 10 minutes before another operator asked how they could help. I finally got to explain the issue and had to provide details for them to confirm I’d not been able to book the tickets – I already knew I hadn’t as I’d not received the email.
They then attempted to book the flight for me, but couldn’t either and was then told they couldn’t help me. Frustrated about this I finally did what I didn’t really want to do – I booked the flights via Expedia. At least they were booked though. A few weeks later I dropped my passport off at the Russian Tourist Visa application centre in London (which took less than 10 minutes once there), and was one step closer to being ready for this trip.
For the next month I was able to focus on coming up with a list of sights and other preparations such as maps for running routes. Soon though the focus shifted back to visas and the need to get one for Mongolia. This however seemed a lot easier at first than the Russian one, even if we had to prod Audley Travel a few times before we got the details we needed.
The Mongolian embassy’s visa application area is in an old town house on Kensington Court and is downstairs in their basement. Upon arrival I noticed the door entry system and pressed the buzzer as it asked. However, there was no reply. After a few minutes I pressed it again and still got no answer so knocked on the door. Someone opened the door and walked off leaving me to wander in to a room that was just a table and then a counter on one side of the room.
The Mongolian lady behind the counter didn’t say a word and just stood there so I wandered over and explained I was there for a tourism visa and handed over my passport, application form, passport sized photo, insurance document, and hotel confirmations. It seemed they didn’t actually need the itinerary as they’d suggested previously.
By the time I’d finished handing over the documents I was then told that I could pick up my passport on Monday – they didn’t have an option for having it posted back! What this meant was the need for using my last remaining day of annual leave for a 6+ hour round trip to collect my passport. Not an ideal situation.
The lady then handed me a slip saying that the £40 for the visa would need to be paid at the nearest HSBC, and was repeated a few times that it had to be HSBC. I wandered onto the Kensington high street, aware that I’d only got 30 minutes left until the embassy was due to close. Eventually I asked in a NatWest branch for the location of the nearest HSBC and they were able to help me find it.
Finding the bank was not the end of it though. After queueing I handed over the slip to be told that this bank would not accept debit cards for paying at the counter and that it had to be cash. I rushed to find the nearest cash point, got the money for the visa, returned to the desk to queue and was finally handed a receipt to take back to the embassy.
Back at the embassy I handed over the receipt and was given a raffle ticket-like token in return saying either myself or someone else should present this ticket in order to collect my passport next week. Not the most secure of processes.
The following week I reluctantly returned to London to collect my passport. Fortunately once there it was as simple as handing over the ticket and being passed my passport and a receipt for the visa. At last I had the necessary visas for the trip. With all travel arrangements sorted all that was left was to pack for the start of the Trans-Siberian adventure…