(It has been brought to our attention that sending passports overseas to obtain visas is a grey area of immigration law. So anyone from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade or the Vietnamese Government reading this – this is a work of FICTION that I made up for dramatic purposes. None of it really happened……honest…..)
The consequences of the plan not working were pretty high. Not death or anything – so it could always be worse. But the very real risk of diplomatic trouble. Being fined. Being detained. Having to be one of those people that ticks the “Have you ever been deported from a country before?” on their visa application. The kind of response that gets a diplomatic bureaucrat salivating because it breaks the routine.
You see our whole year journey hinges upon passing through Russia. The alternative is not that attractive – Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, skating North around Iraq and Syria. Those tourist friendly lands of carefree travel.
The catch is that getting a Russia Visa is a straight forward process – IF you want to fly from your home country straight to Russia, look around and get out again. From the time your visa is granted you have a 3 month clock ticking on your visa then it becomes invalid. The catch is that the ONLY place you can get a Russian visa is in your home country. It would take us 9 months to get from Melbourne to the Russian border. When Mel phoned the Russian consulate in Australia and explained our situation before we left they said (in a comical Russian accent) “Zat is ze rules. No exceptions. We cannot help you.” And they hung up.
So we were left with one option……consider posting our passports home, get the visas from the Sydney consulate and then post the passports back to us overseas. All the while being in a Communist country without passports. Too easy. All we have to do is sit sweating in Hanoi and wait – hoping that every single one of multiple points of failure in the system hold fast.
So part of our period of stability in Hanoi was to organise this and our other visas. No traveller likes getting visas. In these fantastic days of the “Visa Waiver Program” you can forget that visas existed. I have travelled overseas for work countless times of late and hardly have to think about it. You get stamped out of Australia, flash your passport when you get off overseas, one stamp and you are out. The passport guys barely have time to say “Welcome to South Africa”. But crossing the world you have to creep through these countries where the bureaucracy is a little behind the times. So you are thrown back to the good old days of backpacking 20 years ago. Hands covered in glue from your passport photos, memorising your passport number, filling in forms, waiting in soulless consulates, trying to work out the systems, tour guides pushing into queues and handing over 20 passports with a nod and a wink just when you thought it was your turn.
So among the joy of slow time in Hanoi was the stress of visas. Extending the Vietnamese visa so we could get all the other visas (straight forward but expensive), working out the Chinese visa system (surprisingly straight forward and quick) and then the Mongolian (a joy – right down to the old consulate worker greeting me at the door with a smile and our five passports without me saying a word). As smooth as they all were every single one was met with this strange hesitation and doubt about whether someone would just say “no”.
But Russia….ahhhh….Russia. Letter of introduction from a Russian travel agency, formal itinerary FROM a Russian travel agency, ALL hotels (names, addresses, phone numbers), all towns you will visit, train number and arrival times, our parents names, where we went to uni, the last two jobs you had (date you were “terminated” along with your bosses names and phone numbers) and EVERY single country you have visited in the last 10 years….including dates. That’s all real – no jokes.
We had one shot at this – if they said no or held onto our passports too long we would be in Vietnam, having overstayed our visas and without our passports. And if the worst case happened (passports misplaced on route) then after replacing our passports and explaining why we had violated Vietnamese immigration laws we would have to work out how to get around Russia and through the above mentioned peaceful countries…
But….the plan worked. We did everything humanly possible to make our Russian visa applications perfect and then everything else fell into place like something from Mission Impossible. Passports delivered to Sydney. Mum (God bless her) suffering the cold war hospitality of the Russian immigration officers when she hand delivered the passports to the consulate on the other side of Sydney. The consulate delivering them on time with mysterious Soviet like efficiency. Mum hand delivering the passports to DHL (across the other side of town) – then us nervously tracking our little parcel online as it blipped across the world.
One week later I am fist pumping my way around the room and whooping with joy. Hello Russia…so long Kazakhstan!!!!
So we go into a new stage. We have this real sense of a “shift”. Lynne has just been farewelled at Hanoi airport in floods of tears (leaving a huge hole in our little clan). After a month we are leaving the now familiar backstreets of Hanoi and heading into the highlands out near China. From there we head North and cross the border into China. We will be leaving the Vietnam tourist trail – this well worn path around the big ticket items of Saigon, Hoi An, Ha Long Bay, Hanoi and Sapa. I booked our tickets to Sapa today and the lady asked “When do you want to return to Hanoi?”. I said “We are not” and she looked at me strangely. Everyone returns South to Hanoi and then flies out.
But we are off to see the beautiful highland town of Sapa – then we keep going North. The land will get colder. T-shirts and sweat will be a distant memory. Like some Shakespearian turn of events where the outside world symbolises change in the internal world. We move into this new phase of white lands, breath hanging in the air, 7,000m peaks leering over us, ancient history around every corner and distance becoming the norm. Trains that carry you thousands of kilometres as you dream and sway. It has taken us 6 months to get one third of the way to England and in 3 months we will cover the last two thirds. The activity of travelling becomes a job in itself and you get used to sliding your neck down into your puffy jacket and reading a book as the land slides away. Moving forward, always forward.