Sunday 6 August – Friday 11 August 2017
With the ferry from Iceland to Denmark only running on certain days, and the People’s March for the EU (at which I’ve been asked to speak) being on September 9, I had to squeeze my elaborate itinerary into the only hole into which it would fit: August 17 to September 4. Three days in London to get the only two visas I needed didn’t seem like that much of a biggie.
On Sunday August 6 I began work on my Russian visa. I had done this back in the January of 2013 in order to visit Kaliningrad, but man if they hadn’t upped the ante since then. First of all, I had to book a hotel. Then I had to pay £25 to a Russian tourism company in order to get myself an invite. Which had to be in Russian and have a stamp.
Only then could I start to fill out the form, all 27 parts of it. Parts that included my parent’s names (and whether they were dead or alive), my marital status (and a list of all my ex-spouses) and – this is the part when my jaw hit the floor – a list of all the countries in the world I’ve been to in the last ten years. Entry date, exit date, reason for travel.
Since I’m self-employed they also required my bank statements for the last three months. Not intrusive at all.
Bear in mind, this is for a DAY TRIP.
Anyway, I was up all night filling in the damn form. I didn’t finish until 10am the next morning. Those bank statements? They had to be stamped by my bank. And so I went to my local branch of HSBC only (of course) they don’t do stamps).
So I settled for a print out on letter-headed paper. By the time I got to the city centre I had just missed the 11:47am train to London. So then. The 12:47, get into Euston at three, down to the Russian visa place (Google insisted it was open until 5:30) , everything being cushty I’d get the visa the next day, then over to the Belarusian embassy, get that visa and be back in Liverpool for Wednesday night in time for Bob Says Opportunity Knocks.
Buying a train ticket from Liverpool to London on the day is a great pain for me. Not least because it costs eighty-four freakin’ pounds. One-way or return, the cost is the same. A thoroughly evil and regressive tax on the impulsive and the bereaved. But sometimes you just have to bite the bullet.
I arrived at the Russian visa place at 3.25pm. Indeed it was open! But they stop taking submissions at 3. Sorry G. I took a deep breath and walked back out of the door.
Now my brother Mike happened to be in London at the time with his wife Bev and son Matthew so we met up for din-dins and then I hopped on the Northern Line up to Belsize Park to surf my friend Michelle’s couch. My old chum Lindsey was also kipping the night, having just carried out an epic catering job over the weekend. We watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones, the one when Dany finally unleashes her dragon LIKE A BOSS.
The next morning I was up at 6.45am in order to be at the Russian visa place when it opened at 8.30am, hoping that when the website promised “next day” visa services (at an eye-watering £184 a pop), it meant morning-the-next-day.
But before I could hand over my papers I needed to find me a printer to print out the list of countries I had been to in the last ten years. (Full disclosure: I ignored anywhere that I didn’t stay for more than a week, made things a wee bit easier.) I walked around for 30 minutes into various newsagents and shops (including a printing place that wasn’t open yet) before I stumbled into a Mailboxes Etc which would, for the princely sum of £2.50, print out my extra sheets. All two of them.
I think I looked so frazzled that the nice guy in the shop let me have them for 40p.
I raced to the visa centre. I took a number and waited my turn. Of course the woman serving me was full of the joys of spring, national stereotypes be damned.
“Any chance I can I pick it up tomorrow morning?”
She fired me a withering look, a look one might give a pet gerbil that just pooed on your favourite dress.
“No, tomorrow afternoon only. After three.”
Right then. I left, set up shop in a Starbucks and set to work on my Belarus visa. The first thing I discovered was that the Belarusian Embassy closes at 12.30. Goddamnit. I began filled out the form anyway, maybe by some miracle I could submit my application by post or something and still get the visa on Friday, already two days later than I was expecting to be in London.
So the next morning (it was now Wednesday), I headed over to the Belarusian embassy just off Kensington High Street hoping that maybe I could start the application without my passport as I was told the takes two working days – if I handed the application in the next day, I wouldn’t get my passport back until the following Monday – one day after I intended to leave for Denmark for the ferry to Iceland and the start of the challenge.
But the note on the front gate was not good news. The Belarusian embassy is closed on Wednesdays.
I headed to the nearest Starbucks and tried to come up with alternatives just in case I was rejected from my Russian visa and didn’t have time to get my Belarusian visa.
A Facebook friend mentioned Białowieża Forest on the border of Poland and Belarus – it is indeed possible to cross the border (on foot) without a visa – woo! Then, after a bit of research of my own I found what is called the “Saatse Boot” – a boot-shaped piece of land between two villages in Estonia that is part of Russia. There is a road that runs through the boot and you can travel down it… as long as you don’t stop!!
However, a trip to either of these places would put critical hours (if not days) onto my journey. Visas would be preferable: especially since the £184 I had stumped up for my Russian visa was non-refundable.
Happily, my return to the Russian visa place was not in vain. Russian visa in da BAG!
That evening I met with my American friend Oliver, the guy who got me into the “soccer dome” in Dubai back in 2010 to watch the World Cup final with hundreds of nutters on three massive cinema screens. I had randomly bumped into him a few days earlier while I was lost in London collecting Pokémon. Funnily enough, if anyone could get me a visa for Belarus it was Oliver. He’s a chap that knows people.
The first thing I learnt was that if you ask them super-nicely the Belarusian embassy will do next-day visas. Like their Russian counterparts they cost a fortune, but it would mean I’d have all my visas by Friday morning.
In hindsight I should have got the Belarusian visa on Monday morning, got my passport back on the Tuesday and then applied for my Russian visa. I could have been back in Liverpool by Wednesday evening, as originally intended.
In any case, Oliver told me that he had a colleague who could sort me out with an invite, something that would be needed if I was to get all Belarusi on everyone. Brilliant! After a few pints (and some top-notch political banter) we called it a night. My Anti-Brexit buddy Monica had offered me a couch to sleep on at her place near Chancery Lane. We stayed up for a few hours chatting about the direction the country is going (to the dogs) and what we’re planning to do about it (everything in our power).
Thursday morning and I was on the Underground to the Belarusian embassy. I would have been there for 9.30 but the train got stuck in a tunnel (of course it did) and so I was late. Oliver had texted me with the news that I didn’t need an invite, I just needed to book a hotel. So I booked a hotel there and then. I even found a nearby Kwik Kall where I could print out the confirmation email.
However, when I came to hand in my application, I needed a few more things than I was expecting. First up, I’d need €120. And it had to be paid in Euros. Even though neither the UK nor Belarus use Euros. Secondly, a confirmation email wasn’t enough, I needed a letter from the hotel, on letterheaded paper, signed and with a stamp.
“What time do you close again?”
I looked at the time on my phone. It was 10.30. Here goes nothing…
As I was leaving the embassy I was already writing to the hotel to ask if I could have an official confirmation, letterhead, signature, stamp… and have it scanned and sent to my email address. Then I walked to Kensington High Street to get those Euros.
Since I would be staying somewhere else that night, I had with me my backpack and my laptop which was weighing me down to hell, on top of that it was one of those rare super warm muggy days that you get in London over the summer. I stood in a queue at a bureau de change for fifteen minutes. “€120 please” I ask. “I’ve only got a hundred, sorry.”
I walked out and down the road, found another bureau de change, this one nestled in the corner of a ticky-tacky souvenir shop. I queued again. This time for 20 minutes. “€120 please” I ask, the sweat now pouring down my brow.
“Sorry” says the guy, pointing towards his broken card reader. “Cash only. We can’t take cards”.
I walked out onto the High Street. This really, REALLY, can’t be happening. I walk further up and spy a branch of HSBC. Bank! Money! Yes!
Or so I thought.
First up, it helped that I was a HSBC customer, as otherwise I would have been turned back at the door like a drunken womble at a clangers convention. I ascended the stairs and entered a big empty lobby with one bored-looking cashier behind the counter. Everything is done online these days, isn’t it?
“I need €120”, I explain, handing over my bank card. “I’m sorry sir, but we can only give out Euros in packs of 50.”
“I can only give you €150. Or €100. Not €120.”
I knew the embassy didn’t give change.
“Oh for the love of –“
I stormed out of the HSBC, raised my arms to the sky and screamed.
THIS SHOULD NOT BE THIS DIFFICULT!!!
I looked around. There was a M&S over the road. They normally have a bureau de change at Marxies don’t they? And do you know what reader? THEY DID!
Only… it was on the top floor.
And for some inexplicable reason, the up escalators were on the blink. I was beginning to think I really should have bought that lucky heather the other day from that old crone…
Long story short: frazzled and bedazzled… I got the euros. Thanks M&S!
But it would all be for nought if I didn’t get my hotel booking confirmation certificate thing.
As I descended the down (working) escalators I checked my emails. The confirmation still hadn’t come through. I called the hotel in Belarus. The nice lady on reception said to give her five minutes. I walked back towards the print shop from earlier. It was approaching noon before it arrived.
I made a hotspot on my phone, fired up my laptop, downloaded and copied the file onto a USB stick, which I handed over to the Kwik Kall guy. “Please hurry…”
A minute later I had my print out. Only… something had gone wrong. It had only printed out the headers. In the end I had to convert the Word file into a PDF and send it via email, wasting more precious minutes than I don’t know what.
Then, confirmation certificate in hand, I ran like a loon back to the Belarusian embassy. Down the stairs, arriving at 12:25pm. I was the last submission of the day. Passport, application form, confirmation certificate, bank statements, coach ticket, €120 in unmarked bills, everything……………
The lady looked at my form.
“I’m very sorry but…”
My heart sank.
“…you have only one night at the hotel so you can only have the visa valid for two days.”
“Okay then. Your visa should be ready tomorrow morning after 9.30.”
When I got out into the muggy London sunshine I punched the air.
Now all I had to do was to find a place to sleep for the night. I had a few kind offers, but the one that made the most sense was for me to stay with Gui, another Odyssey Expedition amigo – I CouchSurfed at his place in Mozambique all the way back in 2009 and hadn’t seen him since. We met near Seven Sisters, grabbed a bite to eat with his girlfriend and put the world to rights.
On the Friday morning my mission was simple: get to the Belarusian embassy at 9:30, hopefully pick up my passport, furnished with a nice new Belarusian visa, then I’d have just over an hour to get to Euston to meet my buddy Lindsey for the train back to Liverpool.
HOWEVER, the Belarusian embassy required a change of lines at Oxford Circus. And, of course, it was that morning upon which Oxford Circus decided to have itself a fire. By the time I got to the embassy it was 10am. Happily, the visa came no problem. The lady (who was really nice) even told me that if I “made a friend” in Belarus they could invite me over on a private visa.
I obviously need to make more friends!
But there was no time to fanny about. I had less than 45 minutes to get to Euston and the quickest way of doing it was out.
I ran to Kensington High Street and took the first Circle train I could. Annoyingly, I had to wait 10 minutes for it to arrive. Even more annoyingly, the Circle Line is no longer a circle, it’s a spiral, terminating at Edgeware Road. You have to get off the train and get onto another one to continue on your journey… along the Circle Line.
It was an agonising five minute wait for the train. It arrived at Euston Square at 10:42. Bear in mind – Euston Square is not Euston Station, it’s a five minute walk away.
Or a three minute run.
I thundered down the ramp to Platform 6 and jumped on the train seconds before departure.
Christ almighty. I hadn’t even STARTED yet.