The Red Gated Golden City

I peered through inky blackness while our aeroplane jetted northward from Beijing across the invisible steppe. Feebly lit villages briefly flickered and disappeared sinking into a sable sea. The age-old stars lit our long, long way.

Out of the inky blackness of empty steppe rises a city of gold; Ulan-Ude.

Out of the inky blackness of empty steppe rises a city of gold; Ulan-Ude.

And then gold. Ulan-Ude, like some bejeweled fairy tale city, some golden Oz, pierced the darkness beckoning our wandering craft to come and rest in her berth. The temperature in Ulan-Ude during our 7 am touchdown was a crackling -37° C. Siberia didn’t disappoint.

A cold, dark arrival.

A cold, dark arrival.

Our airport stay was prolonged by the consternation of officials trying to get their heads around a three-year visa. Finally the immigration officer in charge confidently informed us the Russian Consulate in Seattle had made a mistake, for there is no such thing as a three-year visa. With that they let us go and we collected our baggage, hailed a taxi and set off into the city.

Wood smoke rises to greet the sun who finally peeps over the hills at 10:00 am.

Wood smoke rises to greet the sun who finally peeps over the hills at 10:00 am.

Tigers, and deer stationed on the bridges leading into the city welcomed us. Lovely Mother Buryatia greeted us with a bowl of mares milk and blue silk at the eastern entrance to the city as is steppe custom. Stalwart Buryat warriors astride their chargers silently saluted us as we drove into the mist covered chill resting on Ulan-Ude. (Ulan-Ude means: Red Gate)

Ulan-Ude on a cold sun day.

Ulan-Ude on a cold sun day.

Nina, Yulia’s delightful mother set down before us warm bowls of salamat; fried sour cream, a Buryat delight. We savored the steamy, creamy goodness, and laughed at excited antics of our nieces and nephew. Just the things one needs after a long flight through the darkness.

Late afternoon on the Trans Siberian Railway.

Late afternoon on the Trans Siberian Railway.

The sun sets orange on another frigid day.

The sun sets orange and frigid.

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A New Visa Regime

Russia has passed a new visa law! This is good news. As of September 9th, people may apply for a three-year visa. Now, if you jumped out of your socks with joy, collect those striped paw accessories and read on.

This is a step in the right direction, with or without socks. It means that a tourist, businessperson or private visa holder may stay in country for up to six months at a time. They then have to exit the country, but may return immediately. Of course, that will have to be tested to see if border officials will immediately allow visa holders back into Russia or not.  In Russia one can interpret a law quite creatively and entirely different from day to day.

Now you may be saying to yourself, “I thought the first paragraph stated a three year term for the new visa. But the second paragraph clearly states a Russian visa holder may stay in Russia for up to six months. What gives?” Good question. If you receive a three-year visa from Russia, you should view it as equivalent to receiving six six-month visas. That would be the proper way of understanding your visa, because you will not be staying for a three-year term. So, are you a traveler? Good. Your opportunity to exit Russia’s borders and visit some new foreign land will await you every six months. But smile adventurer! Put your socks back on, for you will not taste the woes enforced prior to these new requirements when the following equations held true:

Tourist + 1 month stay = exit for revisafication* (Apply for a new visa.)

Spouse of Russian citizen + 3 months stay = exit for revisafication*

Businessperson + 6 months stay = exit for six months before you may return on the same visa.

*The revisafication process could be anywhere from one week to one month, the Russian consulate being in possession of your passport the entire time.

**During that period Russian citizens were issued two-year visas to the United States with no requirement to exit the US until the visa expired.

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Pax Berlinica

Berlin. What goes through your mind when you hear her name? (Seriously, please respond in comments below. What comes to your mind when you hear “Berlin”?) I recently returned from Berlin, where I spent a week getting a Russian visa.

Ahhhh . . . a summer evening at Brandenburg Gate.

For me context is everything. You can’t understand a place or person now, if you don’t know from whence they came. So, I am a student of history, and history in Berlin is apocalyptic. And fascinating. Scratch the surface of the city, and it bleeds tragedy.

The Technical Museum crowned by a C-47 Skytrain, workhorse of the Berlin Airlift.

Berlin for me gives rise to witch’s brew of emotions I have trouble sorting. Yes, it is the genocidal Third Reich unleashing Death’s head, it is the lament for six million Jews sown into the ground, and it is my German ancestry. My family left Germany for the Volga river valley in Russia in the 1760’s and yet, I wonder . . .  If I had been in Germany, would I have stood against the Reich powers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or kept salute hand up, with my head down, mouth shut?

Translation: Here lived Willi Levin, Year Born: 1914. Arrested. Murdered May 15th, 1940 at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

Reminders of war and Holocaust are ever present in Berlin. From the small brass Stolpersteine (literally “stumbling blocks”) embedded in sidewalks throughout the city at addresses where Jews were arrested and sent to concentration or death camps, to rubble unearthed any time the city digs up its foundations. There is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Topography of Terror (a museum that recounts the crimes of the Third Reich and maps out the buildings inhabited by Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Eichmann and Goebbels, most of which have been utterly destroyed), Nazi buildings that survived the war including the Olympiastadion and the Air Ministry, and pockmarks from bullets and shrapnel that mar many a structure throughout Berlin.

But what about the peace of Berlin? For peace is to be had there. Seated beneath Linden trees on “Unter den Linden” street on a summers eve observing strollers through Brandenburg gate is peaceful. Walking the long green breadth of “Tiergarten” in the sun’s igneous rays brings peace. Sipping coffee in a cafe as a thundershower power-washes the street is peaceful. Barbequing in the park with friendly Germans and Turks brings a satisfied feeling of peace. As the burnished sun sets over the Berlin metro-scape, casting the city in amber, a sense of peace wells up in the heart.

Amber Skies of Berlin.

Many are the reminders of war in Berlin. But there is forgiveness. Forgiveness enough to wash the hearts of the guilty, and replace their burden with . . . eternal peace.

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Visa Visa Visa Visa Stuff

Alex left for Germany this morning to get a new Russian visa. Yup, you read that right – another visa trip! We decided he shouldn’t go to Mongolia this time. Alex’s sister just  moved back to the States after several years of teaching English in Mongolia. And the Russian Embassy there had changed their rules, and now it takes almost one month to get a Russian visa through them. That’s why Alex is going to Germany. If everything goes well, he should be back in Irkutsk early morning on the 9th of June. So, just one week to get a new visa instead of four. Good stuff, good stuff! You can follow Alex in Deutschland here.

We have also heard recently through a friend that Russia and America are considering reciprocal visa law changes, and in our favor too! There may be a three year multiple entry visa option in the near future. We will have to see it to believe it though.

Not Letting Visa Stress Bring Us Down

Getting a visa to Russia is usually a stress-filled process. And it’s not being different this time around. Alex and I were trying to fill out a visa application on the Russian consulate website, and the website was not working properly. After our patience had been tested thoroughly, Alex had to fill out a paper application. When we were at the post office trying to mail all the documents to Seattle, the post office wouldn’t accept our credit card. So we had to drive all the way back home to get our checkbook.

I must be fair and point out the positives in this process:

  • the fact that it is possible to apply for a Russian visa online
  • Alex didn’t have to apply for his visa in person
  • there’s Express shipping at the USPS
  • we can track our packages online and know exactly when we are going to get one back

So, now we are waiting for Alex’s passport to be shipped back to us. We hope and pray that it comes by the end of next week.