After a year's worth of planning and organising, we were on our way. All the preparations and red tape were behind us. All we had to do now was the actual travelling. Right?
So why was it that 6 days into our trip, I found myself queueing outside an embassy, waiting for yet another visa?
We had left Paris on an electric train (the fact that it was electric was important because it contrasts with what I assume powers the Trans-Siberian train--namely, diesel). We got the sleeper to Berlin, which took 12 hours. It wasn't one of those nice sleeper trains with big, fat reclining seats; rather, we were stuck in a six-berth cabin, sitting bolt upright with four other people. We had three Mexican girls for company and a guy who could speak 37 different languages and talked enough to prove it. He was from Togo, a country that required Thom getting his world map out to locate.
The reason Thom had a map of the world is because his official role on the trip is Chief Navigator. Check the website if you like. It was a title assigned to him fairly arbitrarily as part of a necessary process for us to apply for the grant. But when we were about to negotiate the streets of Paris, I jokingly handed him the map and said, "You're the navigator--you read the map." He did, and he did it very well. In fact, five minutes after taking the map from me in the middle of Paris, he delved into his bag and produced a compass. To go with his compass, he had a map of everywhere we were going (Europe, Mongolia, China, America, the world). He was taking his role seriously, and I was thankful for it. Without the map of Europe, we would have had no idea where Le Havre was in relation to Paris, what road we needed to get on, and where exactly the petrol stations we kept getting dropped off at were. And without that map of Europe, we would have had trouble finding the bus route we needed to get us from Berlin to Moscow.
You see, since last November, when we first pieced together our route, we did a quick search on the Internet and found that there was a handy bus that ran from Berlin to Moscow. The website recommended that we avoid Belarus (because it required a visa for entry) and that we instead go up through Lithuania and Latvia. Upon arrival in Berlin, we soon discovered that such a bus route was very rare and that there were no buses available that would get us to Moscow in time for our train departure and not take us through Belarus.
We had arrived in Berlin that morning from the sleeper and were already frantically trying to arrange the next leg of our journey. Sitting in an Internet cafe with a map of Europe spread out across the floor, we desperately searched through bus timetables to find a route around Belarus that would get us to Moscow in time.
There wasn't one.
We had two choices: get a Belarussian visa or break the rules (i.e. take a flight or another train). It was Thursday, and the bus we needed left on Saturday, which left us with 48 hours to get a visa - a ridiculously short time in any cirumstances, and on top of that, we weren't even in our own country. But we thought we should at least try. It would be a shame to break the rules, but it would be a real waste if we didn't even try.
The Belarussian embassy was quite a long way away, but at least there was one. The "express service" took 48 hours, but obviously, they weren't open on Saturdays, so that meant that even if we got there in time with all the right documents and beat the queue, there wasn't enough time. We still thought we should try.
There are few worse ways to spend your day than queueing outside an embassy, but one of them is queueing outside an embassy when you know that you are never going to get a visa. As soon as we got there, we realised that we didn't have photos. We ran to the nearest shopping centre but were told by several shop assistants that there was no photo booth there, so Thom took the short straw and trekked back across the city to get spare photos from our bags back at the hostel. I, meanwhile, got back in the queue.
I thought I had the easy job, and perhaps I did, but I still had to try to complete a form that was only available in German or Russian. I was assisted by a helpful guy in the queue with me, but I still didn't know Thom's address, didn't have his signature, and still had no photos. I still thought I should try.
...to be continued...