Monday, August 10, 2015

Applying for a Russian visa in Tbilisi

There is quite a bit of confusion about where the Russian Consulate in Tbilisi, Georgia, is. It's no longer housed in the Swiss Embassy, as several visa related sites still claim, but next to the Russian Embassy. The GPS coordinates are in the top left of the photo
The Russian Embassies have been given us a hard time, as you can read elsewhere on this site. We have been given the runaround, lied to and they have been totally uncooperative. This applies to the Russian Embassies in The Hague, Bucharest, Turkey and Australia. I've written before that an embassy, any embassy, should represent their country and promote it. So far the Russian embassies have done a pretty ordinary job, and the Russian Embassy in Bucharest was downright deceitful when they first said we could get the visas there while they flatly refused to even look at the application when we arrived. In Tbilisi, Georgia, things went differently.

Mind you, I did send them an e-mail asking if it was possible, to which they hadn't replied. To be brutally honest we had not expected it to be possible and had thus already made a plan B. Plan B was through Azerbaijan and then the boat from Baku to Aktau. The boat is by all accounts unreliable, doesn't have a schedule and crossing-time depends on how busy the harbours are at both ends. You could even end up 3 days stationary at sea, waiting for the harbour to clear, according to several reports we read. The 'ferry' is expensive too. For us two, plus two motorcycles, it would be in the region of US$500,- Still, at least we had a plan B!

Getting through Tbilisi is not easy. If you don't like big cities, choc-a-bloc traffic and suicidal drivers then I strongly suggest to take a taxi. I'm not joking, it is that bad! We have been through Tbilisi 4 times and it is a terrible city to ride through, terrible because of the poor and aggressive attitude of most Georgian drivers. Pushing you off the road, extreme forms of tailgating, no respect for other drivers, running red lights, crossing continuous lines, driving on the wrong side of the road... just a few of the things we encountered continuously. Riding through Melbourne or Sydney is like riding through friendly country towns compared to Tbilisi. If you still want to ride through it then take a good GPS, we found the free garmin.openstreetmaps.nl work very well here. There are a lot of one-way streets and the GPS knew them all. While we were there, there were also numerous roads blocked, making a detour necessary and again the GPS flawlessly found a new route. The last thing you need through a city like this is a GPS which doesn't work (and please forget the idea of a paper map as you won't have the time to look at it!). As we are riding with two bikes we had the advantage of being able to warn each-other about the dangers around us, of which there were plenty. We had a simple formula: Mike kept an eye on what happened in front of us while I concentrated on behind and watched his back. Especially on a motorcycle, there is one other thing to consider: the roads in and around Tbilisi are very bad. Huge potholes, cracks, roads which are broken up, cobblestones, gravel, manhole covers which are 20cm below the road surface etc. The UClear helmet comms were invaluable here!

Before you even think about going to the Embassy, go online to the Russian Embassy website and fill in the form. This can be done at McDonalds for instance, who's internet we found extremely good in Tbilisi. Filling in the form online can be done with Acrobat Reader or if you're on a Mac then Preview makes it even easier. Fill in everything except the entry and departure date. Print the form, make copies of your passport, bike registration paper, medical insurance, bike insurance and drivers license (although in our case she gave that copy back). Print your itinerary through Russia (we used Google maps) as well and you'll need a passport photo attached to the form. Without the above paperwork you won't get anywhere. We have digital copies of all our paperwork stored on our computer in a password protected and encrypted folder which we copied to a USB stick. We took the stick to a nearby office and asked if they could help us print these for the Russian Embassy, which they did! (I'm sure you'd like to know who it was but we won't print that here as it would be unfair if they get swamped with print requests). The form above can be found at (http://www.russianembassy.org/page/important-visa-information) choose the country you are applying from, fill in the details and print it.

This is the McDonalds to go to for Wifi and being able to park your bike in direct view. There is a McD closer to the embassy but no parking option where you can see your bike and it has a very unfriendly manager.
Outside the Russian Embassy you'll find the usual queue. There are plenty of signs which probably tell you what to do but as they are in Russian and Georgian, you can't read them. Don't be alarmed, the procedure here is dead easy. Simply wait until you see a man in shirt sleeves on the other side of the gate, there are two working here and both of them speak perfect English as well as Georgian and Russian. I don't know what their function is but lets call them the manager. Walk past everyone and through the gate, tell him you are a foreigner who wants to know if it is possible to apply for a visa here. He will then get you in contact with a Russian diplomat. In our case the diplomat wasn't there on the day we arrived and were thus told to come back the next day at 11 o'clock. We did, walked to the same guy and followed his instructions. The Russian diplomat asked what he could do for us, upon which I said 'I'm travelling around the world on a motorcycle with my son and we would like to travel from Georgia through Russia to Kazakhstan. I hope you can help us with a visa'. The diplomat, a nice guy who looked very much stuck in the 1950s, looked at me and said I was crazy... I smiled and agreed. The ice was broken. I didn't show my paperwork, just produced our passports when he asked for it and showed him our route. He made a phone call and said it would be a 10 day transit visa and would also take 10 days to issue. I was pleasantly surprised about the 10 days transit visa as until then we had been told we would only get two days (i.e. 500 km a day).

You'll have to wait the 10 days for processing as there is no express service. The diplomat reverted us back to the manager, who told me to wait behind one of the counters. Behind those counters are women who look at your paperwork and check if all is correct. She will notice you have not filled in the date, and call the manager for translation. He will ask you when you want to go to Russia, I replied two days after the visa is issued (I'll come back later on why two days). She will fill in the date and give you the form back for your signature (I prefer not to sign at forehand as they will then actually see you place the signature yourself). They also need a form with your name in Russian and passport details, again the manager will fill that in for you. The lady behind the counter stamped our passports and gave a note for payment. Payment is done at the cashier, who is in the same room, and in US dollars...!

We received a confirmation note that we payed, make sure you don't lose that! The note will also tell you when to pickup your passport with the visa. The pickup time is at 18.00 hrs from the same location, 10 days later (the day you hand in the paperwork doesn't count so it is in effect 11 days).

The required fees and beware of the sharks outside!
In front of the embassy there are several vans with so called helpers. They will fill in the form for you and charge you... US$ 300,-- if you are a foreigner! I'm not kidding, a man from Spain was there with us when we applied and he was quoted that. Like I wrote above, filling in the form online is dead easy and free. The fee we had to pay to the Russian Embassy was US$50,- each... and that is all. At least for a transit visa, which is what we asked for. The man from Spain had to pay that as well, on top of the US$300,- quoted by the sharks in the vans. 

So why the two extra days? In theory you could ride from the Russian Embassy to the border on the same day, if you don't mind riding in the dark and miss everything. It is roughly 180 km to the border from the Embassy, but we were told the ride from Tbilisi north goes through a beautiful area. So we wanted some time for that. As we prefer not to ride in the dark and the visa will be issued at the end of the day, that day is lost anyway. Two days gave us the opportunity to take it easy, have a good look at this beautiful part of Georgia and allow for a visit to the Gergeti Trinity Church.

The Russian Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, has been very helpful. They are polite and go out of their way to help you. This already starts at the entry gates and continues with the diplomat and the ladies doing the actual visa application. Don't expect them to get you a visa which you cannot have or accept incomplete paperwork, but if you are legit and don't expect the impossible then they will help you. The main difference here was simply the attitude, they want to help, which makes all the difference. The process in our case, having our paperwork in order, took about 4 hours. Most of this time is spend waiting as there are quite a few people applying for a visa there. 

Looking for a camp spot we found a pretty good one... until we realised we were on a Georgian army training ground...! No doubt the sign had said so but as these are written in Georgian symbols, we can't read a word of it of course. Perhaps it was better to move on... We found another spot 20 km further on, parked the bikes and despite being only end afternoon were exhausted.

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