The border crossing necessitates presenting our passports no less than four times.
Firstly we have to prove who we are to the Chinese authorities. Then we have to prove that we have the Chinese departure stamp. Then we have to prove who we are to the Russian authorities. And then we have to prove that we have the Russian arrival stamp.
This is intermingled with a fair amount of waiting around, which doesn’t help my anxiety.
I had secured my Russian visa before I’d left New Zealand. It had required obtaining an ‘invitation’ from a local company, a weird concept for me. I’d followed the lead of other cycle tourists and paid the local cycle touring club 30 euro to vouch for me.
The inviting company was based in Moscow, and so my application itinerary dutifully listed a hotel in that city. But, with only 30 days on my visa, I never intended to go to Moscow. In fact, at the Russian embassy in New Zealand, a friendly man had asked me if I was going to visit Lake Baikal, which I was. But, worried that it was some sort of a trick, I’d responded that no, I was definitely going to Moscow.
And now, here I am, crossing the border into Russia, with a touring bicycle. I’ve just used my phone to purchase a £35 train ticket from Zabaikalsk to Irkutsk, but I don’t have the confirmation from Real Russia yet. And so I actually could be heading to Moscow. I’m just not a very good liar.
I reach the front of the queue, and then watch in despair as the Russian customs officer wanders off with my passport. I’m left with the remaining officer, a robust lady, to enjoy an awkward pause.
Finally, after a nail-biting 10 minute wait and some friendly jabs from another passenger, they stamp me through into Russia. Phew!