I had butterflies in my stomach as we left our free-camp this morning. As Tyler drove, I made doubly sure that we had every thing in order. Passports, drivers licenses (international and US), car registration and insurance, all accounted for!
Before the Finnish border, I folded the junky gray blanket we normally cover everything in the back seat with. I figured if either side wanted to search our car, we might as well make it a little easier for them. Last night, we camped just a few kilometers from the Russian border. So, by the time I was done with our "preflight checks", we were there!
First, we drove up to the gate on the Finnish side. Following the example of the car in front of us, we found the right booth to go to. Then, a border guard flipped through our passports absentmindedly, stamped them, and sent us on our way without so much as a single word.
We overstayed our Schengen Visa by something like 5 months. US citizens are supposedly limited to 90 days in any 6 month period. It seems to me that as long as you don't fly out, cross major borders, or stay in one country for more than 90 days, nobody is ever going to notice or care.
Until every border is computerized, enforcement appears to require someone flipping through every page of your passport, finding all the relevant stamps, and doing a lot of date math to see if you've overstayed. It seems US citizens on long term tours can ignore this regulation as of 2010 (not sure about other nationalities).
So, getting out of Finland was no problem. Back in our car, someone came to lift the gate for us so we could pull into the Russian border area. There, we were instructed to turn off our engine again, and go to another booth for a second passport check. Excited, and a little nervous, we walked over.
Inside, a beefy woman with a severe gaze and short cropped blond hair looked over our documents while we stood and waited. Before we were allowed to continue, she intently examined each and every page of our passports under a black light with a magnifying glass! Russia doesn't mess around.
When she was through, she asked us some basic questions about who we were and where we were going. We answered as best we could, though we just stood there blankly, unsure of how to respond when she asked "WHAT… is your RUSSIAN?" It must not have mattered, for the process continued.
The woman seemed slightly baffled by our car situation (Americans. In a car bought in Germany. Entering Russia.) but she made a couple of phone calls on a big red phone, and I guess they satisfied her. She had us each fill out a small form, and pointed at a large xeroxed copy taped to the window that had an example for us to follow.
As we worked on our forms, a woman in a blue camouflage military outfit walked amongst the cars with a very large, very striking dog. It sniffed around for a bit, didn't find any drugs or explosives, and then the pair went back inside.
Forms complete, we handed them in, feeling a bit like we were turning in an important assignment to a very strict teacher. She examined them briefly, grabbed her stamp, and with a triumphant ka-CHUNK, made us official!
Next came the customs office. We pulled our car forward a bit, then got out again. This time, thanks to the pointing of a friendly Russian man, we figured out where our next destination was: a small metal shed a few meters away. Inside, behind the counter, was an elderly brown-haired woman with a pleasant smile. She reminded me of my grandmother, and it occurred to me that we may have lucked out in terms of who was on duty this morning.
From a three inch stack of identical papers, she licked her finger, grabbed two and slid them over to us. Then, with a load of incomprehensible Russian and a tiny bit of broken English, she explained how to fill them out. With a few charades to spice up the confusing mix of languages, we thought we knew what we were doing.
Take One We filled in our forms to the best of our ability, then handed them in.
The woman shook her finger at us, then gave us fresh sheets to start with, crumpling the old ones.
Take Two Ohhhh, okay, only one of us fills in our car information? Got it.
We tried again, and once more she crumpled them up with a chuckle and a shake of her head, saying, "Nyet, nyet, nyet!"
Take Three So just Tyler fills out the form? Okay.
Take Four Two forms, one with the car on it, one without? Okay.
Take Five No, don't check that box? Okay.
Take Six We put the registration number and the plate number in the wrong spots? Shoot.
After much ado, we managed to get our forms filled out correctly. One form, make two identical copies. Easy!
With our paperwork complete, the woman left her little office to inspect our car. A quick glance-over, and she was back inside. Meanwhile, we were developing quite a line behind us. Amongst the crowd was a woman yacking away on her cellphone directly under the slashed-out cellphone sign.
Back inside, our kind customs officer enlisted the help of someone waiting to translate. An English-speaking man explained with a thick Russian accent that she would give us a sticker on one of our papers, and that we were to keep it for the duration of our stay, turning it in at the border when we left. We assured the gentleman, and in turn the customs officer, that we would not throw out our very important documentation.
After she was satisfied, she went back to our car with us and asked us to open the trunk. The hatchback popped up, revealing a mishmash of panniers and bicycle parts. "Ahhh," she said, then nodded sagely. Vyelocipyed. We nodded at her acknowledgement of our bicycles, inwardly elated that a real Russian person had said our favorite Russian word. And with that, she motioned for us to shut our trunk. We returned to the car, and said "spasiba!" when the woman came to open the gate.
And now here we are! In Russia! That wasn't so bad at all.