Bureaucratic Barriers to sustainable travel
This topic deserves a chapter of its own because ridiculous visa requirements were by far the greatest hindrance to the success of the "Climate Train".
The Russian visa system is both archaic and ripe for corruption, as due to the financial crisis government officials have to charge for their "services". For west Europeans, official invitations are needed from either a tourist company or a business partner or other registered organisation including proof that every night’s accommodation has been paid in advance. In theory these invitations cost nothing but many colleagues in Moscow and Novosibirsk told us that it was impossible to get the official stamp in Moscow without paying somebody about 50 dollars per invitation as a bribe. Moreover this process would be very slow and unreliable by post from Siberia. It seemed that invitations from Novosibirsk would not cover our conference in Moscow and vice versa, and neither would they cover our days on the train. Our purpose was part "transit" and part "business" but this was too confusing for the simple minds of bureaucrats and anyway people in transit were assumed to fly -at least if travelling west-east. For some bizarre reason it is possible to get a ten-day transit visa for the trans-siberian, but only in Beijing when you are going east-west.
Registered tourist companies can make invitations more easily, but they have to arrange a package trip including all accommodation. We did not want to pay for the notoriously bad value "intourist" hotels, nor the large mark-up on train tickets paid by the tourist companies, as our colleagues in Novosibirsk had already arranged for us to stay with families and were willing to buy the tickets to Beijing. However because there was no other reliable way to get the invitations, we were forced to go to a travel agent, the London-based company "The Russia Experience". They were initially reluctant as this was clearly not an extravagant package trip, but they reckoned that they could knock down the price they would have to pay by making a deal with the Moscow railway company, attaching a special wagon for our group (conveniently one wagon takes 36 people) and buying through tickets Moscow-Beijing instead of separate tickets to and from Novosibirsk. Thus they could make a profit while for us the mark -up on the tickets was similar to the bribe we would otherwise have had to pay for invitations. "The Russia Experience" provided invitations for both our outward and return journeys and also arranged hotel accommodation in Moscow in both directions. Most of our applications were sent to the Russian consulate in Edinburgh and were processed OK although those who went instead to consulates in Germany and Hungary had some difficulty explaining the arrangement.
Phillippe Pernstich was attending the meeting of the subsidiary bodies to the Climate Convention in Bonn a couple of weeks before our departure. He therefore submitted his Russian visa application in Bonn, only to be told just a few days before we left that Russian consulates in Germany couldn’t process visas for UK citizens (apparently because UK consulates in Germany won’t process visas for Russian citizens), and Russian consulates in the UK couldn’t do anything in less than a week (also a tit-for-tat rule). Fortunately he also has Austrian nationality and was able to get a visa by diverting his journey from Brussels to Moscow via Vienna, missing our meetings in Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow, and nearly missing the train to Novosibirsk because we had to depart earlier than expected and from a different station.
By this time we had discovered that the whole plan was going badly wrong. The Moscow railway company had failed to obtain permission from the Chinese railway company for our extra wagon to travel across the border to Beijing. Since this wagon didn’t have it’s own "visa" it never left Moscow. Agents of "The Russia Experience" put us on the earlier train (the "Yenisei") as far as Novosibirsk, but by the time we were due to leave for Beijing they had failed to arrange any further tickets. The "Vostok" train to Beijing only goes once per week and was full, yet it was essential to keep to schedule both for our conference in Beijing and to pick up the remaining Japanese visas (see below). So we had to try our own luck, departing eastwards on another train with a few spare places in an open "platzkartny" wagon, just three hours ahead of the "Vostok", in the hope that we might be able to negotiate something before it caught up with us. After many telephone calls from the train and from friends in Novosibirsk, we arranged for the Irkutsk railway company to attach an extra wagon to the "Vostok" train, but only as far as the border. Again we waited there not knowing whether we would get any further. Eventually we found scattered places in the rest of the train after some other people got out on the Chinese side of the border. We had to use cash to buy the extra tickets, yet of course we had already paid "The Russia Experience" for these same tickets. Eight months later, at the time of going to press, we are still waiting for a refund.
Changing wagons so many times, waiting in the station for seven hours at the border, and later being scattered through the train all severely disrupted the schedule of workshops planned for the journey. Making last-minute arrangements in Novosibirsk also took the organisers out of the conference. However, eventually we arrived, on time, in Beijing.
Clearly the travel agent and the Moscow railway company had made a gamble which failed with the extra wagon. It is hard to say exactly whose fault this is but it is clear that if our colleagues in Moscow and Novosibirsk had bought the tickets for us instead of using the travel agent , we would never have had this problem and saved a lot of stress and money. We were forced to use the travel agent to obtain tourist invitations because it was not possible to obtain "business" invitations from our colleagues without paying large bribes and waiting a long time. But why have this crazy invitation system at all? -it is a relic of the Soviet era now being made worse by corrupt officials.
Compared to the Russian and Japanese visas, obtaining Chinese visas was relatively straightforward. However it was expensive, especially for the Russians who paid 150 dollars each just for one-entry visas into Japan and 100 dollars for the exit visa (it is unclear why one is more expensive than the other), and also needed an official invitation from our travel agent in Beijing. They then had to go to the embassy in Osaka to obtain return visas -losing a valuable day during the Kyoto Convention. Wolfgang Pomrehn also had some problems with his Chinese visa because he made the mistake of telling them he was a journalist.
While it is relatively easy for foreigners to get into China, it is not so easy for Chinese citizens to leave their country. Once we had funding confirmed we invited eight Chinese - mostly climate scientists - to join the "Climate Train" to Kyoto, but not only did they need Japanese visas, five of them also needed to apply for passports -Chinese citizens are not given passports until they have an invitation to travel abroad. This process can take weeks and it soon became clear that they had no chance of obtaining passports in time to get Japanese visas -
People from the European Community do not need visas for a short visit to Japan. The Japanese embassies in central European countries seemed to be satisfied with the official letter from the UNFCCC secretariat showing that they were registered to attend the Climate Convention, a letter from SGR explaining that they were participants of the "Climate Train", and a fax from ASEED Japan confirming that they had arranged accommodation for our group. However the embassies in Moscow and Beijing caused great difficulties. Firstly they asked everybody for a letter from a friend in Japan guaranteeing their "good behavior", and also they would not accept the official accreditation to the Climate Convention because it wasn’t written in Japanese -not surprising since the secretariat is based in Bonn! ASEED Japan kindly faxed us such letters but then the embassies said it would take at least a month to process the applications. As we had had most of our funding confirmed just a few weeks before departure, this was too late for our participants from the Social Ecological Union in Moscow and for five of the Chinese.
Here is an email from the SEU ladies:
We do not have Chinese visa because we guessed about the problems we would have with the Japanese.... About Japanese folks. They need anyway the guarantee letter and conference program in Japanese. You should remember that Russia and Japan still have not signed the peace treaty. This means that we are almost in warfare condition - at least in formalities. So... Another problem - we have a short work week - Friday is the November 7 - Revolution Day - and it’s a vacation despite the communism decline. We at least want to do a good Moscow programme for you. This means that we have no time left for kicking embassy officials - though one person will try one more time....
Sun Yu in Beijing had a similar experience
About the Japanese visa, I got a problem. After consulting the Japanese Embassy, I find out that besides invitation letter, I still need a letter of guarantee. This letter of guarantee should be filled by the conference organizer in Japanese side, it has a fixed formula formulated by Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And it should be mailed to me. It seems like a special requirement for Chinese.
And later... I contacted the Japanese Embassy. But they seems to be very stubborn. They want only Japanese document-" Their reason is since the meeting is organized in Japan, there must be some persons related in Japan can supply the documents. They also insist on asking for original copy. This is the answer of the Consul.
The funding for the 6 Siberians and the 2 Georgians had been confirmed earlier and they had all corresponded with the Japanese embassy in Moscow well in advance, but living thousands of miles away from Moscow they could not easily turn up in person to apply for and collect their visas. The Siberians had paid a visa service company a hefty fee to submit the applications, and arranged to collect the visas from the embassy in Beijing as we passed through. The Georgians visited the Moscow embassy when they joined us for the conference there, but were also told they would collect their visas in Beijing. The embassy in Kiev had made a similar promise to the Ukrainians.
It was therefore a great relief when we had finally resolved the "wagon crisis" (see above) and trundled across the Chinese border on the original train, because we would have a whole day in Beijing as planned to pick up those visas. Having also managed to get the satellite telephone across the border after another lengthy debate with Russian officials (see earlier section on communication), we decided to ring up just to make sure. Richard Scrases’ diary continues the story...
Thursday 20th November, On train in Manchuria.
At about 8.30pm Sergey had phoned to check that the Japanese visas would be ready to pick up in Beijing. He was told it ‘would not be possible’ to pick up the visas tomorrow. This created a real problem, the embassy is shut over the weekend, and we were to sail to Japan on Monday.
After some discussion, we agreed the following plan: (a) Taking it very easy and non-confrontational, Ben and the Russians will go to the Japanese embassy the moment we arrive in Beijing. (b) If there is a problem, we all phone our respective consulates/embassies and ask them to help. (c) If this fails, we go anyway, hoping to bluff our way onto the ferry. (d) As a last resort, we use our high profile with the media.
To make sure we made part two effective, Peter, with help from Ben, Michelle and myself, drafted a ‘script’ to be used when communicating with the embassies. It was my role to explain and then implement this plan with the rest of the group Incidentally, I also needed to get a Russian visa for the return trip at the same time!
Friday 21st: Beijing
Back to the hotel, the visas are not forthcoming, time for plan B.The group assembled, I read through the instructions, simultaneous translation took place, Peter and Dan acted out the script and then we started to phone. The initial responses were unhelpful, "it is not our responsibility to intervene on the behalf of other nations citizens", said the Dutch and Polish embassies. However, the Finish ambassador later intervened personally, actually coming over to the Japanese embassy (it’s in the same block) and telling the staff, "You and I know you do not need permission from Japan to grant these people visas! Why don’t you give them visas?".
We tried to find someone senior in Japan to talk to, with no luck. When people contacted their own embassies, the response was hardly any more encouraging. The Ukrainian embassy faxed the Japanese, but to no immediate avail. So far, it was 3.00 pm and only Marina and Ketevan had their visas. Zuzanna suggested everyone should go back to the embassy, I duly rounded people up and sent them off with Bob and the phone.
Time for plan D, it was time to phone the team from channel 4 TV and ask them to phone the Japanese embassy for confirmation that ‘an important delegation’ is being held up! I also phoned Dani our press-officer, to start to raise our problem with whomever, at home in the UK. Then we received a phone-call from Bob, the Ukrainians from Kharkov(but not Igor) had got their visas, everybody else at the embassy had decided to sit in!
Soon after this somebody called out, I’ve a number in Japan, can you call it Rich? I did, and to cut a long story short, finally reached a man who could make things happen. He was very unhappy about the sit-in, and he certainly did not want any publicity. A long hour later, he phoned back, he had found out that mistakes had been made on both sides, he had made a ‘special arrangement’, the visas would be issued for the Russians.
WE HAD WON!, I said thank you very politely, and then when I put the phone down, I cheered loudly. By about 11.00pm, everybody had returned and we went out for a meal to celebrate. At a local café, we toasted each other with steadily increasing enthusiasm, until it was time to fall into bed. A great night.
While it is encouraging to read such a positive account, it can hardly be seen as a wonderful victory. We had lost a whole day of the three that we were in Beijing, we had to pay the hotel a phone/fax bill of over 700 US dollars (the satellite phone did not seem to work amongst the high-rise blocks) and also later for expensive calls made by our colleagues in London and Novosibirsk, yet still one Ukrainian and the three Chinese did not have Japanese visas. They would have to wait a few more days in Beijing and then fly to Japan in order not to miss the COP, thus contradicting the basic principle of our "Climate Train". The three Chinese also missed their only chance to travel with us and get to know our group before the busy days of the Convention itself. Moreover this was expensive and yet another complication to distract us from our real purpose. Some people later commented that the frantic day in Beijing helped our diverse group to learn to work as a team - but our real aim had been to work together to save the global climate, not to obtain a few stamps in passports. Nevertheless the success of our international "fax attack" and sit-in was a powerful inspiration especially for the Siberian group who had never seen such tactics used before to sway stubborn bureaucrats
We later heard from the UNFCCC Secretariat that we were not the only ones - many other delegates also had great difficulty obtaining Japanese visas. This is disgraceful behavior from the host of a United Nations Convention - an assault to democracy - making it very difficult for people from certain countries to join the discussion of the future of our common climate. It also seems strange that the country that led the world in modern telecommunications takes so long to send documents between its embassies and Tokyo.
Other visa issues
Altogether a quarter of the expected participants of the climate train had to drop out at the last minute due to insurmountable visa obstacles. As well as the Chinese and Russians mentioned above, our three participants from Serbia failed to arrive in Moscow. We were waiting for them at Yaroslavsky train station until the very last minute, only to discover five months later (when Ben returned to UEA and collected his post) that they had to give up simply because they did not have enough blank pages left in their passports for so many visas and it would take too long to obtain new ones! We also lost a Romanian who was working with an environmental organisation in Ireland. Just to get across Europe by train he would have needed a UK transit visa, a Schengen transit visa, and a Polish transit visa (all dual entry), and then also the Chinese and Japanese visas. After visiting the embassies in Dublin, he too decided it was impossible.
Even so we spent a total of 6642$ US on visa fees and associated costs (see pie chart in the budget chapter) - which is equivalent to a 15% tax on the cost of out travel tickets. And just as importantly, the sequence of visa crises and the problem with train tickets in Siberia (which was fundamentally due to the archaic Russian visa system as explained above) used up many people’s valuable time and energy -particularly the organisers -both before we departed and during the journey and conferences. If we had not spent so long making phonecalls and faxes and emails about visas, we have had more time to discuss the climate issues and prepare to lobby in the Convention.
A quote from Konstantin Dunaev:
In general, the project did go as planned. One of the main obstacles on the way to Kyoto were barriers related to official procedure to cross countries with the non tourist group of people. Before the travel, an e-mail interaction was undertaken but most of the discussions dealt with organisation (getting visas, tickets etc.) rather than discussion of global climate change etc.. One of the main reasons was Russian railway departmental dissociation caused by processes of transition in the domestic economy. Complicated procedures to obtain visas also caused many problems in different countries.
In most cases it is a case of mutual stupidity between pairs of governments. It is difficult for Russians to get visas because their own government makes it so difficult to get Russian visas. We had trouble going east but west European governments are little better, - Britain’s system is widely recognised to be one of the worst. Unless governments agree together to reduce such obstacles and fees especially for transit visas, then we will have little chance of encouraging more people to travel far overland instead of flying. Consider that just a hundred years ago the concept of visas hardly existed. Now the bureaucrats seem to conspire to make it harder to travel across the centre of Asia than it was over a thousand years ago in the days of Marco Polo and the Silk Road.