Anadyr – Autonomous Region of Chukotka – Russian Federation
First interesting surprise when I landed in Russia, my T mobile regular cell phone works. I am not even off the plane when I get a text message welcoming me in the land of megaphone! Nice surprise, although the surprise won’t be as good later when I will find out how much I am being charged! It’s fun though to be able to send a quick text message to let my contacts know I have safely landed in Chukotka.
We proceed off the plane and are immediately greeted by Olga Grokhotova, the local representative for Bering Air. She is waiting outside our plane with about five custom officers / borderguards, ready to escort us…They carefully watch us under the mildly blowing snowy weather as Karl and I are progressively loading off the 1700 lbs of gear, sleds and supplies off the plane on to an airport bus.
Five minutes later, we are dropped in front of the main building. It’s Gym Time, part 1! We are being told that, while being watched, we have to carry the 1700 lbs off the bus, drag them around the front of the building, bring them through a narrow antic stairway onto a 2d floor, and progress through multiple small rooms, pushing, carrying one box at a time. I swear the building and stairways were not made to drag around 2.4 meters long sleds or fuel tanks, but well, we live through it….Did anyone say HAZING ?
Next, we are greeted by Igor, a customs officer I recognize from the previous year and I believe the one that finally stamped our entry and exit stamps in our passport the day we left in May 2005, after having been "kept" 54 days. I can see immediately the grin on his face while watching us dragging around all of our boxes through his small passport control booth.
It’s Friday afternoon, the airport is getting ready to close down for the weekend. Looking back, I think that the fact that he and his subordinates were most likely eager to go home for the weekend may have played in our advantage. They did not insist on searching each box but instead simply ask us what they contained, weighting and processing them through the X-ray machine.
About two hours in the process, we are informed through our local friend and support, the journalist Svetlana Gobuleva who came to greet us that we are going to be taxed $880 each for having brought in the country 160 kg of consumer goods, which obviously were going to be consumed within the Russian territory. 3 Euros tax per kilogram.
You have been warned if any one amongst you are planning a little camping trip any time soon in Russia…Next, it’s Confiscation time!
At first, our two US Coast Guard graded safety flare guns are taken away from us, with all our flares which we were told were illegal to bring into Russia. This was and still is rather concerning since we were planning to use these flares to deter polar bears on the Northern coast during the first few weeks and brown bears coming out of hibernation during the following few months in the inland sections. Knowing that it is quasi-impossible for us, as non-Russians to get firearms permits, we will learn from the search and rescue authorities in the following weeks that we are allowed to purchase domestic Russian flare guns. The problem is that Anadyr only has one hunting store where we ended up buying the only tiny flares that are available… Taking into account how often and irregular flights are coming through, we can forget about ordering those over the net…As a backup we also buy multiple bangers and fireworks at the local supermarket and keep the bear mace that I brought up from Seattle and that was not confiscated. When Karl and I last year crossed the Bering Strait, we encountered twice a polar bear on our trail who seemed at first curious from a distant and then moved away disinterested. Hopefully, we will have the same experience this year. Although, we are both still concerned with the idea of a potential nocturnal visit.
Next on the confiscation list and rather critical were our GPS, emergency beacons and satellite phones, even though we were told weeks ahead of our arrival in Chukotka that we had received clearance for all of these items. We will spend the next 20 days struggling with this matter, as well as a few others. In the end, able to only receive our GPS, we will be able to identify a Russian made GlobalStar satellite phone, generously on loan by a governmental agency for our first two sections Uelen-Egvekinot-Anadyr while our governmental contacts try to help us sort out this matter with the customs regional bureau in Khabarovsk.
The problem though is that the sat phone we receive only has one battery, does not take our own SIM cards and mostly work in intermitence in the morning, because of the Northern latitude we are at. Therefore, this phone is only going to be used in the event of an emergency for out calls only. It cannot be used for any regular forms of communication.
We are looking at potential sections of 28 days without any contact to the outside world!
In the end, we will be told that the officials in Khabaravosk are waiting for an official permission from the Ministry of Industry / Electronic section in Moscow to release our items since they do not figure at this stage on the official list of foreign electronic products allowed to enter the country. This seems quite puzzling though when one considers that they are Russian suppliers in Moscow and St Petersburg whom apparently distribute the exact same products.
The way I see all of these matters is simply the continuation of what we faced last year when we entered Chukotka by foot. One of the most well guarded part of the world, where everything entering and leaving is closely watched. If the treacherous Bering Strait represented a physical bottleneck on the planetary expedition routes, Chukotka definitely represents an administrative bottleneck. The Canadian Colin Angus who completed last year with his partner Julie Wafaei the first human powered expedition around the world, recently emailed me that “Chukotka is, without a doubt, the most bureaucratically inclined place on the planet. (…) When we changed our route in Anadyr, months passed before they would give us permission to travel on. In addition, we also had a similar problem with our sat phone. When we arrived in Providenya it took several weeks to get the permissions from Moscow. We actually started the process for that months before arriving, but the permissions hadn't arrived yet.”
Over the next few days, released from customs, we will encounter an additional issue when we failed to register with the local authorities in the first 72 hours of our stay in the town of Ugolnye Kopi, on the outskirts of Anadyr. Both Karl and I were naively uninformed that we were required to register with the local police / border guard upon our arrival, even though we have cleared customs and received a letter from the governor’s office, asking all counties we were about to cross to support us in any way they could.
The result was a 2000 rubles (approximately $80 dollars) fine for each one of us and a 14000 rubles fined for the person in charge of inviting us in Russia for having failed to inform us of these regulations. Once again, if you are planning a trip in Russia, be aware that this type of registration is required for any stay longer than 72 hours in Russian cities and larger towns.
While waiting to pay my fine in the local administrative office, I noticed on a wall a cartoon that clearly illustrated the consequential deportation that foreigners can face for failing to register.
On that first night, once we paid our first hefty taxes on perishable goods, filled out countless forms and let the custom officers walk away with our flares, flare guns, satellite phone, beacons and GPS, we turned around went back to our “gym”, carrying back our sleds and everyone of our boxes through our narrow stairway, out of the building. But not before, Igor, the custom officer, looked at me and said in broken English: “why are you back in Russia? Are you sure you want to be back here?” to which I look at him defiantly with a beautiful grin and responded “Koneshno !” (Of course!)
Out of the building, one by one, our boxes were freed to go! We stashed them as high as we could on the flat bed of a Russian truck and watch the driver vanishing into the dusk, telling us to come and find them on Monday inside the Chukotavia airline hanger.
Our friend Svetlana, waiting patiently through hours of customs saga, put us in the hands of Pavel Yashkin, our new landlord/taxi driver/”agent” to approach local authorities. Pavel welcomed us in his Japanese minivan and took us on to our new apartment, located near the airport, as we wanted to be since we were not planning to be in town for more than 5 nights …
We arrived in the apartment on the 4th floor of a traditional massive soviet building, built on stilts to handle permafrost. Our apartment was very much in form of a kommunalka, a communal apartment where one gets to share the bathroom, kitchen and toilet. Karl and I share a large room for a rate of 500 rubles (20$) per night, per head and had the pleasure to share the first few nights with our first two smokers: Victor and Volodya, two cool gentlemen in their 40’s, stranded in Ugolnye Kopi while waiting for the weather to clear to allow their plane to take off and take them back to Lavrentiya. Karl and I rushed out of the building to go and buy a few staples from the local grocery store which we munched upon our return. We finally fell asleep after a good day, well spent on the plane and at the “gym”.