Complex routine of a recce to Russian exclave

Kaliningrad Letter: Eight-day e-visa to an oblast does little to make your trip easy

In July Russia introduced a special e-visa for tourists to visit Kaliningrad Oblast. The new visa theoretically makes a trip to the once hermetically sealed exclave as easy as a hop, skip or jump over its border with Poland or Lithuania. Being on an autumn holiday in the Baltic states, I thought I'd take a look.

First, you must apply for the e-visa four days before you plan to enter Kaliningrad. This involves completing a simple, six-page online form which needs to include the address you intend to stay at, your employment details and a recent photograph – in my case, a selfie taken in a Riga cafe bathroom where the walls matched the neutral shade stipulated in the visa criteria.

That done, you wait a number of days to hear if your application is successful. When you get the okay, you’re good to go. Although it is an eight-day visa, that “does not imply that one can stay for the entire 192 hours”. Your time already started at midnight the day you cross the border.

My crossing point was on the Curonian Spit, a 98km filament of land shared roughly half-and-half between Lithuania and Kaliningrad, whose coasts it runs down. The main road threads through a protected woodland of birch, pine and lime. There is much to admire here, which is just as well because the EU-Russia land border is what Brexit negotiators might describe as “hard”. There will be a wait.


First barrier

At 8.30 on a bright Monday morning, the bus from Klaipeda (EU) to Kaliningrad (RUS) stops at the Lithuanian border point. A guard hops on, collects everyone’s passports and takes them into the adjoining building. Waiting passengers use the bathroom, have a smoke, stand around. Half an hour later, the officer returns and hands the passports back.

The bus then continues 200m to the first Russian barrier. Here a guard steps on, glances at our passports and radios something to a colleague.

The bus drives a bit farther, stops and everyone gets off. The passengers take their belongings and remove their bags from the luggage compartment. Among the belongings is someone’s Scottish fold cat who looked bored long before this process started. We bring our bags into passport control and queue to present our papers to an immigration official.

That done, stamp received, it’s time to put the luggage through the customs X-ray. This process is delayed slightly by a dispute between an official and a passenger over a bag of apples.

Once this is taken care of, everyone files outside where we put our luggage and ourselves – cat and all – back on the bus. At 9.36am the driver hands over one last piece of paperwork and (after a quick military checkpoint) we’re on our way.

The whole journey from Klaipeda to Kaliningrad, the distance from Dublin to Athlone, takes about five hours. (Although you do gain an hour when you cross the Russian border, which doesn’t happen when you cross the Shannon.)

Bus vs train

The first thing to do when you reach Kaliningrad is figure out how you're going to get out of it. My next stop was Vilnius, so I thought a train to the Lithuanian capital after my stay in "little Russia" would do the trick. Luckily, the train station in Kaliningrad is right beside the bus station. After a quick security check you're in the ticket hall where, to purchase a train ticket, you must first collect a number and wait to be called.

One hour later it’s my turn. I tell the ticket agent where I want to go and hand over my passport. Everything’s going fine until she realises I have entered Russia on an e-visa. “Oh no,” she says, and calls over a colleague with better English who points to a little car symbol on my entry stamp and explains: “On e-visa no train – only bus.” Luckily, the bus station is right beside the train station. A short while later, ticket secured and a 7½-hour bus journey to Vilnius to look forward to, you’re ready to explore Kaliningrad.

And Kaliningrad – an isolated, former Prussian stronghold, founded by Teutonic Knights in the 13th century and taken over and Russianised by the Soviets in 1945 – is well worth a visit. Its unique history means visitors can walk along linden-lined streets, admiring the remnants of old German architecture nestling among Soviet concrete. It may not be beautiful but it is interesting.

At my hostel I ask the receptionist whether many foreign tourists visit the city. “A lot,” she says, nodding enthusiastically. And after they introduced the e-visa? “There was a flow from all over.”

And why wouldn’t there be? Sure it couldn’t be easier.