After a leisurely morning in Listvyanka, a chance perusal of our passports by Josi at 5pm revealed an alarming discovery. We had been diligent about planning our entry dates into each country based on the start dates of our visas, although a technicality was to catch us out with our departure. Our Russian visas had been issued for only 28 days instead of the usual 30 (due to the short February month), and our visa expiry was now 7 hours away! The countdown until we became fugitives had begun…
A quick Google search of the consequences of overstaying our visas gave us no encouragement, listing heavy fines, indefinite detention, relocation to Moscow for exit visa processing and/or imprisonment all listed as possible outcomes. Ten minutes later we were in a taxi, heading for Irkutsk Airport, with no idea whether any flights were leaving that day or where they would be going. But nonetheless hopeful to somehow jump the border from there.
Oddly, the domestic terminal at Irkutsk is an impressive shiny building with an array of shops, whereas the international terminal is in a small annexe in need of TLC. The two battered propeller planes panting exhaustedly on the runway did nothing to inspire confidence, looking like two stray dogs that had just been interrupted from their scrapping. But miraculously the ticket office was open, although unhelpfully staffed by a woman who spoke no English and made no effort to understand our smattering of Russian.
Looking at the departure board, the only flight this side of midnight was to Magadan – a remote Siberian outpost 1,500 miles deeper into what was rapidly becoming enemy territory. The flight we really wanted was to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, but that wasn't leaving until 10pm the next day by which point the prospect of making small talk in Vladivostok prison would be looming all too imminent.
A quick call to the UK Consul confirmed that we should make every effort to get our exit stamp before midnight. Our best bet was a flight to Beijing, due to depart at 2am, with check-in opening at 11.15pm. And so, at 11.20pm we were stamped out of Russia and allowed into the departures lounge, awaiting the arrival of what turned out to be an impressive modern airbus. That concluded a second consecutive day of anxiety (See Lake Baikal post).
Beijing airport is a masterpiece of engineering, and vast. Built for the Olympics in 2008, it is the face of modern China, but even the immigration officer admitted that she thought it was too big. It is also an interesting juxtaposition of modern architecture and traditional habits – we noticed how the immaculately polished floor doubled as a receptacle for the copious and vigorous spitting of some of the older passengers. Had we known before leaving Irkutsk about Beijing’s generous 72 hour visa-free transit scheme, we would have tried to arrive with the requisite onward flights already booked. But in the absence of those, we unfortunately had no other choice but to use the Chinese Visa’s we had previously obtained in the UK.
5 hours later we were back in the air, on-board a Mongolian Airline flight to Ulaanbaatar, sadly with our precious single entry Chinese visa’s now stamped and null & void. We felt simultaneously annoyed at the oversight, but relieved at the outcome.