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.
This involves completing a simple, six-page online form which ne 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.
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.
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.
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.
36am the driver hands over one last piece of paperwork and (after a quick military checkpoint) we’re on our way.
Bus vs train
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.
“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.
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.