Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Off the Boat and Making Moves

We are making moves to figure out all the problems and are slowly making progress. We went to the American Consulate first thing the next day and after being stripped of all electronics were allowed inside the building. We were first seen by a nice woman who like everyone else chuckled and was very amused at the predicament we have ourselves in with our visas. While at the consulate they are unable to do anything directly in fixing our visa, which cannot happen, she was very helpful in pointing us to a passport and visa business that she believed would be able to help us. While she was working with us another man came out. He turned out to carry the relief that we all needed. Jeff, originally from North Dakota, has worked in the foreign services in Vladivostok for about the past three years. He was also very amused and said that when he laughed he was laughing with us and not at us.

 Anyway, Jeff, who was very excited about our trip continued to help us with the other problems that we have had, and in general provided us with the feeling that if we continue to explore all our options we would find a way to complete the trip as originally planned, though it will cost some more $$. Our current plan is to get an exit visa and get another basic one entry one exit visa in Russia.
From Jeff we got the number of Yuri, who's job title is "Fixer." He makes a living by helping people get their motor vehicles through customs without any problems, and the price isn't that high either. After helping us and giving us numbers to aid our journey, he walked us out of the consulate and continued to walk us down about 5 blocks sharing snippets of his knowledge of Vlad and Russia. Here is a picture of Jeff with Jack and Richard during our walk.
Filled with a sense of resiliency, we took off on our down the streets of Vlad creating mental plans of attack to fix/obtain new visas, get our car through customs without a hitch, buy the remaining essential car parts and gear, and pick up the items we shipped to the Russian post office.

Later that night we met up with Neal again, and he introduced us to some english speaking Russian girls our age. We had a long conversation with our new Russian friends Liza, Natalia, and Vera. We talked about our trip, our educations, food, and Russia. Vera had to leave early but she provided us with a very good car shop to visit in Russia that will have all of the car specific gear we need to get.

After sitting at the cafe for almost 2 hours we went off with Liza and Natalia to see the sights of Vlad by car.  On the front and back windshields of Liza's car are giant exclamation points!! They mean that she is a new driver, and it was definitely one of the more thrilling casual car rides I have ever had. Except at lights there are basically no rules that drivers follow. So every minute or so I felt like we were extremely close to getting in an accident. They took us to a look out point above the city.

There is a lot of construction going in Vlad at the moment including two bridges that are being built. This is all in preparation for APEC in 2012 in Vlad. There is construction and remodeling going on everywhere in the city and the citizens of Vlad are very upset with the current disarray of their city. Liza and Natalia continued to take us around to various museums and memorials. Here is the eternal flame at the World War II memorial.

It was a great night and cool way to see the city. They also said that they would be willing to help us with problems we might have with in getting everything ready to leave on our trip. So between our new friends and Yuri the "Fixer" I feel we have a good shot of getting everything set up and taking off.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Big Problems in Russia

We made our first potentially trip ending mistake.

We arrived in Vladivostok today after what was supposed to be a two day ferry ride (turned three days after a typhoon delayed us). We met a really nice couple on the ferry named Natalia and Silas. They're both graduate students at UCLA. Silas is working on a math PhD and Natalia is studying bio-chem (?). Anyway, they were both really fun and we're glad to have met them and spent most of our ferry trip with them. Silas and Natalia are heading for lake Baikal on the Trans-Siberian railway, then a plane to Moscow, and then a car to Belarus and then to Stonehenge for their friends' Wicken wedding. Natalia is from Moscow so I think they'll have an easier time navigating around Russia than we will.

Here's Silas and Natalia:

Back to our problem. We pulled into the port at 9am and then waited an hour or so for the border guards to let us off the boat. Everything was going great. We happened to be the very last in line and Ezra, Richard, and I each cued in a separate line. All three of us walked up to our respective counters at about the same time. Richard walked out the other side without any issues. Everything seemed to be going great for me too. The woman behind the counter was smiling which was a good sign. Meanwhile Ezra ran into a problem. The immigration agent flipped to Ezra's visa page and then looked up at him, then back at the visa, then up at him again, then called over to another immigration worker. She came over to the desk and looked at the visa, then at Ezra, then started talking quickly with the first immigration agent. Then they called a third immigration agent over. More confusion and frantic Russian. Pretty soon people started filing out of other rooms all to look at Ezra's visa.

Something clearly had been yelled from Ezra's desk to mine because my immigration lady's smile disappeared.  She showed me the picture on my visa and said "you?" I was confused. "Yes." "No, you did this?" Then I realized what was going on. Back in the U.S., when Ezra came to Portland the night before leaving for Tokyo we were showing off our visas. Everyone noticed that there was a red rectangle with writing inside where there would normally be a photo. We didn't know what the writing said so we had a Russian speaking friend translate: "Not valid without photo." This confirmed what we had suspected. The visa company sent us our passports with one extra passport photo and no instructions. We didn't know why they returned one of our photos when they asked specifically for two, but now we understood. We had to paste the photo in ourselves. It was 11pm the night before leaving so we trusted our instincts and glue-sticked our passport photos into our visas. Apparently this was a huge mistake.

When Ezra and I discovered that Richard hadn't done this (while we were on the ferry) we convinced him that it was the right move. Richard found super glue, scissors, and an extra passport photo in his bag and doctored his visa as we had. Again, this was a terrible mistake.

Back to the Russian port. Pretty soon the Russians figure out that Richard must have pasted his own photo too because he was with Ezra and me. His passport was taken away and he was pulled back across the all important red line. The posse around Ezra disappeared into a back office with all of our passports as we watched the heavy medal doors slowly descend from the ceiling to block our entrance to Russia. A travel agent from the DBS Cruise Line (our ferry) found us and stayed to help translate. After about twenty minutes and a few questions from the immigration authorities we had our passports back in our hands with these conditions/warnings:

1. By tampering with our visas we nullified them. They are no longer valid.

2. We can enter and visit Russia but,

3. We cannot exit Russia with our current visas.

4. Once we exit we cannot re-enter Russia with our current visas (which were double-entry visas).

So that's where we're at. Our first priority is to obtain an exit visa. We heading to the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok tomorrow morning to figure out our options for that.  Our second priority is to obtain a re-entry visa, or at least figure out how to do this. If there's no way to re-validate our current double entry visa, then we'll figure out if it's possible for us to get another single entry visa once we're in Mongolia. Worst case scenario we can't drive through Mongolia. Well no, worst case scenario we can't get the car through customs and our trip becomes really short (our car just left Japan bound for Vlad via roll-on roll-off shipping). But that's a whole 'nother issue that we don't have to worry about for a few days.

To finish the story, by the time we got our passports back the immigration office had closed. Some guy who seemed like the boss opened one of the medal doors via remote control and led us through. All the lights were turned off in the building so he led us room by room turning on and off lights as we went. Because everything was closed there was no customs inspection. We walked right past the X-ray machines and medal detectors and emerged out of the basement into the refreshingly cool air of Russia. I think we were all partially relieved because for a little while it looked as though we were going to be deported. But I think the whole event drained us. Coming out of the port we were all depressed and frustrated with our situation. Especially because we put ourselves here.

We found our hostel without much issue and met with our American contact in Vlad, Neal (Stephan's dad! Hey Stephan what up!), with only some minor delays. Neal has been extremely helpful.  Today he helped us get a cell phone and set up a meeting with some local Russians who will bridge the language gap and help us with any problems we have with customs and getting our final list of supplies. The hostel that we're at houses about twenty people and two of them are Australians who ferried with us. They're riding BMW motorcycles to Europe via Mongolia and the -stans. They're expecting to run into problems with their motorcycles and Russian customs like we are with the car. Another problem for another day...

- Jack

Friday, June 24, 2011

Quick post about our quest for spare parts in Japan.  On Monday we took the train about an hour out of central Tokyo to one of the largest Subaru dealerships in the country.  We needed some spare parts for the Forester and were afraid we wouldn't be able to find them in Vladivostok.  On the list were spark plugs, accessory belts, an oil filter, and Forester specific mounts for a roof rack.  

We walked past a 2011 STi on our way to the parts department.  Not very interesting for most people but I'm nerdy and hadn't seen one yet so I snapped a picture on our way past.  

We walked into the showroom and over to the parts department.  Ezra said something in Japanese and after a few people came past the desk to see what the white people were up to we sat down with Taro who spoke a few words of English.  He wore a world rally blue mechanics shirt and looked like what you might expect the Japanese equivalent of a Subaru mechanic in the U.S. would look like.  

We showed Taro pictures of the parts that we needed on my iPhone and he showed us the corresponding pictures on the digital parts catalog.  It took good half an hour but we eventually got the accessory belts and the oil filter. Taro ordered us the spark plugs to pick up on Thursday (which Ezra did).  He was nice and extremely helpful.  Taro printed walking directions to a shop where we could find the roof rack mounts (which Subaru didn't stock).  

On our way out of the dealership we went to the separate STi showroom where Subaru displayed the special RA-R model STi.

 We (read: I) walked around the STi showroom for fifteen minutes or so oogling at the go-fast parts they had on display.

And then it was off to Autobacs (Japanese equivalent of Autozone).  It was pretty easy to find the roof rack mounts and some other odds and ends we needed.  Everyone at Autobacs and Subaru were extraordinarily helpful and kind to three foreigners who walked in to buy parts for a seemingly non-existent car.

- Jack

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Final Days in Japan

Our days are coming to an end in Japan, but we have had so much fun here before we set out on the more rugged part of our journey.  As I had already taken Jack and Richard to my favorite places in Tokyo we set out to explore more of the Japanese cuisine.

First off we had our friend Justin take us to the 2nd best ranked Ramen shop in the whole country. The shop was called Itto and it was super delicious.

Even a half hour before it opened there was line stretching down the side of the street. We were super excited.

The ramen were delicious, the particular dish we got hand three kinds of meat on it, an egg, and super greasy delicious soup at the bottom. They only serve ten of these dishes a day and we were all lucky to enjoy it.

Here is our trusty Ramen guide, Justin, showing us how to chow down the noodles.

The next day we met up with one of my friends from when I went to school here. Her name is Maiko and she took us to an oknomiyaki place. Okonomiyaki is kinda like a japanese pancake but you can put almost anything you want inside them. We ordered four different ones that can be categorized as seafood, vegetable, cheese/fish eggs, and some kind of meat.

Here is Maiko ordering for us.

After explaining to us how to make it, Richard went ahead and dumped the pancake type mix onto the hot surface at the table.

Here was the finished product, it was super good. Thanks for taking us here Maiko!

We had our next meal with my good friend Senco, who just recently got married to my other friend Osho! Congratulations!! Senco took us to a korean bbq place and we had all kinds of meat.

Here is a picture of tongues that we cooked up!

Afterwards we met up with Osho as well and had a couple drinks together. If you look close you can see them showing up their wedding rings.  It was great to see them together. Congrats again, Jinsei hakaba!

It was great to see everyone and thanks so much for taking us out to all the good food. Right now we are packing and up and getting ready to take the ferry from Sakaiminato to Vladivostok. It is a two day journey with a 4-5 hour stop in the small Korean port city called Dong Hae. We booked one of the big rooms in the ship that up 150 people sleep in so we are bound to meet people and have some interesting stories to tell. We had a great time in Japan but we are ready to start the road trip.

- Ezra

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Day 8- Shibuya

We went to hang out in Shibuya last night with friends of Ezra's from Japan.
 Last night we set up our go pro to capture the Shibuya crossing at night.
 I was in the middle of a funny joke when Jack snapped this picture. In the blurry background is the Shibuya crossing.

 The man on the left is Katsuno and the man on the right is Keita. We love these guys, they both currently have a lifetime invitation to stay and hang out with one of us whenever and wherever we are!
 The same goes for Mako, shout out to Robert Florance we missed you!
 The entire group at dinner.
 We snapped some more photos before we left for the night.

 The girls, left to right, Hena, Sara, and Mako

I asked Jack if he was having a good time, his response was hmmmmmm, shrug, what do you think?
Next post will focus more on our adventure to the Subaru dealership and our quest for parts in Japan. That's all for tonight.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Japan - Day 6 - Harajuku

Richard and I didn't see Ezra at all last night.  The two of us got back from Shibuya a little before 1am and Ezra was already asleep.  We had a great night in Shibuya wandering around between restaurants and bars taking in the Tokyo night scene.  We also stopped in at a photo booth called a purikura.  

This is what came out.

We left the apartment at noon today and got gyudon for lunch.  

Gyudon means beef over rice.  Every lunch place that we've eaten at so far has been bar style seating.

After lunch we met Alice outside the train station.  Alice is an Italian student at Waseda University and we asked her to show us around Harajuku.  

The first thing we saw after getting off the train at Harajuku was the Rockabillys.

The Rockabilly's are a group of middle aged men who show up at Yoyogi park (neighboring Harijuku) every Sunday dressed up like 50's rockers and dance all day.  Richard got some video that we'll post soon.

The main entrance to the shopping streets at Harajuku.  Crowded...

Crepes are one of the staples or Harajuku.

Some sort of Japanese punk style...

Ezra and Alice acting cute.

And Richard Swift (known as "Swifty" to his hockey buddies) found his shirt!

Ezra just now realized that Japanese clothes are too small for him.

A t-shirt vending machine!

On the main street in Harajuku.  

After shopping the four of us went to the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park.

Richard wrote out a prayer at the Shrine for safe passage on our trip.

Resting...  It was a long day of walking.  But I'm sure that as soon as we are sitting in a car all day we'll wish that we could walk.

Not very word heavy today.  We're all pretty tired.  Here are a few more pictures from Yoyogi park for your viewing pleasure...

And thanks again for showing us around Alice!

- Jack