I have had to postpone my trip to Nizhnekamsk, for a reason which is most typically Russian. Apparently, Nizhnekamsk is a closed city, although I had no difficulty getting in or out or wandering around when I was there four years ago. This means that there is a law requiring any foreigner staying at a hotel in the city to have an invitation letter from the company they will be visiting, or so our travel agent in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk told us. So I told them not to assume I am there on business, that I am on vacation. After much whirring of tiny brains, our travel agent made some enquiries. Apparently, they will know I am not on vacation because I have a work visa. Well yes, I said. That’s because I live and work in Sakhalin. But can I not go on vacation to Nizhnekamsk? Of course, our travel agent here could not find enough initiative amongst the whole lot of them to find this out of their own accord, it took several phone calles back and forth before they said that it is illegal for anyone on a work visa to stay in a hotel in Nizhnekamsk without an invitation letter from a company. If I was on a tourist or business visa, apparently it would be okay.
Personally, I think our travel agent here is telling porkies in order to avoid doing any work or thinking. They love the easy stuff like flogging tickets from Sakhalin to Moscow, but ask them to help you with anything slightly complicated and you get the usual and repetitive “not possible” response familiar to anyone who’s been in Russia more than five minutes. The company I am visiting has for some reason struggled to get me this letter, but the travel girl there said she’d spoken to the hotel and said it would be okay if I said I was on vacation. But I seem to remember me not being allowed to stay in a hotel last time I was there (on a business visa), so I don’t know what to believe. I’d guess it would be okay if I just turned up, but we would be getting there at half past midnight, and if I couldn’t get a room I would be in the shit. Nizhnekamsk might have undergone some improvements in recent years, but it’s not a place I’d want to sleep rough. And arriving at that time means I wouldn’t even be able to get myself an apartment to stay in like I did last time, so I’m pulling the plug on the whole trip until I can get a proper invitation and a hotel booking.
The thing which baffles me the most is why Nizhnekamsk would be a closed city. The travel agent, almost certainly talking nonsense, said it was because of military installations nearby, but Nizhnekamsk is hardly in a strategic location and Sakhalin, which is one giant military base in a genuinely strategic location, has no such restrictions. They have a huge chemical plant there, but the one in Angarsk was three times the size and that didn’t stop foreigners checking into hotels there because of it. The only thing I can think of is that they have an enormous factory there making poor quality tyres for distribution and use across the entire country, and the FSB are concerned that a sneaky foreigner might run off with a Kamaz tyre or two and sell the technology to one of Russia’s many enemies.
What a shambles.