Getting to Russia was not as easy as I would have thought, considering that I had U.S. Embassy sponsorship. I started coordinating with the ACIU in December of 1998 while still in Korea. My life took on new meaning and focus and I was determined to do well in my upcoming job. Chief of the ACIU, an Army Lieutenant Colonel Nuclear Artillery Officer, gave me guidance on a good class to take. The weeklong Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty Orientation Course was scheduled for March. I requested from the MARFORK leadership to attend this course and was given permission. In order to make it as complete a trip as possible, I combined an orientation trip to the ACIU in Moscow prior to the START course in Washington D.C.
The planning for this trip started in January 1999. I had an official passport – brown in color, stating that the traveler is on business solely for the U.S. Government, but I needed a visa. I coordinated with Joan, in Moscow, the Major I was to replace and she confirmed that a letter had been sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that the Russian Government was ready to issue my visa.
It seemed fairly simple – go to the Russian Embassy in Seoul and get the visa. The Embassy in Moscow had coordinated, right? There were two Korean Marines in the MARFORK headquarters, so I asked for their assistance. One called the Russian Embassy for me to get the instructions on how to get there, in Hangul, the Korean language. He wrote these instructions for me onto a sheet of paper. Armed with this paper and my official passport, I headed out the gate, in civilian clothes of course, to catch a cab.
It only took about one minute before an empty cab drove by. I waved it down easily. Cab drivers in Seoul, like anywhere else on the planet, are fearless and they also know who has money. A well-dressed American could be counted on for a good fare. I gave the driver the written instructions, since he spoke no English. He looked them over for a few seconds and did some mental calculations, then made an offer for the price of a fare. I counter-offered, on the advice of our Korean Captain. He accepted and so began my first journey to the promised land.
The Russian Embassy in Seoul is located not far from the Olympic stadium. The Olympic complex is probably about ten miles from Yongsan Army Garrison, but traffic in Seoul is world famous. However, I picked an innocuous time in the middle of the day and the trip was quick. As we got close to the vicinity of the Embassy, the cab driver had to stop twice to ask for directions. The Russian Embassy is located on a one-way side street. It is not far from a major intersection, but is difficult to get to. The Embassy shares its building with an unnamed Korean enterprise.
The entrance is a simple door with a small sign. The most prominent identifier that this was correct was the small Russian flag fluttering in the polluted Seoul air. I paid and thanked the cab driver for his extra effort in getting me to the right place.
Of course, the entrance split as soon as I was through the door. One way was protected by high security, a foreboding door, and a simple sign saying Russian employees only. I went the other way – into the visa section.
I have to say that Russia must not have been too popular a destination in the winter of 1999. There was no one there, so I had a captive audience. The male Russian clerk at the counter spoke nearly flawless English so it was easy for me. My Russian language speaking capabilities did not give me confidence, so I was quite pleased that I didn’t have to attempt it.
I turned over my passport and visa application. The clerk took them, looked them over, added them to an inbox, then returned to his stolid pose. I asked a couple questions, which elicited a sigh from him. He looked closer and then told me that it would cost 90,000 Won (about $70). He responded that the visa would be processed and then I would have to return to pick it up. This entire process took about one minute. I told him that I would return shortly with the money.
I headed out into the street, making a bee line for the busy intersection nearby. As I reached the intersection, I realized that this wasn’t a commercial area, but more like a corporate office area. The likelihood that an ATM was in one of these buildings was scarce. I strolled around aimlessly on the Russian Embassy side of the street past a high-end Japanese restaurant and an impressive office building. Neither offered hope. It appeared that there was a bank down a side-street on the other side of the main boulevard. I took the steps down into the underground crosswalk.
Underground crosswalks are very common in Seoul, as are overhead crosswalks. One who has experienced the traffic in Korea, realized that an average pedestrian’s lifespan would not be very long if that pedestrian had to brave the traffic to cross the street. Simply put, the traffic in Seoul is bad and deadly. Republic of Korea drivers know the sides of their vehicle within an inch and can wind their way through the narrowest of spaces. They also are very bold and daring. Inevitably, two bold and daring drivers will attempt to seize the same small opening in traffic at the same time. This happens a thousand times a day in Seoul and if there were a pedestrian in addition to the seemingly erratic, high-speed traffic, the pedestrian would not have a chance.
On a side note, small motorcycles and mopeds are not considered to be motor vehicles. These drive on the sidewalks and use the surface crosswalks to their advantage. So even on the smaller roads where the pedestrian’s only choice is the street-level crosswalk, he/she still isn’t safe…
Since space in Seoul is so precious, some businesses have moved underground. The convenient place to put these in an expanded crosswalk section. There are places in downtown Seoul that have complete shopping malls off the expanded crosswalk. Yes, it is easy to get disoriented while in the underground areas, especially the expanded ones. A shopper could walk for hundreds of yards in a direction that is completely independent from the direction that the streets travel overhead.
Back to the matter at hand. This underground was not very extensive at all, but it did have an ATM, although it was a small standalone. I hoped that it would work. A quick swipe of my card and I was grateful that it offered me the option of English (all of them do, but I never take it for granted). 100,000 Won later, I hurried back to the Russian Embassy.
I doubt any new applicants had come in during the ten minutes or so that I had been gone as the clerk still sat there, seemingly unoccupied. He readily took the money I offered him and handed me a receipt. I had been dismissed, but I still wasn’t sure when I was supposed to come back and pick up my passport, so I asked. He said it would be ready in about three days. Do svidanya.
After a minute in the Embassy, my mission for the day was completed. I walked to the main street, looking for a taxi. This time, it took a few minutes before an empty one came by. I leaned in, told him where I needed to go, which he did not understand. Yongsan Garrison, the U.S. Army base within the city limits of Seoul was not readily understood. It is where the headquarters of U.S. Forces Korea and the Combined Forces Command (the joint U.S./Korean military command). I don’t know what the Koreans call Yongsan Garrison and I was not able to explain it in Hangul at all. So I did the next best thing.
I lived off-base, where each community has its own name. My small basement apartment was about three-hundred yards from gate 4, which was another two hundred yards from my office. This would get me close enough without any hassle.
“Hae Bong Chon,” I said. The driver readily nodded. For one year, I never met a taxi driver who did not know where Hae Bong Chon was without a second glance. As it turned out, the driver drove right by Gate 4, so I used some more of my very useful combat Hangul. “Yogi yo,” which means “right here”. The driver dropped me off and I walked back to my office, thinking that all was on track and that life was good. ‘This is pretty easy,’ I thought. The reality of going to Russia was settling in. My excitement started grow and despite the fact that my fiance was on the other side of the planet, I was happy. Our future together was bright and exotic.