Wednesday, 10 May 2017

24 hours in Belarus

In December, 2015 I embarked on a month long Interrail trip from London to Vilnius, Lithuania overland, that would take me through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Hungary, Romania, Republic of Moldova, Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, Ukraine and Belarus, before flying to from Vilnius to Glasgow, Scotland and onto Belfast, Dublin, and Rosslare, Ireland. Where I then returned to London via Cardiff, Wales to complete a grand circle of Europe. All of this was done by rail, road and sea travel with the exception of the flight from Lithuania to Scotland. What began as a reply to a colleagues question about transit rail travel through the Republic of Belarus posted on and another thread has led to me starting this blog to share my experiences of traveling around our continent. I plan to share some more about this trip and other travels as time progresses but to start off, I will share my experience of one day in the Belarussian capital of Minsk on December 21, 2015.
I made it through Belarus on a transit visa From Kiev to Vilnius with a day to explore Minsk and all I can say is.. It was an experience..!

After a day touring around the Ukrainian capital, I headed back to Kiev Pass to pick up my backpack and went to board train D 86KJ to Minsk Pass. I found the train under a very heavy security control where passports, visa's and travel documentation where being checked and checked again by armed Ukrainian soldiers! The area all around Kiev Pass station was filled with people in uniform everywhere, with lots of soldiers heading off to the conflict in the Donbas..

Kiev Metro..
I was very surprised by the amount of security just for a train to Belarus though, to avoid any problem I did not take any pictures of this train.. But this was only a taste of what was to come at the Belarussian border itself at Homel! As this train was my first taste of "plastkartny" open plan berths that was an interesting experience for me in itself, I can only describe the atmosphere on-board as very "Soviet"! No English (or any other western European languages at all for that matter) where spoken by either the crew or the other pax so I attracted quite a lot of attention with my limited broken Russian. Shortly before departure time I seen a young woman being frog marched from the train by some soldiers and security people..! I do wonder what her crime was..?

After we set off, I went for a wonder through the train to find that sadly there was no resto or bar wagen but the Provodnitsa's supplied some very nice tea and snacks. The train itself was an ancient relic of the CCCP days, the old blue wagens had the samovar at the end of the cars for hot water. After some sleep, I was awoken by the Belarussian lady and her two teenage daughters -(who had been blasting 90’s dance music on their phones for the first couple of hours out of Kiev!) sat opposite me by being shaken and screamed at in Russian! As I slowly regained consciousness, I realised they were telling me we were at the border station of Homel and it was time for the games to begin!
The Ukrainian exit check had been conducted amongst the heavy security control back in Kiev so all that awaited at Homel was the Belarussian entry check. I had been told all sorts of stories before adventuring into this part of the "wild east" about border guards trying to ask for a "little present" aka bribes, so had hidden most of my valuables and hard currency in well concealed places for this border crossing. Having just came from the PMR -(Pridnestovian Moldavian Republic, -another story for another post) and crossed its de facto border with the rump Moldova and then onto Ukraine a couple of days before without problem, I was by now well used to this routine.

After waiting some time, the border troops finally got to me. The one "westerner" on-board was sat right at the very end of the train in the last wagen! The fun began with my passport, "Sergey" was not overly happy with my "Scottish Passport"! -(yes, I'm Scottish and fiercely nationalistic!), so much so that some of us don't like the UK passport that is imposed on us very much and have made some "minor alterations" to it! -(those of you reading in Deutschland, think back to 1989 and the DDR Bürger's and their "defaced" Reisepasse!!), I usually have no issues with this the vast majority of the time on my many and varied travels, even here with our own UKBA..  But the Belarussians did not seem to like it one bit, even if the UK coat of arms is covered with a blue and white saltire cross of Saint Andrew wallet! I still don't know how we got past this "issue" in the end with my limited Russkii and their non-existent Anglistskii but somehow we did and "Sergey" calmed down a bit when I turned to the page with the visa stamped in it and then it was on with the customs examination.. Now this is where the real fun began...
Everything, and I mean everything was opened, taken apart and searched thoroughly. Another team of officers (with dogs!) entered the train and more or less started taking the wagen apart and searched everyone's luggage. It was like nothing I had experienced before at any border crossing. I immediately thought of Martin Sheen's character, Alexander Holbeck escaping the DDR by train in the 1982 Cold War thriller, Enigma!

It is crazy to think that stuff like this still goes on at European borders in 2015 and as well as the fact that all of this was one country until a little more than 20 years ago, but I guess with what is going on in the east of Ukraine right now amongst various other issues they are taking no chances at their borders. The whole stop at Homel lasted for about one hour and I finally got the entry stamp in the page with the visa stamped in my passport -(after all I had read and heard about how the Belarussians can refuse a transit visa with no reason given, for me this stamp in my passport was a sort of trophy).
With border formalities finally completed the train rolled on into Belarus and I somehow managed to get myself back to sleep. I later regained consciousness a few hours later in the same way as before with the shaking and shouting from the Belarussian family sat in the bay opposite.. We were on our way in through the Minsk suburbs and would soon reach our terminus of Minsk-Passajirskii, a huge, busy international station it is too. I thanked them and our two Provodnitsa's before heading off in search of the showers, only to find that there were none! After depositing my backpack in the left luggage I went off to get some Rubles and explore the city.
I spent the day wondering around the city and seen the huge renovation works under way at the Dynamo Stadium. I visited Trinity Suburb and the Island of Tears across the river, Independence Square, statue of Lenin (where I managed get interrogated by a friendly KGB man!), and the Supreme Soviet building and government quarter. I had a look around the Church of Saints Simon and Helena, otherwise known as the little Red Church on the square, which is a stunning building and well worth taking the time to visit if you find yourself in Minsk. Fans of Stalinist architecture will be in heaven in the city as it is just full of it, as they say that Belarus is the country that forgot that the USSR is no-more you certainly do get a feel of this wondering around its capital, red stars, hammers and sickles and statues of Lenin are plentiful as well as huge banners and billboards with phrases of: "glory to our republic" etc. It has to be said though that all of this is a rather strange in contrast alongside McDonalds, Starbucks and other western brands and advertising, which reminds you again that you are still in the 21st centaury and not in some open air soviet museum of a city like Tiraspol.
Of course a must see was KGB HQ! I was a bit apprehensive about trying to photograph this building after my previous encounter at the square but I was getting used to the various games with the authorities in the east by this point so undeterred I did go and have a look and got some pictures as well without further incident.
Church of Saints Simon and Helena.. 
After a coffee, It was time for yet another encounter with the law.. This time I got to meet OMON, the not so friendly riot police! These two guys seemed to be stopping people at random in the street asking for ID and must have thought they had struck gold when they found me with my "non-standard" passport! I was convinced I was going to be asked for a bribe but no.. Without much explanation I was led off to their barracks, a short walk away by the railway station where I got screamed at in Russian again for a few minutes by another officer before being taken into another room where I met an officer who spoke a little English and explained that I was not under arrest and they were doing random ID checks and just wanted to check that I was bona-fide and everything was legit when they seen my foreign passport and visa. After a few basic questions about my travel plans, what I was doing in the country etc and a thorough examination of my passport and search of my person, they thanked me for my cooperation and I was soon back out on the street where I seen the same two OMON guys questioning a group of young Asian looking lads. It was then that I realised that my printed out flight boarding pass for the plane the next day from Vilnius to Glasgow was missing from my jacket pocket... I tried in my bad Russian to explain to them what had happened but they were not interested and kept shouting "Nyet!" and "Dasvidaniya" etc. Eventually, we all went back to the barracks and with some persuading and begging, I somehow managed to see the English speaking officer again and explained everything to her and after about twenty minutes of waiting in the same room as before, got my boarding pass back and even an apology!
On my way back out I seen the Asian boys were experiencing the same Belarussian hospitality I had from the older aggressive officer, they spoke very little English and as far as I noticed no Russian so were clearly going to have some fun, I did not attempt to get involved as it would likely not end well for any of us...
Tovarish Lenin..
After this latest encounter, I felt like eating and drinking something and thought I’d see just how far my money would go in this country when it came to food and drink..
I headed to the station buffet which is hidden in the maze of tunnels under the station, it is not well highlighted at all and you would really need to know exactly where it is to find it, but it was well worth the hunt in the end.
Main meals were extremely cheap, I forget exactly how much as it was before the currency changed to the new Ruble last year but to give a rough idea, the equivalent of a few euro for a nice potato (the Belarussians just love their potatoes!) based dish  with beef. I tried various different small (again potato based!) snacks, “Draniki” which was rather tasty! As well as some dumplings and pancakes, all of which were delicious and cost very little. To wash it down I sampled quite a few shots of various different Belarussian vodka’s , the lady behind the bar was very keen for me to try all the local varieties rather than the familiar Russian stuff.

New Year Tree..
As much as I would have liked to stay longer and try them all I had yet another train to catch –(the last of the night on to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius), and If I had anymore to eat or drink it would prove to be a challenge beyond me! Plus, I would have to be on my best behaviour for my next encounter with the border troops on the exit check!! After leaving it to the very last minute, I wished the guys and girls in the buffet ”spaciba, dasvidanya” and with that the madness began as I ran through the maze of tunnels back to the left luggage locker for my backpack, before almost getting lost. Eventually, I realised that I was heading in the complete opposite direction of the departure platform when I heard the announcement over the stations PA state: ’’International express train number 827, (Minsk-Vilnius) will leave in five minutes from line 24”. I then about turned and ran as fast as I could with a heavy backpack on my back, back through the maze of corridors and up to the platform just in time to seen the doors slam closed, too late! ’’NYET!!’’. Luckily, the conductor had spotted me and released the doors again for me to get on and I collapsed into an empty seat with exhaustion and was soon fast asleep!
Independence Square, Minsk..
This train was a modern Lithuanian multiple unit which consisted of only two or three cars, a far cry from the previous evenings experience on the Belarussian night train from Kiev. We must have been about one hour out of Minsk when I awoke to find the Lithuanian conductor sitting next to me, I thanked her for saving me from being stranded in Belarus and potentially overstaying my visa. After checking my tickets and passport, she informed me that we would soon be approaching the frontier, now I had heard that this border crossing would be one of the most interesting of the trip as it was now the outer border of the EU and the border between the EU and the CIS customs unions, so checks would be very stringent or so I had thought..
If memory serves, the Belarussian border troops boarded the train at the station of Molodechno to conduct customs and passport exit checks and got off at, Gudogai, the last stop in Belarus some kilometres from the actual Border. Interestingly, the border troops showed little interest this time as we were leaving the country, they seem only to be interested in who is coming in for obvious reasons. This control was a lot easier and consisted of a look at my passport / visa and a quick look in my rucksack, with that I received the exit stamp and it was handed back to me with a ”Spaciba” and they moved onto the next passenger. So I had successfully made it in and out of Belarus, traveling across the country South-North from Ukraine to Lithuania on a transit visa with a day to explore its capital, despite what others had told me. I did feel a sigh of relieve and was quite pleased that I had managed to negotiate it without (too much!) incident.

The Lithuanian Entry checks are done on arrival at a special isolated ’’transit platform” which is surrounded by electric fencing and only accessible through a control checkpoint. There is also a duty-free shop on this platform selling cheap cigarettes and alcohol to passengers bound for Russia and Belarus. This is where the Russian Transit Trains to/from the Kaliningrad Oblast arrive and depart from as well as the Minsk- Vilnius International Expresses. Those of you in Deutschland may again think back to the days of die Interzonenzug aus der DDR! Upon arrival, we were soon herded into a small holding area before the actual checkpoint until we were called forward when the Lithuanian border guards were ready to process us. After some waiting it was soon my turn to present my passport at the checkpoint booth and after a few minutes it was handed back to me and I was free to walk on through the tunnel and re-enter the EU and take my first steps on Lithuanian and Baltic soil, but that is for another post!
Journey's end.. Vilnius...

Belarus is a fascinating country with a very interesting history, indeed it was out of sheer curiosity that I had the desire to visit this secretive state that I had heard so much negative press about in the west. How it was ”Europe’s last dictatorship”, the cult of personality that surrounded its ”President for life”, Aleksandr Grigoryevich Lukashenko, corruption and KGB etc. I guessed that the only way to know was to go there and see it for myself, so I did. Sadly time just did not permit in the end or I would have gladly got the maximum time out of my 48 hour transit visa for a bargain of GPB15.00 at the time. It has since risen to EUR60.00 , the embassy in London now only accepts Euro as payment for visa’s, whether this is down to ”brexit”, the devaluation of the pound or if it was just to piss off the UK government as more tit for tat antics in retaliation to the latest anti-Russian sentiment that comes out of Westminster these days, who knows? In a strange turn of events in February of this year Minsk decided it would allow EU citizens five days visa-free entry on the conditions that they fly in through the Minsk National Airport, perhaps they really do want to boost western tourism with this condition that they must enter and leave the country by air in hope that they will fly Belavia, the state owned national airline? Mother Russia itself remains on my to-do list of countries but due to the aforementioned issues, getting a visa is not quite straightforward so on this occasion I settled for second best place where Russian culture and influence is felt everywhere, Byelorussia or Little Russia as its historic name suggests. My short time in Belarus did open my eyes to the fact that all was not what it seemed though, there is only so much that you can put down to the BBC / western propaganda that is designed to portray the Republic in negative light. Yes, the border regime is very strict and it’s clear the regime likes to show its force, but is it really any different to the UK border regime that we now have in Calais which I can now only describe as one of the most militarized in Europe? Yes, the border guards were very heavy-handed with me at Homel but a couple of days later when I arrived at Glasgow Airport I had a less than pleasant encounter with UKBA and Police Scotland when they seen the Moldovan, Ukrainian and Belarussian stamps / visa in my passport! Yes, I was stopped on the street and interrogated by the dreaded OMON in Minsk and witnessed the same happen to a group of young men of Asian appearance, but to be honest I have seen the same sort of racial profiling and worse at the hands of the Met in London. On Independence Square there was certain things that I could and could not take pictures of, but this is really not so different from in London and typical of UK where we have the same sort of things going on and worse, with contracted out private employees telling us what, where, when and who we can and can’t take pictures of despite being the most watched population in the world with the CCTV camera to citizen ratio…
Would I come back? In a shot! It’s just finding the time to make such a long trip overland again but I will definitely be back to this unique country, hopefully by rail again or I may even take up their new visa-free five day offer and fly in for a few days to take in a bit more of Minsk or even take the train on to Brest.
To sum up, Belarus may not be on your average Interrailer’s to do list and certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you like to head off the beaten track and go where the tourists don’t and get a unique experience of ’’old Europe’’ then your certainly looking in the right direction. If you want everything spoon fed to you and everyone to speak English then stay in the west and go to Paris!

Is the Republic of Belarus really the way it is portrayed to be by the western media? Is this Europe’s last dictatorship? Are the potatoes the best in the world? Do they make the best vodka?? If your just itching to know the answers to any of these questions and more then the only way to know for sure is get yourself on the next train for a Soviet adventure of your own and see for yourself! If my experience is anything to go by, I’m sure it won’t be anything less!!