5 days - march  2005


Kind of travel: alone in a wholly independent travel

When: 25th- 29th march 2005 (5 days)

How I moved: by train, bus and minibus (marshrutmyy).

Where I slept: in expensive and crappy hotels

What I liked: the colourfull houses spread in the countryside, the safety while travelling and not to be hassled by any policemen despite the amazing amount

What I disliked: as first the food (sorry, but it really sucks), then the ratio quality/cost of the accomodations is the worst I've ever experienced, the sadness due to the worring level of alcholism and the last but not the least that asshole of Lukashenko

How much daily: accomodations are a cost expecially if alone: the cheapest hotels range 20- 45$. Eating at the restaurant 4-12$. Moving around is affordable ( bus Njasvizh- Grodno (250 km), 7$).   Visa 190$ (60$ (invitation, bought in internet)+ 130$ (visa in Warsaw in  7h without the original voucher)). At the end travelling in Belarus turns out quite expensive: 50$/day

Freezing or baking?: weather for me was nice: the snow covered a lot of areas and temp +2C. But the last day I was there it lifted up to 10C.

Dangers: not so many, maybe the main one are the drunks loitering around.

What you do need: a deep curiosity for the past and the present of Belarus and its culture. Don't expect the highlights themselves, the few that there are, could be enough to pay you off


It's several years that I'm curious about Belarus, a country that 15 years ago was the industrial pivot of the whole western URSS and now it's sounds so anonymous. Living in Poland is a good chance to drop by there for a short travel that why now I didn't miss the chance.
From Wroclaw (where I live in Poland) I got to Warsaw where I applied for the visa. The same evening I got on the train for the 10 hours trip to Minsk. The train was a typical russian one: light blu vagons with dusty white curtains and plastic flowers hang along the corridor.
At the border it took two hours but without particolar problems, but then the train stopped more then two hours for somthing that to me was more then a surprise: the change of the wheels for the whole train due to the larger gauge of the russian railway system (read???). On the train I knew two english guys who had a friend in Minsk who let me know another friend of him who invited me home. Obviously I accepted and I spent the morning in this flat in the outskirt of Minsk with his whole family. After so may hours on the train I was so tired and hungry; they prepared me a typical belarusian breakfast and then helped me finding a place where to spent the night.
Finally I went to the hotel of the institute, a crappy expensive place without even any possibility to have a shower (20$). I visited the soviet and serious Minsk, but the situation got quite animated when a protest against Lukashenko rose. There were hundreds and hundreds of militaries disposed along the streets forming a long barrier, while others where pushing away the group of protestants. (read??)
The day after I reached Njasvizh in two hours on a crowded but folcloristic train and half hour packed on supercrowded bus. Frankly the town turned out not so interesting and I regreted not having spent more time in Mir when later I passed by it giving just a quick look.
By bus I got to Grodna (Njasvizh- Grodna  6.5h, 7$) where I spent one full day. Grodna definitely is the cutest city I saw in Belrus, but don't expect nothing special, it's just worth hanging around for a day. Then  in four hours by a superfast minibus I got to Brest, the more westernised town in Belarus, where I even found a pizzeria, that, after having eaten shit for 5 days, was a great joy.
In Brest the WWII memorial is really breathtaking and I would say it's the main highlight I saw in the trip.
The next day I got on the Moscow- Brussel a deluxe train who brought me back in Poland.



It's difficult to give impressions about Belarus. From a certain point of view travelling here it's nice: no hassle with the policemen and it's quite safe, but on the opposite the landscape is monotonous and there're not highlights enough to justify the trip. In addition the food doesn't help, since it really sucks, but what can push you there is the possibility of a off-of-the-beaten-track travel in a country almost under a dictator that today turns out the most isolated in Europe. This situation creates a particular atmospere definitely interesting to be lived.




  2. MAIL (from Brest 24 March 2005) (in Italian)



It was almost evening when at the Warsaw station the train to Minsk arrives. The blue carriages with the white curtains adobed by dusty plastic flowers showed clearly it was a Russian train and the "pravadniza’s" (the responsible of each carriage) quickly got off to check the document of each passenger. The train was clean and calm as usual in the Russian ones, and the hours flew travelling to the border.
After a troubleless passport control finally we entered "the white Russian"; considering there were still many hours left I decided to lie down to sleep.
It hadn’t passed more then a quarter of hour that I almost rolled down my bed (the upper one) having this unpleasant feeling that my carriage was detached by the others being bumped inside a huge garage.
At one point the door got opened and the light turned on. It was "the pravadnitsa" who quite roughly was saying something pointing the worn carpet on the floor. Then she lifted it up showing a kind of manhole closed by a metal plate and left.
I was already cursing thinking about a break down, when I tried to lie down again.
No way! After few minute the door was opened again and the light turned on as well. Now it was a worker, who, quite embarrassed, removed from such manhole a one-meter long pivot. Then he left.
Immediately after I felt we were slowly lifting up and quite puzzled I got off the bed and peeked outside.
Then I got! It was the gauge change of the railway; in fact in all the former URSS the rails are 15 cm wider than in the rest of Europe, hence every train crosses the border, carriage by carriage, must be lifted up and all the lower frame substituted. It takes every time from two to three hours.
In fact finally another worker entered the compartment, stick again the pivot finally letting me sleep. In the morning I woke up while the train was running through the snowed and frozen Belarusian flat landscape; we almost were in Minsk, and it was just the beginning of the travel.


MAIL (sent to my friend 24 March 2005 from Brest)


Marzo 2005, Brest

...forse bisogna proprio cercarla una buona ragione per viaggiare in Bielorussia o forse non serve neppure una buona ragione se non vedere e tentare di capire come una paese grande piu' o meno quanto l'Inghilterra, che fino a 15 anni fa era la capitale industriale della Russia occidentale, ora si inserisca anonimamente in quel puzzle di stati dell'ex URSS.
La sera quando a Warszaw e' arrivato il treno che mi avrebbe portato a Minsk (capitale della Bielorussia), ero sorpreso nel vedere che fosse un treno russo: carrozze azzurre, tendine a pizzo bianche, passatoia rossa lungo il corridoio e fiori finti impolverati.
In 5 o 6 ore si arriva al confine, dove si aspettano le solite due ore in controlli di documenti, visti, dichiarazioni varie di valuta, cellulari, macchine fotografiche, loro domande senza mie risposte... ma poi alla fine si riparte, oramai e' notte fonda e io mi metto a dormire, con ancora quasi 10 ore di viaggio davanti. Non e' passato però molto tempo e la mia carrozza inizia a prendere dei colpi da farmi quasi cadere dalla brandina. Ho avuto quella strana e spiacevole sensazione che il mio vagone fosse staccato dagli altri. Nello stesso momento entra la controllora, rigorosamente Bielorussa, accende la luce, urla ad alta voce non so cosa, sposta i bagagli per terra e alza la consumata passatoia rossa fino a trovare una specie di tombino. E poi se ne va. Nel frattempo guardo fuori dal finestrino e vedo che il vagone, effettivamente separato dagli altri, entra in una specie di enorme officina, con a lato una schiera di operai. E' notte e mi sento un po' intontito. Spengo la luce e mi rimetto a dormire.
Non se ne parla neppure. Entra un frettoloso e congelato operaio che riaccende la luce, alza il tombino e tira fuori un perno d'acciaio da mezzo metro largo una spanna, poi esce. Dopo un minuto ho ancora una spiacevole sensazione: il mio vagone si sta alzando e non di poco. Vedo gli operai fuori scendere in basso... mi vesto, esco dallo scompartimento e vedo un altro vagone sollevato a un metro e mezzo, senza tutta la parte inferiore, ruote mica ruote e ammennicoli vari. Dopo poco con un argano e' trainato un nuovo telaio e riabbassato il vagone.
La riparazione di un guasto??
No, normale routine: in Russia lo scartamento dei binari e' piu' largo e quindi ai treni che attraversano la frontiera cambiano le ruote con tutta la struttura inferiore. Tempo impiegato per tutto il treno: 2 ore. Ritorno a dormire, dopo 2 ore rientra un altro operai, riinfila il pernone, e io mi addormento.
La mattina mi sveglio e il treno corre lungo la pianura innevata. Qui l'inverno non e' finito.
Sul treno conosco un tipo che ha un amico alla stazione che mi presenta a sua volta un amico:
"Chi ti aspetta qui a Minsk?", domandano
"Nessuno", gli rispondo
"Cosa!! sei matto? Ti porto a casa mia"
E infatti mi a portato nel suo appartamento nella triste ma bianca periferia di Minsk. La moglie mi offre la colazione e il figlio di 11 anni timidissimo non osa dire una parola. Lui e' un professore, insegna ai cechi, mi accompagna all' accademia e poi all'università'. Vuole che rimanga a dormire a casa sua, ma ovviamente non se ne parla neppure. Alla fine mi trova un posto in una pensioncina dove ospitano i visitatori dell'istituto in cui lavora.
Minsk, come un po' tutta la bielorussia e' una stato di polizia sotto la dittatura di un infame di nome Lucashenko che nel 96 si e' dato tutti i poteri togliendoli al parlamento con un referendum fittizio, che neppure che la comunità europea ha riconosciuto. Ha cambiato la bandiera, la festa nazionale e ha imposto il russo come lingua ufficiale (solo il 10% delle scuole insegna in Bielorusso). Ora qui di liberta' c'e' ne e' poca. Sventolare la bandiera, anzi la ex bandiera nazionale e' reato! Ma alla gente questo non piace e nella capitale si vive un po' di tensione.
In centro c'era una manifestazione, anzi direi una mezza rivolta e la cosa piu' incredibile e' che le centinaia di militari non erano schierati tanto contro i manifestanti, ma erano allineati lungo il perimetro delle strada, spalla contro spalla a formare un muro, per evitare che i passanti si unissero. Tutta la gente era ferma come a sostenere i manifestanti con lo sguardo o urlando "Bielorussia libera" mentre la polizia li caricava. Ho trovato un ragazzo che parlava inglese:
"Entrare nella comunità europea, questo e' quello che veramente vogliamo, fortunati vuoi in Italia...." se sapesse quanto poca consapevolezza c'e' di questa fortuna da noi, smetterebbe di invidiarci.
Ho viaggiato da Minsk verso il confine polacco nella campagna Bielorussa: con tutte le sue casettine di legno colorate che riescono a risultare quasi caratteristiche. Non facile trovare da dormire, sporadici i mezzi pubblici, poco succulento il mangiare. Stranieri ben pochi e viaggiatori ancora meno, ma la Bielorussia ha voglia di cambiare,e in questo e' molto differente dalla ex mamma russa; lo si vede nella gente, ma un po' meno nel governo.


Travel tips



  3. CASH


BELARUSIAN VISA IN WARSAW: I got invitation from the website: www.visatorussia.com (60$). Then you must applied at a belarusian embassy. The embassy of Belarus in Warsaw is in ulitca Wiertnicza 38 (in the very outskirt. take bus nr 180 from the center). Do not go to ulitca Atenska because it's the old address.
The 1 month visa issued in 5 days costs 40$, issued in one day 80$ (you applied from 9.30 am to 11.00 am and get it ready from 15.00 to 16.00 of the same day). Take into account that if you don't have the original voucher, as it was in my case, instead of 80$ will be 130$.At the time of writing (03/2005) no insurance was mandatory for 1 month visa

STUDY SOME RUSSIAN: Russian is by far the most common language in Belarus, even more than belarusian itself. Travelling without any knowledge about the Cyrillic alphabet will not make your travel impossible, but for sure harder.

CASH: dollars are more accepted than euros, but the latter are anyway commonly changed.

PHOTOCOPY OF THE PASSPORT: have with you a photocopy of your passport and in case being stopped for a check while in the towns, show it claiming the original has been kept by the hotel.