Whilst in London, preemptively buying tickets, I had repeatedly hit a wall whilst attempting to get from Warsaw to Moscow, thanks entirely to the first half of the journey. Minsk-Moscow? No problem. Tickets booked. But Warsaw-Minsk? Impossible. Most websites seemed reluctant to admit that such a route even existed.
So immediately upon arriving in Poland, we bought our onward tickets to Minsk (from the only woman in the entirety of Warsaw’s central station who spoke English) and on the train discovered that the bloody thing went the whole way to Moscow. Thanks a lot, Bahn.de – the palava meant we had had to buy transit visas through Belarus and accommodation in Minsk and our first train arrived at the spectacularly inhospitable hour of 2:09am.
This, our first Russian train, had to be seen to be believed: shiny surfaces, personal lights, key-cards to open the compartment doors, fresh duvets, even a shower. At just two months old, it was one of the new rolling stock being introduced to Russia’s railways.
I fear we may have peaked too soon.
I hoped that they would properly inspect our Belarusian visas, after the hassle involved in obtaining them, and wasn’t disappointed. The border guards filled our carriage and the one English speaker in the entire team was dispatched to bark orders at us, including the backpacker’s ultimate fear: “Open your rucksack”. Please no, nice Belarusian lady, do you have any idea how long it took me to get that almighty thing to close? Thankfully it took little more than a cursory glance at my Travel Scrabble and colourful collection of pants to discern that I probably wasn’t a major security threat. Still, we had to sit for 90 minutes outside Brest in a huge trainshed before finally moving on, during which time they changed the wheels under the carriages to fit Russia’s larger gauges, but more importantly than that put the loos out of order. Nightmare.
The added complication of whether or not the clocks had gone forward to Moscow time stuck another spanner in the works but we managed to get off at the right stop (challenge number one, which as some long-term followers of my travels will remember as a failing ten years ago (another blogpost for another time!)) and there we were: Minsk.
At that hour, we went straight the hostel; the ground floor of a nondescript apartment block, spacious if bereft of warmth which seemed a national characteristic, and certainly not for lack of trying on the part of the management, who had provided colourful sheets and a single hanging charm on the wall. We were met by the two utterly delightful staff who had stayed awake to greet us and were determined not to retire until absolutely certain that we weren’t the slightest bit peckish. Natliya, the owner, asked if we were thirsty before providing not just mugs of tea but magically refilling plates of bread, cheese, ham, and home-made honey. Her colleague Andre, who originally hailed from the Ukraine, gave us an idea of life in Russia’s satellite states. His engineering degree – a five-year course – didn’t hold the weight of a one-year British equivalent, so it was his aim to boost his employment prospects with such a certificate. He had spent his childhood in the far-eastern Russian tundra, then grown up in Odessa on the shores of the Black Sea, but left when the government began forcing everybody to join the army. His town wasn’t in immediate danger but he had no interest in fighting. So he left his friends and family for a new life in Minsk. Was his adopted city truly the delight he was so keen to suggest, or simply a welcome alternative to his dangerous and insecure home nation? Perhaps we’ll never know, but there’s no question that Belarusian (and Ukrainian) hospitality is second to none.
And Belarus itself. Put simply, it’s more Russian than Russia. Or perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to North Korea. Certainly it reminded me of the less pretty towns in northern China (Datong and Jinan spring to mind): wide empty motorways, commanding posters, looming grey concrete tower blocks, imposing statues, the bright peeling paint of council housing, and government buildings firmly prioritising function over form. The eight-lane highway was equally bereft of cars at lunchtime on Sunday as it had been at 3am. Minsk’s few pedestrians (where was everybody?!) waited patiently for the green man, even when there’d been no vehicles for several minutes.
Arguably the city’s potential charm wasn’t exactly brought out by the weather, which was as chilly and grey as the station facade. We wandered the streets for an hour before our Moscow train departed, looking for a city centre which never quite materialised; or perhaps, more depressingly, that was it. Capitalism hasn’t been embraced nearly so readily as in Poland or China; shops were relatively scarce, and there was but a single cafe (no time to pay it a visit and continue on our hipster theme). We didn’t see any restaurants at all. That is, bar the insidious sight of the golden arches: yes, even in this forgotten corner of Europe, still resolutely clinging to the communist dream, McDonalds retains its incomparable ability to worm its way in. And there, on the corner, for the tourists or perhaps the inevitable western businessmen (unlike every other sign, Cyrillic had given way to English lettering): a casino.
And from Minsk, to Moscow; on a train worlds apart from the previous day’s plush luxury, but undeniably more characterful, even with its brown and beige colour scheme. The fittings were wooden and the corridor carpeted with a lurid floral runner. It was non-smoking but the cigarettes of yesteryear had permeated all the surfaces. I went to get water from the samovar and broke the curtain rod right in front of the provodnik (carriage attendant) who wearily fixed it with either chastisement or sympathy for my ineptness; it’s hard to tell. Peter was booted off his seat on the lower bunk by a lady who wanted to sleep at 2:30pm; from our top-bunk vantage points we could only see the bottoms of the trees but it was enough to know that Belarus is another heavily-forested nation. In the absence of concrete, the rural houses are wooden, with long, deeply slanting, almost Scandinavian eaves; like home-sized sheds.
There’s no way I could hold up Minsk as a holiday destination but I’m grateful for the ticket tribulations which led us to spend an unintended morning in such an unexpected destination. It’s unlike anywhere else I’ve seen in Europe, and worth a stop-off en route to Moscow if for not other reason than to remind ourselves that there’s more to Europe than Paris and London. This continent is more diverse and full of secrets than we may lead ourselves to believe. One needn’t go all the way to Asia for an adventure. (But one is going to go there nonetheless).