It turns out it’s not so hard to get into Belarus, Europe’s alleged last dictatorship – but if you want an experience, rather than the standard ease of the airport, you’ll need to be prepared for a little extra effort.
Over the holidays, my partner and I traveled from Chisinau, Moldova by train to Minsk, Belarus. We left on Christmas, at 10:14 pm, and would arrive in Minsk at 11:30 pm the next day.
The wheels on that train slandered the tracks, tossing staccato insults: “Too rough, unstable, rusted, unreliable.” They ignored their own precarious skid, took no accountability for their work. The ugly but necessary partnership was a painful love affair: wandering wheels rogue, abusing semi-stable tracks for a common goal. Both, it seemed, suffered from age and over-use.
Long before the creaking train startled us in and out of sleep (granted, she complained mostly in Moldova – once we passed into Ukraine, hers was a softer conversation), we had to prepare for our travels. It’s a long process, and beyond perseverance, you’ll need about two months to prepare for your trip.
It’s possible these days to travel to Belarus without a visa, but for 5 days at most, and only through the airport. If you’re going to cross a border, whether by bus or by train, you (that is, most foreign travelers – there are exceptions, largely from CIS countries) will need a visa. The steps aren’t too difficult.
First, find a place to stay! You will need this reserved to get your visa.
As an American, I paid 60 Euros for a 5-day (short-term tourist) visa. If I had decided to stay any longer, the price would have jumped to 120 Euros. If I somehow ended up staying more than 5 days, I would have had to register with the local government office of the Citizenship and Migration Department of the Ministry of the Interior. It was the same for my French partner.
I went to the Belarus Embassy in Chisinau, which had little security and only one staff woman up front. The place was empty when I arrived at around 11:00. I brought my passport, proof of insurance, two passport-style photographs, and evidence that I had already reserved a place to stay (I printed our Airbnb confirmation, but you could get an invitation from a host or a hotel as well). I filled out a few forms for the application, and returned a week later to pick up my passport.
How to get train tickets from Chisinau to Minsk:
Getting the train tickets was a higher hurdle, and for out-of-country travel other than Romania, can only be purchased at the Chisinau train station (there’s no ease of online purchasing for this part, unfortunately). These tickets only become available at the beginning of every month.
So I went to the station, located at 1 Aleea Garii, one morning at the beginning of December to purchase the tickets. Though there was a small printed sign in English at the ticket office window, the cashiers spoke just Russian and Romanian – I slurred through about 15 minutes of a tough conversation. If you want this train, you’ll need to know a local language, or bring along someone who can translate for you.
It’s about 1000 lei (50 dollars) for one ticket, which will land you a spot in a very open, very shared car. When I was reserving our places, the cashiers advised me to take both beds on the bunk (better to have your partner’s legs swaying over your head than a stranger’s), and mentioned that there would be no doors for the sleeping areas. Fine for us.
I didn’t know you could order a closed room until we approached the train the night of departure. The attendant checking tickets as we boarded sized me up as she took my passport: “A foreigner! You speak Russian! You don’t want a closed car? Do you have money??” The crushed look on my face must have tipped her off. “The cashier didn’t tell me,” I responded. “She said there were no doors, no options, but… Where should I go?” The attendant had already dismissed me. “You can go to the cashier, they can sell them to you…” I grimaced. “How much will they cost?” She laughed, and shooed us on board.
Tips for the train trip:
It’s always a good idea to bring sandwich materials on a long trip. An older gentleman who waited as I was buying my tickets advised me that the restaurant car doesn’t have a great selection, and that people usually bring their own food for long travel (we saw a man eating холодец, or aspic, out of a Tupperware…).
But it’s an even better idea to bring wine! Passengers can carry up to two liters each. My partner and I drank Comrat wine from Вино Комрата (one of the local wine stores in my Moldovan hometown) after passing the Belarus border. We considered this a fine victory for two scruffy, tired and still somewhat uncertain travelers.
…this track is rough. I won’t soften the situation – depending on your travel preferences, this route may be a hassle. For the avid explorer, though, these cons could be twisted to prose:
Proximity to others. You will have no privacy. It was incredible, in that open space, how words could get lost in the machine’s groans, but we could hear a chortle from a few cabins down.
People may sleep across from you, above you, at the foot of your sling-down bed. They will get antsy, and crash the breezy marriage between passenger cars to smoke their cigarettes (though it is supposedly forbidden). If you’re close to the toilet, which also means next to the vestibule, you’ll have a higher percentage of fellow guests passing.
I lay with few centimeters of weak slats separating me from the neighboring “room,” but it was enough to pretend privacy.
Terrible coffee. Awful. Powdered caffeine with powdered milk. But you can find it at the front of every cabin – no need to run to the restaurant car, which (my partner told me) sold soup late, mainly soup.
The Bathrooms. Your shit flits straight down to the tracks. The company presumably doesn’t want you stinking up the stations stops, so the porters lock all bathrooms when the train stops. Any session in the shitter will be bumpy and breezy, though this may help shake things free…
Border crossings. The train stops at every border, customs guards board the train and rummage through all of everyone’s belongings. But how intrigued the customs guards were with us foreigners! Apparently, Belarus gets few tourists – 137,000 in 2013 and 137,400 in 2014, most of them from CIS countries.
Our guard let down his guard after a few stilted minutes of fluffing his code-book to ensure our passports’ legitimacy. “An American and a Frenchman! We don’t get so many foreigners like you…” My partner and I agreed that, with his baby face and the tremor in his hand, he was likely a new recruit. A nervous crack in a strict veneer? But he was polite, and smiled warmly when he left. He passed with no assault of authority, like we experienced from a few of the Ukrainian border guards.
Back to proximity – there may be friendships for the social. One of the things that I find so beautiful about this type of travel is the possibility of the subtle, perhaps silent, friendships you can form.
My partner and I sat across from an older gentleman and his son, and – though stiff at first – we warmed up to each other. I adored the tenor of the old man’s voice, so when the Belarus customs officers came round with entrance documentation for us foreigners to fill out, I snuck a peek at our grandfather and then asked him to explain part of the form to me. Ostensibly for help, my request was only an excuse excuse to hear his deep trill.
Later, after my partner had opened his beer, the two men poured their own into used teacups as I poured my wine. We drank at once, never catching eyes but in camaraderie. I even snagged a smile from the son – previously a little cold, unlike his father – when he plugged his phone into the train’s outlet on my side of the “cabin.”
If you take this train, there will be a split (Minsk one way, St. Petersburg the other) a few hours before your final destination. My partner and I decided that we would explore the restaurant car together at about 6 pm on our second day. Two lady train porters stopped us, not a little aggressively, at the entrance to the private sleeper car. The more vociferous of the two demanded to know what we thought we were doing and where we thought we were going, told us the restaurant was then closed, mentioning something the train going two ways (I didn’t get the full exchange), and eventually hustled us back to our place.
I was flustered and frustrated and annoyed, so I turned to our grandfather and asked him what it was all about – which is when he explained, patiently, that the porters close the cars before the train splits to finish in two destinations. Though I had found the porter rude, it was likely a good thing for both of us. My partner and I didn’t end up in the Dark North of Russia, and she didn’t have to answer for two haphazard stowaways.
Right before we disembarked, I was determined to part ways kindly with our grandfatherly neighbor. He had seemed to enjoy our chats, and I wanted to acknowledge his warmth. As we lined up, bundled up in our thick coats and hefting our baggage, I turned around and met his eyes and said with as much charm as I could evoke, “Thank you, so much, for all of your help!”
His face collapsed into a pleased grin. “You’re welcome.” He looked tickled.