Beyond the Iron Curtain


London to Vilnius

In June 2016 I hatched a plan to go deeper behind the Iron Curtain than I had ever been before. Since 1991, I have travelled around the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Poland. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It was time to go further. I scratched Ukraine off the list because of the Russian incursions in Crimea. Russia itself was off the list because of the visa regulations. I had skirted Belarus many years ago on a Baltic trip and felt that the time had come to be brave and go there.

There were obvious obstacles: visa and language. The visa issue was quickly dealt with once I purchased a return flight to Vilnius and an accommodation in Minsk. Flying to Minsk is expensive so it is cheaper to go by bus or train from Vilnius. The language was more of an issue but I created a “cheat sheet” of the alphabet.

The bus journey from Vilnius takes about 3.5 hours and is far from exciting. The motorway is lined with forests broken up by occasional villages. The village houses tend to be brightly painted  and have intricate designs on them. They also seem, from the motorway, to be low and tiny. The big excitement is at the border. Passengers have their passports checked, go on a little way, get out of the coach with every item and take it through the customs control, get back on the coach, go a little way, get off the coach and visit Duty Free then get back on the coach for the rest of the journey.

Coming into Minsk there is a collection of religious buildings and then the housing blocks loom large. Everything in Minsk is larger than life from posters, buildings and statues. This is a country which does not know the word “discrete” apart from when it comes to tourist information where less is really less. The bus pulls into the bus station or the train station and then the tourist is out there on their own.

Around the bus and train stations there are a few signs in English but on the whole the traveller encounters Russian and Belarusian. Little English is spoken outside the hotels but it is possible to find restaurant menus in English and other languages. The Great Patriotic Museum has information in very long-winded English.

It is the size of everything which is striking.

This piece of artwork is opposite the Trinity Suburb and adorns a small shopping centre.

This statue is in a park

Monument to the Heroes of  WW2 (The Great Patriotic War)

And here is our friend Lenin outside the Government Buildings

The trip was, unfortunately, very short but left enough appetite for another visit.

A trip into the unknown

In the middle of June, I was thinking about where to spend the autumn half term and thought of Minsk. As a user of Postcrossing, I had been allocated a member in Minsk, Republic of Belarus, to write to. The person I wrote to, sent a message back with a link to a video. The video was short, a day compressed into a few minutes, but I was hooked. Within minutes, I was booked on a return flight to Vilnius with the prospect of a short land journey to and from Minsk.

People have asked me, incredulously, Why Minsk? Why not? Many of my colleagues and friends seem to think it is a rather dangerous place. They mean the Ukraine. Actually, the mean The Crimea, which is no longer part of Ukraine having been swiped by Putin’s Russia. Someone mentioned a bomb going off in Kiev. This was the week when an Islamic terrorist mowed down innocent people at a street festival in Nice. Wrong capital and wrong country.

I have elected to fly to Vilnius for two reasons: it is cheaper than flying to Minsk and I would like to see Vilnius again. There is also the added bonus of a transfer from Vilnius to Minsk and back.

I have written a short article for the Minsk Gazette on the thorny issue of travel visas. I have never been to Russia because I really cannot be bothered filling in an application form which is even worse than a job application. People have told me that they would be put off by having to apply for a visa. I have warned them that this could be the new travelling reality now the UK has voted for Brexit. The good news is, that the Belarus visa is two sides of A4 and does not demand to know what colour underwear you have. I managed to print it off and fill it in within 10 minutes.

To go with the visa you need travel and health insurance, a receipt from your accommodation to show that all is above board and the renters have the permit to do business, a nice photograph, tickets and the money. I was missing the accommodation coupon the first time but got my visa the second time.

The visa office had a nice stash of tourist information in England which I have added to my collection. What I have learned from this material is: not a lot of English is spoken, there is a lot of the Cyrillic alphabet around in Belarus and there is a lot to see. My trip is for three days so I am already thinking about how much I can fit it if I keep at it from 08:00 to 17:00. I have booked an apartment in the hope of meeting some residents in the corridors and maybe having a chat. This worked in Warsaw.

I have been corresponding with other travellers on Trip Advisor to find out useful information for the trip. We have had a lively discussion on the possibility of travelling from Vilnius by train. Despite over 30 years of independent travelling and as long teaching the English language, I failed to understand the requirements of the Belarus Railway website ( booked myself a ticket on a Eurolines bus from Vilnius to Minsk. I hope I can make myself understood the other end as I would really like to travel back by train.

I have no idea what to expect in terms of weather, food, drink and the feel of the city. All I know is, it will be a great adventure. I expect to come back having met some wonderful people and with some wonderful photographs.