Just for sheer novelty, waking up one morning and going to Belarus is hard to beat. Here's how it went a couple of weeks ago:
14 August, 2010
I’m excited today. We’re heading into the capital of Europe’s lone holdout authoritarian state, Minsk, Belarus, still all decked out in mint-condition Communist architecture. This ought to be fun.
So: We decided to do this the local way. Yesterday at a terrace bar down across from the big Vilnius Cathedral they convinced us that the train we meant to take would spend an eternity at the border, and that the entire trip would be far faster by bus. We'll take the bus.
My back’s up against the wall of the bus station in Vilnius, surveying where the buses arrive and depart. Our tickets say we’re leaving from slip #34 at 12:50 for a roughly four hour ride on Tolimojo Keleivinio Transporto Kompanija UAB, seats 29 and 30 from Vilnius to Minskas. It’s a Lithuanian company. Somehow its acronym is TOKS, with a sporty slash down the middle of the logo.
A mustardy yellow bus creeps toward slip 34 and I’m sure it’s ours, broken and limping as it is. But it crawls on past 34 to 37. Its sign reads destination: Sakiai.
People smoke. All the buses look air-conditioned and that’s good because it’s hotter than in memory this summer in the Baltics, today’s high 92 (33.33C).
We’re in the bus. Six or eight minutes with no air and it’s hot, then the A/C is on and all’s well. Twelve rows of four and a back bench, this bus is full except for a few. No idea what anybody else is saying, no idea what we’ll do at the border. There’s the fun. Driver comes down the aisle with arrival cards – “Number passport, number visa.”
And now we clatter around the cobbled streets of Vilnius. One man aboard is wearing his Roman Catholic clerical garb, one woman is wearing a headscarf, and there are no seat belts in the bus, a Setra, a subsidiary of Daimler AG.
In fifteen minutes, no more, we’re out in the countryside. Lithuania’s only hills seem to be around Vilnius. The landscape’s flat now as far as the eye can see. Suburbs, second houses, farmhouses and falling-in former farmhouses.
We came from Finland, and the forest had looked all stoic and Baltic and northern, kind of greenish-monochrome, all the way across Finland and Estonia and Latvia, but now we’re farther south in Lithuania and new trees and especially weeds creep into the mix.
The hay was already baled in Finland. Combines still worked the fields between Riga and Vilnius. And right now it feels pretty much like our farm in Georgia, USA would on 14 August.
A brisk 33-kilometer hop down to the Belarusian border. We stop at this particular end-of-the-EU outpost at 1:15 for a very serious, very young soldier, who boards the bus and takes all but the EU passports, best I can tell.
We all climb off and there’s shade and people smoke and find the toilet and change money and then the driver fires up the bus (which means air-conditioning) so we all climb back on and the serious young Lithuanian soldier redistributes our papers.
25 minutes into the border process we maneuver around an hours-long car queue, driving in the no man’s land’s oncoming lane. At the front there’s some shouting and some jukin’ back into our lane and we come to the gates of Belarus.
The driver does a head count; A young woman in a beret jumps aboard and does the same. Wouldn’t want anybody trying to sneak in.
Now we negotiate some funny zig-zag lanes so you couldn’t make a run at busting down the gates. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth again to get to the passport control building.
Why do they let it smell like piss in here!? Just get some PineSol and put somebody to work, for God’s sake. Sure, the bus station in Vilnius was the same way, but it’s a bus station, not an Official Arm of the Sovereign Nation of Belarus.
The line to one (courteous) pass control official crawls along and while it does, soldiers in combat boots and camouflage take a cursory look and a poke or two underneath the passenger section of the bus, in the luggage hold.
We have to buy insurance for our stay. It’s another window and two Euros or three dollars each, a special gift for maybe a half dozen of us, a little more paperwork, but it buys a handsome folder.
Now more jukin’ through more zig-zag lanes to one more gate. Another head count and we’re out. An hour and a quarter. Efficient enough.
I count the tractor trailer rigs lined up to enter the European Union: 140 in a 70-deep double file, then another 95 in single file. How long to you figure that takes?
Before us, if it’s not forest it’s nearly completely agricultural land, and lots of it is already turned under, or just fallow. Now, a smell familiar from riding my share of Soviet and Russian trains. Somebody breaks out the sausages. It’s a bouquet of baloney with a piquant cucumber finish.
No sausage for us, though. We’re enjoying “Paluszki Lubelskie (Na Kruncho),” which is a bag of pretzels.
The road ahead stretches out two-lane, like a minor U.S. state highway, in good repair, and the air conditioning, like you’d write in the script, isn’t really working anymore. We pull over for the driver to inspect. He’s agreeable enough, a wiry little guy who speaks German to us.
What? We’re foreigners and we don’t speak German?
A/C inspection done, he smiles an encouraging smile and announces it’s kaput, and drives on. We all draw our pretty red curtains on the sun-side of the bus. Mirja judges that using the handsome insurance folder as a fan is worth the two Euros.
Hills. No big deal, gently rolling. It’s not completely flat here in rural Belarus. It’s a long, straight road with sight lines of two or three kilometers. Trucks pass us busting open with produce. We stop to let a passenger off at an intersection with a dirt road and all I can say is wherever he’s going, he’s got a ways to go.
The driver walks the bus again. Yep, it’s hot back here, he finds out. He apologizes again and invites anybody who’s too hot to move forward. Apparently the A/C works a little up there, but it’s full unless you want to crouch in the aisle.
We’re too hot but we don’t move forward. People have moved around and we have a little room. A pair of seats each.
An hour inside the border a cloverleaf ramp brings us around to a four lane divided highway, but there’s still just fields on both sides of the road. Besides one little village just inside the border there haven’t been any, for seventy minutes now, and now for more.
And look here now, a billboard! For Darida (at least that’s a transliteration from Cyrillic). It has a picture of a waterfall. Don’t know what it’s selling, but it’s the first billboard on this road. And just like that, here are endless nine-story blocks of flats under construction cranes. Both sides of the road. Like flipping a switch, suddenly it’s dense and urban. Remarkable that they still build these massive blocks, the same way as in 1960. But hey, at least they’re building stuff here in Belarus.
Whoa, now there are buildings on the horizon. 4:00, only three hours and ten minutes since we left. Now it’s busier. Cars. Billboards.
And just like that, here are endless nine-story blocks of flats under construction cranes. Both sides of the road. Like flipping a switch, suddenly it’s dense and urban. Remarkable that they still build these massive blocks, the same way as in 1960. But hey, at least they’re building stuff here in Belarus.
We run through patches with small houses that could be in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria. Terra cotta roofs, plaster over stone, grass all grown up between the houses.
Trams. The roads are in decent shape and traffic minds the lanes.
Dirt yards like you see on TV in the Middle East or Afghanistan. Indolent shirtless men smoking on their balconies.
Buildings coming down, buildings going up. Construction activity, and a huge, huge part of town makes up a massive industrial plant. All Belarus’s industry must be right here. It’s haphazard, with smokestacks alongside more blocks of flats way in from the rabble at the edge of town.
Lots of people get off at the next stop. Now here’s something – I don’t know what – that translates “Pushkin,” a Hippo supermarket, streets and streets, and now we turn into the bus station.
Minsk! Let’s go see!