On Monday 23 June, I left Warsaw, Poland for the long train journey (about 20 hours I think) to Moscow, Russia via Belarus. This is the train trip that I was the most nervous about, but also looking forward to. I’ve read blogs with stories about how the border crossing into Belarus was scary, and people being turned away at the border in the middle of the night.
I’d heard that it has a very old school, soviet feeling which made me nervous, but excited. There was also the awesome sounding experience of the train being jacked up so the wheels can be changed, as Belarus and Russia use a different gauge track than Europe. This I was looking forward to!
My train was due to leave Warszawa Centralna (Warsaw Central Station) at 15:40, which was a good time, as it meant I could sleep in, go to breakfast and Skype my mum before I left the hostel. It made Mum happy to hear from me of course, especially before “disappearing into the wilds of Russia”
The train was easy enough to find, and after checking the sign that tells you where on the platform your carriage is, I walked up to my carriage and boarded. After a quick check of my ticket, I was shown to my compartment. A small room, with large window with three beds (basically shelves, that are a bench seat by day and three beds by night) currently there were no other people in the compartment, and it was set up as a seat for day travel.
I went in, trying to work out where luggage is meant to go, as it’s a small room… There is a luggage shelf way up high above my head – no way I can lift my heavy bag up there! I shoved it in a corner, as out of the way as possible, and took a seat and started to wonder who my travel companions would be. It didn’t take long until they arrived, a man and his 13 year old son who are doing a similar trip as me – UK to Bali by train. The boy is to go to a “Green School” in Bali for a year. You can read more about them on their blog.
They were a very interesting pair to spend this journey with… I had some great conversations and heard some amazing travel stories. The time on the train went very quickly due to the good conversation and fun we had.
Before I knew it, a few hours had passed and we were at the Belarusian border. I was anxious for this to be over and for me to be officially in Belarus. First we stopped and the Polish border control, which of course was very simple. She had a quick look at the passports of my roommates, but since they both have EU passports, didn’t actually do anything with them. Mine took a bit longer, but only a few seconds while she swiped it in her little computer thing and stamped my passport with an exit EU stamp.
And with that, I left the EU after 2 years! I’d travelled all the way from Northern Ireland in the far west of the EU to Poland in the Far East of EU and now was entering the infamous Belarus.
The train then drove along a bit further, and out the window we could see lots of Belarusian military guarding the border. Security fences etc and we crossed a river, which I’m told is the official border, however I’ve not actually confirmed this myself.
We stopped again after a few minutes for the Belarus border control. The was more complicated, but still went smoothly which was a relief. First, the border guard came in and took our passports, and checked we had a Belarus and Russia visa. In broken English, she asked if we had migration cards (similar the landing cards you have to fill in when entering say Australia or the UK) to which we said no, and she left in a bit of a huff, taking our passports with her.
Don’t know where she expected us to have got migration cards from already? She came back a few minutes later with migration cards and left again while we filled them out.
Some of the information was straight forward, and some we were not too sure about and I think we were all a bit worried we’d put something wrong and it would cause some issues. Some information, like visa number we were unable to fill in until she came back with our passports.
Also, Belarus visa number or Russia visa number? They do immigration for both countries at the same border. The lady confirmed it was the Belarus visa number, so we filled it in and handed it back to her. She stamped my visa and my migration card, kept her half and gave my half to me and we were done. Yay! Officially crossed the border.
By the way, if you ever go to Russia, ensure they stamp your visa AND your migration card. Keep your copy in your passport at all times because, if the police want to see your ID they’ll expect this and if not, you’ll be in trouble. Also, you’ll need it when leaving the country.
Things got fun from here!
Belarusian women came on board, and we’re trying to sell us all sorts of things. They didn’t speak English, which made it confusing but so much fun. I suddenly felt like I was really travelling!!
I bought two large beers for 100 Rubles each (£1.70 / $3), which I probably could have got cheaper if I tried, but it was so rushed and overwhelming that I just agreed.
Several more women walked past and said stuff to us that we didn’t understand, and we kept saying no. Then one came into our compartment and started unpacking stuff to show us. I bought some pancakes that are rolled up with stuffing in them (not knowing what they were stuffed with), and this time I remembered to haggle… She wants 300 Rubles for them, but I paid 200. Score! The other guys are obviously more health conscious than I am, and got some fruit. They’d also been smart enough to bring some food with them, while I assumed there would be a restaurant car, which there didn’t seem to be. Lucky for these ladies then!
We then got to the awesome part where they change the wheels! All very exciting.
The train entered a shed, where they separated the carriages and jacked each one up… With us still inside. I was fascinated by this, and was up walking around the carriage to see as much as possible and take photos. In fact, both the adults in our compartment were, and two adults in the next compartment too… But the 13 year old boy lay in bed reading!! Kids these days!
It was quite an experience, and took an hour or two, I think. Once we were on our way again, we went back to our compartment to eat, drink, relax and chat for a while longer. Eventually it was time for bed, so we converted the seat into a bed, which was pretty simple.
I was on the middle bunk, with one below me and one above me. I didn’t sleep that great, as the bed was far too firm for me and started to hurt my back after a while, but certainly much better than trying to sleep in a normal seat.
I woke the next morning to the carriage attendant knocking on our door offering tea and coffee, and informing us that we would be arriving in Moscow in about half an hour. The night had seemed very quick, but then we had crossed two timelines to the east. I ate my chocolate croissant and coffee that was my provided breakfast, and got ready to arrive in Moscow.
Once we arrived, I left the train and found the luggage storage at the station and went about exploring Moscow. I spent two nights in Moscow and then four nights in Saint Petersburg… Perhaps I’ll write more about that later.
Right now, I’ve just started my 6000km, 4.5 day train trip from Saint Petersburg to Irkutsk, in Eastern Siberia. I’m currently on the 4.5 hour high speed train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow from 13:30 to 18:00. I’ve then got about 6 hours to kill before my midnight Trans-Siberian train departs.
Wish me luck!