Friday 5 May
A night in Belarus (part 1)
We boarded the Eurostar to Brussels from Waterloo at 8am, nursing mild hangovers from our send off at Tom and Claire's. Inevitably an hour after we departed we broke down. It was a miserable drizzly grey day and we were going nowhere fast. After two hours of waiting we were eventually turfed out at Lille where we had to fight our way on to another train. Still freezing and raining everyone huddled round gas lamps at Lille station to keep warm. Not exactly a brilliant way to start our epic journey to Beijing. We finally arrived in Brussels over two hours late.
In Brussels we had to buy a ticket to Cologne where we were to catch our train to Poland. The ticket office at Cologne station was bureaucracy at its finest, and I knew we were in trouble when there were more desk clerks than customers and all the customers were walking around aimlessly looking totally bemused. They had some crazy ticketing system in operation and we had to get a ticket in order to speak to an information clerk. The clerks refused to speak to us unless we had a ticket (despite the fact they had no to serve) and the ticket machines were either impossible to work or they were broken. After numerous failed attempts and lots of stereotypical grumbling on our part about how it would all be a lot easier if people adopted the British queueing system we finally bought our tickets. It took us 2 hours to buy our train tickets and we were beginning to realise this wasn't going to be quite the romantic overland journey we had envisaged!
The train to Cologne was one of the new high speed Thalys trains and was pure German efficiancy. It was like stepping in to the latest hi-tech Sony HiFi, it was metallic made no sound and all the doors operated smoothly. I was quite excited about my first overnight train to Warsaw, and it looked just how I imagined it would. A big square blue box with lots of carriages. Each compartment had two bunk beds made up of three beds. The backrest of the bottom bunk swung out to make the middle bed. Both Rob and I had top bunks and shared our compartment with three Polish guys, two of whom spoke English very well and translated for their friend. He'd noticed our travel books and said he'd travelled the Trans Siberian 10 years ago. We asked eagerly whether he'd enjoyed it? 'No, it's not a very pleasant way to travel,' he replied. He complained about how dirty the Russian trains were and how crap the food was. He wished us well anyway, but it kind of dampened our fire a bit.
Dozing off was easy as the rocking of the train gently sent us to sleep, so I was utterly bewildered when I was woken at 4am by three armed guards who marched in to our compartment demanding our passports. I guessed we were at the Polish border, but for a split second in my dreamlike state I think I thought I was an evacuee. Five hours later we arrived in Warsaw. Warsaw station is probably the first time we've felt completely at a loss since we started our trip back in October. In Cologne I could get by on long forgotten GCSE German, and in South America we had competent enough Spanish, but here?! We couldn't even say 'thank you,' we had no relevant money, and a few hours to kill before our train to Moscow. I noticed a station sign above our heads said 'Tomek' (the name of our fluent Polish speaking mate back in London). Where's Tomek when you need him we thought! We managed to get some money out the hole in the wall, which helpfully gave us a huge 100kt note, bought some coffee and bread (but only after the waitress had run round all the other station shops to find change), sat down and read.
I'd started reading Paul Theroux's (Louie's Dad) 'Riding the Iron Rooster', which is all about him taking trains from London to Beijing and then all through China. It's quite a good read, but there's nothing like reading a book and realising that you're one of the characters the author is taking the piss out of. In the chapter I was reading Theroux was ridiculing one the American tourists on his train for having stacks of loo roll. Apparently, taking loo roll to China is like taking coals to Newcastle -they invented it! But the thought of two weeks on the Trans Siberian without toilet paper didn't sound to appealing to me, and I was glad I had mine whatever pompous Theroux said.
In an effort to save money Rob had booked us in to different compartments for the journey to Moscow. I was in a girls room and Rob in a boys. This saved us a whopping 19 quid which I think is just plain mean, but then if the budgeting was left up to me we probably wouldn't be doing this leg of the trip. Luckily for me, my two companions, an older Polish woman and a young Russian girl, spoke perfect English and helped me fill out my immigration card which was all in Cyrillic. I thought about depriving Rob of this information as pay back for making me sleep in a different carriage but thought it would be a bit mean.
Watching the world go by from the window, Poland was just how I imagined it would be as seen in films. Flat, harsh landscape that was mainly farmland and dotted with bright red tractors and women wearing headscarves working in the fields. There was no communal seating area in the carriage so Rob and I stood in the narrow corridor hanging out the window and eating our Wenslydale cheese butties, At Brest (Belarus border town) officials in green uniforms got on. Everyone chatting or hanging out the windows smoking disappeared in to their compartments so we did the same. That was the day we got deported!
I was just starting to make friends with the two other women in my room when the guard came in. He flicked through my passport once, then a second time. It was when he licked his thumb and leafed through slowly the third time I knew we were in trouble. He mumbled something in Russian and I stared blankly at him. My new Polish mate translated. 'Where's your Visa?' I obediently showed him my Russian Visa. 'No' he replied sternly 'Where's your Belarus Visa?' It became clear that we needed a transit Visa for Belarus. We didn't have one. It never occured to us we might need a Visa we weren't stopping until Moscow. Where the hell is Belarus anyway?
By this time Rob emerged from his compartment. We stared at the guard who looked distinctly like Vladimir Putin - thin with big bulging eyes, he stared back. What on earth were we going to do? I tried big sad puppy dog eyes. Asked my Polish mate who translated if we could pay a fine? This was met with a raised eyebrow meaning 'rules are rules.' We had to get off the train, we were being sent back to Poland. I couldn't believe it. As we collected our bags and were marched off by the official with the googly eyes people were ever so apologetic muttering 'bureaucracy, bureaucracy' as we went passed.
We are forever indebted to the two women in my carriage. I never even got to know their names but without them the experience would have been a whole lot scarier. They were the only people who spoke English on the train and the older Polish woman made sure we understood everything that was going to happen and where we could get a Visa, getting exact directions from the border guard.
Belarussian immigration looked like an old school hall set up for local elections. We were directed to sit at the back in the corner like naughty school kids, whilst the guard sorted out the paperwork. We couldn't believe after managing to travel through Central and South America with no problems we had fallen at the first hurdle in Europe before even getting to Moscow. Looking back now it seems quite funny but at the time things could have been a whole lot worse.