What’s it like to get to Belarus?
From start to finish? From the moment you make up your mind to go? The moment you decide it’s worth it to see Russia’s best friend and neighbor? To visit the “Last Soviet Republic”? What’s it like, you ask? To go there without a visa?
It’s like the craziest nut job of an adventure.
And it goes like this:
Decide to go. Find out that a visa will cost $70usd along with a letter of invitation from a Belorussian Tourist Agency. Plus a good amount of time waiting for the visa to be processed. Oh, and health insurance.
Navigate the internet to determine if opportunities are available for foreigners to visit without going through all these processes.
Find one possibility : to enter through Europe’s oldest remaining forest. One with elk, wild boar, and bison.
Access Belarus’s National Park “Belovezhskaya Pushcha” website, fill out the form available in Русский, English and Polski.
Agree to all the terms, clauses, and regulations. Save a copy of the provided map, baring in mind that it is so large and so detailed that it’s nearly incomprehensible.
Wait for the permit office to reply in a very timely fashion with hourly updates.
Receive a 2-night, 3-day permit to visit National Park “Belovezhskaya Pushcha” within a day of applying, and jump at the opportunity to add discounted accommodation and museum tickets to use during your visit to the forest.
Print off three pages of type-7 font with every bit of information in English you can find.
Figure out how to procure health insurance. It is stated that you may purchase daily health insurance once at the border for roughly 1euro per day, but you don’t want to take chances.
Buy a bus ticket after finding out health insurance can be added to it for 25euro / month.
Miss the bus for said ticket. Keep the insurance. Find a new bus to Lublin, Poland. From where you are in Lviv, Ukraine, the bus said to take 8 hours ends up taking 15.
One step closer.
Click an image to see Bialowieza Poland, Belarus’s “Border Town” up close:
Take the suggested travel route to arrive at the Polish crossing: First visit the city of Bialystok, then take a bus to Bialowieza – said to be the closest Polish town to border crossing “Pererov”, which you have still not successfully located on any given map or internet search.
Notice accommodations in Bialowieza are substantially more expensive than in Bialystok. Decide to stay the night in Bialystok and take a 5:55am bus to Bialowieza the next day.
Wake up, walk thirty minutes to bus station. Take two-hour bus ride. Arrive in Bialowieza at 8am.
The bus driver drops you off directly in front of the park’s entrance and you think your luck can’t be any better! Suit up, bag and all, and begin to walk through the forest to find the one and only border crossing.
Ten minutes later, realize there’s just no way you’re in the right place. You turn around and exit the forest, asking a man outside the gates for directions to Belarus
He points opposite of the direction you were originally headed. After looking at a map, agree he could be, he must be, right and go ahead the 2 kilometers he suggested you would need to walk before turning.
Walk 2 kilometers, find nothing and stop to ask two women outside tending to their gardens.
They tell you to go back to your original spot in Poland’s forest and go to the information desk, which opens at 9am. You want to keep going to where the man pointed you, but these old ladies wait outside until they see you turn back around and walk away.
Arrive at the visitor’s desk just after 9am. The woman shows you on a map where “Pererov” is – 7 kilometers away. 1 hour and a half walking time.
Remember that the only transportation set to meet you at the border crossing is at 11am. This would be plenty of time to get there, except that Belarus is one hour later than Poland. Meaning you only have until 10am “Poland Time” to arrive, and after stopping to talk and figure out where to go, that’s only in 40 minutes!
There is no bus. There are no taxis. Not at this time.
Walk and walk, stopping only briefly to purchase a 1.5 liter bottle of water for the road. And a cinnamon roll. A really really cinnamony cinnamon roll.
Walk and walk and walk some more. Come to another town: Grudki. The name looks very familiar. An image of a bus schedule advertised in Bialystok (where you began this morning) pops into your head. The bus stop makes it more clear: there is a direct bus from Bialystok to Grudki which would have saved all of the morning’s hassle along with the past hour of walking once you’d found your way.
Click an image to have a peak into what it looks like to cross from Poland to Belarus:
Decide to shut out any negative thoughts. This is the trip! The journey! The experience! You’re on your way and you’re so so close you can nearly see it, smell it, taste it, touch it!
Start to notice the little things: Delicate yellow butterflies crawling around on white flowers, busy bees dancing alongside. Train tracks overgrown with tall grasses. Houses which appear to have been left abandoned but show signs of human life only through their ravishing gardens. You notice the sound of woodpeckers fully engaged in their day’s work and of leaves blown away by slight winds, skipping their way from branch to branch until they reach the forest floor. You look up to see a sky filled with greens and browns: nature’s canopy protecting you from the light drizzles falling above them.
Suddenly realize: You’re here! You’ve made it. To the border!
Stop and take a photo on the Polish side in front of a large blue sign displaying “Białoruś”.
Go through the Polish border control. They take a look at your passport but do not care to see your permit or otherwise.
Walk to “No Man’s Land”.
Take a photo in from of Belarus’s sign. A much more decorated sign, with the Belorussian seal proudly taking center stage. Make sure to aim the selfie so it gets the “Leaving the European Union” sign in the background as well.
Pretend not to know it’s not okay to do.
Show the security guards who come out of their Belorussian offices while yelling at you, what a great photo you’ve captured. Flip through several photos to prove your point. Try to get them to crack a smile.
Delete the photos right away. No further proof exists of having seen those signs. The one taken in Poland can remain, they say by nodding and turning their backs on you.
Continue to the Belorussian Border. In a single file line: one agent, you, the other agent.
Let them search your bags.
Let them wand your body.
Show them your passport and documents after the older officer has retreated behind his desk to make the whole process more official, and the other stands at your side.
Wait while the older officer returns to your side. He stands to your left. The other, to your right. Both stand so close you can feel the air seep from their noses with every breath.
Neither say anything. Neither show any emotion. Both point and stare, directing you to fill out a card listing all of your information: Name, Passport Number, Date of Birth, Date of Arrival and Departure, address where you’ll be staying. Health insurance information.
They’re both there to oversee the process and ensure 100% accuracy.
Once accuracy is proven, the older once again returns to his desk on the other side of the glass wall in front of you. The younger directs you to fill in another form: an exact duplicate.
Receive many glances, stares, glares. Feel the faux hatred seep through the glass and into your bones.
Smile when he stamps your passport “Республики Беларусь”
Laugh when you see the ink is neon pink.
Look both officers in the eye, “Спасибо, cпасибо” you tell both of them. “Thank you, thank you”.
Click on an image to see the many faces of my walk to Belarus:
Walk out of their office and wait for another officer to open the gate for you to leave border control and officially enter National Park “Belovezhskaya Pushcha”. Show him your passport and documents.
Walk 10 meters. Greet a young woman who steps out of the one-room Visitor’s Center, forcing you once again to stop and come inside.
She hands you the tickets you ordered online. One to a tour of the main town, Kamenyuki, and one to see the home of Grandfather Frost himself.
She offers you a bike but immediately retracts the offer, realizing the difficulty of riding a bicycle for 19 kilometers with luggage in-tow.
She offers to call you a bus, as you’ve long since missed the day’s only scheduled departure (because obviously so many others made this journey today as well!). You agree. Then she tells you it will be 28euro.
Tell her you’re on a budget.
Agree walking is the only way. It’s only 19 kilometers, and this way, you’ll get to see the forest. That’s why you came, right? Right.
Already you’ve walked 3 hours today. You walk another two. One car passes, just one, and doesn’t even pretend to slow down.
As you walk, wonder, “Is this like North Korea? Or like the Truman Show? Are there cameras planted in these trees so that soldiers can watch me slowly turtle my way along, this rucksack as my shell? Is all of Belarus and Russia watching me? What happens if I have to pee? No squatty potty here. I’ll probably be arrested.” And so on and so forth.
After nearly two and a half hours, two scooters wiz by. One circles back around and stops. He speaks only Russian.
The two of you somehow convey that indeed you’re walking the 19 kilometers to Kamenyuki. He offers to let you go with him part way. His friends are not so amused.
You notice from their bags of freshly picked mushrooms that there’s a good chance you’re messing up their foresting schedules. They take you anyways, backpack and all.
Holding on to his jacket, you notice a smell drifting back. Maybe it’s cantaloupe? It really could be cantaloupe. It’s probably vodka. But you tell yourself it’s cantaloupe.
They stop at a lake for you to take photos.
They stop at a магазин for snacks: a full sausage, a can of something unintelligible and a half liter of водка. Real Russian Vodka.
The store owner takes you around to show you her yard full of mushrooms. You pretend to be impressed just for spite. Really though, they are big mushrooms.
Together, the three friends and you continue down the paved road. You notice it’s growing more and more crowded with bicycles. The town is near.
The drivers pull off the road and up to a shelter with picnic benches.
Rain has just begun to fall, and increases tenfold when you go under the rooftop barrier.
They pull out a yellow plastic placemat, a half-eaten loaf of bread, the goods from your stop at the store a few minutes ago, and a few miniature cups.
They cut up the sausage and bread with a swiss army knife, and crack open the can of crazy stuff. No amount of guessing will tell you what it is. Not even a bite of it will give insight. You decide to ignore it.
They pour three half glasses of водка. One of them pours a fourth. For you.
They tip their heads back and you sip quietly for several minutes.
They go for a second while you finish your first.
Share a ridiculous conversation about ages and names and jobs. You see photos of their children and of their homes.
Remember, you’ve yet to meet a single soul who speaks English during this journey. And your Russian lessons from a year ago aren’t holding as strongly as you’d hoped.
Then there’s a sound.
You don’t hear it at first, but they do.
One of them runs to the road like a child running toward Santa Clause. Or to Grandfather Frost in this case.
It’s a train. A bright blue train decorated with cartoon characters which runs on wheels to take tourists around the main city of Kamenyuki.
He talks to the ‘conductor’ then motions to you to grab your bags and come to the train.
It takes you to town, safely.
Past buffalo and elk and wild boars all roaming in large open air cages.
Past log cabins serving as hotels and restaurants.
Past a wedding service taking place in a large open park.
It takes you to the main gate, the entrance Belorussians use to access the park. And your final stopping point. You can not legally go any farther with this three-day permit, and there are plenty of guards to make sure you don’t.
Show a man at the ticket counter your permit, where your hotel information is listed.
He shows you a map, pointing to where you’re standing, and pointing once more to where your hotel is. “семьдесят” he says.
He calls a man who works with these Belorussian permits to translate. The young man tells you your hotel is семьдесят kilometer away from where you are right now. 70 kilometers.
No, there is no transportation.
Taxis will take you there for 60 euro one way. Never mind the fact that you need to return at least once to get to see the city and to hopefully catch the once-a-day shuttle to the border.
“120 euro minimum” he says. “Let me come to you. Stay right there. We will figure this out.”
By the time he gets to you, he has a plan. “There are no open rooms in the entire park besides yours. You should go back to Poland and stay there. I will call the bus to get you, for free, and bring you back to the border. You will get your money returned.”
Skies are now open wide, drenching everybody and everything. You think about the trade off. You cannot walk through town now. No way. Everyone and their three children are huddled under the same awning as the two of you. You made it to Belarus. You spent a few hours. Saw a wedding, walked through the forest, ate some traditional candies, had a picnic, sipped on Russian водка, rode on a moped, met some locals, stopped by the lake, and had a hell of a good time doing it.
Don’t stay the night. Return to the border by bus – gratis. The same young man opens the gate for you. Pass through border control. Stop in front of the same agent: the older one who wouldn’t smile even in the least bit despite your calm yet heartfelt attempts.
He sees you. He looks through your passport, checks the date to make sure he’s reading it correctly, and makes eye contact with you.
Smile that natural smile. You can’t help it.
And swear to every God there ever may be, he smiles back for a half second longer than he’d like.
Mission Belarus fully accomplished.
Want to know how you can get into Belarus without a visa? And do it in a less chaotic fashion than I? Stay tuned for an upcoming post with all the details! Make sure to subscribe and follow along on Facebook Twitter and Instagram for more mapping inspiration!