Belarus for beginners

Grodno 23.05.2019

Approaching the Poland-Belarus border, Belarus announces itself already 30 km into the hills of Masuria, with a bright blue dome of an orthodox church in the hills around Novy Dwor. Reaching the border, I was excited to witness this anachronistic procedure of a Soviet-style border check again. But as my last such experience was quite some time ago and my border skills got a bit rusty.

The Polish checks were easy, the officer was a bit confused to see a German passport with an Italian birthplace and a Russian name, plus a tiny car from Spain that didn’t speak a word of Polish or Russian. He came out to check the car, and at some point just said “Go”, indicating the other side of the border post. I realized I needed to get my story right, confused border guards on the way out are easy, but can be a problem on the way into a country. Also, my Spanish “car passport” for some reason still states the car is from Madrid. Consistency of story is important in these situations, so I had to roll back the clock and officially be from my old Madrid address.

Off to the Belarus side. First the good news: the border post has WiFi, and it works! As I rolled towards the Belarus side, there was a green lane where everybody was waiting, and a red lane that I had to take, along with some dodgy figures in sketchy cars. As usual, passport check comes first, and with my two words of Russian, a bit of other languages and hand signs the officer understood the situation. I again had to be from Madrid. Then, checking the insurance green card, the one in my papers was from 2014. I had requested a new one weeks before starting this journey, but the paper version never arrived. I had a pdf in my emails, but hadn’t printed it. Here we go, beginners mistake. During Eurasia2013 I had a whole bag of document printouts in black and white and color, to be ready for anything. I showed the officer the 2019 card on my iPhone, but no chance. Off to another building and buy a Belarusian car insurance for a minimum of 2 weeks, €17, paid by credit card. Back at the car, the next stop was customs. I got two forms in Russian, and an officer showed me a poster with the English translation. The stout female border officer was very friendly, and we kind of got along with the same multi-language + hands mix. “I need to see car, open.” I open the trunk, and the first thing that she sees is my collection of 6 bottles of wine from Spain. I had rearranged the trunk a few km back in Poland when I gassed up with good diesel and also filled my 20l spare tank. But how on earth did I have that moment of genius to put the alcohol in the front row? Well, it turns out that you can bring 3l of wine (4 bottles) tax free into Belarus, but the rest has to be taxed. So I had to pay for another 2l. Form, stamp, off to the bank, queue, more forms, credit card, €22. I’ll better drink my inventory down before the next border. During the whole procedures I realised, my car isn’t packed right. If you look inside, you see far too much suspicious stuff, this calls for an inspection. I’ll need to re-arrange things. Also, I need to change my clothing. Not only has summer begun and it’s pretty sunny and hot all day, but I need my pants with side pockets to store stuff at these border situations, and hide valuables like my phone. No suspicions, no fancy pants equipment.

Motorway toilets are cleaned meticulously.

90 mins later and now 1h ahead due to the change in time zone I rolled into Belarus! Roads seemed good, at least not worse than in Poland. 1km after the border I had to stop to get a toll in-car device (€50) and prepay tolls (€45). Again I had to be from Madrid, again paperwork not organised. But the guy at the counter was friendly, explained everything, and got me all set in half an hour. As I walked out he came running behind me and handed me 20 pages of contract (my copy), that I had forgotten on the counter. Of course, Soviet countries love paperwork, stamps, forms. Even in the tutorial videos for people like me there were multiple mentions that signing a contract is an important part of the procedure.

Well, with this one sorted out as well I was good to go. I was already looking forward to use my brand new toll device, but the road to my next destination, Grodno, isn’t a motorway with tolls. The Mini’s bumpers got tested well. On this side of the border, while the landscape is similar to Poland, the Soviet legacy shines through immediately. The second or third hand cars that 20 years ago got sold from Germany to Poland are having another life in Belarus today. The UAZ and Kamaz reappear occasionally. The “Plattenbau” architecture is all around. Police with speedometers checking people from behind corners or bushes are also back! And there are a lot of pedestrians walking on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

Comrade Lenin, of course.

Shortly afterward I arrived in Grodno. Coming from Poland the old town is on the other side of the river. I had pre-booked a hotel on booking.com to get my visa. OK, so let’s get to the hotel, Google maps and … no internet. And of course I hadn’t downloaded my offline maps. Hard to believe I have done this already and manage to screw up on all fronts. So I drove around town to get some orientation. What should I do? Ask somebody? The traffic was too intense to stop. A police officer? They are only there when you don’t need them. A souvenir stand, with WiFi. Bingo! How could I forget where to find WiFi in places like these? Tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants and bars – they all have WiFi for free, and it usually works from the outside as well.

T34, of course.

The hotel was a few blocks away now that Google maps was back, and in few mins I was there. On my way I met a T34, oversize comrade Lenin, an eternal flame, one of the oldest synagogues in Europe and actually a lot of very beautiful but dilapidated buildings. First things first, drop stuff at the hotel and chill for a bit.

Great Synagogue of Grodno.

After a short siesta and writing, I toured the old town a bit and saw beautiful churches next to Soviet propaganda murals and Art Deco buildings, and comrade Lenin from close with a dramatic sky in the background. But then my stomach told me that since breakfast he didn’t get any attention. I had researched a good restaurant with local cuisine, but the place was completely empty. Touring the old town I noticed shops had school kids’ paintings in their windows, depicting war scenes of the glorious Soviet soldiers in the Great Patriotic War. On the streets the local youth went for their evening promenade and sat on the café’s terraces. In situations like this I generally tend to go where the biggest crowd of locals is. So I did, and what’s on the menu? Sushi and pizza. I remembered the Russians’ love for sushi, especially in the provinces, and knew this was the place to go.

The propaganda wall.
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