Mon 20 May ’13 – day 9. Using the information on the fabulous website “Man in Seat 61” run by Mark Smith, I booked a single compartment on the overnight sleeper from Warsaw across the border and onwards to Minsk through Europeanrail.com, the UK subsidiary of the Germany national rail company Deutsche Bahn, as it is not possible to book tickets on-line for any journeys east of Warsaw. My e-mails to the company were answered by return and I used my debit card to pay, with the tickets being sent by mail to my home address – a very simple process.
So it was back to underground cavern that is Warszawa Centralia and when the train arrived it was longer than expected so I was stood in the wrong place, a quick dash down the platform and after showing the carriage attendant my passport and ticket I climbed up in to what was an ‘old’ Belarus carriage. This carriage was built on the ‘chunky’ side and my compartment had certainly seen better days.
The train departed on time and we rumbled across the bridge over the River Vistula just as it was getting dark. However there was very little chance of getting any sleep as the train and track noise are terrible; we make a few stops in Poland, so lots of clattering and banging as the train slows down, stops and then pulls away
Tue 21 May ’13 – day 10 The train arrives at Terespol, the Polish border town at 0006 hours, so right on time and the customs and immigration officials come on-board; this is the first time my passport has been checked since I left London International. The officials are in military style uniform, but the ladies have short skirts and 4” heels! The checks are quickly carried out and the train then moves slowly across the border; as it is pitch black outside, nothing can be seen.
The Belarus officials board the train and this is where the first of the four visa checks on my journey will be carried out.
I used Real Russia to obtain all my visas and book every train journey from Minsk to Vladivostok via Ulan Bator and Beijing, plus all the hotels in Belarus and Russia (except Moscow); the service I received from the company was first class and I would recommend them to anybody wanting to make a rail journey through Russia or one of the former CIS countries.
Completion of visa applications and payment by debit card can be done on-line on the company’s website and it is then just a matter of either sending your passport to their London office or delivering it in person. I chose the second option just in case there were any hitches that needed sorting out in a face-to-face meeting.
The Real Russia website has a direct feed from RZD (Rossiyskiye Zheleznye Dorogi), the Russian national railway company and this allows you to enter your departure and arrival stations and all trains travelling between the two locations will be displayed; enter the date and the trains available on that day will be shown. You can then move onto the booking process where the number of places available in each class and the price that Real Russia will charge. The system details departures up to three years ahead, but these will not give a price or show seat availability that far in advance. Real Russia have built up such a good reputation that they are now RZD’s single biggest customer of tickets.
The “Man in Seat 61” website has a page about travel on the Trans-Siberian trains and another about train travel in Russia. Both of these pages explain in simple language how to book tickets for Russian trains and also give the various companies that you can use.
Once I had made my initial contact with Real Russia, all my bookings and queries were dealt with by a single person, Yuriy in the Volgograd office, so this meant that I did not have to repeat any of my intentions as he already fully understood what I wanted to do. Excellent service all round.
The Belarus immigration officer (a lady) took my British passport, “Ah, English” she exclaimed (my Scottish in-laws and Welsh Best Man would be horrified), and immigration form away and then the customs official arrived (another lady) – I was instructed to open my suitcase and asked whether I had any alcohol, “No” was the answer and she then departed. While all the checks are being carried out you have to stay in your compartment otherwise the officials get very upset and that is the last thing that you want to do as they can make life very difficult for a traveller and that includes refusing you entry into the country.
My passport is the first one returned, so being the only non-Polish, Belarus or Russian passenger in the carriage helps.
Once all the checks had been completed the train set off the short distance to Brest, the Belarus frontier town and here all the carriages are shunted into the bogie changing sheds because the track width changes from standard gauge (4’ 8½”) to the wider Russian gauge of 5’. The first thing they did was to lock all the toilet doors because who wants to be working under the carriage when you have old-fashioned direct flush loo’s. You remain in your carriage while it is jacked up and the bogies are changed; it takes nearly two hours for the whole operation to be completed and the train reassembled.
We set off heading east but it is still difficult to get any sleep, however I must have dropped off at some time; when I awake and try to switch on the compartment lights nothing works, so I have to open the blind to get some light into the compartment. There is only cold water in which to have a wash and I used the orange squash I have in my bottles to rinse my mouth out after cleaning my teeth as the stuff that comes out of the taps is not fit for human consumption!!
At all my stops from Minsk to Vladivostok I had booked transfers through Real Russia to take from the station to my hotel and then back again. This saves you having to haggle with the local taxis drivers in a language that you may not speak, or having enough local currency to pay for the trip.
Initially the transfer driver was nowhere to be seen, but I eventually found him at the front of the train looking for carriage No 1, when it was actually at the rear. It should not have been a difficult exercise as all the carriages are numbered in sequence so it should be easy to work out where you want to be.
Having put my luggage in the taxi we pulled out into what was the rush hour traffic and as this was horrific, it was a case of just hoping for the best. In addition the main road outside my hotel was being resurfaced so the cars just drove on the wide pavements regardless of any pedestrians that may be in the way.
As I have arrived early I am not allowed to check in unless I pay another $58; as I am not prepared to do this I just drop off my bags and then try and find something to do.
There is an Exchange Bureau in the hotel and as I had not been able to get any local currency from the bank before I departed, I changed €50 into Belarus roubles and got well over ½ million in exchange!!
I tried to find something to do and using the Lonely Planet guide I head for the Tourist Information office; it is difficult to find and there is not a lot on offer. The ladies in the office spoke good English, but I think that they were surprised to have a customer as I am beginning to realise that this city is not a tourist hot-spot.
I walked back towards the train station as this is where the site-seeing bus is due to depart at 11:00 hours according to the ladies in the Tourist Information office. Nothing arrives even though I waited for ¼ hour. So I used some of the vast amount of local currency and buy a bottle of coke and a couple of bottles of water as the LP guide advises against drinking water from the tap. Can’t find any postcards for sale.
I strolled back to the hotel along the wide boulevards, as the city was reconstructed in the grand Soviet style after being nearly obliterated during WW2, then sit in a chair in the foyer while waiting for check in time and promptly fall asleep.
There are lots of Indians in the hotel, including many in military uniform, so probably an official delegation.
This was obviously the old Hotel No 1 in Communist times as it is at one end of Lenin Square with the Parliament building at the other, where there is a statue of the man himself outside.
When I finally get checked in I go up in the lift and discover that it, like all those from the Soviet era, is very small and has barely have room for more than two or three people.
My room is not a bad size and I unpacked just what I needed for my single nights stop, then tried to have a snooze. I must have eventually dozed off for an hour or so and when I awoke I had a shower and changed before going down to dinner. The menu was bi-lingual so I chose a pork kebab with vegetables and potatoes. The veg came in a sweet & sour sauce which is extremely sweet but quite tasty. Had a local (cloudy) beer which I didn’t think much of. When I asked for the dessert menu I was informed that the kitchen was closed, this at 20:00 hours when the restaurant is supposed to be open until 04:00 hours!! Only ice cream is available, so I order some and it wasn’t bad.
Back to my room and I am in bed before 21:00 hours – sleep comes quickly.