My mum was so kind as to drop me off at Schiphol airport at 8:30am, mastering all traffic on your regular weekday morning. During the two days prior to my departure, I had been a bit reluctant to go to Russia, not knowing what to expect and considering the large amount of not-so-good travel tales coming out of Russia. I figured I was going to be in for a surprise.
Only days before leaving, I was considering staying home, doing ‘nothing’ with my girlfriend Julia, hanging out with my friends, taking short trips to I don’t know where and so on. But effectively, I knew I wanted to go ‘there’. I basically had no choice. It was meant to be.
So I arrived at Schiphol airport way to early. The plane was set to leave at around 11:00am, but that gave me some time to leave a significant signature. So, with 20kg+ of a backpack, a large camera bag and some more add-ons I headed off for the nearest toilet. With success, I might add. My vacation of a lifetime started out with the shit of a lifetime.
Arrival in Warsaw
The trip from Amsterdam, as always with LOT, went quite well. Staff was friendly, the food was good and on top of it all, the flight was on time. However, when I arrived in Warsaw, it turned out my travelers mattress had been lost.
After spending some time at the luggage claim office, I received $20 in cash to compensate for my loss. Immediately I figured it would have made sense if I would have lost my sleeping bag too! I mean, I hadn’t figured on using it any way, as with the mattress; I had taken them along just-in-case. If I could get $20 for an old mattress, maybe I could get enough for my even older sleeping bag to buy a new one!
I had to go through several offices before, at last, an older and friendly woman helped me to my $20. She was occupying the office where refunds were granted. However, in order to obtain dollars, we both had to go to another office on the other side of the terminal to exchange money. The week before, she had fallen of some stairs, and strained her ankle. As a result, my $20 came to me at a leisurely pace.
While I was talking to her, at the window of her office, a very skinny woman, approaching middle age, dressed with style, completely in white, turned around (she was standing next to me) and started talking to me and the lady behind the counter. She shook the whole time when talking, had a bad alcohol breath, and although she was speaking English, Theresa seemed to be Polish. She made no sense whatsoever. Before turning around, she was standing in a group with three other people. Two men and one woman. They kept on talking Polish with another, and every two minutes or so, the two men tried to persuade Theresa to turn around. After some 10 minutes, they walked over to her, we kissed our goodbyes and she was literally carried away by these two men. I went on to collect my $20.
I had planned to meet a friend of mine, Robert, in Warsaw. I hadn’t announced I was going to come, since I wasn’t sure up to close before leaving, when I would actually arrive. I figured I would just make a call from Warsaw after arriving and then arrange going for dinner and/or a drink. Warsaw has a nice Irish pub, so I figured it would work out just fine. To be able to call Robert, I asked my mobile phone operator to turn on world coverage before I left. Just the month prior to my leaving, the service had become free of charge, so I figured al would go smoothly. Wrong. I tried to make a call, it turned out the world coverage wasn’t turned on. Considering I most likely was going to need the phone a bit more in Russia, I spent close to the rest of the day contacting Mobistar and trying to tell them I needed world coverage and that they hadn’t turned it on. At least, this performance from Mobistar wasn’t much different as compared to the experiences I generally have with the company.
Mobistar have an international help desk number, available from outside of Belgium. Accept, it isn’t available from Poland. So I had to call my mum, and she had to solve my problems. A big thanks to me mum!
When I finally was able to place a call to Robert, it turned out he was impossible to reach. I decided to get a train ticket to Minsk, leaving on the same day.
Some months before, with some colleagues of mine, I had taken a train back from Warsaw to Brussels. All airports were closed due to bad weather. Not only did we have a fun trip back (meeting a horse racing jockey of about 1m40 tall), but also did I know now where at the Warsaw train station I could get my international train tickets. Anyway, the 12m long queue standing in front of the tourist information office wasn’t very inviting either.
The train ticket was a little bit more expensive than I figured it would be at about $40. But I suspected they sold me a first class ticket. I didn’t have enough zloty when buying the ticket, so I had to find a cash point to make a withdraw. When returning, the ticket turned out to be some 10% cheaper. Hurray!
The Warsaw train station has several eateries on site. Some, more western-style, located centrally in the main hall. One, definitely what you would expect in a place like this, much more Eastern European. Of course, that’s where I had a zuppa pomodorova for less then $1. With a view on the Marriott hotel I was happily slobbering away my soup and some bread rolls.
I used a voice recorder to make notes on my trip. Already here in Warsaw, locals where eyeing me strangely, probably figuring I was some remnant of their state-controlled past, keeping track of everyone out of the ordinary and passing them on to HQ.
In the train, I had my first encounter with a local. Alex, a Belorussian was sharing my cabin. We started to talk and it turned out he was born on the Asian side of the Ural. During Soviet regime, you could study basically whatever you liked, but for some 6 years after finishing your studies, you had to work where the government wanted you to work. That is, unless you started a family and got children. So that is exactly what Alex’s father did, and he was allowed to go back to his place of birth, Brest. I didn’t really catch what Alex was doing himself. I think he was selling paint to large metal producing companies, or something. He did show me the folders, but my Polish could be much better so I returned his work related statements with a friendly smile.
Alex had a treat that seems to be common in Eastern Europeans. Whenever we where talking and I would say something he didn’t agree on, he would shake his head vigorously (without saying anything) until I would stop. Then he would explain why ‘it’ was not the case, starting of with ‘no, no, no, no, you see….’.
Alex got off in Brest, and I was left alone. Just before I planned to take a nap, someone was tapping the window of my cabin. Some old lady was trying to sell me eggs, bottled milk, chicken and cigarettes. I politely tried to decline, although she kept on offering stuff I didn’t need. Each time I said ‘no’ she tried to look even more sad, pleading for me to buy something off her. I resolutely kept on declining.
It took some two and a half hours to cross the border at Brest/Terespol. Because the Russian rail gauge is wider than the European one, the trains have to be put on different sets of wheels. In the past, travelers had to physically change trains. Now, luckily enough, you can sleep through the procedure as huge cranes carry the wagons from one set of wheels to another. It does however take some ninety minutes.
Then there is border control. The Polish controls where quite fast, although I was surprised by military personnel waiting on Terespol station, machine gun at the ready. The Belorussian control was a little bit more of a pain. I had to fill in a form (in Russian) stating what drugs, guns, etc. I was carrying and I also had to state the amount of money I had with me. The idea is that the (Belo)Russian government wants to avoid money flooding out of the country. If you enter with, say, $1000 and leave with $10,000 you obviously made some money while in the country. The government wants you to spend that money within (Belo)Russia again.
So if you plan on making some money in either Russia or Belarus, it makes sense to suggest you entered the country with even more cash.
So I was carrying $2000. The border-control-with-the-very-large-cap had to count it all. So I emptied my money pouch for the friendly officer and he started counting. Of course, it was all there.