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Published: October 1st 2007
Sometimes things just don't work out as they are supposed to - they work out better instead. After spending a day and a night in beautiful Krakow, Poland - one of the most vibrant, exciting and aesthetically pleasing cities I have ever visited (forget Prague, forget Vienna), full of baroque and renaissance buildings, towers, statues, parks, performance artists, cafes and interesting people, I took a train last night (was it only last night?) to Warszawa, to take a train to St Petersburg at around midnight. Even though I had a seat reservation, I didn't make it to my seat, as the train was too packed: people were spilling out of windows, doors and corridors, and I spent the three-hour journey squashed into a tiny corridor corner between the toilet and the exit door with two miserable Irish people, trying to have a good time regardless listening to the White Stripes and reading a book, best as I could.
Finally arrived in Warszawa Wschodnia, a dark, dingy railway station, I tried to find the platform to St Petersburg (with the help of a written piece of paper, as nobody speaks any English there), and found two friendly Russian train conductors who
took me under their wing.The train arrived just before midnight, and I was looking forward to crashing out on the 30-hour journey in my sleeping compartment - tiny but sweet. But, as I entered the train, the moustachoed train conductor asked me, with a grave voice: 'Do you have a Belarussian trrransit visa?' I turned, slightly confused, 'Excuse me?' 'Yesss, a Belarrrrrussian trrransit visa, you need it to crrross the borrrrder.' Confused, I showed him my Russian visa, upon which he drummed up half of the train's Russian inhabitants, who all started to talk to me at once, advising me about this mystical Belarussian visa. To be honest, I didn't even know where or what Belarussia is, let alone that I would be crossing it by train. A lovely Armenian girl named Julia, who was travelling in the compartment next to mine, took me under her wing and explained that I needed this visa to get into Belarussia, a former Soviet state. The various lovely, non-English speaking conductors all gesticulated wildly and advised me, via Julia, to leave the train now, at Warszawa, because the Belarussian border police would only send me back, at 3 am. I thought about it
and decided to risk it. After all, how could they refuse me? I would talk them around, surely, and if that failed, I'd bribe them. There would be a way. Julia joined me in my compartment and taught me Russian phrases such as 'I'm really sorry Sir, I did not know about the transit visa (let alone your country), is there any way we can resolve this problem? Could I buy this visa from you? How much would it be?' amidst much laughter at my pronunciation.
At about 1 am, we retired to our berths (complete with scratchy horse blankets), and I chanted mantras in my head to Ganesh, Green Tara and various other deities, lying awake until the train came to an abrupt halt at 3 am. A loud knock on my door, shouting in Russian: 'passporrrrts!'. I was up like a shot, passport and other documents in one hand, a little statue of Ganesh in the other. Soon enough, shouting and stern-looking officials stormed the train. After what seemed an eternity, a woman officer came to my compartment, checked my passport, said 'Danke' and disappeared. The train started to move. Moustacho train conductor came in and smiled, and I asked, incredulously, 'Did I get through? Was that it?' 'Nooooo', he smiled, 'these were Polish border!! Next one in five minutes, Belarussian, prrrroblem!' I glumly looked out of the window into the dark. It was now 4 am, and I saw an army of Belarussian guards standing eagerly at the platform, waiting to enter the train. My heart sank, but I was still hopeful, despite the fact that I had developed an awful stomach cramp. After a few minutes, a guard dressed in green burst into my compartment: 'You have Belarussian visa? No?' He looked at me for a second, pointed to the exit door impatiently with his thumb and disappeared, mumbling some Russian phrases. Not understanding what was going on, I remained seated, waiting for an opportunity to try out my newly-rehearsed Russian phrases. That opportunity never came. The officer came back after a few minutes, shouted at me in Russian (so Julia translated) 'Come on , pack your bags! You're leaving the train, back to Warszawa!' Impatiently, he started to pull some of my stuff out of the compartment and motioned me to follow him. I quickly got dressed, and followed him and my passport into the night, uncertain of my fate.
He led me to a big hall which comprised the Polish and Belarussian borders and motioned me towards a bench. 'Sit there and wait', he grumbled, and disappeared. On one of the benches sat another unfortunate soul, who had not known about this transit visa either. He was Bart, from the Netherlands, and we spent the next few hours chatting, observing and laughing at the many officials, still not sure what would happen to us, as our passports had disappeared and everybody was ignoring us. Bart told me that Belarussia still has a dictator called Loekashenko, the last one in Europe, who looks like Dr Phil. Around us were green uniforms, grave faces, stern handshakes, women officials with miniskirts, bad perms and high heels, and a big 'Welcome' signed glared ironically in front of us. Bart's official, different to mine and slightly more sympathetic, said to him 'It's very important that you don't leave this accommodation.' Accommodation? What accommodation? We were sitting on a wooden bench! After a while, another border official, quite good-looking, came towards us and said regretfully, hands outstretched, 'You no come to my country!! You must get transit visa, so you can come to my country!' He actually smiled. We were gobsmacked. Then he waved me towards him conspiratorily, and said 'you don't need to go to Warszawa. There is a little town, 15 km from here, where you can get this visa, and come back tomorrow. No prrrroblems at all.' The town was called Biala Podlaska (we named it Balaclava), and he even gave us the address of the consulate where we should get our visa. Better still, he allowed me to go to the toilet, and waited courteously outside until he could escort me back to my 'accommodation'. When his shift was over, he shouted 'Good Luck!' and disappeared.
At about 7.30, after over two hours of sitting on the bench of punishment, some other official brought us back our passports and pushed us onto the oldest train I have ever seen, back to Poland. It had incredible hand-sown pink nylon curtains, wooden windows and long blue leather benches. Our compartment was full of Belarussian women going to work (we thought), and who advised us in Russian where to get off. But before we could do that, we had to go through another torturous passport control session, lasting over an hour, to get back to Poland. Finally arrived in the Polish town called Terespol, we exited the train and breathed a sigh of relief. We decided to get a hotel room for a day, and then try to hunt down the elusive Belarussian visa. We found refuge in the very strange and run-down 'Hotel Gruen', but were glad to be able to have a shower and some breakfast, before walking back to the railway station to see how we could get to the consulate.
After much gesticulating in Polish, buying a futile train ticket, being asked for an extortionate $50 for the trip by a taxi driver, we finally boarded a bus to Balaclava. Not knowing where the consulate was, I asked the bus driver, and bless him, he drove us all the way to the consulate - which was just as well, as they close the visa section at 12 o'clock, and we arrived at 11.45. There, we met a Dutch lorry driver who was having immense problems with the two Belarussian officials there, two women - one looking like a poodle with a fluffy blonde perm and a 1980's mini dress, and her minion, both bored out of their skulls and intent on making the lives of those seeking entry to their country as difficult as possible. We watched in amazement as Poodle barked at the Dutch lorry driver at the top of her voice: 'SCHREIBEN SIE! DIE STRASSE! SCHREIBEN SIE!' because the man had forgotten to insert an address into the form. The man recoiled. Whilst they were severely reprimanding the visa-seekers with a raised index finger, Poodle and Minion made sly remarks to each other in Russian, and giggled. When it was our turn to hand over the visa forms, Poodle came towards us and barked in Russian something like 'What is this? Do you think we can accept forms like that?' I motioned to her to use the tippex pen she had used on the Dutch lorry driver's form just a minute ago, and she did that, giving us another filthy look, then giggling with Minion again.
She accepted our forms, set us the task of taking passport photographs for the visa, and visit a specific bank in Balaclava to pay the fee of $55. Off we went, feeling like on a TV show where participants have to pursue ridiculous tasks in foreign countries. We located the photographer (who demanded an extortionate fee for the photos), had a spot of lunch, visited the bank who accepted only USD (luckily we had some), and got a taxi back to the Consulate, where our passports were returned without much ceremony but with a shiny new Belarussian transit visa inside it. Outside the Consulate, in the garden, we took some ridiculous photos brandishing the visas, and as I turned, I saw Minion standing at the window, looking at us incredulously and shaking her head.
Visa in hand, we returned back to Terespol, spent the night there, and set off afresh after a good night's sleep the next morning, welcoming new adventures. What could have been a nightmare hassle had become a fun-filled, joyful and challenging adventure.
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