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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

BUREAUCRACY IN BELARUS


We exit Russia a day before our visas expire. No dramas, just a tad slow as they make us go through the truck queue. Then on to Latvia in the EU where we join the car queue and of course it’s the slow queue this time.  We need to purchase car insurance & road toll even though we only plan to be here a day or two. Still it is pretty cheap. A few hours later we are free.  We find a nice spot beside a lake in the Razna National Park for the night before we tackle our next border.

Today it is to be “Welcome to Belarus Day”. Fingers crossed. Leaving Latvia is pretty smooth – it always amazes me why they need to see insurance etc etc when we are leaving. Then we hit the Belarus side. Soooooo slow. They even take a magnifying glass out to examine every page of our passports. Border control, customs, insurance…. all move slowly. Finally, we are in and they assure us we can free camp, but if we stay more than 5 days we need to register with the police. Sounds pretty easy – right!

Time to start exploring, and we love seeing tidy villages overflowing with flowers, heavily laden apple trees & smiling people. The roads are great & the drivers polite. We are falling in love with Belarus. Our first big town is Polatsk and we stop to admire the church & monastery. The day is too lovely to stop early so we keep exploring eventually pulling over in a hay paddock for the night.

Today we are planning to explore the city of Vicebsk. It is much bigger than we had expected, but we still find a car park in the city and head off. Most of the buildings in this entire country were destroyed in WW2 so there only pockets of old stuff left, & a lot of reconstructions. Still it is a pretty place and we manage to get cash & a Sim card. We decide to try and register while we are here – but after an hour with the Police we come away empty handed. They tell us to do it after 5 days. Our last chore is to get a Beltoll (a transponder for the toll roads) – it takes John over an hour.  By the end of the day we find a pretty spot with lake & cemetery views. Not bad in this flat country.

On the way south, we pass Khatyn Massacre Memorial - a WW2 war Memorial. It is incredibly stark & moving. There is an eternal flame beside 3 birches that symbolise the 1 in 4 people in Belarus that died in WW2. There are simple graves symbolising villages razed and bells tolling every 30 seconds showing the rates at which lives were lost during the war.  Very moving.

 As usual our plan is to hit the city (in this case Minsk) on Sunday so we head around the ring road to Dudukti where we can camp free - this includes water & electricity.  A perfect opportunity to do heaps of washing – sheets & towels included. Time to explore this touristy complex – sample the cheese & moonshine made here.  To round off a perfect day we meet some truly lovely people. Alex & his lovely friend invite us to explore some castles with them tomorrow & another couple give us a great guide book about Belarus in English.

So instead of heading to the city on Sunday morning we tour 2 amazing castles – Mir & Nesvizh. Both are set on water, one even has a full moat, and both have some very lovely restored rooms to explore. A truly lovely day. Thank you so much. Finally, at dusk we head to the city, and find that the I-Overlander spot is barriered off. As usual I have been keeping an eye out for a backup spot – so we head back there. Still in the city centre but it will be perfect for the night. At 7am the next morning we head to the Ukraine Embassy to get a parking spot. In the end we stay there all day & the next night.

More chores. First up registration as it is day 5. Three police stations later we discover the Immigration Police are closed for the day. Back to the Embassy. Visas applications are at 2pm so we set off to explore this lovely city. The best way to see it is by foot and we walk for miles. After lunch in the city it is time to get to that Embassy – but we are rather stunned to discover that the visas will cost $100US each & be ready to collect in 10 days or cost $200US each to collect tomorrow. Phew. We back out very quickly and in GR2 go online for the application form (as they said we needed to do). We see that we can apply online and collect them in Brest on our way south. A much better idea, we hope.

John has an interview to do with a reporter (as usual I find something to do in the truck). Then they take us to the library!  I am expecting books, but it is a crazy hexagonal building with great city views. We finish our day sitting in the park with Alex. It rains all night. Time to get out of here, but first stop is the Immigration Police. And a very unsuccessful visit that is. No, she will NOT give us our paperwork as we have no address. It is on to plan B as arranged by last night’s photographer (more later). But before we leave the city we must visit The Belarusian Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WW2) – and a fantastic display this is with plenty of explanations in English. An awful lot of very depressing information, and a rather different take on events than we see in our history books. I hadn’t realised that Russia & China between them won the war!

Time to head north to the tiny village of Zabrodie to stay in their camp ground and finally get this registration sorted. But as we pass “The Stalin Line” park we simply must stop to explore.  More war stuff – trenches, tanks, rockets, weapons etc etc. Brilliantly done (but I am getting seriously depressed). All you war crazy people can come & shoot guns, drive tanks, watch war games….

Head north to the very tiny village of Zabrodie where we stay in their camping ground, explore the museum, look at all their old cars & most importantly get registered. Yay we are now legal. Wake to another grey cold morning – it is officially Autumn & leaves are already turning. We had planned to explore the lake district, but grey weather is not conducive to looking at lakes so instead we head towards the fort at Lida and on to Hrodna.  The Lida fortress has been extensively rebuilt so we hadn’t planned on touring it, but we meet a local guide who gives us our own English tour (free) – Thank you.

Then on to the city of Grodna. It is rush hour when we arrive but we snare a riverside parking spot and head off to wander the streets. Some lovely buildings, gorgeous Polish Cathedral, Opera House & the new & old castles. Over the other side of the river I spy a much better carpark below the Cathedral. It has magic views, so we head over. John pulls out the awning and we enjoy the view.

Today we wake to sunshine. John has been checking online & found some old bunkers to explore. They are not far away – just near the border of Poland. Amazing to explore this massive concrete fortification from WW1. Then on to look at a few castles. The first is Ruzhany Castle - Most of it is in a crumbling state making it fun to climb around. The next is Pushosky Castle at Kosava & this one has had the exterior fully restored – and it is truly magical. Inside there is a detailed history of the building all in English. We finish our day camped beside the little lake with views back over the castle.

Today we must reach Brest to go for our interview for our requested Ukraine visas so not too many detours on the way. We arrive late morning giving us time to explore the gorgeous pedestrian mall, have lunch & look at the odd church or two before heading to the Consulate. Bad news I am afraid!! I should have done a bit more research. The lady is really very helpful, but we simply cannot get a visa in time or we could try paying megabucks to possibly get one by tomorrow. Change of plans…we will skirt around Ukraine. We will head to Poland & to give us extra time for the longer drive we will miss the south eastern corner of Belarus & cross the border tomorrow.

Later we meet Stan for yet another interview before heading to the amazing Brest Fortress. Surely the jewel in the crown. It is enormous with some very poignant war memorials. We end our day camped inside the grounds.

Goodbye Belarus & hello Poland.  But first the border………unbelievable queues, which is apparently very normal. In total we were there 6 hours – most of the time queueing with 100’s of cars. No trucks – that will give you a clue to one of our dramas. A Belarus official told us we couldn’t take out the 2 tyres that have been strapped to our roof since Turkey. “Apparently” you cannot take out used tyres not on rims. We would have to go back & either get rid of them or put them on to the extra rims we carry & tie the new ones currently on the rims up on the roof! Fortunately, Johns grovelling & suggesting “that was a little crazy” saved the day. After all the drama getting registered they didn’t even check? But on to Poland – fast and efficient EU! Not. Here the drama is that we are a “truck” and this border is for cars & buses only. As there is no way back they reluctantly process us. Maybe a sign would be helpful. Phew no more borders for a while (we hope). Romania here we come……..




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