A small town in Poland near the border.
This is how a typical train car is set up: a long narrow corridor where people come to stretch their legs, look out the window, or talk on their phones. Each door leads to a compartment with two bunk beds which are converted to seats in the daytime.
Day 19. I woke up nice and early so I would have plenty of time to get to the train and figure out where it was. As luck would have it, I had to stay up good and late the night before since "Off The Hook" was airing at 1:00 am my time. It was a frustrating show since the studio kept dialing the wrong number leaving me in suspended animation for the first part of the show. There's no worse feeling than just sitting there knowing the show is beginning and not knowing what the hell is going on. I can deal with losing a connection in the middle - I almost expect that with the kinds of phone calls we're attempting to make. But the beginning is when the tone is set and missing that just throws me off for the rest of it. So I was in a bad mood *and* I got very little sleep and now I had to figure out the impossible train system of Warsaw. It looked to be a banner day.
I told you yesterday about the crazy room at Warszawa Centralna with the refrigerator magnet type train schedule. Would you believe that no matter how hard I tried today, I could not find that room again? And it's a really big room! I took a taxi to the station and went in from a different side but I didn't think it would be this difficult to get back to where I had been only a day before. It was like some kind of a "Twilight Zone" episode. I swear there was this huge room that was so archaic it could have easily existed 50 or 60 years ago. And today it didn't seem to exist at all. I found the train platforms without a problem. But when I tried to backtrack my steps yesterday to wind up back in that room the corridors all led to different parts of the station and its attached shopping complex. Freaky.
So I just accepted that it must have been a bad dream, one which I really didn't have the time to analyze. I had a train to catch at 9:00. Not that this was reflected anywhere else in the station. As I wandered around, I looked at the trains that were coming in. It was at 8:38 that I saw it. Minsk! My destination. For some reason the sign said the train was leaving at 8:40 but I didn't care as long as it was going to Belarus. Just to be sure, I asked a vendor on the platform whom I had overheard giving directions to someone else in English if this was indeed the train to Minsk. He said it was. But then a moment later, he had apparently thought better of it as he ran after me saying, "Polish Minsk only!" Yes, it's true. Just to make things as much fun as humanly possible, they threw another Minsk into the mix. And naturally this was the one being announced on the platforms. So much for thinking I had actually gotten somewhere.
The time of my theoretical train was approaching and I was beginning to get desperate. There were no train people anywhere to help out, no signs that had the information I sought, and the only room where someone had even admitted that this train might exist had vanished into thin air. That's when I chanced upon the "Strawberry" youth hostel people. I had seen them when I arrived in Warsaw. They met incoming international trains and shuttled away anyone who was interested in staying at a hostel. Best of all, they tended to speak English. So I approached them and asked if there was any way they could help me figure out where my train would be even though I wasn't staying in a hostel. They plunged into the challenge and ran around trying to figure out which train this could possibly be. I felt somewhat vindicated that it seemed as confusing to them in Polish as it did to me in English. I got them to explain some parts of the confusing schedule board to me. It seems those Roman numerals *do* tell you the track number. I know in Russia they're used to specify days of the week and since they had only gone up to VII (and since there were eight tracks), I assumed that was the case here as well. But this was still useless information without a train to match it to.
I mentioned that the people behind the now missing counter seemed to think that the train to Minsk was somehow connected to the train from Brussels. So we set out to ascertain which track that one was coming in on. Once we found that out, all they could do was wish me luck as there wasn't a hint anywhere else that it would be going beyond this station. But those youth hostel kids were orders of magnitude friendlier and more helpful than anyone else in the entire train station. So I went to the appropriate platform and looked at the huge train from Brussels that had just arrived. As I walked down the track looking for clues, I saw that there was one car all the way in the front that looked a little different from the rest and had a train employee standing by the door. It was the fabled car to Minsk! It felt like arriving in Mecca.
When you start riding on trains inside the former Soviet Union, there are many things that are done differently. The first thing they do differently is take your ticket when you get to the train. Even if you need it for a future part of the journey, they take it from you. Sometimes they even take your passport. There's no reason to panic as you get it back when you reach your destination. The person who takes your ticket and is basically in charge of your car is called the provodnitsa. This is someone you definitely want to be on good terms with as she can make things very comfortable or very miserable for you.
I wound up in the same cabin as a native Minsk resident who was returning from Germany where he had been working on a documentary project that involved interviewing Bellarussian survivors of Nazi slave camps. Wow. Not only was this fascinating but it was remarkable that the two of us were both working on a film project and here we were in the same compartment. His English wasn't great but a hell of a lot better than my nonexistent Russian. We had a third compartment mate from Germany who spent most of his time in a different compartment with his family. But when he was with us he was able to translate by speaking German to the guy from Minsk (who spoke it quite fluently) and English to me. That's kind of a typical way that train conversations in Europe seem to go.
I had a lot of myths dispelled about Belarus on this part of the trip. People were far from being cowed into submission. It was obvious that things were far from perfect but neither were people living in a constant state of fear. Who knows - maybe I would even get some footage out of this place.
The trip to Minsk from Warsaw has got to be one of the most non-distance-related lengthy connections anywhere in Europe. First we sat somewhere outside of Warsaw for what seemed like close to an hour. Then we got to the border at around 1:15 in the afternoon. That's when the real fun started.
First, the Polish border guards come onto the train and check out your documents. After stamping everyone, the train then moves a small distance and stops again. That's when the guards from Belarus come on. We had all been given these little customs forms to fill out. And when I say little, I really mean it. The line for your signature is about an inch wide and the little boxes to check are a few font sizes away from being periods. The provodnitsa was nice enough to give me one in English which obviously made it a lot easier for me to fill out. But there was still some uncertainty.
One of the questions on my form was whether or not I had any high quality electronics or devices for communication. Well, I could argue that my electronics weren't of high quality especially since I was always complaining about them. But my phone and computer were obviously devices for communication. So I checked "yes" and listed them on the back. I was a little nervous that this would make me a marked man. But I wasn't nearly as nervous as my cabin mate who also had a computer along with a pretty decent video camera. So when the guard from Belarus arrived, he immediately got into this involved exchange about what he was carrying and it looked as if things weren't going to go well at all. A large amount of money was going to be charged for bringing the equipment into the country. I wasn't sure how or if this was going to affect me but for now this commotion was at least turning their attention elsewhere. They took our passports and I was given another microscopic form which apparently was for entering and leaving Russia. I figured I'd fill that one out later since they wanted my passport number and I no longer had it in my possession.
More time passed and eventually the guard who had talked to my cabin mate about his equipment returned and ushered the rest of us out so he could have a private conversation. After a few minutes the door opened and everyone was all smiles. It had been worked out. Somehow. Shortly afterwards, another uniformed guy came by with our passports and handed them back to us. When he saw that I had the microscopic form he started yammering away in an excited tone. It turns out he was upset that I hadn't filled it out yet and that I needed to do so in a big hurry now. First of all, the thing didn't even say Belarus on it anywhere so I assumed it was for when I was entering Russia since that country's name was all over the form. Second, it wanted my passport number which is the one thing I didn't have while the passport was in the hands of the customs people! It's times like this I wish I could speak Russian just so I could have made what I thought were two excellent points. So instead I just quickly filled out the form right in time for the guy to run back and grab it from me.
That was it as far as border guards go. But now we had to go through the infamous Belarus change of the wheel bogies to accommodate the wide gauge track used in this part of the world. I witnessed this in reverse once before as I was riding from Minsk to Warsaw. Basically they do all kinds of track switching for each and every carriage, put them all inside a garage, and raise the carriages up into the air as they slide the old wheel bogies out and slip the new ones in. It's a slow process and it involves quite a few guys performing very specialized tasks. I took a few pictures and before I knew it, one of the workers was holding little souvenirs like belt clips and emblem patches, apparently thinking that being a tourist I would literally buy anything. He was persistent too; no matter what part of the train car I would move to in order to get another shot, he'd wind up over there too displaying his wares in the palm of a single hand. I could have taken a picture of him but that could have been a really bad move, especially if he wasn't supposed to be doing that sort of thing. And I actually got yelled at by one of the workers for using my video camera on the operation. Not knowing what is right and what is wrong means that you have to be ever cautious and always compliant with whatever you're told to stop doing.
So after all was said and done, the border crossing took about three and a half hours. Add to that the hour spent outside Warsaw and the hour time difference and what seems like a 12 hour trip is actually six and a half.
My cold has transformed itself into a cough which hopefully is the last stage of this nonsense. I was able to get free tea from the provodnitsa and use leftover euro coins to buy some soup which did a world of good. By the time we got to Minsk I was pretty exhausted but I vowed to try and get some real food near where I was staying. Tomorrow will be a real challenge as I have to get a train reservation to Moscow. It's the kind of thing that can literally take all day or wind up in complete failure.
I spent some time walking around the streets and was impressed at the wideness of the sidewalks and the overall cleanliness of the city. But more importantly, I noticed a change in the people since I was here last back in 2003. Whereas before most everyone had short hair and conservative dress, I spotted a lot of long-haired types as well as all kinds of individualistic fashion statements walking the streets. If this is really a dictatorship, it doesn't feel like one where people are afraid to express themselves or stand out. These are of course very preliminary observations. I'll hopefully have a chance to see more of the city and the people tomorrow.