Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Interregnum: My Night in Europe’s Last Dictatorship

On a trip that would take us across a continent exclusively by rail, when all was said and done it came as a surprise that the nicest ride that we had ended up being our first. The journey from Moscow to Warsaw can take two routes: Through the Baltic states and down through Poland, or a more-or-less straight shot that cuts through Belarus. Given our schedule and the fact that we didn’t want to have to change trains in the middle of the night, we opted for the train that goes through the heart of Europe’s last remaining dictatorship.

This decision had ramifications well before we ever stepped onto our flight out of Beijing. Being the isolated, totalitarian state that it is, Belarus is one of the few countries in Europe -including Russia- that requires Americans to get permission to enter in advance. (Conversely, its close ties with Moscow made it the only place along our route that Alya did NOT need a visa to enter. It’s kind of like Russia’s Canada that way.) This meant that I had to apply for a visa at the Belorussian embassy in Beijing.

Since the country is so isolated there isn’t much demand for visas. As a result, the visa section is tiny: just 1 desk with a single consular assigned to it part time. I had to take a day off from work and go to the embassy early to make sure that I didn’t get stuck in a long line. I didn’t, but I was told that the fee for the visa would be just under ¥1,100. Mind you, I was applying for a transit visa that would not actually allow me to get off of the overnight train at any of the stops. In effect, I was being charged an exorbitant toll to pass through the country on my way to Poland.

It seemed so very silly until I realized partway through the process that given the many trade restrictions placed upon the country, visa fees are a key way that the regime can obtain foreign currency. I makes sense. It’s stupid and self-defeating, but it makes sense.

Combined with the fee for my Russian visa -which was ¥1,400 for 2 days- the cost of transit permissions on my first stops alone was almost as much as the plane ticket from Beijing to Moscow.

None of this was on my mind as we set off, though. I was barely keeping my eyes open when the boarding call came and we embarked. I’d had a long night out partying and walking along the Moskva River the night before, and then an early morning getting up to meet Alya’s family for brunch. I was looking forward to sleeping through most of our 13-hour trip and arriving in Warsaw refreshed.

Our cabin was quite spacious. Designed for 3 passengers, one side had a couch that converted into a bed and two fold-out beds stowed against the wall above it. The other side consisted of a wide closet, a sink and a small table. There were only 2 of us so it felt like a perfect -if cozy- fit.

My body wanted nothing more than to lay right down and go to sleep, but Alya wasn’t tired (she’d had a full night’s sleep) and I was excited and wanted to chat for a bit. After a little while Alya couldn’t wait to unwrap the pizza that her mother had made for us and dig in. I love Alya’s mom’s cooking, so I could hardly blame her.

Yummy stuffed Russian pizza!
After just a few bites it was off to dreamland for me, though. I slept solidly all of the way through Belarus, until we came to the border crossing… which is where things got interesting.

We pulled into the station at Brest, which lies just across of the border from Poland, at about 3:30am. The first thing that struck me as odd was the fact that we’d gone through all of Belarus without a visa check. Why not stop us at the Russian border to check our passports?

Immigration agents got onto the train and went from cabin to cabin. The agent who came to our door was a gruff, mean-looking (and sounding) older woman. In the US we’d call her a “battle axe”. (I had fun explaining that one to Alya.) She barked at us in Belorussian and we handed over our passports. She took them and added them to the large pile that she was already holding and then, after a few questions about illegal items that we should not have, she moved on to the next cabin. Eventually she got off of the train and took everybody’s passports back to an immigration office somewhere while we waited.

This is when the train pulled into warehouse of sorts where we’d have to change undercarriages.

This part needs a bit of explanation: Back in pre-WWII days, the Russians changed the width of their train tracks and made them smaller than what was then the de-facto European standard. This was a strategy to slow the advance of German troops and materiel during an expected invasion. The standards have never been changed. Today, this means that whenever a train crosses the border between Russia and Europe they need to swap out their undercarriages.

This process went car by car and took at least 2 hours. Afterwards, the train rolled back into the main station with a wider set of wheels, the immigration officials came back on and handed our passports back to us, with entry and exit stamps added, and we were on our way.

Within a few minutes we were crossing into Poland… and being shadowed by immigration officers.

It's the fuzz!
The difference in architecture and level of wealth from one side of the border to the other was stark. We went from neat, yet small, homes in hamlets on one side, to familiar McMansions and nice cars in suburban subdivisions on the other, all in a matter of moments. It truly was like passing into another world. Given the obvious difference in living standards, I can understand the need for the Poles to be vigilant about people trying to cross into their country secretly. If I lived right across a river from what looked like a land of riches compared to my hardscrabble existence, I would probably try to get to the other side, too.

Logically, unlike in Belarus, we pulled into a train station minutes after crossing into Poland. Customs officers were all lined up on the platform, decked out in heavy gear. The agent that covered our car came to the door much more quickly than his Belorussian counterpart had, and I quickly saw why: Instead of collecting passports and taking them off somewhere, he had a small box strapped to his belt. It looked like a big credit card reader but it turned out to be a device that let him swipe passports and pull up our information and display it on a screen strapped to his arm. He took one look at my US passport, swiped it, double-checked my photo, put a stamp in it, handed it back to me, smiled and said, “Welcome to Poland,” in accented English.

Alya’s check-in took an extra moment as he checked her visa, but within a matter of a couple of minutes we had both been registered as having entered Europe. It was a shockingly pleasant experience, especially when compared with the inefficient, brusque service that we'd received a few hours before. 

Within about 30 minutes we were on our way again. The rest of the journey was uneventful and I marveled at the beauty of Poland as I looked out the window at the countryside sliding by. The vast expanses of plains and small rolling hills covered in lush, fertile green were striking. I’d done plenty of reading up on all of the countries that we would be visiting on our tip and I expected the scenery to be that of a breadbasket of a country, but my subconscious was still expecting everything to be in shades of gray.

You can take a kid out of the Cold War, but you can’t take the Cold War propaganda out of the kid.

As we finally pulled into a station on the edge of Warsaw I got ever more excited. I could hardly contain my thrill. I’d been worked up to the point of sleeplessness before Alya and I took our flight to Moscow, but that was a place that I had already been to. It was her home turf. We were surrounded by her family and friends.

And so we stepped off of the train into the bright, clear Warsaw morning, into a city -and a country- that neither of us had ever seen before. I finally felt like our adventure was really starting.

So... Now what?