Banned from Russia? No way!
A morning zooming around POLIN and then a journey to Belarus to discover that we could be banned from Russia. No Way! If you want to go to Russia, do NOT go to Belarus first.
We just had the morning left in Warsaw so had a whistle-stop tour of POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, situated in a district that was inhabited mainly by Jews before WWII. Straight away we were struck by the architecture, a vast box clad with copper and glass etches with Hebrew and Latin letters: ‘Polin’ meaning ‘rest here’, a contrast with the beautiful interior curved walls that split the building in two, symbolising the gap in the long history of Jews in Poland.
The exhibition of the heritage and culture of the Polish Jewish people stemmed from the Middle Ages until the present time and weaved around pathways similar to an Ikea store. The stories told of fluctuations from cooperation and conflict, integration and annihilation and of key people such as an inspirational teacher who devotedly taught boys from poor families. We could have easily stayed for the whole day; there was so much information given; it was quite overwhelming. (It’s free on Tuesdays).
But, alas, we had a flight to catch.
This whole trip is to get to Vietnam overland as we are concerned about the climate crisis. However, after booking a coach to Minsk, Belarus, from Warsaw, then a train onwards to St Petersburg I discovered that no tourists are allowed to use the trains as they do not go through an international border. Damn.
What to do? Recent visa changes allowing UK residents to fly into and out of Minsk International Airport without a visa alleviated us an onerous visa process requiring an invitation. Decision made: train and coach tickets cancelled and two flights purchased instead. Oh well, we have offset our carbon footprint.
Back to today, when we reached passport control in Minsk, the officer asked me “Where are you going next?” “Russia” I responded. “But you cannot get into Russia from here”. After a long dialogue, we learnt that all flights from Belarus to Russia are treated as domestic, and, like the trains, do not go through International passport control. If we used our plane ticket, we would be banned from both Belarus and Russia! What?!
After our incident when leaving South Africa, we certainly didn’t want a repeat being banned and definitely not before getting into Russia. We’ve already paid for our visa, accommodation and Trans-Siberian train tickets!
What to do? We’d work this out when we get to the Airbnb with wifi. At least the 1-hour journey by bus and train into the city was cheap. £3 for us both.
Talking of which, when arriving at our Apartment, a note stuck on the door asked us to ring the host. With no network connection or wifi yet, this was not possible. Luckily a neighbour was having a smoke outside and called our host for us. He invited us into his home for a cup of tea as the host was going to be a little while. How lovely.
We met Sasha’s wife, Tania, and her mother and soon, Sasha gave us steaming mugs of tea. He seemed surprised that we did not take sugar so gave us a plate of honey to eat. A bit random for us. It is incredible how much we can learn about people with no understanding of each other’s language. Sasha was very fit and regularly goes weight training. I wouldn’t like to be on the wrong side of him.
It was also interesting to see how local people live. Their tiny apartment was very old-fashioned and in need of repair. No wonder, the average salary is just US$300 per month.
Soon our host arrived, and Sasha beckoned us to take our tea to our apartment. An hour later he knocked for the mugs, we thanked him profusely, and I gave him some Wether‘s Originals we’ve brought for the train assistants to Mongolia. Our neighbour opened his wallet and pulled out a byn5 with a cheeky grin. We knew what he was after - Money. Oh well, it was still kind of him to invite us in, and we probably seemed like very affluent travellers to him, which, in Belarus, we are.
Now to sort out our journey. Where to fly to? Back to Poland, Lithuania, or Latvia? (never thought of Finland!) Lithuania was the cheapest flight, but not to get to St Petersburg. It was like solving a complex equation. Suddenly I had a brainwave. We don’t just need to look at flights. Long story short, I found a relatively cheap overnight coach journey from Riga, Latvia, ensured that it went through an International Border crossing and booked the flight and coach tickets. Oh well, there is always a silver lining, one more country to tick off! (That’s a joke by the way)
Remember, if you want to go to Russia, do NOT go to Belarus first.