Europe | Belarus | brest – I stop at Brest
After a final farewell breakfast at my milk bar I headed to Warsaws’s main train station. The train was at 10.00, and I was early enough to go check my mail under the tracks. Then at 09.25 I discovered, on careful reading of the timetable, that the train from Warsaw to Moscow, via Belarus, was the only international train that left from the station on the other side of town. The East side. Obviously. Aargh.
I had 35 minutes. I ran out of the station, dodged about 10 lanes of screaming traffic and leapt on a tram. Then I sat in agony as the tram sedately trundled through the city. To pass the time I gnashed my teeth and dug my fingernails into my palm. Then at 09.50 I jumped off the tram and ran through the station and found my platform. The train was right in front of me. I could almost reach out and touch it. But there was a guard in the way. I showed him my ticket.
He says something in Polish. I smile. He keeps talking and keeps hold of the ticket. My smile fades and I shrug my shoulders, not knowing what he is on about. I try and take my ticket to get on the train, but he stands in my way. Finally he gets it through to me that I need a bunk reservation as well as a ticket even though I won’t be sleeping. The lady at the ticket desk had neglected to tell me this. I don’t have one so he won’t let me on the train.
I grab my ticket and leg it back inside the station and into the queue at the international window. For the next few minutes I watch the hour hand on the clock move ever so quickly towards ten while the woman behind the window and the man at the head of the queue talk about the weather. It was raining. When he finally fucks off I frantically try and get her to sell me a bunk reservation for a train that is leaving right now. I think she understands, but all she did was shake her head and start to deal with the next person in the queue. Which is no good to me.
I don’t know what to do, but there’s no time to formulate a detailed plan so I grab my bags and run back to the platform. The guard is gone, but the train isn’t. So I jump on.
To be confronted by a ticket lady with a mousteache and a raised eyebrow. I compose myself, smile and show my ticket which I know is not enough. But the train is now moving towards Belarus and I’m on it. She looks at my ticket and says something in Russian and/or Polish which I’m pretty sure is: What’s your game you little prick? Where the hell is your bunk reservation? And why are you grinning at me like that?
I shrug and take out my dollars…
Six or so hours later we’re at the border and there are lots of forms to fill in. In Russian. The customs officer’s English is about on a par with my Russian, but we struggle through. He shoots me with his gun and plunges a syringe into my arm. I shake my head to indicate I am carrying neither firearms nor drugs. A nice lady, who does speak English, informs me it is the Belarussian government’s pleasure to offer me the chance to purchase compulsory medical insurance for $5. My store of hard currency is on the dwindle. But I’m in.
I don’t know Belarus too well, and we agreed to take things slowly at first, so my first stop is at Brest. That is far enough for now. It may be only a few miles from Poland, but it’s a long way behind. Getting off the train was like stepping into another world. The third one. Of the places I’ve visited only rural Romania came close. The fashion sense of the people scurrying around between the tracks was appalling.
But the inner city was quite pleasant. Wide tree lined streets and big square white buildings laid out in long straight lines. It was easy to find my hotel. You just turn left after Lenin. The lady at the desk didn’t speak English, but everything went smoothly. I was impressed with the hotel. I had my own bath. 30 minutes later I’d been to the bank and got me some roubles and everything was sorted. This wasn’t so hard.
Brest is best known as the place where the new Bolshevik government backed out of WWI from. For years Belarus has been badly scarred by war, acting as a battleground for Russian and western armies since Napoleon came through in 1812. Due to Stalin’s lack of foresight, the Soviets weren’t prepared for the German onslaught in 1941, so the city of Brest, near the frontier, was overrun in 5 hours. Except for the fortress on the outskirts which held out heroically, but futilely, for another month and a half. When it finally fell, the front was tens of kms away.
The locals are well proud of those who dug in so valiantly. There’s a stupendous memorial laid out over a couple of square kms where the old fortress once stood. You enter through a huge star shaped opening in an enormous hunk of concrete. In the distance you can see a stone soldier’s head sticking out from a ginormous rock. It gets bigger and bigger as you walk towards it until it fairly looms overhead. He’s a big guy. And he looks solemn.
There’s also an eternal flame, tall steel spike, and the ruins of the palace where the treaty was signed in 1918. But best is a museum which shows what it was like in the fortress. Not fun. There are striking paintings of desperate soldiers huddling behind piles of rubble, mock bombs falling from the ceiling, loads of big guns, and photos of all the guys who died. They might not have held the fortress in the short term, but they did their job as best they could. And in the end the Nazis lost, so now they’re heroes. The Belarussians are right to be proud.
Next morning I walked into the station and marched straight up to the window and handed over a note onto which I’d copied ‘ One ticket 2nd class to Minsk please ‘ in Russian. It worked a charm. Thanks for the Russian phrasebook Miriam.
Then I wandered the streets to pass the time. Brest has a real nice painted onion-domed Orthodox church in among all the plain blocks. You could say it’s a nipple. But I wouldn’t. I promised myself not to make bad jokes. But it’s so easy.
There’s also a teeming market with watermelons and batteries and washing up liquid and screwdrivers all at great knockdown prices. But then I earn more than $45 a month. Most interesting was the kvas tank. It’s a big yellow barrel on wheels with a tap and a pipe and you buy a glass of warm, mildly alcoholic fermented rye bread water. It’s pretty sweet. The public phones are square metalic boxes with no colour or instructions. They look industrial. I took a photo, and got funny looks from a passer-by. But I had no time to stop and explain myself. I had a train to Minsk to catch.