Just for sheer novelty, waking up one morning and going to Belarus is hard to beat. Here's how it went a couple of weeks ago:
14 August, 2010
I’m excited today. We’re heading into the capital of Europe’s lone holdout authoritarian state, Minsk, Belarus, still all decked out in mint-condition Communist architecture. This ought to be fun.
So: We decided to do this the local way. Yesterday at a terrace bar down across from the big Vilnius Cathedral they convinced us that the train we meant to take would spend an eternity at the border, and that the entire trip would be far faster by bus. We'll take the bus.
My back’s up against the wall of the bus station in Vilnius, surveying where the buses arrive and depart. Our tickets say we’re leaving from slip #34 at 12:50 for a roughly four hour ride on Tolimojo Keleivinio Transporto Kompanija UAB, seats 29 and 30 from Vilnius to Minskas. It’s a Lithuanian company. Somehow its acronym is TOKS, with a sporty slash down the middle of the logo.
A mustardy yellow bus creeps toward slip 34 and I’m sure it’s ours, broken and limping as it is. But it crawls on past 34 to 37. Its sign reads destination: Sakiai.
People smoke. All the buses look air-conditioned and that’s good because it’s hotter than in memory this summer in the Baltics, today’s high 92 (33.33C).
Pigeons. People talking on cell phones. Guys wearing T-shirts that read “Top Security.” Doesn’t feel much like there’s petty crime here in the blazing sunlight.
We’re in the bus. Six or eight minutes with no air and it’s hot, then the A/C is on and all’s well. Twelve rows of four and a back bench, this bus is full except for a few. No idea what anybody else is saying, no idea what we’ll do at the border. There’s the fun. Driver comes down the aisle with arrival cards – “Number passport, number visa.”
And now we clatter around the cobbled streets of Vilnius. One man aboard is wearing his Roman Catholic clerical garb, one woman is wearing a headscarf, and there are no seat belts in the bus, a Setra, a subsidiary of Daimler AG.
In fifteen minutes, no more, we’re out in the countryside. Lithuania’s only hills seem to be around Vilnius. The landscape’s flat now as far as the eye can see. Suburbs, second houses, farmhouses and falling-in former farmhouses.
We came from Finland, and the forest had looked all stoic and Baltic and northern, kind of greenish-monochrome, all the way across Finland and Estonia and Latvia, but now we’re farther south in Lithuania and new trees and especially weeds creep into the mix.
The hay was already baled in Finland. Combines still worked the fields between Riga and Vilnius. And right now it feels pretty much like our farm in Georgia, USA would on 14 August.
A brisk 33-kilometer hop down to the Belarusian border. We stop at this particular end-of-the-EU outpost at 1:15 for a very serious, very young soldier, who boards the bus and takes all but the EU passports, best I can tell.
We all climb off and there’s shade and people smoke and find the toilet and change money and then the driver fires up the bus (which means air-conditioning) so we all climb back on and the serious young Lithuanian soldier redistributes our papers.
25 minutes into the border process we maneuver around an hours-long car queue, driving in the no man’s land’s oncoming lane. At the front there’s some shouting and some jukin’ back into our lane and we come to the gates of Belarus.