I am aware that Warsaw in Poland is quite a detour to reach Belarus from Ukraine, but I had this stubborn idea to enter Belarus the Barbarossa way, which is the way the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, even if this would take me on 5 different trains during more than 24 hours.
This is why I boarded on the D67 train in Kiev, on Tuesday 18 November 2014 at 3.30 pm, due to reach Warsaw the next morning.
I was looking forward to this journey that I expected to be pleasant, cosy, batteries recharging, especially when I realized that the train was half empty and therefore I would have a coupé all to myself. I was mistaken. It turned out to be a tiring, albeit entertaining, experience on a well-beaten smuggling route into the European Union.
4.30 pm. The train leaves Kiev, half an hour late. The heating starts and it slowly becomes cosy. I am keeping myself busy with my typical train activities: reading, eating, resting, staring.
11.30 pm. I prepare myself to go to bed. I make my bed with the sheets and mattress provided, I put on my pyjamas, I switch off the light. The heating is way too strong so it’s too hot in the coupé, and I have to put an extra pillow between the radiator and my feet to avoid getting burnt, but I am expecting a good night sleep as always in Eastern trains.
0.30 am. What I don’t know yet is that I won’t be able to sleep much – we are about to cross the border and it turns out that the border crossing activities will last more than 4 hours.
1 am. Door open, light on. This is a young Ukrainian officer collecting the whole train’s passports. Then enters a brigade of 5-6 men armed with random tools such as torches, screwdrivers, motorcycle’s rear view mirrors, and a dog. Looks like there’s going to be some serious search going on.
1.30 am. The train is brought to another place 20 minutes further West. Follows an interminable wait with Ukrainian workers busy inside and outside of the train. Inside, they are dismantling everything they suspect hides smuggled goods (window frames, radiators’ protection grid, ceiling hatches, etc). Outside, no idea what is going on, maybe they are changing the wheels as the Soviet Union territories use a broader gauge (distance between the rails) than Europe, which is said to have been decided by Stalin to avoid invasions from the West.
Anyway, it is impossible to close an eye with the light on and all these mechanical noises as if we were in the middle of a factory.
2.30 am. The train returns to the initial position, where the Ukrainian officer tours the train again, this time to give all passports back to the passengers. The brigade leaves the train with big bags full of goods: they seem to have found quite some interesting stuff. The train stands still for another half hour and finally resumes its journey westward.
A few minutes later, just as the recovered peace and the hum of the train help me fall asleep again, someone opens my coupé’s door. They close it immediately but I have time to see a hand holding several cartons of cigarettes. It looks like someone is looking for a place to better hide whatever the Ukrainian authorities have left behind.
3 am. We reach the Polish border. Same thing over again: door open, light on, passport control, search, mechanical noises, interminable wait. The only difference, ultimate EU-sponsored advancement, is a detail of the search brigade’s equipment: their screwdrivers are electrical!
I tell the Polish border officer that I am French; he smiles and says “Bonjour”. He continues in Russian though: “Where are your fellow French friends?”. “Home”, I say. “You travel alone!!??”. Oh, I’ve seen this facial expression of incredulity many times before. I smile and nod. He wants to search my suitcase but he is too lazy to search thoroughly – you can feel that he genuinely trusts me. I show him the bottle of Ukrainian vodka I have. He checks my edition of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (in case I have replaced the 876 pages by cigarettes) and my snow boots (in case, like in Zakhar Prilepin’s book, I have the shoes filled with hot vodka).
That’s it – there were at least 56 places I can think of, in my luggage and in my coupé, where I could have hidden stuff, but that were not inspected. Yet, when the brigade will leave the train, I will see them again carrying big, full bags. So what’s the deal: one third is taken by the Ukrainians, one third by the Poles, and one third succeeds to be smuggled?
My own search lasts for 5 minutes but they have to do the same to the whole train, so again it takes ages. No way to sleep with the light and the mechanical and verbal brouhahas. To distract myself, I try to recognize which languages everyone speaks. Russian is easy to recognize to me, but it always takes me a few sentences to make up my mind between Polish and Ukrainian.
4.30 am. Finally all is done and we can continue our journey. Only a few hours to go but the cosy hum of the train lulls me to a peaceful sleep.
8.45 am. Arrival in Warsaw, it is 7.45 am in local time. The next step for me is an adventurous ride through Eastern Poland into Brest in Belarus: 4 regional train and connections in small Polish towns I have never heard of, and at the end the border crossing with Belarus – and same thing over again!