I don’t normally talk to many people these days. Most of the people I run into speak a much more advanced form of Russian than I, embarrassingly, am able to remember from my university studies. But of those that I do speak with in English, most ask me, usually as small talk, how long it takes to get to Minsk from where I am living in Belarus. A lot is involved in describing this, though, much more than a person can easily keep interesting in a simple conversation. For that reason, I decided to put to written words what it is like to travel from Ostrovets to Minsk and back.
For those who are not all that strong on the geography of Grodno Oblast, much less that of Belarus, Ostrovets is the most easterly district (“rayon”) center of the northwestern administrative region of the country. It sits all of maybe five kilometers from the Minsk-Vilnius train line, not far from where it crosses the Belarus-Lithuanian border. It is surrounded by a mix of farmlands and forest, the occasional lake, and villages with churches that serve as relics of better times in the region’s history.
Local authorities put great faith that the nuclear power station being built north of the city will provide for additional tourism and business. Of course, whether it does depends in large part about accessibility of the town. Unfortunately, getting between Minsk and Ostrovets remains something of an adventure, even for routine day trips.
First, any travel day is going to start early. Ostrovets is not particularly big, people usually get across this town of about 8,000 to any location after a half-hour of foot-travel. Nonetheless, those catching the morning train will usually start out for the bus station sometime between 6 and 7 a.m. In the summer, this might be after the sun has risen from the not-quite-darkness of the local night. In spring or fall, this might be in the cool twilight before the morning makes its real appearance. In winter, this will still be night, when the frozen snow-covered ground can sometimes be hazardous.
No matter how bright the skies are, though, the goal is to get to the bus station well before 7:10 a.m., when the bus to Gudogai station is scheduled to depart. Usually, the ticketing window (“kasa”) is fairly quick. The ticketer takes your money (about 2,000 BYR, or 22 US cents), and issues you a receipt. This receipt is actually your ticket. You can then board the bus, if the driver has arrived by the time you get back out to the platform, and wait for everyone who has bought a ticket to get aboard.
You can usually tell when it’s 7:10 a.m., as the bus driver has gotten into his driver’s seat, and the tape player has begun to play some sort of Soviet-era lounge act. Russian music afficionados can sort of guess the driver’s age by the songs being played (age of song plus about 18 years). The bus then quietly pulls away from the station, a somber place that seems more the place of sad partings rather than the starting point for great travel adventures.
Once past the Church of the Ascencion of the Cross, a beautiful Russian Imperial-era structure (built 1911) that served in the Soviet era as a grain-storage building, and once beyond the city police station and the Belarusneft gas station, the bus travels through border-region forests to Gudogai Station, a village built around the train depot that has served as a customs inspection point since the break-up of the Soviet Union (not to be confused with Gudogai Village, where the Carmelite Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is located). As with most Belarusian stations that I’ve seen, it’s in relatively good repair and reasonably safe to wait around for the next train to anywhere. As the platform is a customs zone, access is controlled, even for domestic trains. People boarding here are allowed beyond the gate only after the train has arrived and been cleared of disembarking passengers.
Until recently, all trains that operated on the line between Vilnius and Minsk stopped at Gudogai, not only for customs inspection and passport control, but also to pick up local passengers. Then, new express trains were brought into service between the Belarusian and Lithuanian national capitals, and as a result, the options for travel out of Gudogai were limited to either the remaining long-distance routes (all with a high ticket cost of somewhere around 270,000 BYR or 30 USD, as compared to the earlier offer of 50,000 BYR in a “kupe” or second class compartment), or the limited number of diesel-driven commuter trains (I often jokingly call these “dieselichka,” a nickname modified from “elektrichka,” or electric commuter train renowned for taking passengers to suburbs they don’t necessarily want to be in). Although the seats are not wooden (hurray for vinyl), this is definitely somewhere along the lines of “fourth class” comfort. The price, at around 11,000 rubles (about 1.25 USD) is excellent for those students who travel home each weekend – this is very evident if you try to board one of these in Minsk on a Friday evening.
The countryside is relaxing, though. Forests and farmlands, with buildings and homes that seem a cross between Slavic Eastern European and Scandinavian Northern European adding character to the view from the train window. Towns with unique histories pass by, places such as Smargon, where Napoleon bid his troops farewell at the end of his disastrous Russian campaign, and Molodechno (Molodeczno), once a significant Polish administrative center (and still today a major railway junction). Of course, the commuter trains make every single stop between Gudogai and Molodechno. However, if you keep your eyes out the window and stay focused on the Belarusian countryside, you can almost forget that you are riding in a tin can on wheels.
The commuter trains all make at least three stops when going into Minsk. The first is about 15 minutes out from the main station at Zhdanovichi, the site of one of Minsk’s greatest outdoor markets (with food stands named “Saigon,” you can sort of guess the nationality of a significant portion of sellers). The second stop is at Minsk-Severny or Northern Station (about six minutes out). The last is at the main passenger station.
Minsk’s passenger station is a relatively clean affair by post-Soviet standards. The country has invested a certain amount into its modernization in the first decade after independence, and since 2002, its tunnels and waiting areas are safe for families awaiting legitimate arrivals who might be coming in at 2 in the morning. The station faces the “Gates of Minsk,” a pair of Stalinesque towers that mark the start of Nezavisimosti or Independence Prospekt. Connected into the underground tunnel network that brings passengers from the platforms to the ticketing area is also a series of food arcades and the entrance to the Leninskaya Ploscha (Lenin Square) station on the city’s Metro.
The Minsk Metro contains two lines, which is an indicator of the number of the Soviet-era population of the city. The standard rule-of-thumb was that for every million that a city contained, Soviet authorities would install one Metro train line. There are two train lines from the Soviet era in Minsk, and one more being added shortly. Most areas that a person needs to get to is serviced by the Metro. Where they aren’t, there are surface busses and trams, and of course several taxi services.
Getting back to Ostrovets can be tricky. There are only two 3-hour-length direct “dieselichkas” in any day, one of which operates at the ungodly hour of 6:10 a.m., and the other which departs Minsk about 12 hours later at 5:55 p.m. There are also several “elektrichkas” that after a 1 hour 45 minute run connect in Molodechno with afternoon trains that connect further out to Gudogai, but these involve anywhere from 1-5 hours wait at the transfer point; Molodechno is admittedly not a particularly interesting city (though it is bigger and with better sculptures than Ostrovets). The elektrichkas also stop at every point on the route, adding a half-hour to the travel time to Molodechno.
Beyond Soli, a secluded little farm town about 15 minutes out from Gudogai that features a beautiful white church, the train doesn’t make many stops. The yellow brick of Oshmyany station serves as a popular disembarkation point for local passengers, most of which either live in the surrounding country or are driven off to the larger Oshmyany town on the main highway. As the track slowly winds to the border station of Gudogai over old river crossings and past cow fields, villages like the ones served by Skrestiny station stand hardly touched by time. Despite this, they aren’t really happy places. Most have the reputation of serving as something of a throw-away zone for the country’s impoverished. In places where farmers once cleared proud woodland steads and raised large families, the hopeless drunks without family support today appear to head off to drink themselves to death in buildings without running water and hardly any insulation against the winter cold. The rent is cheap, though.
Beyond Kamenka station (about 12 minutes out from Gudogai), Ostrovets comes into view off to the right as distant smokestacks and construction crane towers briefly glimpsed in clearings between copses. Passengers gather their things and pull out passports in preparation to disembark the train. Yes, passports, even on the commuter train. No one is crossing a border here, but at Gudogai station, there is a passport control even for those departing from these local runs. At one time, the entire region around Gudogai Station, including the village containing Gudogai’s Carmelite church and Ostrovets, was part of a special administrative district, or a border zone. This border zone required special permission to enter, and most especially to stay.
In 2009, about the time that plans were announced for a new atomic energy station in Ostrovets, the city was removed from the border zone, possibly to reduce the bureaucratic measures needed to facilitate foreign workers who would be required for the project. Initially, the Belarusian government invited not only the Russian Rosatom firm to bid, but they also invited firms from China (Guangzhou), America (Westinghouse), and France (Areva) to take part. Predictably, the Western firms declined to participate, leaving only the Chinese and Russians to actively pursue bids for the state project. Eventually, the Rosatom-Atomstroyexport consortium signed with the Belarusian state directorate, and in so doing defeated the Chinese, which, sadly, removed any hope for the arrival of Dim Sum and Sechuan cuisine in this remote part of Belarus (I had such high hopes back then).
However, despite the fact that Ostrovets was no longer in a restricted area, the train station at Gudogai remained within the border zone. Where exactly it begins and ends between the built up area around the station and Ostrovets is probably a detail only known by the local police – all that anyone sees between them are empty woodlands. However, when passengers get off the train here, they know the entrance to the restricted area by the border police waiting to greet them at the platform exit. These days, I’m more frequently recognized and allowed through with a cursory inspection of my registration, but as an American passport holder, I usually do hold up the line of people behind me when a new inspector is being trained. Even buying a ticket back in Minsk can be a hassle when the ticket seller finds out an American is trying to travel to Gudogai.
Once out of the platform area, new arrivals are free to traipse around anywhere – into the village (nothing to see), into the ticketing hall (not very entertaining), out to the taxi cue (usually waiting taxis have been reserved by passengers who phoned ahead), or off to the bus stop, where the white Grodno Oblast bus to Ostrovets is usually waiting. The bus trip into town is usually a crowded experience, but one that again only costs 2,000 BYR (or 22 US cents). It makes two stops in the city, the first at the bus terminal, and the second at a stop in the center of town (at the corner of Leninskaya with Valadarskaya and Karl Marx, across the street from the Lenin statue at the City Square park). The second stop is quite convenient, as people exiting here are just a stone’s throw from just about everything important in Ostrovets – the Dom Byta shopping center, the wedding parties that only just begin at the town’s ZAGS (or civil registrar’s), the city banya (public bathhouse), and most importantly for me, my wife’s family home just off the Losha River. It’s a shame that this convenient location is not a regular stop in the morning run out to Gudogai.