Alone in a forest with no idea what is going on
When thinking of traveling in Europe, I think that few people would consider Belarus as a possible destination. The same goes for me; I highly doubt I would have ever bought plane tickets to Belarus with the sole intention of exploring the country, but when I got an oppurtunity to visit Belarus for just a couple of days last summer I decided to take it. I was traveling around Poland, starting with Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot, then by train to Białystok, from there to Cracow with a day trip to Auschwitz and then further on to Warsaw to catch my flight back to Sweden. When planning my itinerary I read some comments on various travel sites saying that it is possible to cross the border to Belarus by foot, not far from Białystok. In that area there is a forest called Białowieża, which is shared by Poland and Belarus, and tourists have the oppurtunity to visit visa-free for three days when crossing that specific border. Seeing that, I decided that this would be a cool addition to my trip around Poland and started looking into how to make this happen. As it turned out, this was a logistical hell. This was, no exaggeration whatsoever, the most difficult trip I have ever planned. Not only is there extremely limited information available online about the border crossing – most of the information is in either Russian or Polish. I would have to figure out how to get to the border crossing from Białystok, getting the permits to cross and figure out where to stay for my two nights in Białowieża. I kid you not when I say that this took several months to accomplish. I have no idea how many different numbers I called in Belarus where I ended up talking to some confused farmer (I assume, because on several occasions I heard roosters in the background), with no idea how I could have been directed to them and not the tourist office which I thought I was calling. I also called a Polish travel agency several times, and every single time they said they couldn’t understand me and that I should e-mail them instead, so that they could read my requests and reply by e-mail. I think I e-mailed them four or five times, and not once did they reply. With only a couple of weeks left before my trip I was starting to get desperate, as I had paid a fee to get my permit to visit without actually having received the permit, and without having been able to contact the place I was meant to stay at. My rescue came in the shape of my wonderful Polish friend Alicja. I contacted her and she managed to call the Polish travel agency and talk to them in Polish, and within 24 hours I had both my permit and a hotel reservation. In case you are reading this, Alicja, thank you again! However, my troubles did not end there. When I arrived at the border crossing and my taxi driver had dropped me off and started to head back to Białystok I was told that I did not have the necessary insurance to cross the border. I stood alone at the customs on the Belarusian side, with only one woman working (apart from a military guy with a rifle, pointed at me), and she did not speak one word of English. Did I mention I do not speak a single word of Russian apart from being able to say “yes” and “no”? Eventually she pulled out a dictionary and pointed to one word at a time, making me realize the issue was my insurance. Really stressed out at this point, I went back to the Polish side, called my taxi driver who had not yet gotten very far, had him come back and help me find a place to buy insurance. Neither one of us knew where this place was and this amazing man kept stopping the car to go out and ask people for directions. After some wrong turns we eventually managed to find a small building where I bought an insurance for about 1 Euro. On our way back to the border he asked me if I was hungry, and stopped at a grocery store where he went in with me and helped me pick out some food for me to bring to Belarus. He then drove me back to the border where I showed my insurance and had my passport stamped. After this, I was finally able to enter Belarus.
Mama wild hog and baby wild hog in Białowieża
The relief of having arrived in Belarus soon turned into more stress. I was literally in the middle of a forest, with no clue where my hotel was. Was it even a hotel? This did not seem like the kind of place that would have hotels. I walked past more military guys with rifles and found a small lodge. Not really knowing what else to do at this point, I walked into the lodge and found a woman sitting by a desk. So far so good, now to somehow tell her where I wanted to go. I tried saying the name of the hotel, and she seemed to understand me because she pulled out her phone and made a phone call. Afterwards she held up her finger for me in an attempt to tell me I needed to wait, so that was what I did. I sat in this little lodge, not really sure of what I was waiting for. For someone to pick me up? For the miltary guys coming to shoot me? That didn’t seem entirely unlikely at that point. However, after a short while a van pulled up outside the lodge, and the woman pointed for me to go outside.
Alone in the van
A young man drove me through the forest on small roads. Every now and then I would see people on bikes along the roads, but other than that there was nothing but trees. We drove for quite some time, perhaps around 30-40 minutes, before we arrived at a white building. The building turned out to be my hotel, and it was surrounded by two restaurants and a café, and that was it. Around me was only trees, upon trees, upon trees. I did my best to thank the guy who had driven me, and took my bag to enter the hotel. When reaching the reception I hesitantly asked if the woman behind the desk spoke English, but she only shook her head. I told her my name and said the words “check-in”, hoping she would understand, and she did. She handed me a key and I made my way to my room. It was a more than decent room with two beds and a TV showing Belarusian shows. I considered these to be better than silence, and watched these for the rest of the evening while eating my store-bought Polish cookies, sending a silent thanks to the taxi driver who had reminded me to buy some food.
Time for breakfast
The next morning I left my room to get to the hotel breakfast. I walked into a small room with just a few tables and a bar, on which lay several menus. Without much hope I opened one of the menus, and found that everything was in Russian. A woman approached me and started talking to me in Russian, presumably asking me what I wanted. Having absolutely no clue what to say, I used my limited knowledge of Slavic languages to say “herbata” – the Polish word for tea. This was not understood, so I changed to “čaj”, the Bosnian word for tea. This worked better and the woman nodded to me, though did not really seem to comprehend that I did not understand her and kept talking to me in Russian. A woman in the kitchen seemed to have noticed my confused expression and came out and tried to help with the interaction, by speaking more Russian. I tried to shake my head, attempting to signal to them that I had no clue what they were saying. The woman from the kitchen, bless her, then went into the kitchen and brought out a sausage, an egg and something which looked like fried dough and signalled for me to pick one. Being curious about the fried dough I picked that one, and was pointed towards a table. The first woman then proceeded to serve me a very nice breakfast, and gosh am I grateful for their patience.
One of my favorite signs ever – “A big travel”, surprisingly enough in English
Białowieża is famous for its wildlife, especially its bisons which live there freely. This was one of the reasons I wanted to visit the forest, and after breakfast I went to explore. After having walked just a few hundred meters away from my hotel I learned that there were a few enclosures with animals ahead. Even though this is obviously not the same as seeing the animals in the wild, it did seem a bit more safe (and when I had tried to ask if there was some kind of tour – which I had in fact seen posters about on the hotel walls – I was just laughed at) and I went to enter the area with the enclosures. I did however not get very far until a woman started screaming at me in Russian. I turned around and saw her stick her head out of a miniature lodge, looking at me. For anyone who has ever tried sneaking in somewhere without paying and then being caught, you would have known instantly what her facial expression meant. I did not need to understand her language in order to know that what she said was; “you need to pay to enter!”. Fair enough. I went up to her and opened my wallet, filled with Russian rubles, Polish żłotych and Euro, and I felt very prepared. I had been encouraged to bring these three currencies by the same random comments which had made me want to go here in the first place. My money was however not good enough for the woman in the lodge. Already knowing that Belarus has its own currency (which it is not possible to get hold of in Sweden) I realized that this is the currency she must want. So how do you find an ATM in the middle of a forest? You don’t. A bit discouraged, I went back to my hotel to try to ask about how to get money. I approached the woman in the reception and held up my three currencies and shook my head, as if to say that my money was useless. The woman started talking to another woman working there, and it seemed as if they were trying to figure out how to help me. Soon after, the first woman went up, grabbed her own purse, pulled out some notes and exchanged them for my Russian rubles. Who needs an ATM when you have the kindness of strangers? Thanks to her generosity I managed to see bisons, wild hogs, deer, rabbits and (don’t ask me why) ostrichs.
I started thinking it was time for dinner, which would be an adventure in itself. I went into one of the two restaurants and looked at the Russian menu. Seeing my confused face a kind man walked up to me and started explaining all the dishes to me in Russian. I tried to tell him that I couldn’t understand, so he became even more helpful and explained even slower. Feeling really dumb, I held up a finger for him to wait, ran back to the hotel and connected to the wifi (which I had to pay for my the minute). I looked up “chicken” on Google Translate – apparently written “курица” – screenshotted it and went back to the restaurant to show it to the waiter. I was happy to see him nod when looking at the screen, and he pointed for me to sit down. A few minutes later my dinner arrived, and he quite literally given me just chicken.
Not necessarily what I had expected, but hey, food is food
My stay in Belarus was coming to an end and I had managed to figure out that the van would pick me up the next morning at 10.30 to take me back to the border. I set my alarm and went to bed. The next morning I woke up and left my room to go sit in the lobby while waiting for the van. I had asked the woman in the reception where exactly the bus would come (basically by just saying the word “autobus” and pointing in several different directions with a confused expression, until she eventually realized what I was trying to ask and pointed in the right direction) and was sitting in the lobby until 10.20 when I went outside and waited. And waited. And waited. Time passed, but the van didn’t show up. I was hesitant to leave my spot in case the van would show up and leave without me if I weren’t there, but at the same time I didn’t really know if I was at the right spot. I grabbed my bag and rushed back into to the hotel, while simultaneously trying to come up with a way to ask where the van could be. My genius plan was to simply approach the woman at the reception yet again, point towards the spot where the van was supposed to arrive and say “autobus, nyet”. That was literally the only way I could express myself. After a few attempts the woman understood me and made a phone call, making the van arrive about 30 minutes later, driving me back to the border.
Happy to be back in Poland with my Belarusian stamps
Never have I ever felt as isolated as I did in Belarus. Even though the people there were nothing but nice and helpful, it was such a strange experience not being able to communicate with a single person. Even though that was a light weight experience of only two days, it still really made me think. How must those who are forced to leave their countries permanently feel? When they arrive in a country where they can’t communicate with anyone, and where people might not be as helpful as the Belarusians were to me? We live in a time period where big amounts of people are forced to leave their homes, families, languages and friends in order to relocate to a place where they often aren’t made to feel welcome. I can’t even begin to imagine what that must feel like. While I have lived abroad twice, it has been completely voluntarily, and I have known the language enough to be able to communicate with people, making it easier for me to integrate. It has also been under circumstances where I have been able to make friends easily, not having to worry about isolation. All I know is that if two days of not being understood could impact me so much, then the sensation of seeking permanent refuge in a foreign country will, without a second of hesitation, be such a traumatic experience that it will never in a millon years compare to the slight inconvenience the locals might have to go through by helping support these people through taxes. Solidarity, solidarity, solidarity.
Have you ever been in a place where you could not make yourself understood? How did it make you feel?