An ‘unofficial’ border crossing
I was a bit apprehensive about the Berlin to Moscow train (the Paris to Moscow Express), since the train travels through Belarus. Some websites suggest that this is an “unofficial” border crossing that may present problems.
Thankfully I didn’t experience any issues, although it was quite a disconcerting experience — 5 different people and a sniffer dog came into my compartment to check my documents!
A Belarus transit visa is required
I had my Belarus transit visa in my passport (and my Russia visa) and these had been very briefly checked by the provodnitsa (conductor) before I got on the train.
For UK citizens, the visa must be obtained from the Belarus embassy in London before travel. Currently, the Belarus embassy is one of the few that accept direct applications by post. This may be because the number of applications they receive are rather low (around 11,000 per year according to the Foreign & Commonwealth office website), so this may change in future…
Border check at Terespol, Poland
Before the train arrived at Terespol (on the Polish side of the border) there was a very, very long and complicated announcement in Russian. From the 4 or 5 minute announcement, I recognised only the words “passport” and “toilet”. Toilets on the train weren’t allowed to be used for the entire period of the border crossing, so I assume this may have been part of the announcement?!
The train arrived at Terespol – cue a loud knock on the compartment door – and a stern looking border control police person. They shouted something (it may have been in Polish) then walked away. Not knowing what to do I thought it best to kept the compartment door open…
A few moments later I had my first document checks from a female border control agent, they asked (in Polish) to see passports and scanned them, then left.
Border checks just before Brest, Belarus
After a wait of about half an hour the train continued on through the border, where we stopped in the pitch black in what seemed to be a random section of the track.
Lots of border control people boarded the train. A border agent with a large Alsatian came into the compartment, sniffing around (it avoided the waffles that were out on the table).
Next a third border agent came along, asked to see passports, and then asked us to leave — I was worried they meant us to leave the train, I was only in my pyjamas and socks! Luckily we only had to stand in the corridor— after they’d had a quick look at the compartment we were allowed back in.
A fourth border control person turned up and asked to see travel documents…I may have lost count at this point.
A fifth border agent then appeared with a stack of passports and took ours to add to their collection.
The Belarus Migration Form
One of the border agents returned with a small piece of white paper — the Belarus Migration Form. We were told (in English) to fill these out, but given no further instructions. The papers looked like they’d been kept crumpled in someone’s pocket for a week.
Unfortunately the form asked for our visa numbers, which were in our passports that had been taken away. Helpfully the border agent returned with our passports to check that we’d entered the correct visa number(s) on the form.
We were given passports back (with visa stamped), the arrival half of the migration form was taken away, and we were left with the departure half to present on leaving Russia.
After all that, we were done with the border checks! The train started moving towards Brest station with some of the border guards still on board, they disembarked when the train got to the station.
A change of gauge at the border
Next up: the train bogies (wheels) were to be changed, as the track in Belarus is wider than the standard gauge used elsewhere in Europe. What I didn’t realise is that this happens while we’re all still on the train!
After a wait in the station the train started rolling back down the track towards Poland. The train went into a big, rather dimly-lit, shed. The carriages were rolled over tracks that have pits underneath, so workers could go underneath the train.
The carriages were separated from each other and the ones around us were attached to a big screw-like contraptions. These raised the carriages up about 1 metre, so the carriage was separated from and suspended above the bogies. A contraption passed overhead, it looked like a hook was lowered from it to attach or unhook part of the train. The old bogies were rolled away, and new ones attached underneath at some point.
While this was happening the carriages are shunted around in and out of what seems like the longest shed in the world. There are lots of weird whirring noises as the carriages are raised, a few loud bangs and crashes and the carriage gets shaken as things are unattached and reattached. The process is so slow and it all happens to the bottom of the carriage while you’re in it, so I found it difficult to tell what was happening to our carriage.
Meanwhile workmen dressed in fluorescent orange overalls clamber underneath and around the train carriages in the dimly lit shed, pushing bogies/wheels out of the way, occasionally getting lamps to peer at parts of the train.
Finally, around 12.30pm (we were running late as we’d arrived in Terespol late) the train rolled out of the big shed back towards Moscow and stopped at Brest station platform. Here some more passengers got on the train. We waited on the platform for about half an hour before we headed off.
Onwards from Brest, Belarus to Moscow by train
The Belarus tracks were quite a lot clunkier, rumbling and noisy than the Polish ones, just in time for bedtime…
The train continued through Belarus through the night, stopping at Baranovichi, Minsk, and Orsha.
The train crossed the border into Russia in the morning — there’s no border control as the border crossing into Belarus is considered part of the border of the Russian Federation.
Arriving into Moscow Belorussky station
As we approached Moscow there were announcements over the train speaker system in Russian along with some rousing music, which contrasted a bit with the view…
Although we’d departed Brest station an hour and a half later than planned, we arrived into Moscow Belorussky station more or less on time, as we’d made up time during the night — it seems when the train is running late it doesn’t stop as long as planned at the stops.