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Car-Free Roads, Visa Tricks And Confusing Money. One Australian’s Cycling Experience In Belarus

This summer Melbourne-based cyclist Wade Trevean set off to an eye-opening solo adventure through Eastern Europe. He spent three weeks riding through Poland, Lithuania and Belarus in the journey of discovery that came with it.

Upon his return, Wade shared his emotions with CyclingTips. Read the part about Belarus – and get inspired!

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My route was constrained by a three-week window and a desire to see unseen countries. With some time spent looking at maps I decided it was to be a loop through Poland, Lithuania and Belarus; countries that not only shared borders but also a history of war time occupation by German and Russian forces and, in turn, a period of communism.

They also share a love of dumplings. Subconsciously, the latter connection might’ve made the decision for me.

Although plans were vague, the tedious requirements for the Belarusian visa (and correlating sponsorship) meant I had to be fairly accurate with my entry and exit dates. Utilising quieter roads and looking at relevant sized towns for accommodation it seemed if I averaged 150km/day it would be feasible to complete the journey with a day to spare for my flight home. Over a Polish beer and dumplings the night before departure a final look at my individual country maps reassured me the rough early plans were feasible.

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<…> If the visa requirements were anything to go by, the border crossing into Belarus was going to be more memorable than coming into Lithuania (before coming to Belarus Wade cycled through Poland and Lithuanina – note). Exiting the EU was fairly simple — it was the entry that offered the experience, with the Belarusian guards laughing at the combination of an Australian passport and my means of transport.

When the guards caught their breath my visas and support letters were checked and I was waved through, passing the usual long line of vehicles synonymous with disjointed borders. The humour upon my arrival and the general lack of tourists throughout the country did make me question whether I was the only Australian in the country, let alone the only Australian in the country on a bike.

The entry into Belarus made it clear this was a country of significance difference: the car-free roads (they were stuck at the border), the change of written language to Cyrillic, and a currency that offered considerable confusion. A combination of old and new rubles is in circulation in Belarus, the latter having had three zeros removed (i.e. 13,000 to 13) due to apparent recent prosperity. On the plus side it allowed some opportunities to practise my maths.

No money for the first day didn’t amount to stress — I thought all would be ok and that the locals would assist where required. Fortunately water was free — I used my water purifier at local sources whether from locals’ kitchen taps or village wells.

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Days in Belarus allowed time to watch a town start its day, sitting as the sun rose and people headed off to work. Some towns were so small that their entry and exit signs seemed to be aligned, while others offered some scale that encouraged exploration beyond the main street.

At the end of the day the lack of TripAdvisor presence for most towns meant sourcing a bed for the night was a priority. Many of the hotels clung to their communist past with service that seemingly wasn’t interested in your business, despite being empty. This probably wasn’t helped when my bike inevitably following me into my room.

Once a hotel was found there was the necessary registration including proof of travel insurance, greeting the individual worker of each floor employed to assist the local employment figures, and hopelessly seeing if the room’s black and white television had any English channels. Fortunately the prices also reflected the historic times.

Walking the streets uncovered Belarus’ ever-present connection with Russia, from the committee-designed Ladas, the numerous references of its win in the ‘patriotic’ war, to the grandiose pastel-coloured architecture. Whether in city apartments blocks or regional stand-alone houses, the dwellings commonly mirrored nearby buildings, an historic approach to ensuring all in the community had a shared status.

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The one restaurant in town typically required no booking, as most of the time it was only myself and a troop of four ever-changing waiters. Food was ordered through some very haphazard translation, mostly resulting in several ‘house specials’ being presented. Having long days on the bike made it much easier to finish off the three or four courses that commonly came out.

With dinner finished, the early morning starts easily justified daylight bed hours, but I resisted, instead preferring further time spent in the town squares. I sat between the locals and their popular statues of Lenin and other notable figures, reading some relevant Russian literature, happily distracted by the comings and goings of the community. These were quiet towns.

With a rest day coming up in Belarus I toyed with the idea of extending a day’s riding, thereby allowing for an early arrival into the more popular border town of Brest. This extension pushed out the planned 150km to 230km for the day. Taking a risk, I assumed the size of the dot on my paper map translated to a town that would include at least one hotel.

My experience of riding a fixed-gear bike around Cuba generated the assumption that 190km a day would be enough, but it seems one can go that little bit further. On a full day like this it’s incredible the ups and downs the body and mind deals with. One can feel heavy legs and a lack of enthusiasm at the mid-way mark, before it all turns to bliss in the final 50km. Perhaps it was the eventual smooth roads (which I praised some road workers for) or the ability to sit behind a horse and cart for a few km. It all helps!

Finally arriving in town after that long day, and after a bit of searching and some nodding from locals, it seemed my gamble paid off: there was indeed one hotel in town.

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I was anticipating a complicated crossing from Belarus back into Poland so I made an early start, reaching the border by 6am. Passing all of the local cars for the front of the queue I wasn’t greeted with positive reactions but with process and the need for patience. Eventually I got an explanation from a senior officer: no bikes were allowed across the border and my only option was to ride back up to my entry point at Lithuania. This wasn’t the plan.

Despite numerous pleas (outside of a bribe) I simply couldn’t get a yes. As I rode away from the border I started to ask the drivers in the queue whether anyone would be willing to drive the bike and I across. This exercise in patience honed my comprehension of the local word for “no”.

Eventually a Russian couple (Ilya and Katia) took pity on my desperate appearance and helped load my bike into their car, grease stains and all. Four hours later, with my nostalgic thirst for epic communist-era border crossings quenched, I was back in the EU.

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If you’re interested in the full story, find it here.

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