Letters From Minsk: Leaving Home

This is the first in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

Tired Tires

Before boarding the train to Minsk, I first had to fix a flat tire on my Brompton bicycle. Mercifully, it lost its air just before I left home, although it was after I had mounted my saddle bag and briefcase on to the frame of the bike.

Instead of rolling away to the Geneva station and heading east on a succession of trains to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, I dragged the loaded bicycle to a bus stop and begged the driver to be merciful (not a Swiss trait) and carry me (and the bike) toward the promised land of a repair shop.

Normally I fix my own flat tires (cursing and complaining the entire time), but I knew that this flat was beyond my repair skills, as it was about the fourth in four weeks.

In that time, I had changed the inner tube, rim tape, and tire, and still I was waking up to a flat tire, which suggested a gremlin in the works—and nothing that I wanted to be fussing with on the roadside in Belarus.

Better to miss my scheduled train and have the tire properly repaired than to ride off toward White Russia knowing that it was only a matter of time before the air would drain from my inner tube. Minsk would have to wait.

Ironically, for the longest time I thought it would be the absence of a visa that would keep me out of Belarus. But the day before, as if manna from heaven, my visa had arrived in my mailbox. So I knew miracles could happen, and maybe now some trained bicycle mechanic could spot the microscopic sharp object that was causing my tire endlessly to go flat.

Europe’s Pariah Nation: Belarus

The reason I was heading to Minsk had more to do with my rail pass than a burning desire to ride my bike around Belarus in late winter.

A month earlier, bored with Geneva’s winter fog (think of Victorian London but without all the charm), I had been browsing the railway internet, wondering where I might go with my books and bicycle.

I thought of Spain and Italy, but in late February and early March both of them can still have winter winds, and then I figured, if I could not escape the cold, I might as well carry on with the research for my book about Eastern Europe.

A few years before, I had decided to put together a book that would be a series of rail journeys between Geneva and Istanbul, so that I could write about the places in between, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the countries of former Yugoslavia.

On a previous occasion, I had approached Istanbul from Budapest, Belgrade, and Sofia, and another time I had traveled from Croatia down to Kosovo, by way of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Serbia. But this would be my first attempt to go east via Germany and Poland.

Interrail to the Rescue

Only when Interrail, the European rail pass operator, drastically discounted its 15-day first class rail pass did I believe that Belarus might be an option.

In the European Rail Timetable (it took over the business from Cook’s and still prints a timetable bi-monthly), I plotted a route to Minsk via Berlin, Wroclaw, and Warsaw.

Yes, I might be traveling in March, and there might be snow and ice on the roads, but at least the trains would be empty and hotel prices reasonable—provided, of course, that Belarus would have me.

In travel circles, a Belarus visa is a prized possession. It is required for all train travelers riding, for example, from Berlin to Moscow—even those just in transit.

Of late Belarus has adopted a visa-on-arrival scheme, but that’s only for air passengers.

For years I had been reading postings on web sites that said very often Belarus would decline to issue a visa, without giving any particular reason. But suddenly with my Interrail pass in hand, what I wanted more than anything was to make it to Minsk.

Having read all the visa small points on various diplomatic sites, I decided my best chance for a Belarus visa would come if I engaged the assistance of a local tour operator, who could—so I was led to believe—book my hotels and arrange for what in visa circles is known as the “invitation letter”. (Behind the vestiges of the Iron Curtain, travel is still a dinner party.)

Some internet surfing led me into a lengthy, but always pleasant, correspondence with Olga and Ekaterina at Belarus Tour Service, which boasted of “visa consulting” and “travel experiences” on its web site. And because I started writing in late February, when not too many Europeans are setting off with their bicycles to Minsk, I had the consultants to myself.

It’s Happening in Minsk

Always polite and friendly, neither Olga nor Ekaterina acted surprised when I developed my visa pitch about wanting to cycle around in Belarus in March. Yes, one of them wrote back, it might be chilly and rainy, but there was lots for me to see and do. And in the evenings, I could book tickets for concerts and the opera. (Travel anywhere east of Vienna and all you will hear about is booking opera.)

After a while I came to the conclusion that, at least for this month of March, I might be their only customer, such was the speed with which they responded to my queries and booked my hotels. But, they kept asking, what did I want to see?

Because I had already revealed myself (bicycle+Minsk+month of March) as an eccentric, I sent back my complete list of things that interested me in Belarus, which were: the 1917 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (which knocked Russia out of World War I); the Pripet Marches (the wetlands near the border of Ukraine that were heavily contested during Hitler’s Russian invasion in 1941); the Berezina River crossing where during his 1812 retreat from Moscow Napoleon managed to salvage the last of his Grande Armée; and the apartment building in Minsk where the Russians lodged American defector Lee Harvey Oswald when he showed up in the Soviet Union and asked for asylum in 1959.

I also wanted to get a feel for the last dictatorship in Europe—that of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a Comintern warhorse who has been in power since 1994. But as I was traveling before the country took to the streets in opposition to his authoritarian rule, I wasn’t given a political litmus test before getting my vouchers.

In what seemed like no time I was booked into the Molodezhnaya Hotel in Brest, the Pripyat in Pinsk, and the Garni in Minsk—in all for about ten days—and had been issued a health insurance policy that would cover any illness in the country.

Plus I also got an official invitation letter for the visit, and thus figured it would be child’s play to mail my passport to the Belarus embassy in Bern (the Swiss capital) and receive back a visa within a few days. Perhaps I could head toward the Belorussky Station by the end of the week?

Our Man in Bern

The Belarus embassy in Bern was friendly and professional, but regretted to inform me that it would take two weeks to issue me a tourist visa. (Clearly other Swiss cyclists were burdening the embassy at the same time.)

As I had other obligations in early April, I feared that if I waited for the tourist visa to come through in such a leisurely fashion I might lose my travel window in the dreary weeks of mid-March.

I talked over the problem with Olga and Ekaterina, who kindly offered to call the embassy, which, upon reflection, agreed, for an additional $150 fee, to issue the tourist visa “on an expedited basis”.

I called back the embassy, worked out how to pay, scanned the receipt, and mailed off my passport. Two days later I had my passport back with the visa stamp enclosed.

I was on my way—once I had solve the enduring Case of the Mysterious Flat Tire.

Better to Go First Class Than to Arrive

It turned out that one of the spokes on my front wheel had frayed, and the sharp edge of the nib was causing the recurring flat tires.

In seemingly no time, the Swiss mechanic changed the worn spoke, inserted a new inner tube, pumped up my tire, and wished me well in Belarus (while ever-so-slightly shaking his head at the idea of someone heading off to Minsk with a bicycle in late winter).

By now I had I missed my earlier connections, via Zurich, to Berlin, where I planned to spend the first night. But Switzerland is the land of the eternal train connections, as is Germany (virtually every trip can be done each hour), and so with only a slight adjustment to my plans, I was heading to Berlin by way of Basel and Hannover. The journey would take twelve hours. As Paul Theroux has written: “Better to go first class than to arrive.”

German trains are among the best in Europe. They travel at high speeds, tilt around corners, have plush seats and power outlets, and, best of all, the dining cars serve pilsener fresh from the keg.

In Basel, I stowed my bicycle in a luggage rack, took a seat by a window, and laid out the artifacts of my “traveling office”—a bag containing my Kindle, several books, various maps and train schedules, and my computer, all of which I arranged on my train table as if I were crossing Siberia, not simply the German industrial belt.

In his travels, Napoleon had a custom-built wagon cart that, a bit like some modern camper van, unfolded into his command post and first ministerial office, complete with bookshelves, paper nooks, and ink blotters. Mine is a more streamlined version but comes with the same delusions of Napoleonic Code grandeur.

Fellow German Travellers

In heading for Minsk, I had several route choices. I could have gone through Vienna, Krakow, and Warsaw. Or I could have gone overnight to Dresden or Berlin, and then due east. With the rail pass, I could decide at the last minute.

Given my late start (I left Geneva almost at noon), the change in Hanover made the most sense. On the spot I decided to go outbound through Berlin and come home through Vienna. This way I could ride along the River Rhine on my way out, and then I could come back across the Austrian alps.

After answering emails and studying my rail maps to identify some of the intermediate stops (Freiburg and Frankfurt caught my eye), I settled into my beer and book, which was Julia Boyd’s Travellers in the Third Reich, an account of visitors (mostly British, but some Americans) to Hitler’s Germany (many of whom were impressed with the country’s recovering from World War I and the great inflation of the Weimar Republic).

I had discovered the book while browsing at Blackwell’s in Oxford, and had given away several copies to friends and family before I realized that I myself would like to read it, which is why it was now on my Kindle.

I was drawn to Boyd’s history because as a high school student in the 1930s, my father had spent two summers in Hitler’s Germany (1935 and 1936), as part of an American student exchange group that had, itself, toured around the country on bicycles and trains.

The program’s director wanted his students to appreciate German language and culture, and he led about 15 to 20 students on bicycles to all corners of the country, including Berlin and Nuremberg.

In the first summer, my father was one of the students; on the second trip he was a leader, which involved making hotel and train reservations, and fixing flat tires (clearly a family business). Later in life he spoke often of the changes that came over Germany from one summer to the next.

In 1935, he said, people greeted travelers by saying “Guten Tag”. By 1936 the only salutation was “Heil Hitler!” and sometimes the snapping of heels.

In 1936, the group rode their bikes to Berlin and watched the Black American Jesse Owens win several gold medals, which prompted Hitler either to leave the stadium or turn his back on the sprinter as he was awarded his medals (my father could not quite remember what he had seen, but said all eyes were on the Führer when Owens won his races).

Nuremberg Summer

Later in the trip, the Americans biked to Nuremberg, where the Nazis held their summer festival and jamboree and where Hitler addressed his delirious followers beside the illuminated columns of light.

It was at Nuremberg, he would later say, that my father came to the view—not shared by many Americans—that war was inevitable between Germany and the West. (At the time, he said, most Americans saw Hitler as a comical figure with an absurd mustache, more Charlie Chaplin than the Great Dictator.)

Before heading back to the United States, where my father entered Columbia University as a freshman that fall, there were two more brushes with national socialism.

The most memorable occurred at a youth hostel, where some German guests overheard English being spoken and began taunting the Americans for being “sissies” and “Jew lovers”.

After more insults were exchanged, the two groups decided to name one person from each side to engage in a fight. As my father later liked to joke, he was given the dubious “honor” of being chosen to fight for the American side.

My father said that as he moved to the center of the hostel bunk room he found himself looking up at a large blond Aryan boy who fit the description of a Hitler youth: square jaw, short blond haircut, blue eyes, etc. (Later, he would also say: “And he could punch, too.”)

As the two squared off and began fighting, amidst cheering and shouting, the American tour director and the German hostel manager rushed into the room and separated the two punching boys, both of whom were bloodied in the encounter.

My father said both older men were furious at this ugly turn of events, but the message it left for the Americans was that Nazi Germany meant business, and a year before Peal Harbor, just a few months after his college graduation, my father joined the Marine Corps as an infantry officer. (He would say: “I liked my chances as an officer in the Marines more than as a private in the army.”)

An Encounter with Hitler

Before going home from Germany in 1936, the Americans rode their bicycles into the Austrian Salzkammergut, the area of lakes and mountains outside Salzburg.

It was at the end of the summer: Berlin, Nuremberg, and the fight were behind them. But in the spa town of Berchtesgaden, a city official approached the American student group and explained that everyone in town was required to march in a parade that Hitler himself would be reviewing.

By this point the Americans wanted nothing more to do with Hitler or even Germany (in a long life of international travel my father rarely went back). But the director said it would be rude “to their hosts” to decline “the honor”, and so, pushing their bicycles, the American students formed up with the local citizenry of Berchtesgaden and somberly walked by a reviewing stand on which Hitler stood. (It sounded more like a funeral cortege than a parade, although this being Austria I am sure there was an oompah band.)

Growing up, I would often ask my father how close he stood from Hitler, and he would say, “About five feet.” Asked to describe him, he would say the German leader was wan, nondescript, almost “ashen” in his complexion. Hitler wore a leather jacket, and every so often, as the citizens marched past, he gave his famous salute. But his face remained distantly impassive.

In the 2002 television movie The Gathering Storm, about Churchill and British appeasement in the 1930s, there is a scene in which a guest at a dinner party is asked if he had met Hitler and “what he was like.”

The description given by a German baron sounds much like my father’s:

What’s he like? My first impression…insignificance. Utterly insignificant. A gray face, slate gray. Melancholy jet-black eyes, like raisins. A figure out of a ghost story. He talked on and on, endlessly. “Out of Parsifal,” he said, “I shall make a religion.” His oily hair fell into his face when he ranted. Then…quite suddenly, he left. He bowed to me like a waiter…who has just received a fair tip. When he left…nobody moved…nobody spoke. We all sat in silence.

That autumn, as a college freshman, my father tried to tell his classmates in New York City that there was trouble on the European horizon, but, he said, no one wanted to hear it. For the rest of his life, however, he liked to quote the words often attributed to Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Next: Travellers in the Third Reich.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.