Belarus is a completely different world. It has definitely been the most stressful country I’ve experienced so far, but I’m glad I braved it. It was how one might imagine Russia in the 60s, the only real tell-tale give away being that some people had mobile phones!
My first fears came when running from Vilnius, Lithuania, to the border. During the final four miles I passed by a line of trucks patiently queuing, bumper to bumper to access the check point, security here is meticulous to say the least!
It’s very unusual to cross borders on foot and I’d read conflicting postings on Belarusian advice boards, many proclaiming checkpoints blankly refuse pedestrians, insisting you find a bus or a car to take you on board. This option was not possible for me as it would have forfeited my whole circumnavigation on foot if I boarded a vehicle, even for a few yards! However my ability to negotiate in Belarusian or Russian is as strong as my ballet dancing skills (non-existent). I was very apprehensive passing through each stage of the checkpoint but after a huge amount of paper work I was eventually let across the border.
With the checkpoint behind me, I just had the tiny issue of navigating an entire country without any maps! The app I’m using had been brilliant so far, but for some reason the Belarusian map was nothing more than an outline of the border and the position of the capital city – no roads, towns or points of interest to guide me. I can tell you first-hand that the thought of crossing an entire country on foot, with no concept of the language and no decent map, is one to keep you awake at night! Nonetheless, this is what I signed up for after all.
As I set off, I realised that the country appeared to be “more Russian, than Russia”. That might sound odd, but these days Russia seems to have a far more European outlook in terms of enterprise, and trade than Belarus.
Here, almost everything is state owned and controlled, which makes it very difficult for outsiders from the West.
Businesses, shops, government buildings and civic offices are virtually indistinguishable from one another and they also all have netting and or blinds over the windows. When arriving in a town, unless fluent in Belarusian/Russian, it’s a lucky dip. You literally have to walk inside every door to find out what’s inside – not ideal when you’re looking for a hot meal or a hotel and you’re literally running against the clock!
The disparity between rich and poor was also surprising, considering the supposed socialist political and economic ideology. Out on the road I saw horse drawn carts being overtaken by Mercedes and BMW cars that represent some 15-20 years of the average citizens earnings!
Most places also seemed to use electricity very sparingly. Twice I walked into hotels in the pitch dark, through unlit foyers and entrance halls to find a receptionist lit by a lamp barely brighter than a candle.
When I did find a hotel there was usually Wi-Fi available but I was never granted access! (I don’t think foreign nationals are allowed)
The food in Belarus was incredibly well priced at about £0.12 for a cup of tea and £1-£2 for a tasty hot meal…the problem was finding a hot meal in the first place since I couldn’t understand any of the signs and there was nothing to distinguish between a DIY store and a café. With the short days of winter I can’t afford to waste an hour’s daylight to find food and drink.
Not all was bad though, most of these difficulties came from my lack of Belarusian/Russian language skills, my shortcomings.
I felt incredibly safe in Belarus, 10% of the population are employed by the army or police forces so there were low levels of crime there.
It’s also very beautiful in parts; several areas reminded me of my home playground of Exmoor, the place I first became obsessed with running. For a fleeting moment this warmed me from the inside but also meant having to fight off pangs of homesickness!
Despite all these challenges, the lack of maps, lack of language skills, homesickness and the culture shock, I somehow manage to stay motivated to continue on this incredible journey.