Day 17: “Detained” at the Belarus border

Read the post about the Paris – Moscow train journey first.

Immigration at Terespol on the Polish side of the border was smooth. It got a little strange when the train entered Belarus, where Belarusian immigration officials got on board the train in the middle of nowhere, where the train stopped for them. They took everyone’s passports, analyzed everyone’s faces extremely carefully, and proceeded to take everyone’s passports away.

Then the train started moving.

Without my passport on me.

So I went over to the conductor’s room, where I found the immigration officials instead. Seems like they’ve taken over the conductor’s room for a while to stamp everyone in. Seems fine.

Until someone came and spoke to the cabin in Russian. I only recognised my mispronounced name in the sentence, which was probably a “who is” question, so I pointed myself out to him.

To which he continued in Russian.

I knew he was speaking in Russian because when I asked “Do you speak English?”, he replied with “Do you speak Russian?”, to which my reply was a “No”, and he continued in Russian anyway.

After 2 sentences when he finally realised that the one-way conversation was going nowhere, he got a fellow colleague to speak English with me. His first English sentence was, surprise surprise,

“Do you speak Russian?”

“No” was again my answer. I couldn’t have learnt a new language in 3 minutes. So he said, “Take all your things, you are coming with me.”

Whoa whoa whoa, what?

So I said, “Is there anything wrong?” “Just come with me” was his answer. So I complied anyway, nothing else I could do right? So when I had finished packing in 3 minutes, everyone else’s passports were returned. Great. I then got off the train, with the English-speaking guy holding my unstamped visa with another guy behind me, making sure I don’t run away.

“Is there anything wrong?” I asked. “It’s okay, it’s normal” said the guy.

No, when you are the only one being escorted off the train with your passport in immigration’s hand, it’s far from normal.

I was escorted across a few platforms to the immigration office, I think. I was sat down in a waiting room of sorts, alone, while the guy brings my passport away to his office. “Is there anything wrong with my passport?” I asked again. “No, it’s normal. We check your documents.” “Can I go in with my passport?” “No.”

What.

A ton of questions started running through my mind. Was my visa faked? Did I get the wrong Transit visa? Are Singaporean passports not allowed into Belarus? Why did they give me the visa then?

The questions then evolved. Are there flights from Minsk to Singapore if I get deported? How about flying to Beijing assuming they are stopping me because of my Russian visa and continuing on from there? I proceeded to check the internet for options.

My SIM card wasn’t working anymore, I was too far from the Polish border. Crap.

The English-speaking guy came out. “How long do I have to wait?” “About 1 hour.” “Why? Is there anything wrong?” “We just check your documents.” “For so long? Is there anything wrong?” “No, don’t worry, you go to Moscow, don’t worry. We check your documents.” The more he said don’t worry, the more I got worried.

The questions in my head evolved to extreme paranoia. Were they duplicating my passport? Were they just going to hold my passport and claim that I don’t have one, and hold me as a political prisoner?

“What time is the train to Moscow?” “Same train, don’t worry.” “The train is leaving the station now!” “It’s just going to change the wheels”

I knew that, I was wishing he didn’t. I wanted to see the changing of the bogies. But I’m stuck in this room now.

I checked my notes for the MFA emergency hotline. I didn’t register myself in Belarus since there wasn’t a planned stopover, neither was the country available in the drop-down list anyway. The nearest embassy is in Moscow. Damn. Emergency hotline it is. I saved the hotline into my contacts, just in case.

And if you need it, it’s +65 6379 8800 / 8855 (MFA Duty Office).

I just waited, and waited, and fed my cats on Neko Atsume.

1 hour and 20 minutes later, English-speaking guy and said friend came out of the office and stood in front of me. Said friend pulled out my passport from under his jacket and handed it to me. It felt like a mafia movie. “Come with us, you go to Moscow.”

“So what was happening with my passport?” “I already told you, we just check your documents. Don’t worry.” I gave up asking more questions then. It felt scripted.

So instead of pictures of the changing of bogies, all I have of Brest is a picture of the railway station facade. It’s located in between 2 clusters of platforms, which I assume one was for standard gauge and the other for Russian gauge, since I was walked to another cluster than the one I was extracted from.

Since the silence was deafening, I asked more questions. “Am I the first Singaporean to pass through here?” “Nah.” “Oh, so they have to come here to check their documents too?” “Nah, just you.”

Why?!?!?!?!

“Why is everyone in an army uniform?” “Here, the army runs the borders.” “Ah. I had to serve in Singapore for 2 years too.” “Really? Everybody?” “Yes, for males.” “Ah, here, if you don’t go to the university, you have to serve 18 months.”

Interesting.

“What is your rank?” *rambles off something in Belarusian and laughs at me* “I don’t know the English name.” “Oh okay, I’m a [insert my rank here], I don’t know the Belarus name, but it’s not high.” “My friend here is General. Hahaha.” *points at rank with 3 stars* “Ah really?” “No, just kidding, his is small stars. General is big stars. You don’t know?” “Oh, we have only one type of stars. The other lower ranks don’t use stars.”

And then comes the surprise. “My friend has been to Singapore 10 times.”

Why would you do that. “Oh, nice, you like it there?” English-speaking guy then translates. “Yes, but the cigarettes are very expensive.” Great. He’s truly been to Singapore.

The train arrived from the yard, and I’ve never been so happy to see a train before. Well, almost. It’s always great to see a train.

I shook hands with both guys and they went on their way, as I went back to my compartment with everyone staring at me, the legal immigrant.

Read the remainder of the train journey here.

I was anticipating a rude wake-up at 3am when the train is supposed to exit Belarus and enter Russia, but I woke up at 7am and clearly in Russia. I asked the provodnitsa, “Belarus, stamp?” *points to passport*

“No, Brest. Belarus. Russia.”

Wow. So there’s a mini-EU-border-style thing happening here. Well my immigration card was written according to my Belarus visa dates, so all the best to me.

Maybe that’s why they had to check my documents. Hmm.

Once I had internet in Russia, I checked what will happen to me if I overstayed my stated dates in Russia.

Worst-case scenario was being detained or had to fend for myself in Russia as an illegal immigrant, or possibly deported with a giant “deported” stamp in my passport. Fantastic.

But now that my person is already in Moscow, and technically already overstayed my stated dates in the Belarus immigration card, I just resigned to my fate that there’s nothing that I can do already, and rewriting the immigration card wasn’t a good idea since they had the other portion of it with the written dates, not to mention raise unnecessary suspicion of me already.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to visit Belarus again, and now I have my doubts about Russia too.

Read on here to find out what happens when I exit Russia at Naushki on board the Trans-Mongolian.

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