[Updated by Nicky Gardner 23/02/2016]
Getting there and away
It is more than a year since Nicky Gardner wrote the rail travel section for the third edition of our Belarus guide. Rail timetables have changed a lot in that year, so Bradt Travel Guides invited Nicky to give an update on what's new for 2016.
Nicky is co-editor of hidden europe magazine (www.hiddeneurope.co.uk) and the principal author of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Individual Travellers. A new edition of that guide will be published in June 2016. Find out more at www.europebyrail.eu.
1. The Trans-European Express
In the 2015 edition of Belarus, I commend the Trans-European Express from Paris as an excellent way for travellers from southern England and northern France to head to Belarus. Until 2015, this train left Paris early in the morning (meaning that travellers from London always had to overnight in Paris in order to catch this early departure from the French capital).
The good news is the Trans-European Express now leaves Paris in the early evening. This Moscow-bound train has a decent restaurant car, so you can dine on board before heading off to bed. Accommodation is in very modern two or four-berth sleepers, which were introduced on this train in 2015. The train also carries luxury sleepers, just four compartments to a carriage, but they are way beyond the price of mere mortals.
The bad news is that the arrival time in Minsk is now horrid. The train from Paris pulls into the Belarusian capital just before two in the morning. My advice would be to book to Brest, the very first station in Belarus. The train arrives there at eight in the evening, but you'll need to allow an hour for border formalities. Then stay overnight at the Hermitage Hotel which is an eight-minute walk from the front of the station (see page 192 in the guide). The Hermitage is pretty smart; if you'd prefer a more basic hotel then try the Bug, which is even closer to the railway station.
After a first night in Belarus at Brest (stay for a second if you have the time), you can continue to Minsk in daylight the following day.
The one-way fare from Paris to Brest is about €170 in a shared four-berth sleeper. For a small supplement (worth it in my view) you can book a two-berth sleeper. Passengers aged under 27 or over 59 get a discount of about 35% on these fares.
2. From central and southern Europe to Minsk
There are big improvements for 2016 in the rail links from central Europe and the Balkan region to Minsk. Here, Belarus is the accidental beneficiary of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russian trains bound for Moscow which would hitherto have been routed through Ukraine now avoid the country altogether. So the Sofia to Moscow service now runs via Budapest, Warsaw and Minsk to reach Russian territory.
Connections to Minsk from southern and central Europe have never been better. There are now daily departures from Sofia, Belgrade, Budapest and Bratislava to Minsk. This is vastly better than in recent years. In 2015 there were no trains from Sofia and Belgrade to Belarus, and just one departure a week from Budapest and Bratislava.
The 2016 timings from Prague and Vienna to Belarus are very good, in every case giving a convenient mid-afternoon arrival in Minsk. Frequency is slightly down on 2015 (the number of trains per week for that year is shown in the table on page 59 of the guide). For winter 2015-2016 and spring 2016, the schedules show three departures a week from Vienna and two from Prague. That may increase for summer 2016, but details have not yet been announced.
As an example of fares, this year you might expect to pay €100 for a one-way ticket from Prague to Minsk. That includes accommodation in a four-berth sleeper. It won't cost the earth to upgrade to a two-berth sleeper if you want a little extra space. Travellers aged under 27 or over 59 will get a handsome discount on all fares on overnight international trains to Belarus.
3. The back-door route from Poland
In the 2015 edition of the guide (see page 61), I made much of a quiet rural route across the Poland-Belarus border which has the great advantage of being very cheap; it relied on a local train service which didn't need advance reservation.
Sadly, this cross-border train service from Białystok (Poland) to Grodno (Belarus) has been suspended. But this may not quite be the end of the story, as negotiations are taking place to get this route reinstated later in 2016. There's even talk of introducing twice-daily through trains from Warsaw to Grodno. So that's something to watch. If it comes to pass, it will be a very fine thing as Grodno makes the perfect introduction to Belarus. Read pages 209 to 226 in the 2015 edition of the Belarus guide to find out more.
4. Train plus plane options from western Europe
In the 2015 guide, Nigel Roberts commends the idea of using a low-cost flight to Vilnius and then taking the train into Belarus. That's a great idea, but do bear in mind that buying tickets in advance for travel on all Vilnius to Minsk trains is very strongly advised. It has been known for travellers turning up without tickets on the day of travel to be told that all seats are sold.
Another good option for 2016 is using Katowice airport in southern Poland; that airport now has a good range of bargain basement flights from cities in Britain. And the 2016 train service from Katowice to Minsk is much improved. There is now a mid-afternoon train departure from Katowice to Minsk which runs seven days a week. Each week there are three additional overnight trains from Katowice to Minsk, all leaving the Polish city in the late evening.
5. Summer specials
This summer will see the usual range of extra seasonal trains to and from Minsk and other Belarusian cities. Full details have yet to be announced, but I'd expect frequency on the Riga to Minsk service to be increased during the summer months. Look out, too, for direct services between Minsk and Black Sea resorts. I hear rumours that summer 2016 might see the introduction of a direct service from Minsk to Zagreb and to various Adriatic resorts. Bar in Montenegro and Split in Croatia would be the most likely destinations. Although these seasonal services are aimed fair and square at the Belarusian and Russian markets, tickets on these trains can be booked by anyone and fares are often very attractive.
6. Odds and ends
Don't be misled by media reports of a new train service from Vilnius to Grodno which started last year. It was announced with great fanfare in June 2015, and a few trains did actually run. But this useful new link was quickly axed.
On page 59 of the 2015 Belarus guide, I mention the likely introduction in 2016 of a new Talgo train service on the Berlin - Minsk - Moscow route. This will give improved journey times from Berlin to Belarus. A provisional timetable for this train has now been released, but the exact start date for the new service has yet to be confirmed. It is unlikely to be before August 2016.
7. The European Rail Timetable
For up-to-date rail schedules for all international trains to and from Belarus, plus across the rest of Europe, see the European Rail Timetable (ERT). It is published monthly, but you don't need a subscription. It is possible to purchase just a single copy as you plan your journey to Belarus. Find out more about the ERT at www.europeanrailtimetable.eu.
Update by Nicky Gardner, February 2016
© 2016 Nicky Gardner. All rights reserved
Cycling in Belarus
Reader Willem Goedhart has written to us with some tips on cycling in Belarus, based on his extensive experience.
-- It is officially forbidden to drive on the motorway, but in practice it’s no problem. Any policemen that I’ve passed on the motorway haven’t said anything.
-- It is forbidden to ride on the main roads in the cities. This means that you have to ride on the pavement a lot, which can be annoying if you have a lot of luggage. Every time I drove in the city I just kept cycling on the main road until the moment the police stopped me. A big smile and telling them that I came from the Netherlands was enough for them to allow me to go on my way without imposing a fine. However, Belarusian cyclists told me that they have been fined for driving on main roads in cities.
-- If you bring your own tent, you’ll be in luck, as wild camping is allowed.
-- The country is flat
-- The main roads are in good condition
-- The distances between the cities are not huge (max 30 km)
-- The Belarusian people are very willing to help you and point you in the right direction
-- In the big cities there are high-quality bicycle shops to buy gear and to repair your bike if necessary.
-- The combination of being a Western traveller and travelling on a bicycle will make you an exotic rarity in Belarus. People will be very interested and friendly towards you.
-- Unlike nearby countries within the same region, the Belarusian police are your friend and are not looking for bribes.
-- All of the road signs are in Cyrillic. I learned Cyrillic before I went there, it helped me a lot. If you can't read Cyrillic I think it's best to take GPS with you.
-- I've seen only one bicycle trail and that one ended in the bushes.