Poland and Belarus by bike
Enormous bisons and much more
My son has always been intrigued by remote, weird countries, especially those led by dictators. So you can understand how excited we became (because I share his interest) when we found out that it’s now possible to visit Belarus without the hassle of the visa and the invitation letter (see the details below in the box). There are two designated areas where you can do this: the national park of the Bielowieza Pushcha and the historical towns just south of Lithuania.
We wanted to get there by bike so we chose the bisons of the Pushcha. Our time was limited to a maximum of 11 days. We were determined to pedal all the way from Hungary to Belarus but accepted that we’d have to take the train part of the way back.
The distance from the town of Sátoraljaújhely in North-East Hungary to Kamenyuki, the “capital” of the Belarusian pushcha is a little more than 700 km and we wanted to cover this in 5 days. We had to carry lots of stuff as the idea was to camp most days, with a hotel room thrown in now and then.
The first day
We had a short break in the pedestrian street of Michalovce and stopped for photos or some food and drink in other towns. We saw the scene of a terrible accident near Homonna and decided to stick to minor roads.
In the end we spent the night near Medzilaborce (at the exact spot where we slept 2 years before) because it was getting late and it looked like it would rain soon. And we didn’t really feel like the 10 km uphill ride after the city. We slept under a sour cherry tree and ate as much of the tasty fruit as we could before and after dinner.
Rain and breakdown
The second and third days were less smooth. The rain finally arrived. It happened gradually and it was warm so we didn’t stop. In the end we got absolutely wet and ended up changing our clothes under a roof in a campsite. But we didn’t lose much time! One interesting thing we found out was that the ferries across the rivers (at least the ones we took) were free.
The weather got a bit better but it was clear we needed a room to dry everything for the next day so I booked a room in Lancut. In fact, it was a whole fully equipped apartment (for less than 30 Euros) and a nice change after camping in the wild. The oven came especially handy: our shoes were dry within an hour.
The next day I had a problem with my bike (exactly the same failure as last year). I guess my bike’s monoblock needs to be fastened really tight and the one the Albanian repairman put in was replaced again in Hungary in May, apparently not properly. But we found a very nice repair shop in Lezajsk. The owner speaks good English and he’s really helpful and a source of information about cycling in Poland. Drop by if you need anything for your bike or if you just want a nice chat with a Polish cylist.
Chasing past centuries in Lublin
We crossed the beautiful city of Lublin in the early afternoon on day 4. It was a good idea to ride into the old town even though some of the streets were just under construction. The cobblestone streets of the renaissance city ooze history and it is undeservedly little known outside Poland. And Polish women are so beautiful!
Sunk in sand
We crossed several pretty little towns and villages and we even had a dip in a river during the hottest hours. This happened to be the longest day. We did 154 kilometres because the shops were all closed in the small towns so we had to keep going till Międzyrzecz Podlaski. Luckily, there are some mine lakes near the town, where we could camp in safety.
During the whole trip I was using maps I downloaded with my Locus Map app. They worked really well most of the time but there was one difficulty for us. Most of the terrain in this part of the country is sandy and where the road (suitable for bicycles in theory) turned out to be a 3 km long sandpit, we were in trouble with our road bikes. This happened on day 5, too. But no big deal, we walked a bit for a change.
Crossing the River Bug was exciting with the manually operated ferry near the village of Mielnik. It doesn’t work when the water level is low but you can check this here (in Polish). There is a nice bicycle lane from Czeremcha to Kleszczele and on to Hajnówka, the last sizeable town before the Belarus border. We stayed in a small village, now catering only for tourists, called Budy. It is connected with Hajnówka by a dirt road and also a nice paved road (if only we had known).
How to visit Belarus without a visa
If you want to take advantage of the visa-free option to visit Belarus, you need to apply for a permission (and pay a nominal fee online) on the website of the national park. Reflecting the country pretty well, the description is over-complicated with too many rules, etc. But if you scroll down and press “I agree”… well, then you are forwarded to the second page of more information. Press “I agree” again. And again. Then on the fourth page you can give your details and the days of your visit (but be precise, they aren’t really flexible). You pay the administrative fee online and that’s it. Then you need to purchase travel insurance for 3 days in the village of Białowieża (the last village in Poland) for around 12 Euros each. The PTTK office in the centre is open on all days. And once you are in Belarus, you have to buy the “minimum package” (entry to three museums for another 10-12 Euros).
Hey, we are in Belarus!
We arrived in Białowieża (the administrative centre of the national park area in Poland) early in the morning. First we went to the post office, where nobody spoke English but in the end they directed us to the right place. We paid for our insurance and cycled to the Belarusian border, less than an hour away. This border is only for cyclists and pedestrians and, luckily, we didn’t have to wait till 10 am (the time specified on our permission). The procedure was quite straightforward though the Belarusian guards checked our baggage. Whatever they were looking for, they didn’t find it.
The problems started after we entered the country. We checked a roadside map and were just about to leave when a woman came out of a small wooden cabin and said something in Russian. Or Belarusian. In the next ten minutes we both tried all forms of verbal and non-verbal communication with little success. But she had Internet and finally resorted to Google translator. It turned out that we had to pay for the minimum package according to the latest rules. She accepted no bank cards and we had no Belarusian money. For a few minutes I thought she might even send us back to Poland. In the end she made me promise to pay for the two attractions the first time next morning.
There are surprisingly straight and narrow roads through the old forests of the park – whenever a car came, we had to stop by the side of the road. We enjoyed the ride and we felt really proud of getting this far. Even the signs in Cyrillic were interesting to us. Then we arrived in Kamenyuki, the centre for tourism in this region, developed to welcome all the tourists. There are a few restaurants for all budgets and we found two supermarkets. But don’t expect full self-service!
Hot tea and bisons
We changed some money in a bank and then kept pedalling to Vily, the village where we’d booked our room. According to my map, it was just 12 km away and though we expected bad roads, we weren’t quite prepared for the last sandy stretch. But we loved the house, an old wooden building with strangely arranged rooms, a bathroom three steps below floor level and an eclectic mix of decoration everywhere. The owner was a middle-aged man who spoke only Russian. He didn’t talk much but he was nice and hospitable. We wondered what could have happened to his family as he seemed to be living all alone.
One afternoon was perfectly enough for us by bicycle but if you want to see exhibitions or take part in guided tours you can fill 2-3 days with activities. We loved the enormous bisons and sampled some Belorussian food in a simple diner.
Back to Poland
Leaving the country proved to be more difficult than entering. The strict woman didn’t show up to check our tickets (thank God, ’cause we only bought two entrance tickets to the park for half the price). But the Polish border police were extremely thorough and even suspicious. First the young female officer didn’t believe we only spent one day in Belarus. The stamp in the passports clearly showed this but she spent minutes to double check it. Then the customs officer checked every single bag we had, searching for dairy products, which are forbidden to bring in the EU.
The next difficulty was to sell our remaining rubles to zloty. It was a Sunday it was impossible to exchange money in Białowieża. In the end we found one office in Hajnówka but the guy was just leaving. I must have looked really desperate because he decided to open again for me so now we don’t have to keep 20 euros in Belarusian rubles on the fridge.
Trains and rain
As time was limited, we took the train from a nearby town to Warsaw. I booked the tickets online. It all went smooth but I made a mistake because the English description on the website was not quite clear. I bought student tickets for my 15-year-old son and it only turned out on the train that this is only offered for Polish students. We managed to convince the conductors not to fine us but in theory we should have bought a full ticket and lose the price of the discounted one. So watch out if you travel with minors!
From Warsaw we took two more trains as far as Poronin near the Slovak border. Then we had to cross Slovakia by bike and reach the first Hungarian town with a railway station, which is more or less 230 km. It’s perfectly doable in two days but the weather turned really nasty. It was much colder and it rained most of the day. We didn’t give in, spent the night in a campsite near the Slovak Paradise and then spent our last day riding up and down the mountainous Poprad region towards Hungary. By that time we were running out of cash and my bank card still didn’t work. We spent the last euros in a pub to have some hot tea and warm up a bit.
In the end my wife collected us near Aggtelek in North Hungary. By that time we had cycled more than 1200 km in only 9 days. And now I feel it’s time to start planning our next crazy mini-holiday for this June.