Wolodymyr the Dacia Duster in the Belorussian countryside.
This is Part 3 of our Dacia Duster adventure through 10 countries and 9000 km around the Black Sea, you can read Part 1: the road to Transnistria here and Part 2: Chernobyl, Ukraine here. Now that Wolodymyr the Duster and I have been cleared to leave both Exclusion Zones in Chernobyl, we are headed north to Belarus for our 5th country so far after Romania, Moldova, Transnistria and Ukraine, already hitting the half-way mark in the number of countries we will visit in this adventure. In fact, the capital of Belarus, Minsk, would end up being the northernmost location in this entire trip that will then take us across the Black Sea. As a reminder, this entire Test Drive happened in September 2019 when COVID-19 travel restrictions were not yet in place.
Our Part 3 itinerary of this adventure, long wait to enter Belarus and Gomel.
I had hoped to be able to cross the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone diagonally into the Belorussian border, but this turned out to be impossible simply because that border is closed as there is a similarly-sized Exclusion Zone across the border in Belarus, called the Palieski State Radiological Reserve (see map in Part 2). I therefore have to backtrack almost all the way to Kiev before being able to head full north. Going through the Ukrainian countryside at night on secondary roads is an eerie experience, with not much lighting and herds of Lada Zhiguli and ZAZ sedans barrelling through the darkness. It also means I can only reach the Belorussian border very late into the night, and when adding an excruciating 5-hour wait to go through the queue, I end up entering Belarus at 3am. This is important because among all the countries I would end up visiting during this adventure, Belarus was the strictest (and most expensive) to get a visa for, and I only could secure a two-day visa that is actually dated to yesterday (having hoped I could cross directly from Chernobyl) and today. This in turn means I only have about 15 hours to sleep (3 hours?), drive to Minsk and back (8 hours) with enough buffer (6 hours, given how long it took to cross in) to make sure it is still the same day by the time I cross back into Ukraine! This adventure now truly starts getting interesting… But wait there’s more.
In order to be able to cross borders without too much trouble during the Test Drive, Dacia provided me with an official declaration (in English) alongside the car’s insurance paperwork explaining I am the authorised driver, but because it is a fleet car, the owner isn’t actually Dacia (nor me) on the insurance papers, which can be confusing to some overzealous border officers as I detailed last year in our Dacia Logan 10 countries in 10 days adventure. Case in point, upon leaving Ukraine I am told I’ll need to have my declaration translated into Russian otherwise I won’t be accepted back into the country when I return. My mention of only having 15 hours left in Belarus and definitely no opportunity to get to an official translating bureau (do they even exist?) is met with a simple shrug. A big fat sword of Damocles hanging over my head for the rest of my stay it is, then. In contrast, the Belorussian side manages to, even at that time of night, dig out an insurance provider (car insurance must be bought at the border) and a young, dynamic, English-speaking female officer who fills my custom declaration with me. Next stop the mandatory toll tag and payment for my highway itinerary in the country, very clearly flagged at the border, super organised and paid at the next service station. I’m impressed. My first experience in Belarus is (I believe) being flashed by a speed camera a little after 3:30am. I will never know. A few hours sleep in a soviet-era hotel in Gomel and off we drive to Minsk.
But first it’s quite a peaceful trip through almost exclusively agricultural land and much fewer petrol stations than I anticipated. Running on fumes I discover with horror that the tank hatch doesn’t open despite unlocking it from below the driver’s seat. Keep in mind I will be illegal in this country if I can’t leave today. A portly manager speaking no word of English comes out with a big smile and opens it without an issue, and I’ll understand later in the trip that this only happened because I was simultaneously unlocking the hatch from inside the car as he tried to open it. In other words the tank hatch is damaged in a way that you can’t open it alone. In-ter-es-ting… Minsk is still very soviet and very windy. Large boulevards, large (seemingly) unoccupied government buildings including a cool and sprawling art deco edifice (see above): this city is as cold as its inhabitants are warm. Lenin still dominates the main square in front of the House of Representatives, the KGB Headquarters still exist, the red Saint Simon and Saint Helena Church impresses and the Pedagogical University loudly celebrates 952 years since the earliest historical references to the town in 1067.
New cars launched in Russia simultaneously reach Belarus.
What cars can be seen on Belorussian roads? As our regular sales updates have shown, here the Lada Vesta is king with the VW Polo, Renault Logan, Duster and Sandero also strong for the past few years. But as I start spotting cars in the busy streets of Minsk and no new generation Duster like mine, I realise Belarus car launches, unlike Ukrainian ones, are matched with Russia and more generally the CIS formed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Cue the Renault Arkana, Kaptur, Datsun on-DO, Lada Largus, Lifan Myway, Nissan Terrano and a multitude of other vehicles also available in Russia and Kazakhstan…
Geely vehicles can be seen everywhere in Minsk.
One observation becomes clear very fast in Minsk: Chinese carmaker Geely, assembling locally since late 2017 through a joint-venture with the Belorussian government, is already extremely popular. The flow of Geely Atlas is constant, there are already quite a few Emgrand X7, these two SUVs being assembled in Belarus, as well as a handful of Emgrand 7 and Emgrand GT sedans. Geely would go on to end 2019 as the 4th best-selling brand in the country with 10.7% share – similar to Citroen’s footprint in France – the Atlas snapping the third place overall. In April 2020, Geely even threatened Lada for the brands pole position with a whopping 18.4% share of the Belorussian market. I could see it all unfold in Minsk.
Minsk car landscape
Speaking of which, the current domination of Lada in Belarus is also very visible, with many Vesta sedans – the country’s overall best-seller – notably as taxis, but also Granta and Xray. It’s worthwhile noting that Lada reclaimed the annual Belorussian brands pole position in 2019 for the first time since 2012. The current ranking (not historical strength) of Lada in the former Soviet Union republics is a good barometer of their population’s sentiment towards Russia. As such, Lada is doing extremely well in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan but has virtually disappeared in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia… While returning to the Ukrainian border and getting lost around the Gomel bypass, I discover an entire network of beautifully decorated bus stops that seem to have stood still since the Soviet era, one of them pictured in the hero photo atop this article.
We make it in time back into Ukraine without ever being asked for a Russian-translated declaration: way to put unnecessary pressure on me! 1000km later we arrive in Odessa to prepare for the crossing of the Black Sea to Georgia. This would end up being by far the single most challenging step in the entire trip. Stay tuned…