After a few weeks of catching up with friends while waiting for the truck to be fixed, I decided to go to a balloon festival in Minsk, Belarus. It was a last minute decision, so a lot had to be organised in a short period of time.
Firstly I spoke with UNICEF Belarus and we came up with a plan to set up a tent and kid’s activities at the festival. UNICEF helped me out by sending an email to the Belarus Consulate in Berlin, stating that I was going there with the UNICEF Balloon and asking if they could process my application quickly.
I then got in touch with the consulate and asked them if they could issue me a visa on the spot as I was only passing through Berlin. They were very helpful and arranged an appointment for me outside of normal consulate hours. I sent all the necessary documents to them by email. All had been arranged by email on the Friday and an appointment was made at 4pm the following Tuesday afternoon at the consulate.
Luckily the plane was on time when arriving into Berlin from Turkey at 2.15pm on Tuesday. I passed through airport clearance quickly and caught a bus to the ‘S Bahn’ (over ground metro) to get to the other side of Berlin. From the station, it was a 1km walk to the consulate. There was a light rain, so I was a bit wet by the time I arrived at 4.02pm.
One of the staff let me into the consulate and I handed over all the necessary documents. The consul said the visa would be ready in 20 minutes and it would be issued for free as it was a visit for UNICEF, (I had written a letter to the Ambassador asking for it previously and he granted it). It saved me 120 Euro for the visa and express processing.
I was out of the embassy at 4.30pm and happy to have the visa in hand. If they hadn’t been able to issue it then, my whole schedule would’ve been made very difficult.
I stayed at a friend’s place that night and caught a bus to Wroclaw the next morning. The truck’s gearbox parts had just arrived from Australia when I arrived at 2pm that afternoon, so there was no way they were going to put the gearbox back together and bolted back to the truck, (originally I was hoping to take the truck to Belarus). I had all ready foreseen this problem and had arranged a rental van so I would drive from Wroclaw to Bialystok, then the balloon would be transferred to a convoy of Polish balloonists travelling to the festival.
Everyone was relieved to see the right gearbox parts at last. Six different used parts from various wreckers in Poland had been sent to see if they fitted, but none of them did. In the end, the only option was to order new parts from Australia.
I left at 8pm that night and drove for six hours straight, to Bialystok in the north-east of Poland. I stopped just outside of Bialystok at a truck stop and slept on the front seat of the van for a few hours before heading into the city centre where I would meet the other Polish balloonists heading to Minsk.
Three balloon teams arrived shortly after and we transferred my balloon onto two of their trailers with their balloons. The rental office was just across the road, so I returned the van and we were on our way to the Belarus border, only 60kms away.
We got word at the border that the fourth team had broken down on the way. We waited around 1.5 hours for them as they had to replace one of the engine belts. In the meantime the rest of us had a drink and filled in time.
We passed through the Polish side of the border easily, but the Belarus side was a different story. The border guards weren’t exactly sure what to do with four vehicles, 5 balloons and 15 people. The biggest issue was getting the Temporary Import Permit for the balloons. Belarus is famous for its strict Customs processes, and it didn’t disappoint. Photos were taken and forms had to be filled out again and again. It also didn’t help that my balloon was spread over two trailers which added to the confusion. The woman dealing with us was very good about it and she said it would’ve been easier if they had been warned before we came.
After four hours we finally got through, but it wasn’t the end of the waiting. Each vehicle had to get an electronic road toll tag, which we were told would take 30 minutes per vehicle! It turned out to be not quite as bad as that and we were heading for Minsk just over an hour later.
The 300 or so kilometres to Minsk were good, ranging from dual carriage highway to one lane each way. The area is very flat with villages and forests dotted throughout, with quite a number of swampy, peaty areas.
We made good time and we reached Minsk at around 8.30pm.
One of my friends had made a booking at a hostel, so we dropped our luggage off there and we headed out to see the Minsk nightlife.
At that stage I still didn’t have a vehicle to transport my balloon during the festival. It was going to be too difficult to retrieve the balloon with two vehicles, (as it had been transported from Poland). Luckily one of the Polish crew had some good friends from Minsk. She asked her friends if they would be my crew and lend me their car during the event. They happily agreed and said they would rent a trailer to put my balloon on also. I was really impressed by their generosity and willingness to help out.
The next morning we transferred to the hotel the balloon festival provided for us. I had a room to myself and it was very comfortable. A general briefing was held that afternoon and we were shown the places where we could and couldn’t land, and other useful information, (we weren’t allowed to land in military bases for example for obvious reasons). I also had a meeting with a couple of staff from UNICEF Belarus and we discussed what was going to happen during my stay.
The first flight was scheduled after the briefing, so everyone headed to the launch area at Minsk 1 Airport. I was lucky to be given five local crew members, the most crew I had had for a long time. It was great to have them as they provided local knowledge as knew all the shortcuts. None could speak English very well, but with the combination of my knowledge of Russian and their English, we could get by.
Minsk 1 is an operational airport, so all the cars had to be checked by security before we drove in. There was quite a back-log of cars and it took over an hour for everyone to get in. I saw that we probably weren’t going to fly that afternoon as it was very windy, so instead of waiting in the queue, I went to refuel, as my tanks weren’t all full.
By the time we got back, everyone was through and we entered the airport very easily.
Quite a crowd had gathered, but unfortunately it was too windy to do anything. A few balloons inflated for the crowd and the pilots wrestled with their balloons in the gusty conditions for a few minutes.
Minsk was a pleasant surprise for all of us. There are a lot of nice buildings with numerous parks for people to enjoy. The roads are wide and I don’t think we got stuck in a traffic jam during our whole stay there. Overall it seems a pleasant place to live, and definitely worth a visit.
Belarus sometimes gets a hard time for its political situation, but speaking to the locals, many seem content with how things are run. The President has gained more popularity over the past five years, especially with the younger voters.
It was an early morning the following day as we headed to the briefing. My Russian wasn’t good enough for a lot of the technicalities, so I had to confirm some of the details with English speakers.
We were one of the first in the line to enter Minsk 1 Airport, so got through without much of a delay. The flight was delayed for a short time due to gusty winds, but once it settled, all 50 or so balloons took to the skies.
We all flew south of the city, past many large apartment blocks and a hospital, before flying over open fields and patches of forest. We crossed an air force base where many helicopters and large cargo planes were parked, including 3 of the world’s largest helicopters, the Mil 26.
After crossing a sizable forest, I spotted a field for landing. Our ground crew were there when we arrived, (which I was very impressive about seeing they had never touched a balloon before that morning) and we packed the balloon away and headed back to Minsk to Refuel.
A staff member from UNICEF Belarus met us at Borovaya Airfield in the north of Minsk where the air show was being held. After visiting many entrances and talking to numerous policemen, we were allowed onto the airfield. The weather was perfect, so quite a crowd was all ready there.
We went to the UNICEF tent which had been set up. Kids were all ready there drawing and colouring in pictures. Once they were finished, they were given gifts, such as fun books showing them how to wash their hands properly.
I was ushered over to the main stage to give a speech about the Flying High or Kids Project during the opening ceremony of the air show. Many people were surprised to see a New Zealander there with a balloon.
Back at the UNICEF tent, my crew and I were introduced to the UNICEF staff. I shared postcards with the kids and talked to some of them and their parents. They were all very fascinated with balloons and the project. A few of the UNICEF staff mentioned to me that it was a great opportunity for them to be out in the community because a lot of their work is done on a government level.
One of the interesting things at the airfield was an outdoor aviation full of planes and helicopters from the Eastern Block. It was really interesting place to look around for me as I have quite an interest with aircraft from that area. I even got to go inside a decommissioned Mil 26 helicopter, something I had always wanted to.
We watched some impressive helicopter races where two helicopters would take buckets filled with water around an obstacle course. The fastest one with the least penalty points won.
The rest of the day was spent at the UNICEF tent talking to various people and watching the aircraft displays. Over 400 kids came to colour in and draw pictures over the course of the day. Some didn’t want to leave when their parents told them it was time to go. It was great to see so many kids enjoying themselves.
In the early evening, and after the old AN-2 aeroplanes had finished flying, it was time for 10 balloons, including me, to inflate for the crowd and fly out. Just as we were taking off, 40 other balloons, (who had taken off from Minsk 1) were also approaching. We all flew together across a built up area, and over a large forest where many Dachas were located. Dachas are small lots of land which were originally given out in the Soviet era to government workers and the elite as a reward. It is still common to see them in East Europe and people often spend their summer weekends there.
I was wondering where we were going to land as there were few options. I targeted a field around 5kms away and managed to get there. My crew were again waiting at the field. We quickly packed the balloon and went to the city centre where we were due to do a balloon night glow show.
It was a bit breezy, but around 10 of us managed to put our balloons up and entertain the many thousands who had turned up to see the balloons glow. The burner’s flame make the balloons look like colourful light bulbs.
We were all feeling quite tired by the time we had finished.
After I got back to the hotel, I was told that the flight had been cancelled for the next day due to storms in the forecast. I went with a couple of Polish crews to a local bar to celebrate the success of the day, and our last night in Belarus.
We packed the next morning and attended the awards ceremony, then it was time to say goodbye to my crew and depart Minsk and with the four crews to Poland.
A Belarusian pilot invited us to his balloon club at an airfield in Grodno, the second largest city in Belarus, just across from the Polish border. We arrived at the end of the day and we were treated to quite a spread of typical local food and drink. The club was in an airfield hangar and used to be a paratrooper training centre. Some of the training equipment was still there, and they offered us to try it out. I had a go on something which looked like a flying fox on a rail and was used to train jumpers how to land properly. It was good fun.
A few of the guys also tried out the banya, (Sauna) and ran out to take a dip in the river when they got too hot.
After a few hours, and feeling quite happy, we were on our way back to Bialystok in Poland, only around 60kms away. The border crossing leaving Belarus went much more smoothly, and we only spent around 1.5 hours there. A huge thunderstorm passed overhead as we got our passports stamped and filled out our departure papers. It bucketed down with rain, but luckily we were under cover.
We arrived into Bialystok after midnight, unloaded my balloon into one of their garages, and then stayed in a hotel with one of the teams. They were conveniently heading back to the west side of Poland, so I caught a ride with them to Warsaw Airport the next day.
I can’t give enough thanks to my good balloonist friends in Poland. They really went out of their way to get me to Minsk and back. Doing this project, I have been really humbled by the generosity of so many people who believe in what I do and are so willing to help out.
I am now in France flying commercially over the stunning chateaux in the Dordogne Valley until early September. It is good to get some money in the bank again, especially after the cost of fixing the truck’s gearbox!
More news to come soon…..