Published: May 15th 2011April 26th 2011
In Minsk just on the main square
As Hannah and I boarded the train to Minsk, Belarus, it should have been a sign of things to come as our ‘seats’ were actually beds above the seats as we were on a sleeper train that had started much further west in Europe and wasn’t finishing until Moscow. So we sat as best we could as I read and Hannah wrote her journal. We would have talked with the others in our section but we were the only English speakers around. This was especially helpful when we came to border and despite having the correct visas, they wanted to see our medical insurance. I pulled out our travel insurance which covers us for the world but apparently this wasn’t acceptable, and after the pulling out his phone, the border guard called someone who spoke English to tell us we had to buy Belarusian medical insurance once we arrived in Minsk. Needless to say, we ‘forgot’ this when we got there.
Our first real experience with the Cyrillic alphabet proved quite entertaining as there was no English translation but before we could combine our maps, a woman who spoke almost no English practically led us our accommodation’s door – despite
Our shameful first meal in Belarus. Does it count if we can't understand what anything says?
it being a bit out of her way. It’s people like that who restore your faith in humanity and make travel to new and ‘scary’ places like this so rewarding. We chucked our stuff in our room and headed out for dinner. Unfortunately there was hardly anywhere open and we had to resort to the lowest of the low, McDonalds. Though we did have fun with the exchange rate as it was about 5,100 to the pound so we felt like multi-millionaires (and have the ATM receipts to prove it!).
After that we wandered a bit around the area and saw the tribute to the Minsk underground train bombing which happened only a couple of weeks previous and only just up the road from our accommodation. We also crossed the main road (8 lanes wide) not at the lights, which we realised a day later wasn’t the smartest idea as it is a fineable offence in Belarus and we were just down the road from the country’s KGB headquarters! Whoops!
As per usual on the trip, the day dawned with clear blue skies and we set out to explore Minsk. Unfortunately I made the mistake of leading Hannah
At the underground station in Minsk
near a shopping mall. A couple of purchases and an hour or two later, we emerged and restarted the exploration. Minsk is what I imagine Moscow was (is?.....) like under Communism and there is a ‘weight’ over the city. It is heavily policed and we saw a statue of Lenin as well as plenty of pro-Communist Russia art and slogans. We also took each others photos outside the KGB headquarters until the guard came out to tell Hannah off. She was more annoyed that I missed getting a photo of it!
We wandered around the city until the late afternoon when we let our legs recover before we ended up in a hidden underground restaurant which turned out to be one of the best meals we had. All for the equivalent of about £8 each! I could get used to Belarus.
We were up far too early the following morning as we caught a 7am train to Brest, down on the border of Belarus and Poland. Our main reason for visiting here (apart from the name) was to check out what was recommended as the best WW2 monument around. It was also quite interesting to see one from
the other side as well. The whole site was quite immense and even though we only had an hour or so there, we got around the majority of it before we were back at the train station ready to head to Warsaw to meet up with Clay.
As getting into the country wasn’t easy, neither was getting out. We were sitting at what we thought was platform 1 ( because it was the platform next to platforms 2 and 3. Logical, yes?) when we thought we would check. I spied a big train at a platform hidden around the back. After asking 2 guards who had no idea what I was saying, one got the gist and led us to a building we had to get through to get to the train. Apparently we had to go through customs before the train and should have been there 20 minutes before the train’s scheduled departure time. We were there 13 minutes before.
So the border guard smiled, showing his gold teeth like a stereotypical Bond villain, pointed at his watch and said in his broken English ’20 minutes’. I said nothing. He replied with ‘How much money do you
A statue of the former Communist leader of Russia, Lenin
have?’ It sounded like he had used that line before….. Despite cash being hidden on me, I opened my empty wallet and he glanced at Hannah. She pulled out about 2,000 roubles (the equivalent of 50p) and the guard realised he would get no bribe from us and waved us through. We jumped on the train literally seconds before it departed and collapsed into our seats.
Here, I had to explain to Hannah that the guard was after a bribe, and she seemed quite shocked. It must have stuck in her mind as we got to the other side of the border a few minutes later and the Polish border guard came aboard and asked if we had any cigarettes or alcohol (looking for contraband), Hannah replied with ‘Oh no, I don’t smoke’. Yes, she thought the guard was after a bribe of cigarettes. :)
After more hours of card games and reading, we pulled into Warsaw and made our way to the hostel and met up with Clay. We regaled Clay with our stories of Belarus as he gave us his from Riga over dinner, and finished up with a night cap of Polish vodka – it
KGB Headquarters #1
The big building itself - still in use
was horrible. Apparently this vodka was generally served with apple juice, though the barman neglected to mention that part.
The next day was Hannah’s last of the trip as she had plans to be back in London for the Royal Wedding and a dance competition so I spent the morning heading to the bus station (after a failed trip to the train station) to organise a night bus for Clay and I to Lvov in Ukraine. After eventually succeeding, I wandered around the leafy suburbs of Warsaw before meeting Clay and Hannah in the Old Town. We explored around the Royal Castle and did our own little walking tour around the cobbled streets before we headed back to the hostel to wave Hannah off. Thus ended our Polish adventure as Clay and I got ready to head down to Ukraine to see if we could develop superpowers at Chernobyl…
There are more photos below