Published: July 24th 2011April 26th 2011
The KGB Headquarters
Best viewed from afar
After leaving Clay to explore Latvia, James and I found ourselves off the tourist trail towards Belarus! The train carriage is nothing like I’ve ever seen before – our allocated seats were upper bunk beds, notably higher than normal, but with no ladder to get up! And when you did manage to get up that high, there wasn’t even enough head-room to sit up! For 5 hours!
To make matter worse, the train was quite full and EVERYONE only spoken Russian. The ladies that we were sharing the area with made some kind of hand gestures to suggest we could sit on the lower bunks with them, so that was good!
Crossing the border was interesting. Firstly we had to leave Lithuania, simple stamp of our passports. Easy enough. Getting into Belarus, however, was a different story! Although we had an approved visa (and you need to provide a wealth of documentation to get that!), we apparently also needed to show our medical insurance. Thankfully, James had a print of his insurance which covered ‘world wide’ and included medical. We sneakily said that was for both of us – I did have insurance, just nothing to prove. However, apparently ‘world
Welcome to Minsk
So which way is out?
wide’ wasn’t good enough to cover us for Belarus!?
We ended up with four guards crowding around our little compartment, a translator on the phone, and more guards via radio on their way! At this point, we really weren’t sure if they were going to let us in, but after a while we manage to convince them – probably because we had already delayed the entire train for long enough!
So we finally made it into Minsk, but realised pretty quickly that this was going to be interesting, if not, difficult, as all the signs were in Russian, and only Russian. We had no idea how to get out of the train station’s little network of tunnels (whats Russian for exit!?) – let alone attempt to order food!
We eventually found our accommodation, thanks to a lovely local lady who walked us most of the way. The location was perfect, just of the main road Praspekt Nezalezhnastsi, which seemed to be handy to everything. It was 11pm by the time we got to have dinner, which mean McD’s was literally the only place open (ironic after just having a conversation about why no one should eat chain-fastfood while
travelling!). I was a little shocked when she said our order came to 32,500BYR – perhaps my hand gestures to order didn’t translate that well in Russian? Apparently the exchange rate is 1:5100 – phew!
After dinner, we were keen to get a little feel for the place, without wondering too far. Minsk was already noticeably different to other cities around Europe. The roads were very wide – 8 lanes through the city centre – and massive stone buildings lined each side, all lit up rather nicely. Definitely built to impress. We saw the temporary memorial to those killed in the metro bombing only a week or so earlier. Scary to think it could have us if we were here only 7 days earlier.
The first mission of the next morning was breakfast. Given our dinner the night before wasn’t overly successful, I didn’t have high hopes on this one. However, we did manage to find a nice restaurant, and had a menu roughly in English, at least enough to order off, so I’m putting that down as a win. So it was finally time to start exploring Minsk, we headed up to the main square Ploshuha Nezalezhn, which
had the long white Belarussian government building – aka the white house, the state university and an old red brick Catholic church that doesn’t seem to fit in to anything else we’ve seen so far. There is a large statue of Lenin outside the government building, and after getting told off by the rather fierce looking guard and his gun for getting too close, we decided it was time to leg it. (Run-in No. 1)
We walked down the main street Nenavisimosti to see the block-wide KGB headquarters building. The building is massive and loomed over you so much so you can almost feel the people inside watching you. In the middle of the building there are stairs leading up to four great Corinthian columns, and a vast wooden door with the carved letters ‘K G B’. We look some photos from across the road, however James wanted a much closer look. He decided that he wanted a photo at the top of the stairs, by the front door. I thought he was mad, but no-one seemed to care, so I thought ‘why not?’. However, just as I got to the top of the stairs, one of the KGB
guards, in full regalia came out and told me off! Ekkk!! (Run-in No. 2)
Needless to say, I didn’t hang around, missed my photo op and left feeling rather nervous and as if I was being watch everywhere we went after that event! What makes it even more scary is that it’s the people in charge of protecting you, are the ones you fear.
We saw the bust of terror-monger Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB’s predecessor, the Cheka. Apparently this is one of the world’s last remaining statues of him. We continued down the expansive Nenavisimositi, where the oversized stone and concrete monumental buildings are starting to turn from impressive to an oppressive weight gleaning down upon you. The city is grey and severe.
We got to Okyabrskaya Ploshchad Square, one of the main squares that houses the cute Trade Unions Culture Palace, and the severe Palats Respubliki (a concert hall). Across the street is Tsentralny Skver, another square where the Dom Ofitserov (Officer’s Building) with its tank out the front and the Presidential Administrative Building, where Lukashenka makes most of his decision-making – it was quite clear in the guide book not to photograph this building!
And after still feeling quite paranoid from the earlier events of the day, I thought it best to not make it ‘run-in No. 3’. We photographed it, but from slightly further away!
We had a walk down to the quite pretty Svislac River that runs though the centre of Minsk. While we were there we got to see the Victory Obelisk with its eternal flame, and the former house of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of JFK.
James and I strolled along the tree-lined river edge to Minsk’s Old Town – which turned out to be a block or two of rebuilt 17th C style houses to recreate the look and feel of what Minsk once looked like – rather different than today’s concrete oversized monstrosity). We headed back over to our side of town, and once again undertaking the interesting task of finding somewhere and something to eat. We found an underground restaurant along Marx Street which served local delicacies. There was an embarrassing moment when we were told we could only pay cash. We were about 50,000 BYR short, so to skittle off to find a cash machine. We later worked out that we had gone
out for dinner with not even the equivalent of £16 between us!
On the way back to the hotel, James wanted one more photo right beside the K G B carving on the front door. I wanted nothing to do with it after my earlier run-ins so left him to it!
So far Belarus, and more specifically: Minsk, has been interesting, certainly an eye opener into a vastly different culture, but mostly unsettling. I think this is perhaps the first time when I’ve really just wanted to get out of the country and soon as possible (in this case before the KGB catches up with me!)... but I have to get through tomorrow first!
There are more photos below