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Published: August 16th 2006
Atop the Train Station
After an hour an a half and 3 stops, we make it over the border. It was the longest, drawn out border crossing I've ever been through but it was all good and we continue on to Minsk.
I had no idea what to expect from Belarus. No pre-conceptions or even any imaginations of what I might see. The short drive from the border to Minsk was prosaic but driving into Minsk itself was a treat. Not because it was particually interesting or attractive but because it was totally unexpected. I was preparring myself for a monotonous journey of dour, gloomy grey soviet buildings. They were there but they had all been painted different colours, so instead of street after street of ugly grey buildings, there was street after street of ugly colourful buildings.
I arrived at the bus terminal just near the massive train station. It was then I started my search for a hotel. Now there is a story to this because I think I fell through sum bureaucratic cracks.
There is an exhaustive process to get a Belarusian visa but I went to the embassy in Vilnius just to enquire, I had filled out the
forms and I had one before it really sunk in what had just happened. The idea is your meant to have a letter of invitation which means a letter from a friend that you'll be staying with or a hotel reservation. You give that to the embassy when applying for a visa but I seemed to miss that and got a visa anyway.
Back in Minsk, I chuff away up the street looking for a hotel. The one I was looking for apparently doesn't exist anymore so I decided to huff it to the closest thing Belarus has to a Tourist Information Centre, the Belintourist. It apparently is meant to book accommodation so after 3km of heaving my stuff around Minsk, I stumble in.
The woman didn't really speak much english so communicating was hard but basically she couldn't book me anything. As soon as I heard that, my heart sank. What was I ment to do with nowhere to stay. It wasn't easy to just wander to a hotel becuase I had no idea where they are and it's just long distances to get anywhere by foot. The problem was she doesn't deal with people like me,
Island Of Tears
Afghan war memorial
everyone who comes to Belarus usually has a booking in a hotel to meet visa requirements, just the step I missed. She did managed to phone a place just next door that is a luxurious hotel and secured me a room. The fact that it was a LUXURIOUS sounded good but pricey. There is no such thing as a hostel in Belarus and I was preparred to pay more for accommodation but not hundreds of US dollars a night for a room, with no other option, I checked it out.
I walked into the large opulent foyer. This was definately not me but I approached the reception desk. After a short discussion about how much I wanted to pay, I chose the CHEAPEST room. It was a total shock to find that it was only $42US a night. The lady behind the desk was hesitant to give it to me because it was not renovated and she thought I wouldn't be comfortable. She was curious about me though, "What on earth brings you from Australia to poor little Belarus?" She couldn't quite understand why I wanted to come here but was very flattered that I was. I got the
Island Of Tears 2
Afghan war memorial
key and caught the elevator to my floor. When I opened the door, I was relieved. It was a simple room but totally decent and infinitely better than any hostel I stayed in. The big plus was the view, out my large windows was a sight that was very unusal. The big wide roads surrounded in massive parkland with the horrible colourful buildings all around. I grinned as I thought to myself "...And she was worried about me being comfortable"
I only had a few hours left of the day so I hit the streets and started to take in Minsk. The first thing I noticed was how super orderly everything was. It's the kind of place where you're not going to trip over a crack in the pavement, get run over by crossing the street or feel in any danger. No rubbish, no graffiti, no young louts lining the streets. It was a total change especially coming from the Baltics. The next thing I noticed was the weddings, without exaggeration there would have been 25 weddings going on in the parkland that I walked through. Mum would've been in heaven, brides all over the place.
It all looked suspiciously recent
got onto the main street, praspekt Francyska Skaryny (Independence Avenue), that runs for 11km from the centre of town to the outer suburbs, that's when Minsk impressed me. A stroll down this stupendous street is an overwhelming walk indeed. Stalin had a vision of granduer and he pulled it off with this majestic display of stateliness. Extremely large walkways and a ridiculously wide road. There's impressive buildings and mammoth sized public spaces. It's grand, it's overbearing, it's impressive and just downright intimidating, but that's the idea isn't it. To have a profound display of power to awe citizens, impress allys and intimidate adversaries. Of course it's all for show but I feel it's a bit of a façade, like a depressed person putting on a happy face. We are talking about a city rebuilt in to 50's and 60's after being flattened in WWII when soviet contruction was building cities like this all over. Today I'm sure it would have been very different indeed, more of an honest reflection of the country and the people. However, it is what it is and for what it's worth it's impressive.
That night I headed back to the hotel. Because it takes
Hammer and sickle
It wasn't as ubiquitous as I thought, but still hanging around
such a long way to get anywhere on foot, I decided to take the Metro. I walked up to the ticket office and asked in hope if she spoke english. A shake of the head confirms my fears as she attracts the attention of the lady security guard. She is little help either but stops a passer by who spoke competent english. He just happened to be going my way so he said he would show me. The Metro system in Minsk is just as you might expect from a soviet built city. Huge, glorious, overbearing and somewhat ugly. Alexi, my impromptu guide, was, like everybody else, curious as to why I was in Belarus and asked about what it's like in Australia. He also helped me out with a bit of Russian, which is apparently spoken more widely than thier native Belarusian. He seemed to be typical of the people I have met in Belarus, helpful, friendly, curious and respectful.
The following day I hit the Museum of The Great Patriotic War. It's a powerful display. Nothing is in english but the detail of the dioramas and the graffic nature of the pictures makes it's message very clear.
Lee Harvey Oswald lived at this address for a couple of years during the 60's. He married a local and got a job before returning to the USA and... well the rest is history.
I had to arrange my train ticket to Brest the following day but that was a very difficult task indeed. I enter the train station. No one speaks english, nothing is written in english and I couldn't find the Information Centre that is apprently there. Basically I was stuck, I just needed to find out times and costs but that was about as easy as deciphering The Da Vinci Code. It's been a hard aspect of travelling in Belarus, with little english spoken and none written, I am forced to try my tounge at Russian which is not simple. Reading signs is impossible due the use of the cryillic alphabet as opposed to the english roman alphabet. At least in other countries you can sort of read things and even half understand them but here it's just impossible. However it's what makes it such an interesting place and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Minsk may be big on stature but not necessarily big on sights. It is also pretty deceptive. My original thoughts on being impressed and loving the orderlyness of it changed a little when I wandered down some streets not far from Independence Avenue.
A Communist Square
One of the many squares along Independence Avenue
Cracks in the footpath, buildings left to neglect. This is the part I wasn't meant to see I guess. However since I was never able to visit the Soviet Union, Minsk is probably the closest thing I'll get to seeing a model soviet city.
All in all Minsk was great and I was looking foreward to getting to Brest. However, getting to Brest was the hardest thing I've done on this trip. I wake up at stupid o' clock in the morning and hike the 3km to the Train Station. I managed to tell the ticket lady who, surprise surprise, doesn't speak english, that I wanted to go to Brest. She wrote down the time and motioned me to hurry as it was leaving soon. I raced to the platform where the train was just arriving. I knew there was no point me being here as I had no ticket. Perhaps they were available on the train itself. I started asking random people if they spoke english. After 10 people, one guy said yes but it was questionable, however I was able to get out of him that there was no tickets on board so back to the ticket
Looking down Independence Avenue. No it's not a freeway, just the 8 lane street.
box. I stood there reading from the Lonely Planet Russian Language section saying something along the lines of "One way ticket Brest please". It seemed to work as she took some money off me and gave me a ticket in return, I bolted to the platform. The train was just starting to chug away, I wasn't waiting around here for hours for another so I chased after it. I was running as fast as I could, my bags flying all over the place, waving my ticket like a madman chasing someone with an knife. A staff member was signaling to hurry up as I made a leap onto the step, they grabbed me but I slipped back onto the platform. I was running again. One more leap was just big enough to get up and into the cabbin. The smiling lady put her hand out for the ticket which I gave to her. Her face turned to a frown as she starting yelling at me in Russian and pointing down the carriage. I walked having no idea what what she was on about. I wanted a seat but ended up in the sleeper section so I took a seat on
Minsk street art
There were statues like this all over Belarus... it's just strange
a hard wooden bench and settled in for the 4 hour journey.
The day got worse once I got to Brest. I had no map, no idea on the transport, I was of course surrounded in Russian signs and to make it worse it was pouring with rain which was getting heavier. I sought refuge in a shelter nearby that was leaking so was being rained on either way. The plan was to wait out the rain, buy a map from a kiosk and head for a hotel. An hour and a half passes with no sign of the rain letting up. There was no end in sight so I made the decision to just go. Asking at kiosks for a map is a futile ploy, they have no idea what your talking about so resorting to pointing at a map in the hope they might get it seemed the only way. I did manage to aquire one but it was 16ft wide (slight exaggeration) I had the address of a few places but it was the english translation, of course all the signs are in Russian so the addresses meant nothing to me. A man in a bar
Ahhh isn't it beautiful... hmmm
helped out when pointing at the address of one place, he circled it on my oversized, almost novelty map. Away I go back into the pouring rain. A few streets away was the place but of course there was no vacancy. I trudge along the wet roads once again that were by now over flowing with water, I mean you'd be excused for confusing them with small rivers. At that time I had been out in the rain for the better part of an hour so just didn't care. My feet went right in the water soaking my boots and trousers up to my shin. It was about this point I contemplated just going back and jumping a train straight to Warsaw. I was stumbling around the water logged streets in a daze having no idea where I was going or what I was looking at. It was the worst day of the trip.
A slight turn of luck headed my way when I came across a hotel which had vacancies. The relief was short lived though. In my room (which looked suspiciously exactly the same as the previous one) I stood, soaked, cold and miserable. I hung out
Ahhh isn't it glorious... hmmm
my stuff to dry and thought a nice hot shower would cheer me up. 5 minutes I waited but nothing, I was then informed by the front desk that the building is out of hot water. I turn my head out the window and saw the skies cleared and the sun poking it's head through. It was one of those days where I just shouldn't've got out of bed. I went to have some dinner. All throught Belarus there isn't many cafés or restaurants just the left over soviet serveries which have stale food heated up in a microwave. It isn't very suscitating.
The next day I headed down the road to what I had come to see, Brest Fortress. First built in 19th century, it became famous when it defended the Soviet Union from the Germans offensive for an entire month in 1941. It was hailed as a hero city. Today that fortress is a magnificent war memorial. As I approach the entrance, I am overwhealmed by the sight of the enormous slab of concrete that looms over the top. There is staunch music playing over speakers as I walk underneath. I follow the path and on the
Museum of the Great Patriotic War
They refer the period of war of 1941 - 1945 between Nazi Germany and its axis allies and the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War.
left is a huge concrete man laying down clutching a weapon in one hand and and his helmet in the other. I look to the right and the most impressive sight is the gargantuan sized head carved out of cement. When getting closer there is sombre music playing near the eternal flame just at the foot of this gigantic, menacing looking head. There are ruins of the buildings that was used as fortification and in one building, a museum much like the one in Minsk. The memorial was a very moving and impressive display and well worth the troubles of the previous day.
So that's it, I've just arrived in Poland now. Belarus has been unlike any country I have been. The language barrier has been the hardest thing to overcome. By the end, I'd picked up enough to just get around but out of the hundred or so people I met or asked, literally no more than 5 spoke passable english, all the rest, not a word. The people themselves have been thoroughlly hospitable and I could always get a smile even though we couldn't talk to each other. When they saw I was travelling through and especially
A concert hall in the middle of this enormous public square
when they heard I couldn't speak Russian, they went out of their way to make me feel welcome and helped me the best they could. The country itself is interesting. Although at first all the soviet architecture is very impressive it does get a little depressing but it's well worth the visit just to see it. It's been pretty good but ready for Poland where there is at least a little english spoken.
Cheers for the continued support.
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