This is Minsk
Trip Start Aug 27, 2011
99Trip End Jun 01, 2012
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Next to me on the train was a lady who was bringing her cat to Minsk. The little monkey had a cat collar and lead, and every time we stopped for border control or customs control (4 stops at 2am!!) it would purr like a car engine. Sometimes he would climb onto his owner and look at me, I'd wave but then he would sit back down again. She was also transporting a wedding cake on the train so was very careful with her luggage. She spoke English and was very helpful when customs people shouted at me.
One needs patience, planning and some considerable effort to enter Belarus. Having sponsorship from a hotel/hostel (at a cost) then filling in and sending off your application to the Belarus embassy (at a cost) and then the border officials taking a long time to process you, especially when you have bed hair and are half asleep. It was completely worth it!!
Minsk train station is enormous. It took some navigation to find my way out of the station to the metro. I grabbed a quick coffee and a couple of Belarus hot dogs, little sausages wrapped in soft pastry, more like sausage rolls, but not quite. The interesting difference, is that this little cafe/deli place has not seats. You simply stand, look out the window and enjoy your breakfast.
Below the train station is a clean and efficient metro system. The strange thing was that my hostel provided the English translation of the station to get off at, but then all the signs were in Russian, and I had to change lines. It all worked out and the stations were large in size and reminded me of the underground system in Atlanta. Notably, there is a clock and then next to the clock, a timer that shows how long ago the last train left. So, you know EXACTLY how long you have been waiting! Not like in NYC!
My hostel was miles away from the city. At least 6 metro stops and then an apparent 500 metre walk. The map offered by the online Belarus tourist agency led me to a random housing estate. There was road construction and no sign of my hostel. I asked a couple of locals but I think they wanted to hurt me than actually help me. It felt like walking around Gunville in the early 90s. Frustrated to say the least!! I ended up finding a childrens library, popped inside and some kind lady and a young man who spoke broken English pointed me in the right direction. I had infact walked past the hostel but of course, I wasn't looking for it at that point.
The hostel was fine, not the best but adequate. Free tea and coffee, the bed was comfy and I enjoyed a rest after the night train.
I was feeling very excited about Minsk. I could have easily skipped this dictator run state and headed for Poland, but I am fascinated by places we (Westerners) know so very little about. I have also pulled my finger out and contacted a few couchsurfers for 'coffee'. I've been regrettably lazy on couchsurfing, I should have met people from the community in my previous country's, but, I was not in the most sociable mood. I have also put my finger on how I feel. Travelling for me, has become reality, my norm, spending 6 weeks at my brothers house was a holiday. To turn the tables, I am now back in my reality. It is a truly amazing reality, but I look forward to my next holiday back at my brothers house next year!
My first evening in Minsk, I met Tatyana (she likes to be called Tanya) near her work in Pl Jakuba Kolasa. I jumped out of the metro an hour earlier to get a feel for the city and the people. I received quite a few 'looks' most likely the colour of my hair but maybe the size of my hair. The fluff ball is growing and will be welcome in the cold climate in central Russia and Mongolia. The city is very white, there are traces of other ethnic minorities, some are studying, some live here, but Minsk, like the majority of Eastern Europe, is a very white state.
I met Tanya next to the middle of three statues, dedicated to a writer in Minsk. the centre statue is the writer and next to him are statues of some of his characters. Tanya met me at the statue and we went for a short walk in the rain, she pointed out a hidden church and we walked onto the Victory monument. It is here that we stopped for a coffee and chat. To begin to describe Tanya, you can firstly see for yourself a big smile, a happy face and a kind heart. She currently works for IBM and studied Computer Science at University. She even works on a similar project to that of my brother, Dave, who works for IBM. Of course, she looked him up on the IBM data base, but the picture is small, apparently? We talk politics, we talk travel, I ask her about her memories of the USSR and her thoughts on Belarus going forward. Sadly, at this point in time, the currency of Belarus has fallen sharply in value after the government allowed a limited floatation in its latest bid to ease the country's worsening financial crisis. It's the second time since April that the currency has lost value, for example there were 5000 roubles to the US dollar, now it is more like 8600 roubles to the US dollar. Tanya tells me of unrest in the city, that also included the bombing of a metro station in April and crazy hikes in inflation. She is an intelligent and beautiful young lady. Her English is fantastic, although, typical of most people who speak English as a second language, she thinks she doesn't speak it very well. Well, if she can understand my mumbles and we can chat for 4 or 5 hours then she must have a very good grasp of the language. Luckily, she also wrote down on a piece of paper, instructions for the train station about what train and compartment I want for my train to Vilnius, it would make buying a ticket the following day quick and very easy! I was very grateful for her company and we agreed to meet again during my stay.
The city at night is quiet, I felt very safe and apparently, the area I'm living in is known for being quite rough but I felt very comfortable walking the 12 minute walk from the metro station to my hostel.
My only full day in Minsk started with a long lie in. I had agreed to meet another Tanya (such a small world) and we met at the centre of a metro stop near the centre. Straight away she asked for me to speak slowly and indicated we would be walking somewhere to buy medicine for her grandma. Tanya was fluent in English about 6 years ago but stopped using the language. You would never have guessed! We bought Grandma some medicine the went to a coffee shop that she likes to chat, it was starting to rain so I was pleased to go inside. I was shocked to see a slice of chocolate cake cost more than a night in my hostel. We're talking $12 for a cake slice, just demonstrates the crazy hike in inflation. I selected an Americano coffee and no cake. Tanya is an actress. She studied at drama school, found languages very natural to learn but now works as a drama teacher/teaches actors and actresses. There is limited opportunity to act in Minsk but she would love to have the chance in London or New York, for example. Strangely, the conversation turned to Snooker, and it is her favourite sport. Her and her Grandma watch it all the time. We both agreed on Ronnie being our favourite player, but she couldn't remember her grandma's favourite player. I reeled off names, like Taylor, Virgo, Davis, Parrot, Thorne, but Tanya remembered, it was Mark Selby. So funny. I think I figured out now that Eurosport is a popular channel in Europe and snooker is broadcasted frequently. Tanya is also going on a trip to Rome very soon. She loves Italy and talked about it often. Her friend has just recovered from a broken leg so their not sure on the plan but she can't wait to get back to Italy and explore some more. Tanya was great company, intelligent, witty, very open and very friendly. Of course, her English as perfect and we chatted for 5 or 6 hours and there were no boundaries in language whatsoever. During out chat, her phone rang, it was her mum. When she put the phone down, she explained that her and her mum look out for stray dogs and try to rehome them. There is no shelter in Minsk, dogs are put to sleep within a day of being found. Her current dog she found two years ago and after some careful treatment and care, is now her hot water bottle in the winter. She tells me about the cold winters, reaching -30c sometimes and the constant snow.
The rest of the afternoon was a great tour of the city. She explained to me about monuments, history and culture differences. For example, you are not allowed to sit on the grass, let alone walk on it. A couple recently almost got thrown in jail for sitting on the state grass. Large guys in military uniform patrol the streets and have a habit for beating and roughing people up. If there was supposed to be a huge cultural difference between capitalism and the old communist state, I never noticed it. People were getting on with their day, shopping, eating in restaurants, greeting friends, couples walking hand in hand and the odd tourist taking a picture or two. The USA defines Belarus as the last dictatorship in Europe. This does not describe the residents, only the man who is in charge of the country. I mentioned to Tanya that I wanted to see the KGB building which is still in use. We walked by and sadly, the building looks dull and lifeless. The doors are firmly shut closed, there are some red flowers outside in the garden, but I got a frosty feel and felt disappointed that such a fascinating building was kept as lifeless as it is. I sneaked around a corner, took a picture and quickly moved on incase the KGB came running out. We shared similar views on relationships and this evolving generation of young people. Never in history have so many young people been so informed on the world and had so many choices and opportunities and ultimately, freedoms.
We continued on, passed the dull Palace and the stunning Union building. We continued onward, walking around a park, crossing the Victory monument again and heading to where I had met the other Tanya the day before. We went to a Deli restaurant for dinner. Everything is pay by weight. I tried a savoury pancake with mushrooms inside, some diced fried potatoes, a glass of apple juice and a chocolate and cream dessert! It was all delicious and very good value for money, although, the restaurant refuses to let you use the bathroom? Surely that's illegal? I helped explain Tanya the rules for Golf, how to pronounce some words and sadly, it was around 730pm and I was shattered. I had a great day with Tanya, I forgot to take a picture but enjoyed her company very much. I hope she has a great time in Italy and she finds a place to work overseas very soon.
My last day in Minsk would end at 7pm when I had a train for Vilnius. I had a bad night sleep as some big rounded belly man announced himself in my empty dorm by turning on the TV at 1am and then talking loudly on his cell phone. I reacted by turning on a Ricky Gervais podcast to speaker setting on my itouch and he quickly moved his conversation outside. So rude, but he was big, so I wasn't going to fight him for the remote control.
I spent a few more hours by myself exploring the city. Taking time in the parks, looking closely at monuments and statues, strolling down long avenues and people watching. The city is fascinating. The building are large in size, the streets are very wide allowing for 4 lanes of traffic going in both directions. To cross a street, you walk under the street, almost like a subway pass, but without the train. Advertising is hitting the city in a big way. There is a large Coca Cola sign, and a few hotels have advertising at the top of their buildings. The majority of Minsk was destroyed during WWII but some parts survived. It was rebuilt by Russia and you can tell when observing the communist style buildings and architecture.
The people of Minsk are extremely friendly and welcoming. During my stay, I received a number of messages on couchsurfing. Young people fascinated to see that I was a 'nearby traveller' and interested in knowing why I was visiting and hoping to have a coffee and practice some English. Sadly, I was not there long enough to meet these people who sent kind messages. I love their enthusiasm, their interest and generous nature. I tried to buy the second Tanya a coffee and she wouldn't let me.
Early afternoon on the Saturday, I met the first Tanya again. She was working, there was some disaster at work and she working extra hours to try fix it, sounds just the same when I talk to my brother. We went to a nearby restaurant, Tanya ordered cake and I ordered Draniki. This is local, pancakes put into a pot and covered with cheese and bacon. I also, in keeping up with my trip, bought a local beer, Ylatz Bazant and it was very tasty.
Meeting Tanya a second time felt just like meeting a buddy for lunch, catching up on your day, chatting for an hour and enjoying each others company. She ended up taking a two and a halve hour lunch as we walked further north of where she worked and then helped me find a few treats in a supermarket for my trip to Vilnius.
It's a great feeling to know that I have a couple of friends in Minsk. They both know that if they do find their way to London (although us Brits make it very difficult and unlikely for people from Belarus to visit) they know they are extremely welcome, well you know, welcome at my brothers, at my mums, I'm sure my dad wouldn't mind learning some Russian phrases? Right?
Time ticked on and I had to leave, go back to the hostel, grab my gear, check some footy scores then head to the train station. I dropped my last few roubles on a couple more hot dogs and only had a three hour ride to Lithuania and Vilnius.
Both Tanya's asked if I would recommend to my friends a visit to Minsk and my answer is YES. Of course. They both heard my views on the Western society and how I feel greed, power and the media shape our lives to feel like a failure. To me, what makes you happy is the most important aspect in your life, my travels in South America showed me how a simple life is a happy life and I got the same impression from Minsk as well. They are ambitious people but are not consumed by the unrealistic dreams of fame, power and fortune. Minsk is not to be missed, but more importantly, take the time to get to know people who have lived in Minsk and listen to their stories, you will be grateful you did.
Next stop, Vilnius.