Back in the USSR?

Trip Start Jun 23, 2012
Trip End Aug 14, 2012

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Where I stayed
VIP Apartments
What I did
Memorial Chapel to the Internationalist Warriors
Lee Harvey Oswald's Former Residence
Minsk the Hero City Monument
Museum of the Great Patriotic War
Palace of the Republic
Saint Spirit Cathedral
Saint Simon and Helena's Church
Sait Virgin Mary Church
Brest Fortress

Flag of Belarus  ,
Thursday, August 9, 2012

Last year at work my colleague Ian asked me how many countries I had been to. My answer to his question was "I don't know, a lot." This prompted him to alphabetically go down the list of countries and ask if I had been there. By the time he reached Zimbabwe he had counted 93 countries. With my travels to Nepal last Christmas making 94 along with the Ukraine, Moldova, Andorra, Iceland, Lithuania, and now Belarus I have hit 100 countries visited. It’s a little odd that Belarus would mark number 100 since it ranks as one of the least touristy places I have ever been. Even in the last month I got an email from Lonely Planet listing the 10 most forgotten places and Belarus made the list. My guess a big reason for this is the cost and hassle of obtaining a visa for entry --- you need an invitation letter (usually from a hotel), a bunch of documents to present to the embassy, and about $325.  

Along with the visa issues everything I had read about Belarus before coming here was how it was a journey back in time to the old USSR, which was something that interested me about the country. Having travelled to Russia and many of the former Soviet republics anywhere from 15-20 years after the fall of communism I was curious to see what is was still like. I was expecting bleak conditions where the streets were filled with Lattas (old Russian cars), the supermarkets were bare, and people were living in a depressed state; surprisingly though the conditions were much like most of Eastern Europe with new cars, supermarkets fully stocked, McDonald’s restaurants, and a TGI Friday’s --- jeez, back in Al Ain we didn’t have a TGI Friday’s until last year!

While economically everything seemed on par with other former Soviet republics (at least on the surface) where it remains a Soviet style country is in its ideology, at least with the government. While it is a republic in name it is an actual dictatorship under President Lukashenko, and most of the business is nationalized.  Unlike many of the other Soviet republics Belarus still embraces their Soviet past with monuments and statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other communist leaders, which are quite evident when walking around the capital Minsk.

So I arrived at the Minsk railway station after a 4 hour train from Vilnius and immediately started looking for a train that would take me to Brest 2 days later. I have begun to learn by sight the names of some cities in the Cyrillic alphabet so it has gotten easier when looking at the list of 100 plus daily departures on the board at the train station and locating the train you want. Now comes the part where you have to write down all the information and take it to the ticket window. It should be as easy as that but then the lady at the ticket window starts asking you questions and all you can do is smile, shake your head, and shrug your shoulders. She’ll then realize you don’t speak the language or you’re just a complete idiot and will write down how much money you need to give her. Welcome to Belarus, like I said one of the least touristy places I have ever been --- I think I heard English spoken by 3 people during my 3 day visit here. So after securing my departure ticket I was off to find my apartment, while Belarus is dirt cheap with most everything (ex. Subway ride 18 cents, postcard 10 cents, lunch or dinner $5) accommodation is not. Most of the hotels are around $200 a night so the best option is renting an apartment for around $90 a night. The problem I realized with renting an apartment was there is no reception desk so when I arrive at the address given and find a huge block of apartments I have to start asking for help, which again isn’t easy when you don’t speak any Russian or Belarussian (except for yes, no, thank you, and good-bye). Luckily there was a travel agency in the building so I figured someone there could probably speak English and help me out and give a call to the number I had. While there was someone who spoke English and was willing to help me when they called the number for me the guy on the other end just kept saying “No English SMS”. I asked the man at the travel agency if he could call him again and talk to him for me because I couldn’t SMS he did but the man told him it was the wrong number. Great, now I’m f_ _ked! I knew the number wasn’t wrong because I received an SMS from them on my cell phone in the morning asking me when I would arrive, the problem was while I could receive SMSs I couldn’t send any back in reply. Fortunately we live in a world of convenient technology so I was able to get Wi Fi from a restaurant on the first floor of the building and logged into Skype where I could send him an SMS telling him where I was. Just as I was finishing my lunch a man shows up at the restaurant and hands me his phone which has the SMS message that I sent --- at last! He drives me down the street a couple of blocks to another apartment building and I am finally checked 3 hours after arriving. I load up the washing machine with all my dirty clothes (benefit of an apartment) and head out to see the sights of Minsk.

When it comes to sightseeing in Minsk 90% of the city was destroyed in World War 2, or as it is known in the former Soviet republics the Great Patriotic War, so when the city was rebuilt in Stalinist grandeur it makes it easy to get around plus most of the sights to see are monuments, except for what Wikitravel lists as the #1 thing to see in Minsk, the outside of the former residence from 1959-1962 of Lee Harvey Oswald. I did manage to walk past it since it was 10 minutes down the road from my apartment on the way to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which was the only museum worth visiting.

After 2 days in Minsk taking photos of the various monuments I was off to Brest a city in the southwest of Belarus near the border of Poland and a 5 hour train ride from Minsk. Because of its geographical location the city of Brest was important to the defense of the Soviet Union against the Nazi Germans because it provided a direct link to Moscow. In my research on Belarus it said if there was any sight not to be missed in Belarus it was the Hero Fortress of Brest. The Hero Fortress of Brest is also described as the greatest monument in the former Soviet Union. Since my goal was to only visit the Brest Fortress when I arrived at the train station I check my bag at the left luggage room, bought my ticket for the evening train to the Ukraine, and jumped into a taxi where I would spend around 3 hours wandering around the grounds of the impressive fortress and it’s museum to the Great Patriotic War.

My next stop when getting out of Belarus is Lviv, which is in the western part of Ukraine near Poland. When you look at a map of the region the cities of Brest and Lviv are only 200 miles apart, however, there is no direct train between them so you have to take 3 different trains (10 hours total and $3.20) that stop about every 15 minutes a goes super slow.
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