Friday 09 September 2016
Today we have a relatively short drive to the Lithuanian-Belarus Border. Belarus is in a country grouping with Russia and visas are required so we definitely have to go through passport control here.
The Lithuanian side is easy – first the driver gets out and shows his papers and then a guard walks through the bus with a dog (both look fairly friendly). Then we drive a bit further and have to all get out an present our passports at the counter (apparently sometimes people are required to take all their luggage off as well). Then we drive across no-man’s land and stop for a while at the Duty Free – on the premise that the queue at the other side was long but really I think it was because the driver wanted to get his vodka and cigarettes. I use up my last Euro coins and buy a bar of chocolate.
At the Belarus side we again anticipate that we may have to take all our luggage off and through security but today we just need to go through with our passports. There is a currency exchange where we change some Euro into Belarusian rubles, just a few because we don’t know how much we will actually need and these are different from the Russian rubles that we will need for the next week. One final check of the bus by a guard and then we are off on our drive to the capital Minsk punctuated by a stop at a garage station for toilets and refreshments – and our first exposure to the cyrillic alphabet. Some of the grocery items are obvious what they are but others remained a mystery. Ieva gives us a sheet with an introduction to the Russian language – which gets us very confused (it will need a lot more studying).
The landscape is very similar to Lithuania with forests and predominantly agricultural land. Some traditional farming is still carried out using a horse and cart or plough but tractors are ploughing great swathes of bare earth and send up dust storms as they pass. There are a lot more people and animals on the land than we have seen previously. The roads are in need of some re-surfacing and it is a very bumpy trip.
There are 9 million people in Belarus and 1.9 million live in Minsk, so it is a much larger city than any of those we have been in previously. We circle around the ring road that is on the city limits and see masses of fairly new apartment buildings – it seems to be a modern city. We arrive at our Turist Hotel and it is definitely a modern building and nicely appointed. There are just a few minutes to drop our bags into our rooms and then go down for lunch in the hotel restaurant.
At 3.00 we meet our local guide Andrei in reception and head off for our walking tour of the ‘Old Town’. The tour starts with learning how to use the Metro; a station is just near the hotel. We queue at the ticket office to purchase our little pink coin-like tokens – these cost 50 kapeykas and one token will take you anywhere you want to go. The Metro system is very simple as there are only 2 lines and the stations are numbered so you don’t even need to try to read the station names. We go from station 212 and change lines at 216, getting off at 217.
Exiting the Metro near the main train station that we will visit tomorrow evening, we surface in Independence Square across Independence Avenue which is the Main Street. Andrei tells us about the history of the square and the parliament buildings ahead of us and has photos to show us of the changes over time. Much of the city was bombed so it is now mid-20th century buildings with the exception of a few survivors. Parliament buildings have been variously Nazi and Soviet headquarters, and the square has changed names many times. Independence Avenue has had 18 different names over the last century.
There is a statue of Lenin in front of parliament buildings with an interesting story: this statue differs from all the other statues of Lenin because his arms are down rather than the more usual pointing arm. Apparently the artist had been making a sculpture of a famous writer when the soldiers arrived at his door demanding that he prepare a statue of Lenin within 24 hours or be killed. With little option, he decided to save time by using the body of the writer that he had already made and substituted Lenin’s head – thereby delivering the required statue on time.
Nearby is the Red Cathedral – so named because of its deep red bricks. It is actually the Cathedral of St Simon and St Helen: Simon and Helen were beloved children who tragically died and their parents bequeathed their wealth to the city on the proviso that a cathedral be built and named in honour of their children. We are able to get a quick look inside even though there is a wedding underway – where half of the guests were mysteriously wearing orange jackets!
We are shown a castle-looking structure that apparently the architect who built it was so frugal with expenses that it came in significantly under budget but then within 2 years it needed repairing and eventually required 5 times as much to be spent on it than the original budget. It now operates as a prison. Andrei tells us that Belarus still has the death penalty and this is the main reason they are not in the EU or United Nations.
We continue our walk down Independence Avenue that has a wonderfully spacious and gracious feel – because of the proportions of street width to building height we are told. The Central Post Office building is certainly beautiful – built entirely by manual labour without any cranes or specialist equipment. We walk past the enormous and ominous yellow KGB building that sits nearby another large building sporting the ominous yellow arches of MacDonalds.
We turn and walk past the Town Hall and look across the road to the Cathedral of Saint Virgin Mary (its two towers were removed during the Soviet occupation so that its height was the same as the surrounding buildings, but they have now been restored). Then we turn towards the Svislach River that runs through the city and from the square we get a magnificent view across the river to some very modern sports stadium buildings, and the picturesque old buildings of Trinity Suburb (which is the last remaining section of the Old Town). The Holy Spirit Cathedral and a monastery are also on the square.
We walked down towards the river and Andrei showed us the houses and narrow streets of Trinity suburb. Then we cross a bridge over to the Isle of Tears which has a beautiful war memorial to those that fell in the Afghanistan war. It is a little chapel with statues of waiting mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, initially hopeful and then more despairing on the other sides. Inside is beautifully decorated with frescoes and candles can be lit.
We spend some time enjoying the beautiful evening down by the river before walking along to our dinner reservation at Olive Restaurant (Ieva’s originally choice was fully booked up for the weekend.) It is such a mild evening that we sit outside enjoying local beer and (when we finally got them) a range of meals that all included potatoes – Belarusians are often referred to as ‘Potato Men’. As we were finishing a band started setting up on a stage outside and the moment the music started, young people flooded in from all around. Four of our group stayed to listen a while but most of us oldies headed back on the Metro to the hotel.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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