Belarus Travel Blog› entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
12th September 2009
Current Mood: Paranoid?
Category: Travel and Places
To get into this country I was going to need a visa obtained from the embassy in London. I managed to get my hands on a Russian visa the year before so this should be a cakewalk. £63 they were charging me for it. £63! For that price I asked the embassy man if it included a hot Belarusian woman. He said it never but one could be arranged for an extra cost, so I asked him to email me a price guide. Anyroad 63 quid was extortionate in my opinion and I’m sure, absolutely sure that last year the visa was going for only 16 quid. I’ve heard of inflation but that just popped the fucking balloon. And to get my hands on one of these I was going to have to go out and get an official ‘letter of invite’ which after a bit of shopping around was going to cost another 27 quid. That’s 90 quid all up just to enter into the country for 5 days. No wonder no one fucking goes to Belarus…
So visa obtained it was now time to crack on and find some info on the country I was going to make my way to. An internet search should easily do it, wouldn’t you think? Well like me you think wrong cos what with Belarus being a former USSR country they’re still a tad paranoid about anyone discovering what’s contained within their borders. Fuck, not even google maps are able to give me the names of the streets in Minsk. At one point during the trip Kylie using her James Bond WiFi accessible 3G mobile phone looked up a street only to be given the response of a blank map with the word ‘Minsk’ slapped across it. Minsk you say? And there us thinking we were walking around Bang-fucking-ladesh. Cos the place isn’t used to foreigners, I was to learn that it is not unusual for the KGB to go and bug a tourists hotel room to listen in as what information ‘the tourists’ potentially plan to pass on to other government organisations – like hearing ‘The soaps and bed towels are already in the bag, do you reckon we could get away with stealing the hotel shower curtains?’
Gradually with many hours of surfing the net information of Belarus was beginning to filter through… and I was wondering what exactly I was letting myself in for. I was reading stories of western men who after chinwagging with a hot beautiful Belorussian woman over the internet for many months flying over to the country to meet their new love, only to be greeted by her ‘brother’ who would then go on to kidnap and rob the desperate bugger of his passport and valuables before dumping him somewhere in the countryside. I really shouldn’t be laughing at this point. On the plus side the average age for a chick to get married is 22 years whilst for the guy it’s 24 – meaning me a singleton at 26 years makes me a rare and proper good catch what with my dashing looks and European passport. Plus with a divorce rate of 68% I’m odds on not to be shackled down for life.
Upon arrival to Minsk one of the first things we noticed was just how clean the city streets were. Honestly, I’ve never seen something so tidy – I was unsure whether to take my shoes off before entering the city, or just give up and sit myself in a rubbish bin and wait to be taken away to somewhere else more appropriate for my appearance. The second thing you notice if you happen to be a guy or a lesbian is the amount of stunning women everywhere and, whilst this is no doubt ready to spark a debate, Russian women have to be the most attractive in the world. It’s times like these I wish I was a spider with eight eyes so I can take more in – although if I was a spider most of the women would probably scream and run away from me. Or swat me with a slipper. Anyroad, it just so happened that the Belarusian chick Kylie and I were to be staying with via couchsurfing happened to fall into this ‘stunning’ category. Well, it’s hard not to being Belarusian. Trouble is we were having difficulty receiving and replies to the text messages we were sending to tell her we were here – all she provided was an address to turn up to. No worries I thought, she’s probably busy at work – anyroad in the meantime we had a Minsk to discover…
The Main Town Hall which dominates Freedom Square is a stubborn little building as it has been destroyed many times over in its many lives, yet continues to rise from the ground. One of the culprits for its destruction was the decree of the Russian Emperor Nikolai I in 1857. A tour broacher goes on to quote ‘only a hundred and fifty years later the building of the Town Hall appeared on its historic place’. That’s right, it ‘only’ took a mere 150 years to rebuild the thing – a great fact to remember for the next time someone decides to knock the incompetence of British builders. And that’s not the only fascinating thing about this building, no no no, for the broacher also tell of the ‘watch on the 32 metre towers which rhythmically counts every hour of city life…’ Please correct me if I’m wrong, bit isn’t that what a watch is supposed to do? No need to brag bout it in my opinion. What next? Minsk has a library that stocks books – well I never! Actually to say their library stock books is a bit of an understatement. For a start the national library doesn’t look like anything like a library but more like… well… I haven’t a fucking clue to be honest. It looks like a base where a James Bond super villain would plot and scheme their global domination. Actually knowing what the KGB are like then that’s probably exactly what it is. Anyroad currently it’s packed with 8 million books with plans to shovel in another 4 million books in the near future. I’ll admit my maths is bad but even I can figure out that the library will have a grand total of 12 millions books, but whoever decided to shove 12 million books into a library in a country with a population of under 10 million ought to go and retake their GCSE maths or whatever it is they have over there.
Still no word from our host in Minsk – I’m sure she’s busy on her lunch break or something…
Built after WWII the Towers, or City Gates, is a tourist attraction stylized as defensive towers of an ancient castle. According to a Minsk travel brochure inside one of these towers holds a watch that is over 100 years old, has a diameter of 3.5 metres and boasts to be one of the largest watches in Belarus – meaning they must have more of these stupid watches around the country somewhere. Of course it was only when I saw the thing that I realised what the brochure meant was a ‘clock’ and not a wrist watch as anyone would naturally assume. Who would be able to wear a wrist watch that big for a start? Anyroad the ‘watch’ is a ‘trophy taken away from the Germans in the last war.’ In other words they nicked it and are now telling everyone to come to their country and see it. Since this revelation reached Britain security has been stepped up at the London Eye for fear of a group of Belarusians unbolting the wheel and running off with it back to Minsk to claim it as their ‘new trophy.’
Wow, our Minsk host really does work hard. Her company must be proud of her commitment to work by putting contacting us a close second in her priority list. Once she gets this piece of work out of the way I’m sure she’ll get hold of us…
Dotted around the city are bronze sculptures by the artist Vladimir Zhabanov whose work includes ‘Man Lighting a Cigarette’ which is a sculpture of a man lighting a cigarette. The ‘Lady and Dog’ is his sculpture of a lady and her dog. There’s the ‘Horse and Geese’ which of course is a bronze sculpture of a horse and geese. No need to tell you what the ‘Postman’ and ‘Photographer’ is all about either. Clearly this Zhabanov studies at The Academy of Imaginative Names For Arts.
You know I think our Minsk host really wants to reply to us. Unfortunately she owns one of those really small phones and can’t find it in her handbag which is really annoying for her, cos like I said already she probably really wants to contact us…
After visiting a cash machine you soon realise the currency here is ridiculous with an exchange rate of almost 5000 Belorussia Roubles to only 1 British pound. And what with the country issuing no coins it wasn’t long before my wallet was struggling not to explode open with cash – which was a first. On the plus side you’ll never be caught short for toilet paper next time you visit the khazi, shit it’s probably cheaper to use the notes than to go out and buy proper paper for your ass wiping needs. And if you’re wondering how the national lottery works here, cos I was, you’ll be delighted to know this particular weeks jackpot was a whopping 300 million roubles – about 63000 quid.
Of course! Our Minsk host, whatever line of work she belongs in isn’t allowed to use her mobile phone at work cos she needs to use both hands as she is maybe a fighter jet pilot or video games tester. It’s not as if the addy she sent us to turn up to was a trap to rob us of our belongings and passport – only the paranoid would think of such things…
Usually I take stupid and abusive photos when on a trip and this trip as no different, although I did have a fear of being arrested. Heck, the KGB were probably following us and taking photos of our every move. Whilst taking a photo of one particular statue of some guy who I guess was famous for some reason or other, my attention was grabbed by a group of girls who were calling me over to them. Three of them there were and one of them was cheekily asking for 2 dollars for taking a photo of the strange man. Belarus also uses the US Dollar over here cos it’s a sensible currency, that and the fact by the time the Belarusian chick had finished asking for ‘nine thousand four hundred Belorussian Roubles please’ I would have already been back in a London boozer showing my mates my holiday snaps. After an introduction and a quick chat in broken English one of the chicks asked if Kylie was my girlfriend - ‘Aha’ I thought, ‘My first prospective wife!’ Realising Kylie and I are buddies I was invited by her to go back to an apartment. Now what with my description of Belorussian women earlier you the reader are probably thinking, ‘A-up Del, you’ve scored here mate’… but no. My new prospective wife wasn’t very attractive. She also stank massively of alcohol and, as I was to learn later from Kylie, had an ant running in circles around her hair. It was just as well I hadn’t noticed the ant cos I wouldn’t have been able to stop staring at it – shit I would have probably given the little dude a name and shouted encouragements at him to do one more lap around the ears. But a compliment is a compliment, whether it’s coming from a model or an Adams Family Orphan and I asked with a cheeky grin on my face, ‘Who’s apartment and what would we do?’ I was told we would go to her friend’s apartment, who was a guy by the way, but not before buying some food in a store somewhere. As you can imagine I was shocked for many reasons, most obviously that the word ‘vodka’ hadn’t entered into the sentence anywhere. And who was this guy I asked, but she didn’t seem to be able to give a clear answer on that one. Or the part why I should buy the food. So on behalf of the safety of Kylie more then myself I had to politely decline her amazingly generous offer of buying her next meal and meeting her friend at his apartment. That said if I was without Kylie I would have risked becoming the desperate westerner fooled by Belorussian women at the beginning of this blog and accepted her offer. What’s living if you’re not going to take risks and ignore obvious warning signs – even if it means ending up naked in the Belarus countryside. Just imagine the blog I’d be able to write from that! Still intrigued by their motives, I did pass on my mobile number and asked them to arrange to take us out tonight – they never called.
Come early evening would you believe our couchsurfing host was clearly leaving us stranded in Minsk leaving us with no option but to find a hotel – which meant hailing a taxi. Our particular taxi driver was a guy called Michael who was born and bread in Minsk, but that’s not the interesting part, instead it was the taxi he drove. It had only one headlight that worked, one of the doors couldn’t open, the windscreen was cracked – no doubt from the impact of someone’s head cos the back seats never had any seatbelts. You could say it wouldn’t pass a British MOT test anytime soon, but fuck me did the car have character. It was just like being in a New York taxi cab – until you looked out the window. Anyroad we rocked, rattled and creaked our way out of the city centre until we reached our hotel destination only to be left bitterly disappointed by Michael after he charged us what appeared to be the correct fare for our journey. We’re tourists in former Russia and I was looking forward, almost demanding, to be ripped off by a dishonest Russian taxi driver – it’s a culture embracement thing ain’t it?
The hotel cost us 15 quid each which was a bargain for Minsk, although I didn’t get much sleep as I had read somewhere prostitutes were known to get tourists hotel room number from the receptionist and call your room offering their services, which inevitable led to me drinking coffee all night whilst sitting by the phone waiting for the call.
The next day saw us heading 80km out of the city towards Khatyn and its memorial. In a nutshell slightly bigger than a nutshell, maybe a coconut shell, what happened was this – back in World War II a German vehicle was attacked by fire and an officer dude died. As retribution the habitants of Khatyn, 6km from the location of the German assault, were sentenced to death. Young and old, infants and ill were removed from their homes and shepherded into a barn which was subsequently set on fire killing all but a small handful who either managed to hide elsewhere in the village or survive their horrific injuries from the blaze. War – do we really fucking need it? After the visit I used the skills Oksa taught me in Kaliningrad the year before to see us score a hitch hiking success as we managed to hitch a free ride on a bus which was heading to a village where we could grab our ride back to Minsk.
The Khatyn visit had taken up most of our day, but there was once place we, or at least I had to visit before leaving Minsk – the khazi. And what a toilet it was or, ergo, lack of one. It’s like some Russian gypsy has stolen the loo leaving only a dark murky hole in the ground. And having a hole is lucky – sometimes the hole has been filled like chocolate ice cream sitting on a cone. Now before you, the reader, start whingeing about how I’m acting like a little princess and not being prepared to rough it then hear me out first. Sleeping on train station platforms and not showering for 3 days I have no qualms with at all, and if I was travelling in any of the countries ending with a ‘…stan’ then fuck I’d have no problems planting a poo tree seed into the ground, but this is Belarus we’re talking about here. This is the former USSR who not only a man but went and trained a monkey to fly a shuttle into outer space, a nation who far more advance in telepathy, remote viewing and tesla technology then any other nation yet here they are unable to install a simple seat above a hole in the ground. Squatting down to take a dump into a sewer that whisks away your compressed fibre log isn’t much different to pushing out a steamer into a fast flowing river – something Neanderthals did millions of years ago. But shit, what else could I do, but shit. And the word ‘shit’ is a very adequate way of describing my balance and all, so here I was aiming my asshole over the hole, simultaneously making sure my diamond cutter was adequately aimed to pee into the bowl, all whilst trying not to loose balance and fall into the fucking thing and cause a right unpleasant mess. At this point I wanted to get this traumatic experience over and done with as soon as possible and the first two fibre bombs were quickly released and hit their targets like German plane flying over London in the 40’s. Just when I thought I was heading back to base and relative safety another bowel movement erupted and bomb number three was soon falling down to earth like an overweight skydiver. And this is where it all went wrong. It only missed the hole and landed on the bowl. There I was, squatting down staring between my legs and seeing something I really shouldn’t be seeing. All there was to do at this point was play a twisted game of mini golf and with my finger wrapped in paper acting as my putter took a heavy swing and putted my smelly golf ball into the hole within three hits – a new course record I do believe. And although this was only Monday and I was to remain in Belarus for another four days, I vowed there and then that all further appointments with Mr Brown had positively been cancelled until I was back in Lithuania and its real toilets.
Reading a brief and proper out of date travel guide Kylie had printed off on Belarus we were considering the option of travelling to the Belorussian city of Gomel located in the south eastern area of the country near the Ukraine. Ever heard of the place? Unless you have a memory for disaster history or your name is Monty Burns you be fascinated to now that way back in 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine went and blew itself up. Only a couple of people died from the initial blast as it goes – not bad for an explosion. 56 people dying as a direct result from the blast is a bit worse… but then the 4000 who copped it from cancer as a result from the radiation which spread would assume the whole power plant thing became a tragic disaster. But this is the Ukraine I hear you say. Yeah well, about 60% of the radiation released from the plant went and dumped itself on Belarus, most notably Gomel. ‘Thanks for that!’ the Belorussian people probably said. With approximately 600,000 people exposed to the radiation and warning advice if we were to travel to Gomel not to eat or drink any of the local produce plus what with me thinking my Superman underpants wouldn’t quite make me as super I was led to believe when purchasing them you could say Kylie and I didn’t want to bump the radiation figure up to approximately 600,002. So we thought sod Gomel, we’ll kill our time in Brest.
Getting off the train at Belorussia’s other popular city Brest, the first difference between here and Minsk was people appeared not to want to help us with directions to the city centre. No one, not even the young generation appeared to speak any English, which is fucking odd cos the city is a stone throw away from its European neighbours Poland. I’m always prepared though and on this trip I had been using a Russian phrasebook as I think it’s always polite to have a bash at the native language of a country being visited – even if we were in Belorussia and not Russia, but you try finding a Belorussian phrasebook in you local library. Anyroad, after several attempts of which I was met with looks of suspicion or just completely ignored I asked a couple of young student type guys standing at a busy bus stop who looked like they may have learnt English at school if they knew where the city centre, which we knew was only a 10 minute walk from the station but not which direction, and they couldn’t understand us either. Sod this I thought and with the phrase book raised like a gospel singer in church turned to my congregation, this being the crowd of 15 or so people waiting at the bus stop, I sang to them a translation from my book asking for their directional assistance. No response. Either my phrasebook was rubbish or we overshot out train stop and I was now speaking perfect Russian to a load of Polish people waiting for a bus to take them to Britain. Fuck, no one could even understand the words ‘city centre’ which I’m sure is the same translation spoken in many countries. Anyroad, we gave in and caught another honest taxi who took us to an address which was apparently a tourist office. Surprisingly, it was – albeit a bit of a shit one. Inside the office was a woman who clearly was on the run from Zippo’s Travelling Circus as she had a moustache to rival a German ale drinker. After giving us info on the city of Brest she then, under orders I guess from the Ring Master, said with a very sorry expression that she was going to have to charge us for the information she had just told us! A tourist information centre that charges for its tourist information, that’s definitely a first for me. I was curious to see what would happen if I turned around and said ‘No’ but knowing these former USSR countries a KGB agent would have probably jumped out from the paper waste basket and stuck a memory eraser probe up my ass. So we paid the three Euros.
We passed a museum which contains items confiscated from the border control police. Yes, you read that right. Forget national history, military history and animal and insect museums, instead pay an entrance fee and come see the shit that used to belong to you – like the 2kg bag of cocaine which you were sure was a 3kg at the time of confiscation.
The Brest Fortress was built a bloody long time ago let me tell you – almost 200 years in fact. It’s seen a lot of shit happen, what with being a fortress an all and during the World War II a small pocket of 800 Belorussian men held out for a long time against the Nazi’s once they took control of Brest. After the war it became this memorial with some brilliant, if sad, monuments recognising the feats of the resistance. The fortress had tanks too. Ooooh the things I could have done if I had access to alcohol and keys – after stealing a T34 my first stop would be Minsk where I’d point the barrel at the addy our no show couchsurfing host had given us and blow the apartment into a million pieces before rolling onto Gomel and challenging the radiation to penetrate this beauty as I toured through the streets taking photos of mutants.
After that lot it was time to meet Anne – our couchsurfing host for Brest. And she did a terrible impression of our Minsk host – cos she only went and turned up! She was with another cool chick called Stacia who was also from Brest and the first thing we cracked on with was getting some bread to feed the local ducks and pigeons – which is something you’re not allowed to feed in London. I think. Anyroad, obviously we were well popular with the pigeons which, unlike their Trafalgar Square cousins, were fat as fuck and hadn’t their feet pecked off from fighting. Although I did spot an unusual brown coloured pigeon – must have flown in from Gomel I thought. Off to meet Anne’s friends we were afterwards and it wasn’t long before we were surrounded by local chicks all fascinated to see a guy from London and a girl from New Zealand near Australia. That’s right, it would appear Belarusians can’t say ‘New Zealand’ without adding after ‘near Australia’ So we saw what Brest had to show, which besides the fortress wasn’t much to be honest,
Later on chillaxing with Anna we soon saw coming towards us was a guy with a ladder lighting up all the gas lamps along the boardwalk with a small crowd of children following him like a flock of moths to each lamp. Anna explained that if you made a wish whilst touching the lamp lighting man as he was firing up a gas lamp then it would come true. Unfortunately Anna was somewhat certain that if a strolled up and grabbed a handful of his ass he might have something offensive to say to me. Or he might hit me. As it was I had to make do with his ankle which I admit, gave a little shake to see if he would wobble on his ladder.
After Mr Ladderman went to meet Natalia whose place we were to be crashing at that night. We met her husband Kos, her bro Dima, his mate Sergio, a chick named Sasha arrives along with another guy who’s name I can’t remember but I did like his English top, and a few others who arrived but I can’t remember cos of the vodka. Oh yeah that’s right, you might not be aware of this but Belarusians like to drink vodka. People think it’s a stereotype to think all Russians drink vodka, I’m here to tell you it’s not a stereotype – it’s the fucking truth! 8 shots I think I must have had before throwing in the towel and calling it a night. 8 shots might not be a lot for you, yet you must remember Russians don’t bother with those ‘tiny’ 25ml measures we have over here – instead they got their own 50ml glasses to fill up. I’m somewhat confident if they had a pint glass within reach they would have used that an all. The next morning saw me trying to stomach a full on Russian breakfast. Not that I felt rough or anything, but there was no way I could eat that lot with a full feeling from the vodka the night before. A couple of cheese and bread slices followed by Russian porridge, which is nothing like the porridge over here, finished off with a sausage which had skin so tough that all I could manage was to bite a bit of the end off and suck the salami contents out. I left the table with what looked like a used condom thrown onto my breakfast plate…
Jumping off the train back in Minsk we were greeted by Anna’s friend Asya who was to put a roof over our head for our last night in Minsk. Dumping our bags at her place we were to get a taxi into town and it was then we realised what the fare prices taxi drivers should be charging – and it was a relief to know that we were in fact ripped off by the previous taxis. Not by much mind you, but now I felt like I truly belonged to and accepted by Belarus as a foreigner That night Kylie, me and Asya went to a bar and I only went and out-drank Asya in the vodka shots didn’t I?? Me, Del, out-drank a genuine Belarusian. Sure she was a chick who up until tonight hadn’t touched the vodka shots this year but who cares – I out-drank her! Now I think I’m ready to take on the fourteen year old Belarusian men.
The next day saw Kylie and I be driven by a taxi driver to the Mound Of Glory some 20km outside of the city for 50,000 Roubles on the condition he would wait an hour for us before taking us back to the city. It was arranged by Asya and was a fair deal we all thought. As for the ‘mound’ bit, that’s pretty much what you expect it to be. The ‘glory’ bit would probably be the massive obelisk thing pinned into the top of it to honour the Soviet soldiers who had a punch up in the Second World War.
Jumping out the cab back in Minsk we handed over the agreed 50,000 Roubles to our taxi driver who immediately went off on one. Ah no probs I thought, must be after a tip – so I gave him an extra ten thousand. Let’s see you do that to a black cab driver in London. Anyroad he’s still banging on about wanting more money… in fact he wanted 90,000 Roubles. Hey hey hey I thought, if you came to me at the beginning of my trip I would have happily given it to you. But as it happens I’ve already accomplished getting ripped by a Russian taxi driver – three times in fact, and I made it somewhat clear that whilst there’s an asshole between my ass cheeks there’s no way he’s getting more cash from us. So we argued a little until I finally won and he went home. Actually he probably carried on with work, but saying ‘home’ makes me sound more victorious so we’ll stick with that story.
Forwards and onwards it was then back to Lithuania. The train journey back to Vilnius saw us shacked up with a football mad Russian guy on his way to Kaliningrad – somewhere I visited the year before. Before long we were joined by two other lads and along with my limited Russian, their somewhat much better English and the use of our notepad for doodling our communication attempts we were to learn over the course of 5 hours that they were all training in the military to become Border Control Officials. You know the type – the ones who scrutinise your passport and never, not even once, smile at you. Fortunately these guys hadn’t finished their training yet and were full of smiles and laughs and as a gesture of friendship one of them tore off this military emblem from his uniform and the gold star pin from his hat and presented it to me as a present. Something that would probably get him in trouble… something that would definitely get me in trouble if I was caught with it as I was told to bury it deep within my bag and, if I was discovered with it, to say I brought it over with me from Britain. Cos you know, we just have loads of those Belorussian military emblems just scattered around the house. Four hours later I was risk free from any military interrogation and potential ass probe as we crossed the border back into familiar Lithuania and a much more familiar alphabet. Now I could look forward to relaxing by jumping out of some planes…