Belarus: Europe’s Last Frontier

Hailed as the last European dictatorship, Belarus had long been on Loc’s radar – and mine, once I met him. See, Loc has been on a quest to visit every country in Europe, and after visiting both Moldova and the Ukraine last year, he was down to just one, and I, along for the ride.

There was just one problem: Belarus didn’t want us.

We booked our trips to the Ukraine and Belarus at the same time last fall. At the time, such a trip required that we purchase travel insurance, a visa, and a tour guide’s company for the duration of our stay; it could easily cost $1,000 just to get past customs. Nonetheless, we booked our flight, then scoured the shoddy English of the state’s poorly maintained immigration page, then canceled our flight – more courage required.

This past January, President Alexander Lukashenko announced that he would be opening his country to the residents of 80 nations globally, including America, provided that a) they fly into Minsk, but not from Russia, and b) they spend no more than five days in the country. He announced his policy a month before it came into effect, so we waited our month – and then some – before booking our tickets.

Our first inclination that this hermetic nation still didn’t reeeealy want us came when I purchased our flight: goodbye, hello? I’d never seen such an itinerary before – every other

Flight Itinerary - Goodbye,Hello

Our second inclination came when we checked Apple Maps, simply to find our hotel: nothing.

Minsk_AppleMaps

By contrast, here’s a map of Vilnius at the same scale:

Vilnius_AppleMaps

We teased out the location of our hotel through Google Maps, which, for some reason, has markedly better imagery than its competitor. We booked it, paid for it, and laid on parking at the Prague airport as well.

In the interim, our car died. Fortunately, we were not in it when it died. Unfortunately, it could not be revived. So, we made other arrangements. Fortunately, we had an afternoon flight.

To get to the Prague airport, we left our apartment at 0540 to walk the 900 meters to our train station, from which we caught a train into Nuremberg. We arrived just before 0700 for an 0720 departure via bus to Prague. After grabbing a coffee, we walked over to the bus station to catch our scheduled bus. The appointed time came and went, and still, there was no bus. There were, however, three German women waiting to catch the same bus, and they allayed our fears. Twenty minutes later, our ride arrived, and we boarded and departed in short order.

It’s a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Nuremberg to Prague, and ours was largely an uneventful one. DeutschBahn buses are a lot cleaner than Greyhound buses, and our fellow passengers were an almost uniformly tidy lot. It had wifi too, which an automatic voice announced over the broadcasting system… in Czech and English. I could have streamed movies on that wifi. Instead, I tried to check in to our flight, but was denied: check-in opens two hours before departure and closes eighty minutes later, full stop.

We took a different route into Prague than we normally do when we drive, and it brought us up from the south along the west side of the river – it was beautiful. We arrived at Prague’s main bus station, which is likewise beautiful, and wandered around a good twenty minutes looking for the ticket counter to procure our bus tickets to ride a half hour back west. We found them and fell in line behind a busload of people… we boarded, standing room only.

Check-in was indeed limited to a very precise window, and we made it just in time for its (grand) opening. Though entirely old school, it flowed smoothly, and we had our boarding passes in hand within minutes.

IMG_5249

Customs, however, was a monstrosity. I typically allow Loc to go first through security, as he is my sponsor while we are in Germany, and my paperwork is all linked to his. However, a new line opened up next to mine when I was the third person back, and I quickly jumped into that new line, beckoning to Loc to move over too. Alas, this grumpy German couple fell in between the two of us, and I went into the maws of the beast all alone.

Ten minutes later, I was still standing there. The Germans were audibly disgruntled. I was physically shaken… I’ve never been held up at customs before. The officers had never seen anything like my SOFA card and didn’t know what to do with it. Their superior had never seen anything like it and didn’t know what to do with it either. At this point, Loc came forward and provided his passport and ID card, which helped the Czechs sort things out, and we were both through in relatively short order. I opened a new account in my empathy bank that day.

Our plane boarded late and departed about fifteen minutes behind schedule. It must have been a 1970s-era plane, as it had absolutely unintelligible overhead compartment clasps; I was surprised that it didn’t have ashtrays in the armrests. Takeoff was smooth and silent – no headphones allowed. What a pity.

After we’d reached cruising altitude, the flight attendants distributed boxed lunches. I wish I’d taken a picture of these. My meal included a white roll, a wedge of Laughing Cow-like cheese, three small dry pickles, two small dry black olives, two slices of a cheddar-like cheese, three pieces of gummy mystery meat, and a small bar of chocolate. Loc warned me that the meat was inedible as a sandwich, though I found mine quite chewable. Everything was wrapped in bulky cellophane – it reminded me of Little Shop of Horrors.

The flight was a short one, about an hour and a half, and shortly before landing, the flight attendants came around with migration cards. I drew two, which was fortunate because absolutely no mistakes are allowed on these cards. They asked for simple things like my passport number, my birthdate and nationality, my destination hotel, and departure flight – the most important of all bits of information. We are allowed but a five-day stay, and an unauthorized extension comes with complications and fines.

Migration_front

Passing through customs was surprisingly easy. We had been advised to purchase travel insurance through a Belarusian agency, and a machine was available to do just that before you reached the queues. Loc had purchased our insurance at a rate of $7 for our stay; this piece of paper coupled with our migration cards was required to enter the country; the customs official took the arrival half of our cards and stamped the front side of our departure half.

The tourist information booth was open and helpful, though under stocked and a bit strange. The attendant spoke English and helped us book a taxi at half the rate of the drivers hawking their service outside. The informational pamphlets were few, and exclusively in Russian, Hebrew, and Chinese. It was really no bother; we had a tour guide waiting for us at our hotel.

Even Minsk has a rush hour, and it happens to be the five o’clock hour. Our taxi driver took an odd turn heading into town, and we spent fifteen minutes slowly inching our way up a six-degree slope… in a manual. He did this cool thing where he’d pull the emergency brake when he stopped, then accelerate out of his position with the emergency brake still initially in place. It was a much cooler alternative to rolling backward a bit and potentially bumping into your new friend.

Migration_backLoc had booked us a stay at the President Hotel, which happens to be right next to the presidential compound. It’s a gaudy thing, with lots of translucent beads suspended from a backlit-mirrored ceiling. The attendant there took our migration cards, returning them with a signature atop the hotel’s stamp. Our tour guide was waiting for us, so we dropped off our bags in our room then returned downstairs to head out on our way.

Of note here: Loc and I took off our wedding rings in the Czech, or Czechia as they now like to be called. We would not be the remotest bit gay in Minsk, because homosexuality is still listed as a psychiatric disorder and same-sex marriage is constitutionally banned. Same-sex activity is legal, but same-sex couples are not afforded the protections given to their heterosexual counterparts.

Anyway, Minsk is built in the Soviet authoritarian style. On the outskirts of the city, there are monstrous apartment complexes that must house thousands of people apiece, but in the city proper, all of the buildings are the same height. You can get a same idea of the effect in eastern Berlin – Karl Marx Allee, to be precise. The city is home to two million people but has an incredibly abundant amount of green space – made possible, no doubt, by stacking people sky high.

Only a handful survived the Great Patriotic War, and they’re all made out of stone – a few churches, an art gallery, a circus. These have positions of prominence in the city, and they’re all in pretty good condition. In fact, Minsk as a whole is in very good condition; the streets are wide and clean, and much busier than I’d read they’d be. There were actually a good number of people on the streets, both young and old, and smartly dressed: there is no hipster movement there, yet.

LeninThe most iconic square in town is Independence Square, one of the largest in Europe and a landmark of the 15-kilometer Independence Avenue. It boasts a triumphal obelisk, a Roman Catholic cathedral, and a monumental statue of a very intense Vladimir Lenin in front of one of Minsk’s oldest buildings, built in 1934 (the city was first mentioned in 1067). That building has a Belarusian flag on it, and we were advised against photographing any building with such a flag on it. Nonetheless, we did snap a few shots, and no green men came in pursuit.

Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine and self-declared Marxist, spent three years living in Minsk, from 1959-1962. While there, he built a life and took a wife – all under the watchful eye of the KGB, who assigned him both an apartment and a job, then monitored him around the clock. His apartment is still standing in the heart of the city today, but it is deliberately unmarked, lest some sadistic form of tourism arise akin to that of Jim Morrison’s gravestone in Paris. Our guide, Andrei, pointed out the bland building as we passed but could not – or would not – provide more specificity. We walked on.

Our next stop was the Isle of Tears, just a brief distance from the apartment. Inaugurated in 1996, the Isle of Tears commemorates the 700 Belarusian soldiers who died in the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989. It features a small chapel that’s seemingly borne on the backs of grieving mothers facing the four cardinal directions. Behind it, a small Madonna and Child stands enshrined in a stone alcove; I can find neither literature nor photography to expand upon its meaning there. And most poignantly, at the opposite end of the small island, a single angel stands weeping over a pool of tears; he symbolizes the grief of those who came home whole in body, but not in spirit. Today, newlyweds rub his genitalia in the belief that the act will guarantee the bride children.

Darkness having fallen, we retired for dinner. Our guide took us to a basement restaurant near our hotel; a shiny TripAdvisor sticker adorned the door. We entered, checked our coats at the bottom of the stairs, then proceeded to our table inside. A woman sang traditional folk songs to the accompaniment of a guitar – it was lovely, though our guide could shed no light to its authenticity. Surprisingly, the menu was not just in English, but it had a full three pages of the history of Belarusian cuisine, with further paragraphs explaining each unique item on the menu. We had a delicious savory mushroom soup with a course of potato pancakes and a cup of Kvass, a drink traditionally made of rye bread. It was delicious – and they took card! Our local restaurant scene is still very much a cash economy.. oh Deutschland.

With that, we turned in for the night. I took the opportunity to catch up with an old friend via Facebook video chat – the hotel wifi was strong enough to stream live video feed! We went to bed shortly thereafter and fell asleep to the rhythmic thump of club music ten stories down – across the street from the presidential compound.

Boy_Goose_Presidential Palace

In the background, the presidential palace

Breakfast at the hotel was a steep 25 Euro, so we balked and headed out into the streets to find our own fare. The first plausible spot we found was a McDonald’s, which we passed up in favor of whatever the locals were eating along the long plate glass windows next door. They were eating pastries, and we ordered with pointed finger – croissants and madeleines, with a cappuccino. Following breakfast, we climbed up a set of stairs to the grocery store on the second floor. I picked up a few bottles of water, a Snickers bar, and a pint of milk advertising a fat percentage between 3.2%-4.0%. Realizing we were running up against our next appointment, we returned to the hotel, put the milk in the fridge, and met Andrei in the lobby.

On our drive to Nesvizh Palace, Andrei delivered a century-by-century history of the Republic of Belarus. It’s long and full of occupational forces and fires. Nesvizh is some 120 kilometers from Minsk, so we saw a lot of the very flat countryside, broad and deep swaths of farmland for days. The country’s growing season spans from May to October, so the most we saw was tilled or fallow fields. At one point, we did drive through a cloud of topsoil sweeping across the road – I wonder at the agricultural practices in this windy place.

Nesvizh PalaceFacing a rainstorm, we ran from our parking lot to the palace. Inside, we paid our entrance fee and donned little plastic slippers over our shoes before touring the building. It’s a fairly typical European country palace, though I suppose not at all typical for Belarus. It’s nicely situated on an ornamental lake with gardens around it. The interior is simple with touches of myriad European cultures inside. Most amusingly, only the lady’s chambers feature a double bed; the lord led a life of some poverty in his own opulent chambers. He and his entourage got their entertainment afield; a downstairs room boasts hunting trophies and some pretty fancy cannons.

Back in our van, we retraced our route a bit, then Mir_Fortressdetoured off the highway a bit to Mir Castle. Similar in landscaping to its palatial cousin (they were owned by the same family), Mir Castle is much more of a fortification than a palace. Andrei told us that the interior wasn’t worth the price of admission, so we had borsch, bread, and potato pancakes in the castle’s basement restaurant before exploring the town – shabby but proud. We also picked up a handful of souvenirs from the parking lot souvenir tents by the castle.

Our tour concluded, Andrei dropped us off back at the hotel. We regrouped briefly, then went out on our own to hunt for souvenirs and see the sights on our own timeline.

By intuition more than anything else, we worked our way towards the historic old town, where we found information boards in English amidst beautiful white church architecture. We also found souvenir kiosks in a square there, meeting Loc’s quest. Exploring the surroundings, we walked past a band of four teens playing music, with a fifth teen aggressively shoving a cup in people’s faces – that was a bit weird.

Minsk_MarketSquare

Wending our way back to the murals of the day previous, we stumbled onto the People’s KFC, so I took a picture. Okay, I took a few pictures. We then found a Papa John’s! Loc didn’t want pizza though, so we continued on to the murals, near which Andrei had told us there were great burgers. We did burgers before photographing the murals; I got their signature burger, and Loc got one with bacon and an egg. Loc’s burger was simply bacon and egg… but it was delicious, and the service staff spoke English too. Following, we shot photos of our murals, then turned in. I was super excited for my morning’s pint of whole milk – easy calories.

I ended up dumping that milk; I’d been looking forward to drinking it all day Saturday, but it smelled so strongly of sulfur when I opened it that I couldn’t stomach the thought of tasting it. So, down the drain it went. With a fat content range of .8% in one carton, their whole dairy industry seems mighty questionable to me…

We caught an uneventful taxi ride back to the airport and arrived 30 minutes before the check-in window opened. A souvenir shop proved a worthy distraction; we bought a lot of stuff there.

Outbound passport control was surprisingly easy; they just took our migration cards, stamped our passports, and sent us on our way. Security was interesting; I began to pull out my computer and liquids but was told to stop. I placed my entire bag, computer on top of tablet on top of toiletries, on the belt; doffed my jacket and belt into a bucket; and went through security. Too easy.

There are thirteen gates on the departure floor of the airport; access to each of them hinges on successful navigation of heavily perfumed commercial overload. We made it.

The flight again featured mystery meat; Loc and I both passed, having eaten at the airport. Upon landing, the people clapped; it was a much smoother landing than our outbound flight. Passport control was easy – I made Loc go through first – and two good friends picked us up to whisk us away to Deutschland.

Loc had met his goal: all 44 European countries in five years. I’d explored a quirky hermetic kingdom. And we’d both evaded the clutches of the KGB.

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