The Kindness of Strangers

When I started this post I had been in Belarus for precisely 4 days, and while it hadn’t been the hardest four days of my life, it had been frustratingly difficult. Between the language barrier, the red tape, all the signage being in Belarussian and my translator only having Russian, the constant feeling of being under surveillance, a wisdom tooth poking through and the lack of communication with friends and family when I really feel the need to talk I had been feeling the strain.

Despite the obvious government animosity towards foreigners and the distinctly familiar rudeness of public service employees (almost makes me feel at home) the people here are some of the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels. I suppose they could probably be rivalled by Middle Easterners who treat you like a long lost relative, but my point still stands. AGB says it’s because I’m a foreigner, which makes me exotic and exciting. I don’t know about that, but the people generally have been wonderful anyway.

For those of you who don’t know, I have an issue with social anxiety. This may surprise most of you who do know me because you’ll say that I am in no way shy, I easily hold my own in conversation and work well with people when I want to. However, in large group situations or dealing with strangers, my blood pressure skyrockets. Combine that with large groups of strangers who speak no English, signage is not in the Roman alphabet and most of them don’t recognise the Roman alphabet and it’s amazing I didn’t have a heart attack while wandering the Eastern Unknown.

Anyway, there were quite a few times when I had little mini freakouts. This time I didn’t have anyone there (namely Ivo or Rob) to tell me to snap out of it or act as a buffer and roll their eyes at me. My first freak out was actually on the train from Vilnius to Minsk. I had heard a fair amount about the corruption of the KGB towards foreigners by making demands for bribes or refusing to let them cross the border because their travel insurance isn’t valid. I was fairly apprehensive and hid ALL my cash to be on the safe side. I was in an extremely crowded carriage so I wasn’t asked for a bribe, but I did at one point have very large and very stern looking minions of the government glaring at me and telling me that the travel insurance that had been cleared by the Belarusian embassy was not valid and I would have to purchase valid medical insurance when I arrived in Minsk. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I shall do that as soon as I arrive.” As if I was going to say anything else.

The fact of the matter is that most developed countries that provide worldwide travel insurance will cover Belarus because it’s not on any government’s “Do not travel” list. If you don’t have travel insurance (which you should ALWAYS have travel insurance) you can purchase it in the country for roughly $1 per day for the duration of your visa. It’s really not that expensive, but I wasn’t about to purchase it based on principle. Alternatively, it’s probably so cheap there you can pay out of pocket. They tell all foreigners that their insurance isn’t valid to get more money out of them. Other than that, I made it to Minsk and my hostel perfectly alright. The hostel was a bit difficult to find, but that’s probably because it was so bloody dark.

I stayed at Postoyalets Hostel, which is about as far from the centre as you can get (10 minutes). However, it’s cheap, most of the staff speaks enough English for you to check in and it’s clean. I’m going to try to put the Cyrillic version of the streets on here as well as the Roman version because Lonely Planet doesn’t do that (I’m going to write them a feedback letter) and it will also help with writing it down and getting places as pretty much no one speaks English. I would have found things to be a lot easier because transliterating to Cyrillic can be quite difficult and time consuming. The first time you go, if there’s not a lot of traffic it might be a good idea to take a taxi so you don’t get lost. I’m pretty sure I was ripped off as I was charged 80,000 roubles, but as it worked out to roughly $11 I’m not going to complain. Plus it was late so I just wanted to get there. The address is Partizansky Ave. 147 (Партызанскі Праспект). When the taxi drops you off it will be next to a large soviet block. The hostel is right near the end of the block apartment, not on the side that the taxi entered from. If you do decide to go via the metro (very easy once you work it out) it’s best if you are coming via train as you can catch the metro straight from the station.

The metro, at date of publication is super cheap. One way it is only 1500 Belarusian roubles, which is roughly 17 cents. I should also take this moment to state that President Lukashenko decided to devalue the currency in the past couple of years, so Lonely Planet guidebooks still have the exchange rate at just under 4000 roubles to the dollar while it was about 8800 roubles to the Australian dollar while I was there. As if the economy wasn’t bad enough and it’s not like they really encourage tourism. Anyway, back to the metro. The excessively unfriendly public servants working for the Minsk Metro don’t speak any English so either have exact change or the smallest amount of currency possible and know how to say “one” in Russian. They’ll give you a little red token which you have to put into the slot of the already open gate. Bizarre, I know. Anyway, you’ll be catching the metro from Lenin Square next to the train station and the metro will be titled Площадь Ленина (Pl Nezalezhnastesi (Праспект Незалежнасці) in Belarussian, but everyone still calls it Lenin Square and the station is labelled as such) to Mogilevskaya Metro (Могилевская or Магілевская one is Belarussian but I can’t remember which). They are on separate tram lines so you will have to stop at Oktiabriskaya (Октябрьская) station, take the escalator over to the other tram line and catch the tram headed to Mogilevskaya Metro (Могилевская or Магілевская). It’s the very last stop on the blue line. Easy as! From there you head up to street level and then walk through the park and the hostel is just on the other side of the street from the end of the park in the giant soviet bloc which has shops on the front. There is a big sign coming from that direction so you really can’t miss it.

Unless you have friends in Minsk or speak Russian and can go out clubbing, 1 day in Minsk is actually pretty much plenty. Almost everything to see is on the main road “Pl Nezalezhnastesi (Праспект Незалежнасці)”. You can actually walk up and down it a couple of times in a day. There are a couple of museums and the art gallery is a bit out of the way, but the museums don’t have English translations of anything (including the sign saying it’s a museum) so I didn’t bother as I wouldn’t have understood anything anyway.

It is apparently illegal to photograph any military or government buildings, so don’t get caught photographing the KGB headquarters, which has a place of prominence smack dab in the middle of Pl Nezalezhnastesi (Праспект Незалежнасці). I tried being sneaky about it and some wretched girl walked right in front of the camera when I was getting a photo of the KGB logo L. Other sites include the Theatre and Theatre Square where thousands of people occasionally decide to protest Lukashenko’s dictatorship and then disappear for their efforts. Next to the theatre is a museum allegedly, but as none of the signage was in English I can’t actually verify that.

One thing you will notice is that the soviet’s love their obelisks and military monuments. I imagine my boss would DEFINITELY have a few comments about countries that memorialise and glorify violence. I myself find it rather jarring and a bit difficult to take in after all the ridiculous brutality that was seen under the soviet regime. For instance, both Minsk and Brest have statue’s glorifying Lenin. The main government square near the station is still called Lenin Square by the locals, even though the name has officially been changed to a Belarusian name.

You can also see a small bust monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka (later became the KGB). The Cheka, if you aren’t aware, is most famous for their crimes against humanity in sending hundreds of thousands of innocent people to the gulags, or just committing mass murders if they couldn’t be bothered. Needless to say, Lukashenko is a big fan of the U.S.S.R and sovietisation and wants to return to the previous state of being. He did work on a collective farm before becoming President after all. Somehow I doubt that he actually did much work and probably stuck with supervising.

After seeing all these monuments and glorifications of soviet dictatorship horrors you come to understand why there is such a heavy military and police presence in Minsk. I’ve been to countries where the military is definitely always present, but not to the extent that I saw in Minsk. I think I saw a small amount of graffiti once on the outskirts of the city. I’m also pretty sure I saw more men in uniform than I did pedestrians on a beautiful Sunday. They are absolutely everywhere! You can’t turn around without seeing them. It’s like McDonald’s on Manhattan Island. Needless to say I kept my head down and my nose clean.

I wanted to try some traditional Belarusian cuisine while I was there and this is where my blood pressure began to skyrocket again. I don’t even know why this time… all you really have to do in a restaurant is point. So I did not want to go the the Macca’s or TGI Fridays, who’s presence I found fairly odd but I could only find one other restaurant with a menu translated somewhat into English and it was a pizza place (they really love pizza in Belarus). I busted out my mostly trustworthy Lonely Planet guidebook to Eastern Europe and found around the corner from the KGB building that there was a restaurant with some traditional dishes on the menu. This is where the kindness of strangers once again comes in.

It can be really disheartening going into a café or bar or restaurant alone and being treated like crap from the staff. They really have no concept of customer service in this part of the world, especially if you don’t speak the language. That goes for the Baltics where damn near everyone speaks about 5 languages fluently. So I sat down at the restaurant and when the waitress came over very hopefully and apologetically asked “An-glee-skee?” No dice. Not that I was expecting her to be able to speak English anyway. She smiled at me though and wandered off to go get a menu. The menu had a very rough translation of the Belarusian dishes into English so I attempted to order a couple of those and we both had a giggle about my attempted pronunciation of the Cyrillic letters. The staff, despite being unable to speak any English, were always smiling at me and generally very pleasant and attentive towards me. They could have very easily ignored me as has happened in pretty much every other country. I’m currently in the Ukraine and I had to wait 15 minutes between asking for the bill and getting it in one restaurant and had to wait 45 minutes between sitting down and ordering food at another…where I was the only customer. It’s very uplifting and does a lot for one’s morale and says a lot about the people in the country when you are treated kindly, rather than frustratingly, by people who probably wonder why the hell you came to a country where no one speaks English without learning some of the language first.

One more place that every American who goes to Belarus has to visit is 4 Kamyunistychnaya Street (Вуліца Камуністычная). This apartment block is the one that Lee Harvey Oswald (the alleged JFK assassin) lived for a few years before going back to the US and assassinating JFK. He fully assimilated and went completely native. Changed his name to Alec, learned Russian, married, had a kid, the whole nine yards. It’s just on the other side of the bridge on the way to the Victory obelisk down the main road through town mentioned above.

A few comments on Minsk:

  1. Google translator is your new best friend if you don’t speak Russian. When catching a train anywhere, expect a queue of at least an hour, so get to the station early and take a piece of paper detailing where you want to go, which train and which carriage class. “Tak kupe biliet do ….” (one way kupe class ticket to…) Is a handy phrase to know. Though if your pronunciation is as terrible as mine it’s better just to write down “так Купе билет до…”. It’s worth paying for kupe rather than the regular carriages as they are comfortable and not crowded. It’s also only a couple of dollars extra. I rode in blissfully private and cushioned comfort for 4 ½ hours from Minsk to Brest for less than $8.
  2. Signs are all written in Belarusian so a Russian translator will only take you so far :S
  3. The carbon emissions make the place absolutely filthy. Take some wipes with you because just stepping outside your door will cause you to become covered in grime and you don’t want to be eating with your bare hands on the train when they are filthy with goodness only knows what.