Tag Archive: Belarus


My attempt to get to Belevezhskaya Pushcha was fairly eventful. It took a good 24 hours after the ordeal to get my blood pressure back to normal. There really is very little information on how to get there and Lonely Planet isn’t terribly helpful when it comes to Belarus. Their suggestion is to get a marshrutky or minibus to the park. Problem with that is, there is no bus at the station to Belevezhskaya Pushcha. You have to ask for a ticket to Komanyaki which is the village outside the park. There are quite a few each day, but it would seem that the buses usually fill up due to the many stops along the way in small towns so you should probably go early to get a ticket.

Despite the fact that I had a piece of paper that said ‘1 ticket to Kamyanyuki’ in Russian I still seemed to have trouble getting a ticket. I had to show my passport and the woman kept trying to tell me something in Russian, as if repeating it would get me to understand it. She eventually wrote it down but that really didn’t help. The entire process was made more confusing and annoying by an old man standing in line behind me who I seriously considered punching and yelling at to shut up in English because he kept yelling at me and to anyone who would listen about what I assume was my bag as he kept grabbing my backpack and making wild hand gestures. Needless to say I held up the line for a little while.

So I finally got my ticket and went to sit down and translate what the woman wrote. The translation made absolutely no sense and half the words weren’t in my translator to make it that much more confusing. My Belarusian friends who I stayed with very kindly came to meet me at the station to help translate this bit of paper (they work close by) and apparently it said something about me having to go across the street to this immigration looking place to purchase an entrance ticket to Belevezhskaya Pushcha. Viktor took me over to the place to purchase it and translated and it cost a whopping 20,000 roubles (about $2.30). Turns out I never actually needed it so just don’t even bother.

I did eventually make it back to the marshrutky in time and Viktor and Olly went off to get lunch. Once again, the amazing kindness and helpfulness of the Belarusians showed through. A man who was with his wife and grandson insisted on carrying my pack onto the bus for me and gave me his seat as it was next to my bag while he sat with someone else rather than next to his wife and grandson. During the trip his wife gave me chocolates and when we got of the marshrutky they insisted on helping me find my hotel. Turns out my hotel was in the direction they were headed and he insisted on carrying my pack (for about a mile) and she carried my bag of groceries while I carried my smaller backpack. When we got to the park she broke off to buy bus tickets for a tour around the park and he insisted on carrying my bag and helping me check into the hotel. Very kind of him.

Accommodation in Belevezhskaya Pushcha is best booked through Brest Intourist hotel in Brest as they have some English speaking staff. Just tell them where you want to stay and they’ll call up and book. I stayed at the Kamyanyuki Hotel Complex which has recently been remodelled I think and the rooms are very nice. I had a double room with 2 twin sized beds, a wardrobe, a bathroom, a sitting area and a television (with 3 channels). It was a nice and comfortable room, if a little expensive for my liking. It’s the cheapest option in the area and it’s still far beyond the reach of the average Belarusian for an overnight trip. Most Belarusians just do Belevezhskaya as a day trip for this reason. The room I stayed in was $32 a night (including a full breakfast), which is extremely expensive for Belarus. It’s obviously a place where mainly just visiting internationals can visit.

The receptionist who greeted me could speak a very minimal amount of English and was able to check me in. The next morning before I went out wandering for the day I was stopped by a receptionist who spoke no English, but she made a phone call to the receptionist who does speak some English who told me that a translator was going to meet me in 20 minutes in the lobby. Turns out they had one of the tour guides who speaks English come to meet me to show me around and answer any questions that I had. This was all done free of charge and without me asking. It’s good to know they wanted me to feel welcome and enjoy myself, which is more than I can say for a lot of countries.

The complex has a restaurant you can eat at which is also a little expensive for my liking, but they have some food on the menu translated into English. If you feel like self-catering the rooms have mini fridges, but you’ll have to get something that doesn’t require cooking as that is all they have. The village about a 10 minute walk from the park has a couple of markets with a small selection of food you can purchase.

The actual park

So now that that is out of the way, I can actually talk about Belevezhskaya Pushcha, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and also the oldest national park in Europe. They have parts of the forest where the trees are between 300-600 years old! The park is absolutely beautiful. Keep in mind it is in Belarus which means it’s flat as a pancake. The biggest hill you will walk up will be where you have to step out of a pothole. The entire place is shockingly green ( a common theme in the Baltic states as well) and covered in forest. I decided not to rent a bike, feeling like walking instead so I wasn’t able to cover as much of the park as if I had a bike, but it did mean if I found a trail leading away from the road I could explore it. You can also take a tour bus which takes you around, but you probably won’t get to see as much that way. Alternatively, if you get a tour bus you can schedule a tour guide that speaks English ahead of time so you’ll get more information than I received.

Because I did so much walking and a lot of it was on random trails rather than the road I was able to see wild boar and deer, however, if you go to certain areas of the park you can also see zoobr or European bison, which Lonely Plant describes as “slightly smaller than their American cousin”. From my experience with American bison and my viewing of zoobr at the open air wildlife enclosures in the park I can tell you that the American bison are significantly larger than their European counterpart. If you are lucky you can also see wolves and wild horses.

In the northeast corner of the park you can also visit Santa Clauses estate. I find it a bit odd that a soviet country has a tourist attraction to St Nick but they call it Father Snow’s estate. I went to the entrance area of it but didn’t really fancy paying to see a bunch of Christmas stuff as I’m not really a fan so sat and rested for a bit while watching families picnicking and playing football (soccer) before heading back to home base for some wild game stew at the restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant had been taken over by a wedding party and I wasn’t dressed to crash it so I just went to the market to get some food and ate the last of my peanut butter.

Belevezhskaya is very small and if you take a tour bus or bike it can easily be done in a day if you go first thing in the morning. They rarely allow private vehicles to go through so you won’t be able to go through on your own that way. I spent 3 or 4 nights there because I wanted a sabbatical and that was plenty. You can only take so many days of not speaking to anyone (however nice the solitude may be) before it’s time to get back to civilisation. I definitely recommend going to visit and if you can’t get to Belarus or don’t want to deal with the visa issues for whatever reason, the other half of Belevezhskaya is on the Polish side of the border.

What I’m watching now: 27 dresses (yes, sometimes I like to be girly)

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After spending a fair amount of time in former U.S.S.R countries and seeing a plethora of Soviet style bloc apartments I still haven’t quite summed up my feelings on the buildings. I have developed an appreciation for them, from an historical point of view. AGB did his master’s on Soviet apartments in Lithuania of all places so I was able to glean a fair amount of information re these eyesores and gain a bit more appreciation for them than I had previously held.

When most people think about Soviet bloc apartments they think of the hideous concrete establishments where people live in sardine-like squalor.

Now, I’m not advocating that we never tear any of them down due to their historical significance. It’s not like they are churches or mosques or synagogues or libraries. I doubt you ever could get rid of all of them anyway as they are so much cheaper to live in for people who make a very insignificant sum. When I heard what the average Belarusian with a decent job makes my jaw dropped. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was still a bit of a shock. And I thought the US was guilty of slave labour. There is no way people on that salary can really afford a house on a two person salary.

Anyway, I have seen these blocs in Narva, Estonia where they are most definitely crumbly old buildings left over from mid-20th century Soviet rule. I’ve seen them in Leipaja, Latvia where they aren’t just crumbly old buildings, they actually do appear to be falling apart at the seams. I’ve seen them in Belarus, where there is a mix of crumbly old buildings (like the one I stayed in at Postalayet’s Hostel) and brand new buildings that actually look just like decent, nice apartments on the outside, but inside are the same Sardinian sized black holes of oppression.

Brest, Belarus was one of the places with these apartment blocks going up everywhere. Brand new buildings with double glazed windows, but still containing the small inner proportions I’ve grown accustomed to. The outside of the buildings were tiled or painted and actually looked quite nice. That being said, it’s still Belarus, it’s still a socialist country and it still suffers under Lukashenko’s rule. I actually quite enjoyed Brest though. It was a much more pleasant city than Minsk. Not that Minsk was unpleasant, but there was an air of rebellion in the air and the city was much more similar to Western Europe than Minsk was.

The main pedestrian thoroughfare was a wide, cobbled café lined street and I spent a fair bit of time attempting to order food and drinks there. My first day there I stopped at a café that looked good and asked the waiter if he spoke English (he didn’t) and for a menu. Thankfully ‘menu’ is a cognate in Russian. Anyway, he brought me a menu which I attempted to use my translator on (didn’t work very well) and eventually found something that looked like pork in Cyrillic (no pictures on the menu) pointed and ordered. Turns out it was a pork chop with potato or something. After sitting awhile to digest my meal I decided that dessert sounded like a good idea. I spent a good 10 minutes attempting to translate the dessert menu (don’t even bother) before the same waiter who brought me my menu in Russian brought me an English translation of the menu. Seriously? Really? He couldn’t have done that before?

Anyway, I discovered apple strudel (yum!) on the menu and ordered that. I’ve taken to ordering apple strudel damn near everywhere I go and have discovered that apple strudel is very different everywhere you go. I was brought this pastry/ice cream/apple concoction that looked more like a pastry made into a cup with a bit of cooked and raw apple and ice cream in it. In Romania the strudel are more like regular square pastries filled with various fruits. All of them have been delicious though.

So other than the café lined pedestrian walkway what is there to see in Brest? Not a whole hell of a lot to be honest. The only thing is Brest Fortress and there isn’t a lot of the fortress left. It’s now more of a monument to the sheer awesomeness of the red army I think. It’s a bit difficult to tell as nothing is in English. That being said, I could easily have spent a few hours there if I had a picnic with me. To get into the fortress you walk down a long and wide cobbled walkway (it’s a good couple of minutes from the car park to the entrance) leading to a gateway with a giant soviet star cut out from the wall. To top it off, there is “inspiring” marching soviet type music to get you in the patriotic mood.

It’s actually quite beautiful and park like within the walls for the most part, but they still have their random military monuments. The first one you come to is a set of 3 tanks where you can pay $3 or something to that appeal to get dressed up in red army uniforms and have your picture taken in front of the tank. Based on the advertising poster for this kitschy tourist activity they have uniforms for everyone, including babies. Personally, I find this type of blind, indoctrinating patriotism to be a bit concerning, but it’s what they grow up with.

Continuing on into the park you walk over a lovely little bridge that leads to the statue of the ‘thirsty soldier’. It’s a statue of a soldier crawling desperately to find some water. It was also a very popular statue to have your picture taken in front of based on the amount of time it took me to get a photo without a million people in front of it. You can also find a rather large set of cannons to have a play on. Of course, no monument park in Belarus would be complete without the obligatory obelisk and eternally burning victory flame. This was the largest obelisk I have ever seen… seriously. I haven’t seen the Washington Monument in Washington D.C., but if it was anywhere near as tall as this one I would say it would be a fairly impressive site. Along the bottom of the obelisk were rows of commemorative carvings to unknown soldiers where people frequently lay wreaths in tribute to them. Judging by the number of shops I saw selling these wreaths I imagine it’s a fairly popular pastime.

The last major monument which I found fairly disturbing was a giant concrete/rock structure carving thing of the head of a soldier called “Valour”. It was the creepiest soldier monument I have ever seen and I think it tells you something about the type of government that builds these types of monuments. Some of the people who lead/rule countries in this world is of great concern to me and I have to wonder how these people make it into power in the first place.

I personally think the pride and joy of the Brest fortress should be the Orthodox Nikalaivsky Church in the middle of it just behind the scary looking giant soldier head monument. This quaint looking (on the outside) little church is the oldest Orthodox church in Brest and has survived, despite its use for various soviet activities throughout the years. I didn’t know if I could go in so I didn’t go in to check it out, but I imagine the inside would have been excessively gilded and gaudy on the inside.

I would definitely recommend a trip to Brest if you go to Belarus (especially if you speak Russian). It has much less of a military presence than Minsk, it’s definitely more western and there’s that hint of rebellion in the air. It’s fascinating to compare it to Minsk and to compare the way they live under a socialist regime compared to the way they want to live in a freer society. You can see the effects of creeping capitalism everywhere and it’s a great place to just sit and people watch if you feel like relaxing for a few days.

See Belarus photos here.

What I’m reading now: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

What I’m listening to now: Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix audiobook by J.K. Rowling

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.