Europe | Belarus | Minsk – Mission to Minsk
There was a bit of a kerfuffle on the train because I didn’t understand I was sitting in the wrong seat. A handily placed woman in the seat opposite who spoke English smoothed things out. Her name was Elena and she told me about her grandkids. It passed the time.
At first sight Minsk was awesome. As I climbed out of the train station a huge building site came slowly into view. Two mile high half finished concrete towers stood sentry over the way to the centre. I stepped gingerly through the dust and over the broken road.
I had tried to book ahead, but the hotel hadn’t answered their phone. I soon found out why. It was now a building site. This wasn’t good. The only other budget hotels in my guide book were well out of town. It was after 8 and starting to rain. I tried to phone ’em, but I couldnae work the payphones properly. I could hear the lady, but she couldn’t hear me. I tried banging every button I could see, but that only cut her off. After 8 attempts spread over 3 different phones we were both getting pissed off. It was raining heavily now and getting dark. So I decided to move upmarket to the Hotel Belarus. My VISA card would save the day. Unfortunately the Hotel Belarus was also under renovation. This threw me a little. I wandered around in a bit of a daze, contemplating spending the night in the comforts of the train station until I fell into MacDonalds.
Now I had to try and work out the menu in Cyrillian script. Luckily a MacChicken sandwich is a MacChicken sandwich in any alphabet, and I soon had my head in order. Newly fortified, I bought a map, worked out the metro, and prayed the next hotel would physically exist.
It did. The aged lady receptionist didn’t speak English, but we enjoyed stumbling through the reservation forms you have to fill in, get stamped, and keep with your passport. I’m kinda used to having to smile and be patient at this stage. It takes a while, but you can generally work things through. People will help you out.
The Academy of Science Hotel is basic, lacking in luxuries like toilet paper and somewhere to shower, but it did the job. I went for a stroll down the dead straight streets with all the lit up commie buildings for company. It had stopped raining and I had a great sense of achievement. Most places I’d been had been easy, but this, along with the dash for the train in Warsaw, had been a bit more exciting. Much better.
Minsk is even more gridlike than Brest. Real flat and wide streets overlooked by hundreds of little square windows. It looks kinda sterile. There’s not much variety or colour. But that’s communism for you.
Most things were very cheap. The metro was less than 0.05 euros, CDs less than 3. But luxuries like MacChicken sandwiches and Gilette razor blades are more expensive. My basic hotel cost 15 euros a night and I’m guessing Gilette blades are out of most people’s reach at 6 euros for 5. Beers cost about 1 euro.
Changing travellers cheques was hasselous. Banks just said nyet. I had to go to the swankiest hotel in town. Their exchange said nyet as well until I explained to the lady, using the receptionist as an interpreter, how countersigning worked. She believed me and I got my badly needed dollars. Like I said, you have to be patient, but you can usually get what you want. But if I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t bother with travellers cheques. Hard cash is the way to go. Ok, if you lose it you’re in trouble, but everyone knows what to do with dollars. Try bribing a Russian ticket inspector with travellers cheques, see how far that gets you.
I went to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. This was even more exciting than Brest. A tank crashed through a wall. Big red slogans urged me to kill any Nazis I found. Full wall oil paintings and room sized dioramas showed frantic bloodsoaked battlefields and snow covered ravaged streetscapes. There wasn’t a velvet rope in sight. Maybe the Belarussians can’t run an economy too well, but they’re pretty damn good at making museums.
I really enjoyed my few days in Minsk. Twas very different. Working out street signs and menus was like a game. I got to see Lee Harvey Oswald’s old house, some Orthodox churchs, the KGB HQ, loads of newly weds getting photographed in front of war memorials, and a Russian film when it rained. But after 3 days it was time to move on. Through some Irish contacts I’d found some people in the smalltown south, in an area still heavily affected by the Chernobyl disaster, willing to put me up for a few days. So I was off.