10/20/2019 - 10/20/2019
On approach, all I saw out the window were farms and trees until seconds before we landed, and even then I'm pretty sure the buildings I saw were related to the airport. Minsk is clearly not a sprawling metropolis.
The captain announced the temperature at close to room temperature, which surprised me. When I had packed 2 weeks ago, it was supposed to be near freezing. I packed gloves and a hat and saved my thermal shirt for Minsk. It seems I should have worn it in France of Scotland and just kept a t-shirt for Minsk.
Upon entering the airport, everyone had to go through immigration, even if transferring. But first, you need to buy the Obligatory Health Insurance (if you don't have your own already). I wasn't sure what they'd count, so I got it to be on the safe side. It was $2 or 2€ for a day, which is about the best dollar to Euro exchange rate you'll get. You could, of course also pay by credit card.
At immigration, they are serious. They checked my health insurance papers, even though I had just gotten them a few meters away. They looked at my passport through an eye loupe, some kind of special light, and felt the texture of the picture page as well as skimmed through it. I wasn't special. They did that to everyone. I've never had anyone look so closely. Who exactly is trying to come here so desperately?
If you were going on to Russia, you needed to also fill out a customs form because I guess the border is open.
I used the ATM just inside baggage claim to get my first Belorussian rubles and headed for the bus. It's a small airport and easy to find. There's a stand out front where you can buy your ticket with a credit card, although you can also pay the driver by credit card. I'm surprised as credit cards are one of the methods of reducing corruption. Cash amounts can be fudged and pocketed, but credit card payments have records. Belarus is known as "Europe's last dictatorship" (why Russia doesn't count, I don't know) and I would have expected a much more cash-based economy and less traceable credit card-based.
The bus was playing American pop music when I got on, but the driver turned it off for the drive. At the airport exit, we passed a series of older planes that made up sort of an outdoor aviation museum. We then drove through a lot of fields of crops and grass well-groomed enough for a golf course. Forests and small stands of trees broke up the fields, but it was a while before we saw any towns. The houses were mostly plain and nondescript.
Surprisingly, we also passed several monuments and memorials. They didn't seem to be anywhere in particular, just randomly placed on or near the side of the road.
After about a half hour, we reached the city. Here, we passed plenty more memorials and statues. Every other corner seemed to contain a park full of them.
For the most part, Minsk seems to be a city like any other. The traffic seems a bit better, but that may also be because the roads are so wide. Tons of people walk the wide sidewalks, and I occasionally see a biker using the bike lane. This city is clearly planned. There seem to be a general lack of the old-town narrow and winding streets of other old towns and a plethora of wide, square blocks.
For the most part, everything is in Cyrillic, although Burger King, KFC, and some other foreign brands aren't. (Dominoes and the Terminator movie posters are in Cyrillic.) But otherwise, it could be any other city.
For the most part, the architecture is pretty Soviet and bland, although there are a few buildings that are thoroughly decorated with carvings and fancy balconies, and could have been stolen from 1700s France or Austria. Or course, I saw a plaque saying one such building was built in the 1950s, so who knows what was here before the Soviets and what is new.
I downloaded this walking tour and was attempting to more or less follow it to see the main sights. For the most part, the walking tour covers the important and interesting buildings. Although there was one not on the tour that was interesting. It was clearly some sort of institution and weird animal noises were emanating from it. They seemed recorded since they were so loud and there were no animals in sight. But I couldn't figure out what was going on.
The issue is that while I can read the Cyrillic alphabet, I don't actually speak the languages. So unless the word is a name or cognate it's pretty useless to me.
Also, the tour had me crossing a bunch of streets that I couldn't cross at street level. A lot of intersections require pedestrians to use an underpass at the metro station on the corners. I didn't use the metro trains themselves, but the tunnels for it seemed pretty standard. Small shops sold snacks or other trinkets commuters might need. (I got a cherry cream pastry thinking it was cherry cheese. It didn't taste particularly different or special.) Musicians filled the tunnels with music in hopes of earning something. The only difference between this and any other metro that I noticed was the lack of escalators. If you can't do stairs, I have no idea how you'd cross the street. The flat parts of the stairs meant for bikes are too narrow for a stroller or wheelchair, but also much too steep.
The tour also only covered the large buildings, but not the tons of building-side memorial plaques. Every once in a while, I'd see a series of plaques with people's faces and a description. I couldn't understand who they were or what they did, but they were clearly important.
As for the sights on the tour, they were for the most part interesting examples of architecture. For example, the stadium looks like it has large lacrosse sticks sticking up from it. Not sure that was the intention.
While the "Gates to the City" were pretty fancy, the big KFC sign on one of them did sort of detract from the old-Europe charm.
Without condoning the animal abuse that goes on in many circuses, I love that this country has a national circus. Like all buildings here, it had a bunch of statues out front. But the clown here had a red nose that stood out from the rest of the metal statue.
When I got to Gorky Park, it was filled with families and kids. One toddler was discovering fallen leaves as his dad tried to catch the perfect photo of the kid playing with them. Other tiny kids wheeled around on trikes and powerwheels. I don't know what differences I was expecting, but the people in the park here are doing the same things as people in parks everywhere.
The only real difference is I didn't see a single homeless person or beggar. Sure, there were musicians performing for change in the metro, but they weren't just sitting there with a sign asking for handouts.
Unfortunately, the ferris wheel in the park wasn't moving. It's a pity because I would have loved to ride it and get a good view of the city.
The tour path took me past their Independence Square (circle) with a big pole-monument sticking up the center, and around to the National Philharmonic Hall, changing directions at a shopping mall. Everything had tons of statues out front, even the mall.
I was following the path of the tour until I got to an area where some cop was turning the cars around. As I approached the corner I needed to turn at to continue on the walk, I heard walkie talkies. I didn't see flashing lights indicating a serious emergency, so I kept going. They were filming something. The crew had large video cameras and the corner was completely blocked the way I wanted to go.
So, I turned back to the main street with intentions of picking the tour back up a few blocks further up.
But then I saw a restaurant and realized how hungry I was and how much my feet hurt. The walk wasn't that long, but I've been on my feet and walking hours more per day over the last 2 weeks than I usually am, and I'm starting to feel it.
The restaurant, like many of the buildings here, has the sort of "woven pattern" from the Belorussian flag on it. In the cases of some of the other buildings I've seen it on, I wondered if it had some sort of meaning. Here, I'm assuming it means the restaurant has Belorussian food. I'm glad, because so far, most of the food establishments I've seen are American fast food, bars, or the occasional cafe.
It was probably a touristy restaurant as they did have English on the menu and the waitresses all wore "traditional" costumes. However, the waitresses didn't speak English at all (water was beyond their vocab, which is ok as that's not the local language) and the Belorussian was right next to the English, I presume so that the pointing game worked.
It's certainly more of an adventure to order when you can't ask questions. First, I got a horseradish beverage. I wasn't sure whether this was going to be a sort of soda (like Dr. Brown's celray) or if this was alcoholic, but I was intrigued. It turned out to be a shot of a horseradish alcohol that burned, both from the alcohol and from the horseradish. I also got a plate of vegetables that was just that. There was no dressing, nothing added, just chopped vegetables presented on a platter. While I probably would have preferred a proper horseradish sauce, the shot did come in handy for adding some flavor to the vegetables. Finally, I got their version of latkes. They use a finer grate and the pancakes are chewier and not crispy. They came with sour cream and I enjoyed them.
When done, I considered backtracking and trying to see the rest of the walking tour that I hadn't gotten to. But it was getting late and I needed to make sure to get a bus back to the airport tonight as they don't start running early enough in the morning for me to catch one then. Still, even in the dark, I had a clear view of the many statues and wall plaques scattered about my path.
Despite the late hour, tons of people strolled through the streets and the parks. I was never in a place where I couldn't see at least a dozen people, even on side streets. The main streets continued to be full. It the sidewalks weren't as wide as a 2-way street, they would certainly feel crowded.
Back at the bus station, I got my ticket and waited for the bus. The other buses were going direct to places like Moscow or St. Petersburg, not cities I'm used to seeing transport to. Mine took me up the main street, giving me another chance to see most of the buildings I'd seen on foot. I also got a chance to pass more of the casinos I've seen advertised. This doesn't seem like the place I'd feel luckiest gambling, but it seems to be big business here.
What isn't a big business is tourism. I didn't see a single souvenir shop the entire way. I saw virtually nothing in English that seemed aimed at anybody but locals. And while I was wandering around with my camera out, there weren't many others who were taking pictures at all. Compared to the sites I've seen over the last few days where you can't sneeze without hitting a tour group, not seeing a single tour guide or large group the whole time was quite a change.
At the airport, they weren't opening the check-in counters until 2 hours before the flights, so anybody who says you need to be here 2 hours ahead doesn't know what they're talking about. Also, they don't show which security you're supposed to go through until then, so if you have a connection, you're just waiting outside security until then. Fortunately, the food and souvenir shops are open late and open early, so you can eat and shop. Unfortunately, this is like the Istanbul airport where the wifi isn't free. You have to get a text message and get charged to get a code for the wifi. I really don't see why an airport would rather you pay your phone company than them for wifi.
For first snack, I got what I thought looked like yogurt with fruit. It was actually tuborog cheese with fruit, but completely unlike the tuborog we get in the grocery store. It was more like saltier, less sour solid yogurt here, as opposed to the large soft curds we get.
Another interesting difference in this airport: announcements are made in Belorussian, English, and Chinese, and the departure board rotates between the 3 languages. There must be a lot of Chinese tourists or business people coming here, although to be the largest tourist group doesn't take too much.
Also, I've never seen a contact lens machine before, but here, you can get new dailies from a vending machine. Past immigration, duty free is pretty much the same as everywhere. There are only 2 food choices though- a snack bar with muffins or Burger King.
Once I board this flight, my vacation is officially over. I'm not excited for it to end, but it's been a fabulous time overall.