Yartsevo to Minsk

Day 27: Yartsevo to Minsk: A visit to Smolensk on our way to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where we will enjoy a sightseeing tour of this former Soviet stronghold. (Breakfast and Dinner included)

Hotel: Hotel Orbita
Breakfast: 8:30 Bus departs: 9:00

Some people were still drunk this morning at breakfast. Renae made me bread with vegemite on it, as she had promised. Vegemite is vile! Lets just say that the fact that I thought my gagging on it would make the hung over people at my table throw-up so I had to use all of my restraint to control myself. After breakfast we had a tour of Smolensk, a dingy little Russian town. The Cathedral of the Assumption was the highlight of the tour, it is a remarkable cathedral.

At 9:45 we had a stop at Katyn Forrest where 21,000 Polish elite were rounded up and executed by the Russians, simply for being smart, which was a threat to Stalin. When this was discovered the Russians blamed the Germans (easy targets after WWII) and tried to divert attention by building a memorial at Khatyn Village (which I will describe later). In 1990 Gorbachev finally admitted to a mild version of the events that transpired here. The memorial here is very serene, a pathway through the woods with little memorials throughout. After walking through I used the bathroom before heading to the Belarus border, a very good decision.

At 11:00 we arrived at the Belarus border and made it into Belarus fairly easily by 11:55. Once in Belarus we had to turn our watches back 1 hour. At 12:15 we had a lunch stop on the side of the road. It had a closed restaurant on our side of the road and an open one (with a decent bathroom, or so I’m told) on the other side of the road. The bathroom on our side of the road was the worst bathroom I have EVER seen in my life! It smelled from a mile away too. I skipped using the bathroom at this stop.

On the bus we played some games to make the drive go faster and Maggy told us a little about Belarus. One of the things she told us about was Chernobyl, which was actually in the Ukraine, but 60% of the fall out landed in Belarus leaving large portions of the land unusable. There have also been reports of “monster babies,” which are quickly taken away from their mothers. It is believed to be the result of all the nuclear waste that went into Belarus and other surrounding countries, like Russia. This has also lead women to actively avoid men (as partners) who have genetic ties to areas near the nuclear fallout, and men to try and hide their ties.

At 3:15 I overheard Maggy on the phone with the local guide, telling her that we were lost and wouldn’t make it into Minsk until 5:30-6:00. I guess these things happen when the road signs aren’t in English.

At 4:15 we arrived at Khatyn Village for a 30 minute stop. In Khatyn Village the Nazi’s had come, rounded everyone from the town up, put them in one shed and burned it down, there were 3 survivors. 2 girls and 1 man. The 2 girls went to live in another village and were killed when that village was also burned alive. The man is Josef Kaminski, who is the man modeled in the Unconquered Man statue holding a child, he is holding his son who he found at the site after the Nazi’s left. He worked at the memorial and was often seen caring for different parts of the memorial over the years. The memorial is one of the most moving I had ever seen. Soil was taken from each of the 618 villages destroyed by the Nazis to create part of this memorial; the cemetery of villages has a plot for each of the 185 villages that were never rebuilt. The bells at the village ring every 30 seconds, representing some (I think the rate that Belarusian’s died in the war) rate of death during WWII. There is also a Memory Wall with a plaque and alcove for each of the concentration camps and sites of mass extermination within Belarus. There are many other symbolic aspects to this memorial, if you’re interested take a look at this site.

We arrived in Minsk at 5:30 and at our hotel at 5:45. We took a quick bathroom break, which I needed since my bladder refused to use a squatter toilet and earned a gold star for the day! Then we did a city tour. Before arriving Maggy had told us that Belarus is a little screwed up… Although this is considered a free state, it is run by a dictator, Aleksander Lukashenko, and as long as you agree with everything he says and vote for him, it’s a free state. I remember Belarus in the news a couple months before my trip, the elections were rigged, and people were actually bold enough to protest. President Bush commended those who protested, because it was such a dangerous thing to do. Anyway, 90% or 95% of industry in Belarus is government run leaving almost no public companies in the country. The major industry is refrigerators and TV’s,; however, Maggy tells us that they have not upgraded these industries in decades. They simply take the manufactured products and put them in warehouses and tell everyone they export them, primarily to Russia. The TV’s we had in our rooms in Russia were in varying degrees of newer then the one we had in our room in Belarus, which was easily 25 years old, technology wise.

On our city tour we saw the building where the Communist Party in Belarus started, The KGB building, Independence Square, and the bridge at the Island of Tears. Everything in Minsk seemed very shinny and happy. It was a weekend so we saw several brides. We also learned that it is traditional in Belarus to go to a memorial on your wedding day, which would explain the bridal party we had seen at Khatyn Village early. There is a religious reason, that I don’t remember, that keeps people from marrying through most of July and August, leaving June as a very popular month for marriage. In Minsk we also saw a lot of happy people relaxing, some on paddle boats. It was a weird place, knowing how much turmoil there is behind the smiling faces. Everyone looked to happy and the place looked too nice, it reminded me of the Stepford Wives. Our local guide explained to us about there industry – refrigerators and TV’s that are exported, mostly to Russia.

Once back at the hotel we checked in and had dinner. For dinner we had very greasy chicken and a delicious pastry for dessert. After dinner and before the exchange place opened up again (it had weird hours, on and off for 30 minute blocks all day) we were standing outside by the bus and looked over and saw a man peeing against a wall. It was so funny, but I didn’t have my camera, but James did and he took a picture for me. So James, if you’re reading this, can you send me a copy of the picture? Then we went to exchange money, for 5 euros I got 13,250 Belarussian Rubles, Wahooo, I’m rich! At the grocery store, which reminded me of an old school grocery store where the cashier manually enters each price, I struggled to spend little more then half of that money. I ended up giving Lis some of my money because the cashier didn’t have change for her 10,000 bill, since she had already given me all her change. It was actually pretty comical trying to pay for our stuff, since we all had large bills. This was not the first country we went to where ATM’s and exchange places gave you really big bills that no one wanted to take or didn’t have change for, I don’t get it.

After shopping Lis, Jilly and I popped into the bar for a few minutes, then ended up at the casino where James had won (and saved a casino chip for me to take home to my brother-in-law, I bet his other friends don’t have casino chips from Belarus.) I wanted to play the slots once, but you needed a chip or something and I didn’t have enough money to buy chips. What’s wrong with a machine that accepts bills in small denominations like they have in the rest of the world? Owell, there loss. After that failed attempt we went back to the bar for a few minutes and then decided to go to bed early, 10:45 since we had an early start in the morning to get out of Belarus. Yea, we were heading back to a civilization, Poland. I never thought I would say that.

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