26 January 2011

The Capital

Minsk is a bigger city than we were expecting. We're not exactly sure why we thought the industrial, cultural, economic and administrative capital of Belarus would be anything other than big. Unfortunately, after being in Saint Petersburg for two weeks and then experiencing small town Belarus for nearly a week, we were less than excited about being thrust into a metropolis again so soon. Quaintness isn't really Minsk's thing, but there's an attractiveness to its bizarre severity.
For a city 80% destroyed during World War II, it has an overwhelming sense of history. Stalinist architecture towers over the streets, which are peppered with busts of Lenin and black marble memorials to fallen Belarusians. The country's history has seen a lot of death and the monuments erected don't try to sugar coat it. This one was in honor of countrymen who died in the Afghan War. The women in the statues are wailing with grief, eyes and mouths agape horrifically. There's also a Jewish Memorial in the city, that we never got a chance to see, which is comprised of statues, arms raised and faces emoting, lined up for the firing squad.
There are three easy ways to see the human side to any city, though, no matter how inaccessible or imposing it may seem. The first, is to do laundry. The laundromat Tatyana dropped us off at happened to be located within the big outdoor market. It seemed to be patronized by cleaning women doing large loads of bedding. We were probably the strangest walk-ins they've ever had.
The second is to go to the flea market, which our laundromat happened to be located right inside of. We grabbed two pork-fat filled mushroom barley soups and successfully convinced the man behind the counter that we didn't need any pizza. Then, I bought some toiletries from one of the little windows above. As overwhelming as they seem at first, it really is nice to just be able to point at what you want.
The third way to find the charm just about anywhere with a church is to take a stroll early Sunday morning. Minsk happens to have quite a few churches, mostly Russian Orthodox, and the day was just snowless enough to make walking around and people watching not only possible, but pleasant.

Castle Hunting: Mirsky Zamak

One of the best parts about this castle hunting project is that it gets us into some uncomfortable positions. Last night, we were stumbling around in the cold and dark, trying to take pictures of Mir Castle, which is one of the more spectacular buildings of the trip. It was freezing, and our noses were dripping by the time we burst through the door of our favorite little cafe in town. We must have looked pretty wild.
We were out in the dark because of the awful weather that we've had here. It has been gray and snowy every day for a while (for the whole winter, really) and we didn't have any luck for the two days that we were in and around Mir. We did walk around a little and get some good pictures, but the castle was too difficult. Rebecca convinced me to take my tripod out at night so that we could at least get some good contrast between the snow and sky, which was a great idea.
As you can see, it is a fairy-tale building in a tiny town of little, wooden houses (and little, wooden outhouses). It is perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in Belarus, though we saw no tourists. It is more of an attraction in theory - as in, "if tourists were attracted to Belarus, it would surely be thanks, in part, to Mir."
The castle itself was originally built at the end of the 15th century, but has been expanded twice - once during the Belarusian Renaissance and again in a more baroque style in the 18th century. It has also been damaged in many wars, most notably during the Napoleonic wars and during WWII, when it housed a garrison of soviet troops and was subsequently bombed. It has been painstakingly renovated, and it looks amazing. The building houses a restaurant and nearly-completed hotel, so it is not all that "authentic" inside, though the courtyard is nice enough.
We may be passing back through Mir on our way to Brest, so, if the weather is nice, I may get another shot at it. For now, though, these pictures will have to do. I like the way they came out, even if I probably won't use any of them.

25 January 2011

Belarusian Tractors

In Belarus, tractors are everywhere - they plow the streets of Minsk, they are employed by the police for towing illegally parked cars, they grace many driveways and are omnipresent on the highway. The Belarusians are proud of their machines, too - MTZ is a famed producer of tractors, attachments and other heavy machinery, and it is perhaps the defining company for this nation. Minsk Tractor Works likes to boast that it produces over ten percent of the world's tractors - but in this part of the world, the blue beasts account for nearly all of the off-pavement horsepower.
This tractor was in a small town in Lithuania. All through Poland, the Baltic and Russia we saw them - during soviet times, the MTZ was the main supplier of machinery to bloc countries, and many of the old machines are still around today. Interestingly, I had always known Belarus tractors (as they're branded in the west) to be red. Here, they all seem to be blue. In fact, blue seems to be the color that all Belarusian work vehicles - both tractors and trucks - are painted.
The MTZ models that are produced nowadays are a little more modern than their older workhorses, but they are still relatively cheap and simply designed. The older tractors were made as easy to fix as possible, so that they could be repaired by unskilled people on remote work collectives. Another interesting thing about them - because batteries were difficult to come by, and because many farms where they ended up were so cold, older Belarus models were equipped with diesel or kerosene starter engines.
There were armies of these little "sidewalk tractors" on the streets of Minsk. They plowed, sanded, scooped up snow and pulled it away. There were larger ones with police lights and insignia, some fitted with PTO lifts for towing cars, some pulling trailers of blockades for the inauguration. I was too frightened to take pictures of these, however, because it is illegal to photograph police or military personnel, buildings or vehicles.

Minsk Groceries

Our rental apartment in Minsk was conveniently situated above one of the most impressive supermarkets we've seen yet. Like most places in Belarus, it seemed overstaffed and under-lit, but there are far worse things in life than too many attendants and a lack of fluorescent lighting. Around the entire perimeter of the fairly large space were manned counters. Imported candy and hard alcohol were first, followed by cheese, smoked meats, prepared salads, prepared meals, baked goods, bulk candy, dairy, raw meat, raw fish, smoked fish and, finally, eggs - where an attendant would count out and weight the amount of eggs you wanted and then hand them over in just a plastic bag. I actually was planning on getting eggs (we had a stove) but the idea of getting them home safely sans carton was too frightening.
I waited on line to have the broccoli I picked out weighed and bagged, while Merlin waited on line to procure some blue cheese and gin. Not only was it prime grocery shopping time, but it was a little difficult to figure out which counters necessitated payment right then and there (imported cheese and booze) and which didn't (produce). So, we decided to skip the queues and get the rest of our lunch from the central 'pre-packed' section of the store. We trudged home in the snow with the above feast.
Merlin picked out this container that we dubbed "fish paste." There were other ones that looked the same, but were pink or green, and we assumed that it was some sort of caviar pate. Merlin had already chosen a chunk of deep, deep red smoked meat and I grabbed a packet of imitation crab meat, so we had protein back up plans. All that was left were crackers.
It was hard to tell what sort of cracker was in what sort of box, so I went with the ones I thought were prettiest. The picture on the back showed thin, golden strips which reminded me of Lavasch. When we got home and hungrily opened the box (grocery shopping makes you hunger no matter what country you're in), a dainty, little napkin fell out. The adorable packaging continues! Then, we realized why we may need the napkin. The 'crackers' were actually long potato "wafers" - terminology we decided upon in order to subside our guilty/gross feelings about a meal of cheese spread on potato chips.
And this was the star of the show. The fish paste. At first, we worried that the separated liquid signaled some kind of spoilage, but Merlin was cavalier enough to dig in anyway. It was really, really delicious and went amazingly well with the potato wafers - though spreading it on without breakage was tricky. Every combination that involved the paste was amazing - paste with blue cheese, paste with smoked meat, paste garlicky carrot salad or mayonnaisey beet salad. That's really the best part of having a great market at your disposal. Sure, it's great to get the foreign things you've been craving (soba noodles, over-priced sesame chili oil), but it's really all about discovering that sort of gross thing that resembles cat food and tastes like heaven. It's really nice to be able to make your own drinks, too.

22 January 2011

Water We To Do?

We seem to remember reading somewhere, at some point, that we shouldn't drink the tap water here. The hotel receptionist in Polotsk said that it was safe "but had a sour taste" and that we were better off drinking bottles. So, off we went to the store to stock up. The entire water section was filled with flavored ones and gaseous varieties.
Finally, off in a corner we found "негазированная" (still) water that didn't appear to be lemon, strawberry or otherwise fruit flavored. The label read "Medical and Table Water." Elated, we bought as many as our arms could carry. Thirsty, we opened one up as soon as we were on the sidewalk and took a swig. To say it was disgusting is an understatement. Ever notice that the water that comes out of that tiny faucet attached to the chair at a dentist's office tastes sort of awful? Well, take that and add salt and you've got this. We both tried to get as much down as we could, but managed less than a cup each.

We've tried a number of different Belarusian bottled water. Some have been okay, others have had a salty taste to them. One night, we accidentally purchased the Medical and Table water again. The Russian language side of the label was facing outward and we just didn't put two and two together. It was fairly tragic.
Needless to say, water has been something constantly on our minds. So, when we pulled into the little town of Logoisk and saw hoards of townfolk walking toward the church with empty water bottles and walking from it with full ones, we had to investigate. In back of the church was a well and a long queue of people waiting to fill up. We're not sure if this is an every day thing or not, but I couldn't blame them for waiting as long as it took to get some fresh, ice cold, unflavored, noncarbonated, non table or medical well water.

Inauguration Day

Yesterday was inauguration day in Belarus. We're not going to say too much about it, because we don't want to have any problems with the authorities. The above picture is the view from our apartment, looking out over central Minsk. One block up and to the left is the square and the Palace of the Republic, where the ceremony took place.

We took a little video of the television screen tonight, which was rebroadcasting the event on three of the four state-controlled channels.
We were out most of the day, so we didn't get a chance to see what the crowd was like at the square, but the state was bussing in scores of people from the countryside to watch, so it must have been quite crowded. Our landlady, Tatyana, was driving us around less central parts of the city, trying to get us registered with the government. It was a complicated process involving a special bank office, an insurance office and the police station where our immigration cards were actually stamped. It took a while, but we got a good tour of the outer city. Our host deserves all of our gratitude, because we absolutely could not have accomplished this by ourselves - there were too many steps, too many lines to choose from, too much information that we had no access to.

This morning, we are sitting in a cafe that abuts the Square of the Republic, and where our computers have a good wi-fi connection from the hulking Beltelekom building across the way. The building where Alexander Lukashenko began his fourth term is right here next to us. Lukashenko has been the only president elected to the position since presidential elections were first held in 1994. Obviously, I'm going to say that he is a wonderful man - here is his wikipedia page.

Why Don't They Have This in America?

Admittedly, I haven't spent a lot of time in churches - so they very well may have this in America, but neither Rebecca or I could recall seeing it. These cathedral pews had movable backs that allowed them to face either forward, towards the altar, or backwards, towards the organ. They were pretty cool, and very easy to move.

Drive-By Art

Usually, the more we drive, the less pictures get taken. One of us is too busy driving and the other one of us has been lulled to sleep by the heated passenger seat and the light bouncing off of snow. Stopping abruptly to take a picture also happens to be a terrible idea on a highway. In Belarus, though, things have been different. Since our GPS doesn't work here, I'm kept awake by the task of navigating and there are barely any cars on the highways. Taking pictures of bus stop after bus stop was only the beginning.
This road stop/inn provided us with two warm bowls of soup and an outdoor gallery of kitsch. The lawn was absolutely filled with wood carvings and statues. Castles, Goldilocks and the three bears, a moose. It felt like a miniature golf course, covered in snow.
I just love how a place like this, that obviously caters to a trucker crowd, still has such a cutesy, kitschy demeanor. Though, every truck we've passed on the road has had a line of stuffed animals on their dashboard or a row of tiny flags or fabric flowers hanging across the top of their front window. So, I'm sure they appreciate it.
This is another tavern, next to a gas station. So much care seems to be taken to make things looks cheerful. No matter how many places like this we pass, they still strike me as surprising, heartwarming and sort of funny every time.
Every so often, we've passed a mushroom. It looks exactly the same every time and soon, we realized that they would pop up about the same time as a sign for a WC. Merlin correctly surmised that the mushrooms were the WCs.

As you may expect, they were far less adorable from the other side.
Then, there are the times when you're making a u-turn on the highway and get a glimpse of a church that looks like this. Painted and carved wood at its most beautiful. These are the moments when you feel lucky enough to be able to stop, roll down the window, point, aim and click without a car honking or rear-ending you. These are the moments that we go, "Wow. We're in Belarus."


Khatyn is a symbol more than a monument to something specifically significant - it is a place where one tragedy is made to stand for many, and where scale is relative. The Russian name for the second world war is "the great patriotic war," and that reflects something of the hardship that the soviet nations endured during the conflict. Very conservative estimates of USSR war dead place the figure at more than twenty-four million - which is more than the total of all the rest of the involved countries, on both sides. Belarus itself lost about a quarter of its population, about two and a quarter MILLION people. And more than two hundred cities and nine thousand villages were destroyed. One hundred eighty-five townships were so thoroughly annihilated that they ceased, completely, to exist. This is what the monument at Khatyn was erected for - for the loss of the settlements and life that occurred here in this nation, which absorbed so much of the brunt of the war. Polotsk, a city that we recently visited, and which serves as a good example, is currently a city of about eighty-thousand people. It lost, however, one hundred and fifty thousand people during the war. Belarus, really, has never quite recovered.
Khatyn itself was a small village about fifty miles north of Minsk, which we got to from the M3 "highway," which is more a road through the woods. It was once a small village, but today is just a patch of open field in the pine forest. The memorial here doesn't reflect the size of the death toll, but rather the totality of the massacre. Nazi soldiers arrived on the twenty-second of March, 1943, after being attacked by militia four miles away. They herded everyone in the village into a barn and set the building on fire, killing one hundred forty-nine people, including seventy-five children, some as young as seven weeks old. Only one adult and five children were able to escape - either by hiding, as was the case with the children, or by some miracle, as was the case with the village blacksmith, Joseph Kaminsky.
Kaminsky was able to survive the burns that he sustained during the fire, finding all three of his children dead around him when he awoke. The focal point of the memorial is a twenty-foot high statue of Kaminsky carrying his dead son, named "the unconquerable man." It seems a strange name, and a very soviet idea of "conquering."
The twenty-six homesteads of the village were also burned, and there are separate monuments for each of them. They are simple concrete slabs with a symbolic chimney rising up from the ground - the chimneys were often the only thing that remained after the Nazis burned villages. On top of each chimney at Khatyn is a bell that rings at random times, so that the stillness of the place is broken by dramatic clanging every few minutes.
We were the only tourists at the memorial after a group of three people climbed back into their van and departed, presumably back towards Minsk. There were, however, a number of workers clearing snow and compacted ice from the walkways. They worked and talked cheerfully, and one man drove a tractor around sporadically, creating a din. One man - better groomed and dressed than the others - strolled around with his hands buried in his black overcoat, barking orders. He wore a tie under his coat, and his face and paunch showed off the difference in his diet from that of the workers.
We felt strange walking around the monument, but it was a good experience. It says a lot about the Belarusian people that they were able to withstand such incredible tragedy and continue on as a people, remaining upbeat and warm despite everything. It is hard to comprehend the utter destruction of a nation, and the unspeakable things that occurred during that war - whatever name it's called.

18 January 2011

Polotsk, The Most Belarusian City

Belarus has a reputation for friendly people – everyone who has been to, written about or come from this country has said that it’s difficult to find a more hospitable, welcoming population. So far, we’ve found that the reputation is well deserved. The first town we found ourselves in was Polotsk, the oldest “city” in Belarus and the country’s spiritual capital, apparently. We’ve found that most people are very curious about us – they don’t get many tourists here. In fact, the woman at the tourist office said that she had never seen an American in Polotsk.
Polotsk isn’t breathtakingly beautiful, but it has a good deal of charm. It sits on a nice stretch of the Dvina river, which is the defining feature of this northern region. There is a real mix between old and new here in town. Belarus was absolutely destroyed during the second world war, and Polotsk, like many other towns, was mostly razed. There are still some old, wooden houses, but the majority of people live in newer, concrete constructions. The old buildings, like many we saw on our drive from the border, are painted in a gaudy, unabashedly-colorful way that makes them look very cheerful – even if the windows are a little crooked and the roofs undulate to match the sinking foundations.
There are a lot of people out and about, but we’ve heard that it’s rude to photograph anyone without their permission. Maybe we’ll get bolder about it. For now, we have only animal and building pictures. Here’s a cat in front of a brightly – colored wall.
We are much indebted to the tourist office staff, who were absolutely wonderful. They were excited to show off their town and the literature that they had put together about it. They have an extensive collection of brochures and maps, all available in English! One thing we learned: Polotsk is the geographic center of Europe. We’re not entirely sure why this is, but there is a signpost (pictured above) that seems to demonstrate the fact. If we don’t seem overly enthusiastic about the claim, we aren’t the only skeptical ones. The woman at the tourist office whispered to us that “every country has this thing.” It is fun that we stumbled upon it, though, and that we can claim to have slept right at the very heart of Europe (our hotel is the building in the background of the picture).
The highlight of the town, according to the tourist office, is Saint Sophia Cathedral, which sits on a knoll overlooking the town and the Dvina. It has been reconstructed many times, due to the many wars that have swept through here, but its foundation and part of the building are the oldest brick structures in Belarus – they date to the middle of the 11th century.
Inside there is quite a bit of gold leaf and bright paint. They keep it up quite well, and one can go down and walk around part of the basement, where bricks and tiles are displayed alongside copies of coins and jewelry that have been found during renovations. Two old women patrolled the doorway area, asking us to buy tickets. We shelled out 5,000 rubles for our entry fee and a photography license. That may seem exorbitant, but, at 3,000 rubles to the dollar, it wasn’t too bad.
We saw this interesting little slide thing in a schoolyard. Initially we thought that it was a pencil (from the back), then maybe a rocketship or missile. Now we think it’s a Cossack’s head, or something along those lines, which is a little frightening.
These are some of the booklets we were given at the tourism office – more information than we’ve been able to find about a lot of other places. It’s especially exciting to us because our guidebook is especially bad. We were only able to find one guide to Belarus, and it has very scant information and is quite out of date. We feel much more confident now, and are getting excited about exploring more of the country. If Belarus can be a difficult place to visit, it’s certainly not because of the people here – they are very proud of their country and are excited that other people are interested in it. Last night we ran into some of the people from the tourist office at a dinner that they were throwing. We chatted a little and one man asked us some questions, trying to figure out if we were travel writers. He was a little disappointed that we weren’t. I will relay something, though – he asked us to tell everyone at home about Belarus and tell them to come to Polotsk, which I am doing. Even if we’re not really travel writers, we can still make some kind of endorsement of this brave little place.

The Belarusian Border

Note: Obviously, we neither could nor wanted to take pictures of the actual border crossing process. So, instead, we've decided to break up the following text with photos of bus stops spotted along the post-border Belarusian road.
Back in August, on a swelteringly hot day, Merlin and I walked out to Cinderella Travel in Queens, where a very nice Belarusian woman name Mirena helped us apply and procure our visas to her homeland. Ever since that day, we've been curious, worried, excited, anxious about our border crossing. This wasn't Russia, where our visas were checked along with all the other passengers on the Tallinn-Saint Petersburg Eurolines bus. We were driving our car with all of our belongings in it and a less-than-conversational grasp of the language. But these are the sort of adventures we've signed on for! Right?
We slept in Latvia on Saturday night, wanting to arrive at the border bright and early the next day. We had read that the process took anywhere from three hours to three days and didn't feel like kicking things off at dusk. Sunday morning, we visited the town's tourist office for some directions to an automobile crossing point. You can't just drive up to where the two countries meet on a map and expect there to be a check point. She was very friendly and advised us that the closest border station got a lot of traffic. It would be worth our time, she said, to drive an hour or so North to another border point.
The drive was simple, down a straight and narrow road. It was incredibly foggy, so everything we approached was unveiled in a last-minute, dramatic way. We knew that we were getting close when a line of trucks with BY license plated came barreling toward us. We kept expecting to pull up to a queue of vehicles. Instead, out of the fog appeared a small booth with a red and white striped gate attached. We parked, got out and stood at his window in the light rain as he checked our passports, car title and registration. Then, he gave our pile of documents back and motioned us forward.
We passed under the lifted gate and pulled up into check number two. This took a little longer, but was basically the same thing. We handed over papers, waited, waited, got them all back and were motioned forward to another booth. One last check and we were out of the European Union. We drove a hundred feet or so of countryless road before the Belarusian checkpoint began to pop out of the fog. Two cars with Latvian plates were already parked at a curb alongside a row of one room huts.
The first hut had a sign that read "Passport Control." So, we figured we'd start there. I nestled our car title under the flap of my coat to protect it from the rain as we waited to hear the stamp stamp of approval. It's amazing how much relief that sound gives me at this point. It took a while, as expected, but soon we had our passports back in our hands. The problem is, we had no idea where to go next. From around the corner came a very tall, uniformed man who rattled off a few sentences in Russian of which we understood "car" and a pair of words that sounded like "transportation control." Our eyes darted ahead to scan the second, third, forth and fifth huts' signs. "Transportation Control" was the last one and we moved on up to it.
Unlike Passport Control, we were welcomed inside out of the rain and found a trio of older women in sweaters, drinking tea. We greeted them in Russian, which immediately made them smile. Then, we handed over our title and registration and watched as they each took turns looking at them. One began to laugh as another put her hand against her forehead in bewilderment. It's pretty safe to say, they had never seen American car documents before and we helped as best we could to point out the key information. We would need to buy Belarusian car insurance, something we knew ahead of time, but couldn't do it in that hut. After her directions bounced right off our blank faces, she smiled and walked over to guide us in the right direction.
The woman in the insurance hut was equally bewildered by our paperwork, but in almost no time at all, we received an insurance document and were told to go back over to Transportation Control to file it. Back we went, papers were filed and we moved on to the next stage of the process: Customs. Now, we have a lot in our car. A day earlier, we had tried to organize things as best we could, but three backpacks, two wet bags, two suitcases, two pieces of hand luggage, a ten, two sleeping bags and three or four sacks filled with books are only going to look so neat. The tall uniformed man who seemed to be directing the process walked over to our car and told us to open the doors, at least that's what we figured he said.
He peaked in both front doors and then walked around to the back. I lifted the hatchback up to unveil our lumpy landscape of belongings. He called two other guards to come over and they all stood there, staring. Then, we were ordered to shut all the doors and follow him into the customs hut. We couldn't read the Russian form and he couldn't really read the English form, so we went through it all together. Then, we got back in our car and moved forward to one gate, got out, handed over papers, got back in and moved to a second where we repeated our process. At the third, a pretty young woman laughed when we began to get out of our car and waved us back in. "All done" she offered in English and raised the final gate.
Back in the car, GPSy echoed the sentiment of everyone we had encountered on our journey across the border. She threw her hands up in the air, shrugged, thought "what the heck am I supposed to do with this?" and figured that we are and would be fine. We drove forward, off the last road our GPS could identify, into the blank territory of Belarus.