Earlier this summer I remember asking Michael more than once to "remind me why we are going to Belarus?" I am pretty sure told me about an article he read a few years ago in his beloved Economist magazine that describe the president of Belarus as "the last dictator in Europe." Add that to his avid interest in 20th century history and the collapse of the Soviet Union plus a goal of visiting as many former Soviet Republics as possible while we in this far flung part of the world, and you've got your answer.
|Minsk was a mixture of Soviet architecture hovering over what remained of the old town.|
|It is a brave man who goes up against the Belorussian government.|
So far it has worked well. Even during this stretch in Eastern Europe we are managing to hit all of our goals as Senior Nomads: Learning everyday, having fun, staying close to budget (easier in this part of the world), and still in love. So far so good.
|Who wouldn't want to spend time with this funster - especially at Funny Chicken!|
Because the Minsk airport was a long way from the city, and with several unknowns ahead of us, we accepted our host's offer to send a private driver to meet us. The value of the Belorussian Ruble has fallen dramatically over the last two years alongside it's cousin, the Russian Ruble. So, for only a few dollars we were whisked to the center of the cleanest city you have ever seen outside of Disneyland or maybe Pyongyang. Seriously - you would be hard pressed to find even a cigarette butt on the streets of this city.
|These posters were everywhere - it's not easy changing your entire currency system!|
Our Airbnb was better than most in this part of the world and was ideally located across the street from a very upscale shopping mall with a grocery store and three decent restaurants. The apartment was nicely decorated and certainly functional - although the only cook-top was a fussy two-burner portable stove. Minsk Airbnb
|Our host Olga. She was a great help in getting us our visas and registering our visit.|
It quickly became apparent that the Belarus government has a big presence in the daily lives of its citizens. No litter. No graffiti. No jaywalking (we did not see a single person even consider stepping into the street before the little green dictator gave the signal), and an appearance of prosperity.
|The stores in Minsk were filled to the brim with goods - not so once you left the city.|
Besides the fact we could tick the Previous Soviet Republic box there was another reason we added Belarus to our swing through the far edges of eastern Europe.
Last November we were invited to speak to the host community at the Airbnb Open in Paris. One of the Airbnb staffers that helped up prepare for the event was a young man named Dzmitry Bazhko - Dima for short. Michael, as he does with most everyone he meets asked him where he was from. When he said Belarus, Michael just about flipped out. He'd never met anyone from the former Soviet Republic which was known until 1991 as the Socialist Soviet Republic of Belorussia - for him it was like meeting Bruce Springsteen. He and Dima quickly bonded and over the next 6 months they plotted our trip to his homeland.
Dima help was crucial. He helped get our visas by listing his parents as our hosts. Then he recruited his sister Marina to pick us up in Minsk and drive us an hour and a half away to meet his parents on their farm in the village where they grew up. She took us on a side trip through an ancient village and then stopped at the daily farmer's market closest to her parents.
|I picked up these beauties and a bag of chantrelles for about $2.00 at the farmers market.|
|The food never stopped coming at Dima's parents table. Note Dima's dads amazing woodwork.|
|I know Dima must be cringing to know we poured over his baby albums.|
|A great time at the daily market in the village with Dima's sister Marina.|
One way to see the sights on the list was to take our usual free walking tour. Those of you who read our blog know that we try to take one of these tours in every city we visit. In major European cities there are multiple companies offering tours all day, every day. In Minsk however, the one and only free walking tour required you to sign-up well in advance on their website. No doubt so Big Brother could keep track of who, what and where.
Michael contacted the organizer of the tour the week before we arrived. After a few e-mails back and forth, Alina, the organizer, fell in love with our story and asked if she could invite a newspaper reporter to join us on the walking tour. Of course! We arrived on the appointed evening for a 7:00 pm start. Alina greeted us and introduced us to a young woman reporter and a photographer from the largest online news site in Belarus, TUT.by. Since the reporter only spoke Russian, Alina served as our translator.
Over the next two hours we learned about the history and highlights of Minsk including a look at the building where a young Lee Harvey Oswald, President Kennedy's assassin, lived and studied in the early sixties. So yet another conspiracy theory suggests he might have been groomed by the KGB before being sent to live in Dallas with all of his expenses paid to carry out a certain act of terror. Worth Googling.
Minsk press coverage.
We came to really like Stanaslov, our driver from the airport so we used his services to take us to a few of the sights a little further outside Minks. And the grocery store. He didn't speak more than a few words of English, but once again, Michael's new favorite app --- iTranslate Voice solved the problem. Watching Stan and Michael make a statement and then pass his iPhone back and forth was almost like sitting in on a session at the United Nations.
|So many sights - so little time!|
|The Monument to Fallen Jewish People. was a haunting sculpture of victims going down into the pit where many of the were executed inside the city limits of Minsk.|
We boarded our third, and hopefully our last Ukraine Airlines flight in Minsk. This time, we were going to spend most of our flight time over the Donbass Region of Eastern Ukraine on our way to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. I asked Michael if we were traveling the same route that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 took two years earlier when it was shot from the sky...but I'm not sure he heard my question.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads