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Belarus

Realxing in Minsk


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For my last day in Minsk I decided to have a relaxing and easy-going day. I've decided to have one day like this every week or so in order to avoid travel burnout.

I slept in again this morning and had a relaxing breakfast. This morning I ate some chicken dish, though I can't really describe it better than that; it had some herbs on top and was about the size of a dumpling. Afterwards I relaxed in my hotel room and then went for a walk in the city. My focus today was to visit the Great Patriotic War Museum. This provided me with a nice walk through the city and along the riverfront parks again.

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This museum, focusing on the Soviet and Belarus struggle during World War II, was the first museum of its kind in the world - and it opened during the war itself! It was obviously much smaller at that time, but it has since been greatly expanded and it is one of the more interesting museums that I have visited. The museum covers several floors and chronicles the entire war. There are several artifacts from Nazi Germany and the USSR, including numerous tanks, guns, and other weapons that were used during the war. Uniforms, medals, and personal belongings of dozens of Soviet servicemen are also on display. One of my favorite weapons was an old flame thrower (see below).

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There are different exhibits about the various major battles that centered around Soviet cities (Leningrad, Stalingrad, Minsk, Kiev, etc). Most of the museums focuses on the successes of the Soviet forces that began after the Battle of Stalingrad; it ignores the near catastrophic first year and a half after Germany invaded Russia; there was one passing sentence that acknowledged this.

One of my favorite areas had several Soviet propaganda posters.

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The museum had a very moving section that focused on Nazi oppression and mass murder in Belarus; over 2 million people were kills in Belarus under the Nazi regime and the country was the site of the fourth-largest murder camp in Nazi Europe. There was a map detailing out the various cities in Belarus and the number of people killed from each city.

There was also an extensive section about the resistance fighters in Belarus, with models of their hideouts and mobile printing presses. It was very interesting to see many of these artifacts and to read about the personal stories associated with them. One that stands out was a 14-year-old resistance fighter who was killed in action. The museum culminated in the Victory Hall, which was quite impressive.

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I spent about 90 minutes exploring the museum before heading outside to meander around the park that surrounds it. I went to see the bomber airplane behind the museum and then walked down to the riverfront. I took a leisurely route around the park and headed back towards the city center to grab a quick bite to eat for lunch.

The rest of the afternoon was spent back at Coffeeberry, where I had a mocha and a delicious chocolate cake; I spent a long time reading "Ready Player One" and then getting some work done.

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Now I am back at my hotel, getting ready to pack up my suitcase: I'm off to Estonia tomorrow!

Posted by Glichez 11:33 Archived in Belarus Comments (0)

Castles of Belarus


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Today was one of the longer days I’ve had on the trip – or it at least felt that way!

I was up just before 7, which was quite early considering that I’ve been staying up until around 1am every night (mixture of working and binge watching Netflix). After having a decent breakfast (today’s food tasted far better than yesterday), I set off to the Hotel Belarus, where today’s day tour would depart from. The hotel was a 30-minute walk away, along the same path through the parks that I’d gone through yesterday.

Today’s day tour was to Mir and Nesvizh, where two castles were located (both castles are on the UNESCO World Heritage list). I had read about these castles online during the long months of planning this epic trip, but all of the guided tours that I had found were outside of my budget.

The bus left the hotel at 9; the tour I was conducted in Russian, so I listened to music and slept during the roughly 90-minute drive to the town of Mir. Mir is a tiny little hamlet in the countryside to the southwest of Minsk; the only claim to fame is Mir Castle, which was originally built in the 1500s. Apparently the castle was built by an aristocratic family, the Radziwell’s, in Poland-Lithuania so they could become titled nobility in the Holy Roman Empire (one of the requirements to gain the title was that one must have a castle made of stone).

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The castle was partially destroyed several times over the years, notably during the War of 1812 between France and Russia. This lead to various sections being rebuilt in different styles. It wasn’t until recently (within the past 10-15 years) that the castle was fully restored and open to tourism. Our guide, Tatiana, briefly walked us around the exterior; not understanding the Russian, I admired the castle and the surroundings. When we went inside the castle I was able to get an English audio guide, which was extremely helpful. I followed the Russian group as they were led through the castle.

Most of the rooms were quite spares and not ornately decorated; then again, this is a castle and not a palace. There were several sets of armor on display, including an interesting set with wings. The audio guide stated that these feathered wings worn on the armor would make a loud noise as the wearer rode his horse into battle; the noise was supposed to scare the enemies’ horses.

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After touring the castle for about 90 minutes it was time for a quick bathroom break. Due to some problem with the water supply, the entire village of Mir was currently without running water (the guide tried to explain in her broken English and some younger girls on the tour, who spoke excellent English, tried as well). We all boarded the bus and drove off to a rest stop in the forest, where we all dispersed to… return to nature, as it were.

When we were done we returned to Mir Castle for lunch, which was included with the tour. The restaurant was located inside the basement of the castle. I sat with a group of women from Belarus, none of whom spoke English, but it didn’t matter as we were all focused on eating. The first course was a bowl of borscht (I confess that I wouldn’t have recognized it had I not had some in Moscow). The main course was a breaded chicken (I can’t call it fried chicken), along with some potato wedges and cabbage. It was quite delicious and filling! After that we were served some tea and had dessert, which was a pastry with fruit in it. All told it was a very nice meal – far better than I had expected to get on a tour.

We had about an hour before the bus was due to leave for the next town, so I spent the time wandering around the castle and taking several photos. There were pigeons everywhere at the castle! The pond behind the castle had a small island on it that was covered with ducks.

We all boarded the bus at 14:00 to head for Nesvizh Castle. The town of Nesvizh was around 30 minutes away; once we arrived we made a brief stop at the local Catholic church. The church was currently under restoration as it was severely damaged during the Great Patriotic War. The inside walls were covered with paintings or religious scenes; the walls themselves were smooth, but the paintings made them appear ornate and decorative. We were able to go into the crypts beneath the church to see where several members of the Radziwell family are buried.

We made a short walk over the castle itself and this one looked more like a palace than a castle. During the walk I spoke some more with the two younger girls on the tour, who were both from Belarus and in university (one of them attends school in Canada and she spoke excellent English). They were both very surprised that an American would come visit Belarus!

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Once again I was given an audio guide for the castle and this guide was amazing! It was far more in-depth and informative about the castle. Nesvizh Castle was another Radziwell home and was far more ornate than Mir Castle. We were guided around the entire castle, getting to glimpse some amazing rooms. The castle was severely damaged by the Russian troops in 1812 and was used by the Germans as a hospital in the 1940s, after which it was used as a health care facility until it was recently restored.

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After the tour of the castle we spent a few minutes wandering around the gardens and forest next to the castle. The mosquitos were everywhere; I saw more mosquitos at the castle than I saw during my entire time in South America. Is Zika currently in Belarus…? LOL Among the statues and monuments in the garden was one for the dead soldiers in the Great Patriotic War, complete with an eternal flame.

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We made it back to Minsk around 20:00. After arriving back at my hotel I decided to return to the coffee shop that I went to last night, Coffeeberry. It’s a very calming and relaxing atmosphere. This time I snagged one of the window alcoves and spent some time reading before heading back to my hotel.

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Posted by Glichez 12:53 Archived in Belarus Comments (0)

Exploring Minsk


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I got a bit of a late start to the day today as I finally got to sleep in on this trip. I relaxed at the hotel during the morning, meandered down to breakfast around 9. The breakfast buffet was rather large, though some of the hot items were rather rubbery from sitting in a warming plate for so long. During breakfast the TV was playing music videos and I was surprised to see Ricky Martin - who knew he was still recording music?!

Before I left to explore the city I discovered a company that does day tours from Minsk - and they have one scheduled tomorrow that I've been hoping to be able to do! The tour operators that I'd found prior to leaving the States were all private tours and were charging between $175 and $200 for the tour; this new company is only $50! I quickly contacted them to see if I could join the tour; we exchanged a few emails and soon I was signed up.

I spent the day wandering around the city to see the various sights that I'd researched during my trip planning; the entire walk around the city took about four hours. My first stop was Lenin Square, which was a massive area full of flowers and fountains, all focused around a large statue of Lenin. The statue was in front of what appeared to be a government building with a military guard pacing in front of it. I went to to make sure that it was ok for me to take pictures of the statue and thankfully it was (I'd seen warnings that Belarus was quite strict about taking pictures of government or military buildings and installations).

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Right near the square was an interesting monument with a bell on top, along with several flags on display, among them that of the USA and Japan. Thankfully there was a sign in English that explained that the monument was in memory of both Chernobyl and the atomic bombs from World War II; in fact, soil from both Chernobyl and the New Mexico test site were placed at the site of the monument.

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I headed into the city center and walked along the river for about an hour to reach the Palace of Independence. The walk took me along a beautiful park and, on the other side of the road, I saw a very interesting sculpted mural that was Soviet-esque - right above a Kentucky Fried Chicken!

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The walk was very peaceful and relaxing; the weather was warm, but not nearly as hot as it was in Moscow (thankfully!). I came across the museum for the Great Patriotic War (World War II), which had some really cool statues and monuments around it. Flying above the museum was the flag of the USSR (I managed to catch the flag in some of the photos below). The museum was inside the park that ran along the river. Behind the museum was an old bomber airplane on display as well.

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When I reached the Palace of Independence I was somewhat disappointed because it was not terribly impressive. The square in front had a gigantic Belorussian flag on display; next to the palace was a more interesting building, though I'm not sure what the building was. I spent a few minutes there before retracting my steps back into the city center.

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This time I walked through the park to enjoy the serenity of the area. There were several small food vendors setup around the park, all selling corn on the cob! One area of the park had a large lake and a giant fountain on it. People were out kayaking on the lake as well.

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I wandered through the park for a considerable amount of time before making my way to the opera house. This was a large and ornately decorated building with several statues adoring it. In the front square was a fountain (Minsk has fountains all over the city!). I found myself wishing that I was able to go and see an opera there.

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As I was walking through the city I discovered yet another park with yet another fountain. This fountain had a sculpture on one side of it, which I found odd since most fountains place the sculpture. However, the jets on the fountain had been positioned in such a way as to shoot through a wreath that one of the female figures in the sculpture was holding.

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Up next was the Palace of the Republic and another large square. The building was rather beautiful, with columns and statues around the top. En route to the building I passed by the Circus of Belarus, which had one of the strangest statues that I've ever seen: clowns playing around with instruments.

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My final stop was the town hall, which had some very colorful coverings over the pillars in front of it. After walking around the small square near the town hall I stopped to grab a quick bite to eat for a very late lunch (by this time is was 15:00).

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I headed back to the hotel to relax for a little bit and then decided to go out for a coffee. There was a small coffee shop a block away from my hotel that I decided to try. I ordered a mocha and settled in to read for a little while. The place was very nice, with comfortable seating inside several window niches, along with a large outdoor seating area. I spent several hours there before finally coming back to the hotel for the night.

Posted by Glichez 11:36 Archived in Belarus Comments (0)

Time to defect


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My last day in Moscow allowed for a few hours more of sightseeing and I made the most of the time.

I decided to revisit Lenin's Mausoleum this morning. For some reason I found myself drawn back to see his body again. This time I came prepared to find the graves of John Reed (author of "Ten Days that Changed the World") and Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space). John Reed's marker was written in Russian, despite the fact that the other American buried at the Kremlin is in English; thankfully I had looked up where to find him and it was quite easy. Reed's name is the second one down in the middle of the marker in the photos below. Yuri Gagarin's marker was along the actual Kremlin wall and was in an area blocked off, so I was not able to visit his grave.

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After seeing Lenin once again, I quickly wandered around Red Square and took some selfies while wearing my new Soviet military hat. Some people gave me funny looks, but I just ignored them. I look good in the hat and the pictures are amazing!

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The final bit of sightseeing was a visit to the State Historical Museum, which I had heard about yesterday. This museum was located in Red Square in the large, imposing red building that I'd taken several selfies in front of. The museum was massive, with a huge collection of items (I read that they have over 4million individual items in the museum!). The museum displayed artifacts chronologically, detailing out human development. It was rather interesting seeing the development of crude tools, side by side with one another. There were some amazing mummified bodies, including just a head.

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Another section had an impressive array of valuables from the Tsars. There were jewels, medal and awards, seals, trinkets, etc. They had the personal razor of Tsar Alexander I, the imperial seals of Catherine the Great, a wooden cup that Peter the Great made himself (see below), etc. There was a Chinese man walking around to each display case: he would stop, snap a photo and move on; he didn't stop to actually look at or admire any of the items on display. He went through the entire exhibit and took pictures of each and every case.

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I wandered to the upper floors of the museum, but the galleries there were all closed off. I know the announcement from the day before mentioned Napoleon's sword, but I could not locate it anywhere in the museum; sadly none of the staff spoke English or could help (though one would think the world "Napoleon" might be enough to indicate what I wanted).

I next wandered around the courtyard outside the Kremlin wall. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, young boys (10-12 years old) were practicing marching and guarding in the same manner as the professional guards (perhaps the Russian form of ROTC?). I also found the monument to Stalingrad among the World War II memorials.

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On the way back to my hotel I stumbled across a sign counting down to the World Cup being held in Russia in 2018.

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My airport transfer was leaving at 14:00 and I was really glad that I booked an early transfer as the traffic to get to the airport was quite bad. Even so, I made it to the airport with plenty of time, so I decided to grab a couple drinks and get some work done. The flight to Minsk was just over an hour long and was rather bumpy the entire way. Despite the short flight time we were still served a light meal! It was a sandwich of some sort, though I couldn't tell what meat was in it. It always amazes me that foreign airlines still provide all of the perks that American-based airlines skip.

The Minsk airport is very small and it took no time whatsoever to collect my bag and make it out to the arrival hall. Since I was flying from Moscow, I did not have to go through customs (apparently Russia and Belarus have a similar border like the EU member states). I met with my driver and we drove for about an hour into the city. I'd arrived right after a rain storm and the sunset was stunning. The clouds behind us were dark and hazy, with several very low-hanging clouds filling the sky.

My hotel is in the city center of Minsk and is one of the nicest hotels that I've ever stayed in! The room is a mini-suite, with high-end furnishings. Apparently my money can go quite a long way here in Belarus - and this isn't an expensive hotel!

Posted by Glichez 12:24 Archived in Belarus Comments (0)

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