Although the trip officially ended yesterday, 5 of us continued onwards for the optional extension into forbidden Belarus (or aka “Europe’s last dictatorship”…as per Western journalists) …because why not?
The 5 of us left our hostel at 7:30pm to try to make it to the 8am train from Vilnius to Minsk. For this train, you’ll need to take the escalators heading underground from Vilnius’ train station and go through a special part of the station involving passport control and customs where they stamp you out of Lithuania and into international territory.
The train ride from Vilnius to Minsk takes about 2 and a half hours and some serious looking security staff will get onboard the train about a third of the way through to inspect your passports and stamp your visas.
Once you arrive in Minsk, the city is all yours.
Since Belarus is not part of the Eurozone, we headed to a bank first to take out some Belarusian rubles. We then would learn that many of the ATMs don’t work and the Belarusian ruble was currently in freefall; you might see this all the time on the news, but it’s sobering to witness with your own eyes banks packed with worried people trying to take as much money out as they can.
What most struck us about Belarus after 17 days in Scandinavia and the Baltic States was the wide, open spaces and the magnitude of each building compared to the long, narrow and windy cobblestone streets of the Baltic’s old towns and Scandinavia’s diverse commercial districts.
This doesn’t mean Minsk is ugly. Quite the contrary; after being completely destroyed during World War 2, Minsk was rebuilt from scratch with monumental 1950s Stalinist/Soviet-bloc style architecture (way more lively and interesting than the drabbier Soviet buildings of the 60s and 70s) and hasn’t changed a thing since. Minsk therefore is the ideal locale to visit for anyone interested in seeing a slice of the Soviet Union in its heyday.
When we reached the city center, we enjoyed breakfast at a local restaurant serving traditional Belarusian potato pancakes, fried egg, and quarter of a chicken leg. It was one of the best meals I had on the trip:
Then we began our walking tour of Minsk, starting from the “Girl With Umbrella” statue…
….and the behemoth of open space that is Lenin/Independence Square:
On the southwest part of Independence Square is Belarusian Government Building and the Lenin Monument. You are supposedly not allowed to take photographs of this building (someone will approach you to delete the photos), but somehow we got lucky:
On the southeast side of the square is the massive Belarus State University campus:
A few meters north of the Lenin Monument in the northwest part of Independence Square is Sts Simon & Helena Church, also known as “Red Church”:
Continue walking north up Praspiekt Nyezalyežhnastsi St. (thereafter known as “The Main Street”) and on your left side will be the KGB Headquarters.
Sit on the steps or take a few photos and someone will come outside and give you a hard time/make you disappear. Keep moving.
On your right will the busts of a few important Belarusians surrounded by their respective small parks:
This one is of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a native Belarusian and founder of Cheka, the predecessor to the KGB:
Continue onwards on the main street and you’ll hit Kastrycnickaja Square, famous for being where the 2006 Denim/Jeans Revolution occurred where 10,000+ Belarusians gathered to protest the election of Alexander Lukashenko.
The Denim Revolution was named as such as “jeans”/denim was seen as a Western style of clothing; thus it was used as a symbol/flag by activists declaring that Belarus would not be isolated from the West.
Stray off a little to the west of the square and you’ll come across the Central House of Officers and the Tank in front of it, used as a memorial to the soldiers who liberated Minsk from the Nazis during WW2.
A little more east past the trees is the building where President Alexander Lukashenko resides and works.
Beside it, you can find another park with another memorial to another famous Belarusian:
At this point our stalwart group of 5 went down to 4 as our beloved William Lau had to run and catch his 8:30pm connecting flight to Moscow.
Keep going north along the main street, across Nyamiha River, and you’ll hit Victory Square with its Victory Obelisk and the Eternal Flame in the center:
You can go underground directly beneath the Victory Obelisk to see the base of where the eternal flame comes from…
…and follow it as it it comes out above ground burning in front of the obelisk:
Behind you is another great example of wide open spaces typical of Soviet/communist/socialist urban planning:
From here take a detour to the left of Victory Square, along Kamunistychnaya Vulitsa St, parallel to the river. When you get to building #4, you’ll arrive upon the Former Residence of Lee Harvey Oswald, which is now a plain old cell phone store.
If you need a brush up on your history, Lee Harvey Oswald was the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy. Prior to the assassination and after serving with the US Marines, Lee Harvey Oswald had lived in Minsk for a few years where he married a local girl and developed a fondness for Marxism. And this building is where he lived.
There are no markers or anything that signifies it as a historic site; it’s more of an interest to Western tourists who appreciate quirky historical iotas. The fact enough of us come here to take so many photos of what is now a cell phone store has already bemused many native Belarusians.
Beside here is another park with another nice Soviet monument:
Taking a break from all our monuments, we continued up Kamunistychnaya Vulitsa St and had an early dinner at corner restaurant Gurman, famous for its wonderful pelminis (aka “Russian” version of dumplings) that come in many variations:
After eating, we continued once again on Kamunistychnaya Vulitsa St and turned a left on Vulitsa Maksima Bahdanovicha St,. Then we headed south until we saw the Island of Tears on our right.
Cross the bridge and you’ll come across a small chapel flanked by large statues of mourners on all 4 sides, honoring the Belarusian mothers whose children served and died in war.
Off to the side on the island is a statue of Belarus’ Guardian Angel, designed to actually shed tears in the pond below. Observe the statue long enough and you’ll notice actual tears dripping down from his face.
Facing the Island of Tears on the mainland is a row of buildings in a quaint, compact neighborhood known as Traetskae Pradmestse, which is a redevelopment of what Minsk used to look like before it was destroyed in World War 2.
With its cobblestone alleyways and small corridors, walking through here was a nostalgic throwback to the architecture we had grown accustomed to in the old towns of the Baltic States. Even more impactful was when you realize how this small place is so different from the rest of Minsk.
Cross over Nyamiha River again south and check out Cathedral Square. The largest one is the Holy Spirit Cathedral, which is packed with worshippers and is incredibly atmospheric inside.
A few meters nearby is Minsk’s City Hall where wedding photos are usually taken:
Also nearby on the square is their “concert hall”, but rather it’s more accurately a philharmonic for children and an addition to the school of music behind it.
On the other side of the street of Cathedral Square is Minsk’s oldest church, Sts Peter & Paul Church, awkwardly flanked by ugly concrete apartment-blocs on both sides:
From there, turn left on Pieramozcau Ave and walk up northwest until you hit Melnikayte St.
Then make a left and walk down until you reach Zaslavskaya St. There, you’ll notice The Pit, a famous Holocaust memorials to the Jewish victims of the Nazis.
While the obelisk was built in 1947, the pit is famous for the handmade (no machinery used) bronze sculpture entitled “The Last Way” added in 2000, taking over 8 years to complete. It shows a group of Jewish prisoners, walking down the steps of the pit about to be executed by the Nazis. It is remarkable for its expressive style devoid of national colors, poignantly showing figures of a violinist, children, and a pregnant woman.
Once you recollect your thoughts, retrace your steps back to Pieramozcau Ave and walk up even more, past the Hewlett Packard “Monument” (it’s actually a giant digital clock)…
…and you’ll definitely notice The Great Patriotic War Museum gleaming across the street:
By the museum is Pieramohi Park, which evokes imagery of some of my favorite paintings in the “Path to Autumn” motif:
Here were our own takes:
Also in the park are distinct oversized white (but obviously dirty) benches:
At this point the sun was beginning to fall into the horizon, allowing Minsk to open up before us in a way that, for now, I can best describe as poetic. This was a gift that kept on giving as we were treated to a sublime sunset over the Nyamiha River:
At this point it was already nearing 9pm and we realized that we had seen every single major sight that was listed in all our guidebooks and online. Not even the park or the impressive Great Patriotic War Museum was listed in our Lonely Planet guide.
Satisfied, we turned around and started to head back out of the park.
As in any city from the days of the USSR, Minsk’s use of city lighting after sunset makes a Westerner feel like they’ve stumbled onto a different planet:
And with night lights as our guide back to our hostel, we knew it was about time to head home. Thanks to the 27 of you who made this one of the most successful trips we have ever led.
. . . .
But the story doesn’t end here. We have 2 more.
5 International Airports In 1 Day
After the 4 of us returned from Minsk’s city center to our hostel at around 10pm, we did a grocery run for some last-minute supplies to use on our international flights home. We all then passed out soon thereafter.
Jenn and I woke up first with only 3-4 hours of sleep in our system (to add ontop of the all-nighter we pulled the night before), calling in a cab to take us to Minsk International Airport at around 2am.
The cab ride cost us 400,000 Belarusian rubles and took about an hour to reach an airport (even in the middle of the night with no traffic) that was more than 40km away from the city. If you’re going to do this during the day, I suggest taking the bus as it’s much cheaper and will cost you the same amount of time.
Once we arrived we boarded our 5am Austrian Airlines flight for Vienna, which would then lead us on another Austrian Airlines flight us to Venice and then from there a United Airlines (UA) flight would take us to New York City. However, our flight to Venice was delayed by about 35 minutes because of technical difficulties, causing us to miss our connecting UA flight home. To add insult to injury, UA so-called “stellar” service (or lack thereof) led us to have no idea where to go was there was no agent or screen or anything waiting for us at the gate when we landed in Venice.
With no idea where to start, I made a shot in the dark (ie a lucky guess) that Lufthansa would be the preferred codeshared airline that would take on UA’s orphaned flyers as they’re the next largest leading carrier within Star Alliance that could afford to do so. And lo and behold, when we walked up to Lufthansa’s ticket kiosk on the 2nd floor, shiny business class tickets from Venice to Frankfurt and then from Frankfurt to NYC awaited the both of us.Knowing the truly stellar (this time with no sarcastic quotes) service I experienced when flying business class from Frankfurt to NYC last year on Lufthansa, this would be a big step up from our original UA flight.
Not only that, I ran into my college buddy Gilbert Papagayo a few feet away from the Lufthansa desk right before he was about to leave for Copenhagen.
After 5 international airpots in one day, a crisis was finally averted.
The other story has a less happier (but still happy ending).
Alice Vs. Russia
As all of this was happening to Jenn and me, the Viber app (a chat app that our group used to communicate with one another and share videos/moments/photos, and ironically was founded in Belarus of all places) on our mobile devices was blowing up with emergency messages from one of our monsooners, Alice. Aeroflot agents had been denying her from boarding her exit flight from Minsk, Belarus to Moscow, Russia because of some arcane, outdated, Soviet agreement that the relationship between Belarus and Russia would be of a “local” shared space instead of separate international borders.
In other words the action of flying from Belarus to Russia is considered by Russia as “domestic” travel within their borders, so as a USA citizen, entering Moscow specifically via Belarus without a Russian visa will take you to a unique area of the Moscow airport that’s the equivalent of entering Russia illegally. And because your Belarus visa obviously does not substitute for a Russian visa when you land in Moscow Airport, you CANNOT fly from Belarus to Russia without a pre-arranged Russian visa, EVEN IF you don’t plan on leaving Moscow airport. If that still doesn’t make sense, your humble write will agree as this whole thing still doesn’t make sense to him.
Either way, Alice was screwed. Since Russians aren’t best friends with either the idea of customer service or USA citizens, her ticket was automatically cancelled. And then a magical thing happened; 6 other monsooners in 5 different countries and time zones (Jenn and I in Austria, Dave in Lithuania, Jeff in Ukraine, Teresa in the USA, Emily with Alice in Belarus) rallied to spend the next hour sending over 150+ messages helping Alice with finding a solution.
Here were the options that our ragtag team came up with:
- Stand her ground with Aeroflot and threaten to report situation to the IATA that the airline should have informed her of this law when she booked her ticket. Storm into the local Aeroflot office and ask for them to make an exception for her and issue an emergency transit visa
- Ask Aeroflot to push back her Moscow to NYC flight to a later time and have them book a new flight from Minsk to any other city (like Istanbul), so she would be legally traveling to Moscow not from Belarus, and that she could still make her flight to NYC from Moscow.
- Book Emily’s Etihad flight from Minsk to Abu Dhabi and find a flight back to NYC from there.
- Book Emily’s Etihad flight from Minsk to Abu Dhabi and continue traveling with her to Bali. Screw going home.
- Take a flight from Minsk to Kiev, and then from Kiev to NYC for a relatively cheap price.
- Call CHASE Bank, who was the travel service that Alice booked through to get this flight, and complain that it was their responsibility to inform her of this travel exception between Belarus and Russia for USA citizens. Then, ask CHASE Bank to book her an alternative flight from Minsk and put it on their tab.
- Take a train or bus back from Minsk, Belarus to Vilnius, Lithuania where Dave can take her in and get her on a cheap flight back to NYC from Lithuania (which is part of the Eurozone).
- Sleep in a sleepbox just for kicks
Options #1 and #2 couldn’t work because Alice’s Belarus visa would expire today and we didn’t want to risk her being arrested, processed and deported, have her assume the costs of deportation, and being red-flagged as an irresponsible traveler.
Option #3 and #5 were actually the cheapest options (under $700 one way) that allowed her to leave directly from Minsk, but they both required at least 33 hours of travel, which Alice preferred not to endure after this.
Option #4 would be great if Alice could afford an extra week of vacation.
Option #6 would be reasonable if we were to assume that CHASE Bank would also be reasonable (unlikely).
Option #8 and #9 would be irresponsible.
So she went with Option #7. After finally speaking with an empathetic agent at the airport, they put her on a same-day bus to Vilnius where she would then meet up with Dave (convenient given that Dave was still in Vilnius and made no plans to go anywhere after the trip was over), and then board a cheap flight back from Vilnius to NYC.
A bigger crisis averted, but nonetheless still stressful to think about.
Here’s Alice’s account of her ordeal:
Earlier today I was supposed to board a flight going back to NYC via Moscow, only to find out that a Russian transit visa is required specifically from Minsk to Moscow because the flight considered to be “local” and I would be on Russian territory.
I was not allowed to board that flight because I would have been deported from Moscow back to Minsk, even though Aeroflot never informed me of this prior. In addition, when I tried to reroute my flight from elsewhere, Aeroflot cancelled my entire reservation. With a couple hours of scrambling for flights with the amazing help of my fellow Monsooners/Map&Movers, I am rebooked on a flight from Vilnius to NYC via Kiev in two days.
Now, I am fleeing Minsk via two buses to Vilnius because my Belarus visa expires tonight. Here’s to hoping I make it to Vilnius not as a villain.
. . .
I Google Translated (to Russian) and screenshot-ed every possible question I could possibly ask about my journey and relied on these screenshots to help me communicate through the next 8 hours.
I took a 1-hour shuttle from the airport to the bus station, where I bought my ticket to Vilnius, Lithuania by showing a screenshot of the exact route and time I needed. (FYI, very few people in Belarus speak English) I finally boarded the bus and thought I was on my merry way to Vilnius – which I was until I almost didn’t cross the Belarus-Lithuania border.
The Belarus Border Patrol workers didn’t speak a lick of English, and did not believe my passport was me (according to everyone my passport photo doesn’t look like me). Luckily I had my teacher photo ID on me (none other because I lost my wallet in Vilnius) and thankfully there were 2 English speakers who helped translate everything.
Then at the Lithuania Entrance Border Patrol, again I almost didn’t pass and no one spoke English except for my bus-mates, but luckily I made it through – most likely due to my calm yet desperate look at that point.
I finally got to Vilnius at almost 8pm with a sigh of relief and hearty Lithuanian food. I spent yesterday enjoying my extended stay before boarding my 7AM flight to Kiev this morning, then onwards to NYC.
And that is how I escaped Minsk and how #CLUBALICE has made it back to the hood – for now.
And now, as our plane touches down in NYC, the 27 of us look back on 17 unbelievable days in 8 different countries.
Until the next monsoon.
– At time of posting in Minsk, Belarus, it was 71.6 °F –
Humidity: 36% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear