Around the world in 125 days
Long ago, Belarus once was an independent kingdom but was annexed by Russia in 1793 and only became a country again recently. Unfortunately, the Belarusians were ruled by Russians for so long that they do not even know how to speak their own language. Now everyone speaks Russian instead. There was some confusion regarding whether you need a visa to go to Belarus or not. Previously, as long as you had a Russian visa, you were allowed to go to Belarus. Knowing that for a lot of tourists who want to go to Russia must go through Belarus, the government decided to charge for visas too and make some money. Because this change happened right before our trip, a lot of members of our group had to get last-minute visas in Poland.
Before we went to the hotel, our bus stopped briefly at the city center, which is full of old Russian-style buildings and interestingly very quiet. Hardly anybody around. There were no pedestrians or stores at all. Not sure whether it was because there was nothing to sell or people had no money to buy anything. To be fair, there is always this danger of forming a totally wrong impression based on some small thing that you happened to run into. I should say I have seen beautiful pictures of this country. After all, we were just at a tiny spot of the country and were there only for a very brief time. The rest of the country could be very beautiful. Who knows. From what I read, Minsk was also more or less completely bombed out during the second world war, but unlike the Poles in Warsaw, who reconstructed their city based on the old design, the city was rebuilt based on ugly Soviet designs instead.
I took a picture of our bus while it was parked in the square. It was certainly a very nice and comfortable bus, easily carrying 40 persons. It, of course, also provides a big target for people who have something against tourists. Fortunately so far bad people are more intent on dramatically attacking airplanes rather than tour buses.
Minsk is a fairly typical Eastern European city and probably not as well-developed economically compared to others. But the hotel we stayed, overlooking a park, was quite nice. That evening, we noticed a lot of locals were heading toward the park next to the hotel, to some sort of celebration, as it appeared, so we followed them. There must have been several hundred of them. They seemed to gather at one corner of a park and were not doing much. After a while, we all went back to the hotel, having no clue about what they were really doing.
That night some of the younger members of our group, Anna, Levia, and the Australian girl, were talking about going to bars for drinks. From the hotel windows, they could see some places across a couple of wide, tree-lined, but dark and deserted multi-laned boulevards. It could be a perfectly safe place but it just looked kind of scary to me. They were also planning to walk over. I was not really sure it would be such a good idea for three girls to go bar-hopping at night in a strange city. Sure it could be an exciting thing to do but it also looked like a recipe for trouble. You just never know who would be waiting for them behind the trees or on the sidewalks. In the end, wiser heads prevailed. They decided not to go after all.
On the subject of safety, Estrella is very careful and safety-conscious, trying hard not to go to isolated places or walking around showing jewelry or cash for example. But her biggest secret weapon is the fact that she tends to go bed early, sometimes as early as 9PM. Guess what, bad guys never have a chance. By the time they are ready to mug, Estrella is already comfortably abed, snoozing away. True, we did not have as much night life as others but it probably accounted for the fact that during all our four months on the road, we did not have one single, slightest problem anywhere, and managed to avoid confronting any nasty criminals literally all over the world.
© Dave Cheng 2000