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Travelogues

Focus on Safety

Admit it. After years of reading about Belarus in the travelogues printed in this newsletter, you've felt the urge to vacation there begin to grow within you. It began as the barest of hints; a little glow, perhaps, which grew into a thought and has since become an obsession. You don't just want to go to Belarus, you need to go to Belarus!
A few year's worth of visits to a psychiatrist can help you deal with the underlying issues associated with those planning a trip to Belarus: the risky behavior, the death wish, the need to find yourself in a place and time where everything is decided for you.
Or, if you're determined to go through with it, you can always rely on me. I've been there. In fact, I'm planning a trip there this summer. My many years of misfortune experience can be of advantage to you. And the first thing you need to know about travelling to Belarus is this: YOU CAN'T GET THERE FROM HERE.
Lufthansa, which is a wonderful airline, and seems to always depart and arrive on time, flies to Belarus. The planes, unlike American airlines of late, are modern and clean. The food is good. The people are nice. But Lufthansa costs a boatload of money to fly anywhere, especially to Belarus where it seems they charge 10 euros for every year back in time that you're flying. . So it's not a viable option.
Neither, if you posses an ounce of self-preservation, is the second option: flying Aeroflot. Russia's national airline is dirt cheap--at least it will be if you don't look like a Western businessman/woman. The key is to present yourself at the ticket counter wearing a thick flower-print cotton dress and rubber galoshes (no socks).
Your (cardboard) suitcase should be held together with (fraying) cord. If you have a chicken tucked beneath your arm you will be given the local's discount.
Unfortunately, Aeroflot has a disconcerting habit of....crashing. Do you remember the hue and uproar recently about the air traffic controller in the USA who let his child relay information to pilots as they prepared to take off? It was kind of cute, but admittedly not something that one really ought to be doing, so we took it kind of seriously and the controller ended up being fired.
Aeroflot people would laugh at that. A pilot (do we even have to identify him as an Aeroflot pilot?) once turned the command of his airplane over to his 12 year old son. This is a true story. The boy actually flew the airplane. For a while.
As I discovered, neither Lufthansa nor Aeroflot are viable options. Vladimir Putilo, the man I've been working in Belarus with for years, suggested I fly something called Air
and then take a train to the Belorussian border town of Brest. When I sent the good news to Vladimir, he exploded. "Are you crazy?" the subject line of his email shouted. "Are you crazy?" he repeated in the first line.
"Do you value your life so little that you would take a chance such as this?" he wrote his typically stilted fashion. "Do you not care about yourself, about your family?"
I wrote back, admitting I was quite unhinged, but that I liked taking trains. It's the nicest way to travel. You can chat with people. Eat on the train. Watch the scenery roll by.
Vladimir dismissed all this instantly. "Do you have any idea what country you are in? Do you have any idea what kind of people take the trains in Poland?"
"CHECHNYANS!" Vladimir wrote, answering his own question.
"I know Poland very well," Vladimir continued. "Poland is full of immigrants from Chechnya. These people don't want to work and only do crime. They bring cigarettes to sell in Belarus without paying tax. It is their only occupation. You will have an excellent experience: you will travel with the people from Chechnya and then you can tell your friends in America about your wonderful experience. If you live."
"In the time of (the) Soviet Union, Chechnya was the most criminal region in the country. And now they have all moved to Poland. You will see!"
Ever the optimist, I pointed out--as you would--that people are people the world over. Some good, some bad.
Vladimir was having none of it.
"The men from Chechnya all look like the people from the Taliban," Vladimir wrote. "They are all bandits."
"I hope so," I replied. "If the people in the railroad car with me don't all have Kalashnikovs then I'm going to be extremely disappointed."
Vladimir didn't think this was funny and said he would speak no more of the matter.
If you arrive in Belarus, you will need to choose a hotel. Do you want efficient, friendly service? Peace and quiet? Running water? Non-yellow running water? Hot, non-yellow running water? If so, go somewhere else.
You're coming to Belarus for the experience. And that's exactly what you're going to get when you reserve a room at a city center hotel. Disregard what Vladimir says about the front lobby being full of criminals and bandits (and, he forgot to mention, members of the Belorussian security service).
Whatever you do, don't pick a Western "businessman's" hotel, which are usually located on the outskirts of the city. Yes, the rooms are clean. The restaurant is good. But you'll find yourself shut off from everything that is Belarus.
Particularly depressing is the nightly tableaux of seeing (typically German, and doubtless married) businessmen consorting with beautiful young prostitutes in the hotel restaurant.
I see myself as being fairly liberal, and not afraid to declare (even in church) my support for gay rights. So I feel I'm fairly understanding of other people's value systems. But this seemed so wrong to me. Sordid, even.
That's why I always opt for a Belorussian owned hotel. You'll get the renowned Belorussian rudeness. But other people you meet will be supremely kind.
Belarus is refreshingly different from everywhere else you're going to travel. The streets are impossibly clean. Western franchises (McDonald's and their ilk) have made no inroads. For about 80 cents you can order a Belorussian delicacy right off the street. A bit like an eastern European Gyros, the meat within is smothered in a sour cream and herb sauce and is heavenly tasting.
Join the throng of people strolling up and down the broad avenues and let Minsk cast its spell over you. For it will do so.
Yes, the buildings are Stalinist ugly. But notice the people all around you. They're happy. They laugh, chat, walk arm in arm. You've never seen so many people with their arms intertwined. And not just young lovers. But families. Old people. Children. They seem to have a need to be close.
Every single person you see would probably bolt out of Belarus if they could. But one can't help but wonder if, after a certain amount of time they wouldn't miss what they used to have in Belarus.
Pulled straight from Lonely Planet's web site. Note the yellow highlighted copy, which sounds like it's taken straight from the Belorussian Chamber of Commerce. And, have you ever seen a hotel listing (red star) which seems to feel the need to show a reassuring photo of a toilet? (As in: Every third room comes with one!)