Road to Minsk

The Big Issue in Scotland's picture researcher Steven MacKenzie likes to travel. He also likes to save money. In the second of his travel blogs he heads to Minsk.

Vilnius - Minsk

Purnuskes might not sound significant, but this small town 26km north of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius is the geographical centre of Europe. Much of what we consider to be Eastern Europe is instead slap bang in the middle and so travelling to Belarus was my first visit to this largely neglected half of the continent.

To get revenge on the people in the hostel who had wittered on past 1am in the dorm room I made sure I woke everyone up when I left at 5.30. Even if I hadn't had a train to catch at 6.40, spite would have been my alarm clock.

There were more people on the streets of Vilnius now than there had been at midnight, the bars and clubs just starting to think about closing. The train station was quiet and fortuitously the ticket vendor didn't wince at my standard opening gambit, "Do you speak English?"

The iron curtain might have been dismantled but its remnants have been stitched together and still hang around Belarus. An invitation must be arranged through a travel agency and hotel booking made before you can apply to the Belarussian embassy for a tourist visa. Both incur pretty extravagant fees, especially considering the visit would last only two days, but I reasoned that I'd pay as much for a pass to Disneyworld so why not Minsk? It would be a price worth paying to escape the backpackers who swarm virally through the rest of Europe.

The train conductor was a glamorous, young stewardess whose knee high suede boots didn't look company issue. She began rattling off some instructions in either Lithuanian, Belorussian or Russian, before spotting my passport, making a note of it and handing me a migration card to fill in.

At the Belorussian border, a troop of soldiers clomped through the train and started checking everyone's papers. A severe female officer approached me and stuck out her hand for my passport. She flicked through the pages one by one and asked a question which I assumed was about the whereabouts of my visa. I reached out to direct her to the correct page, which she took offence to, shooing me away like a disapproving nanny.

Behind her, the other guards started rummaging in some bags stored behind my seat. Their owner came down from along the carriage and spoke timidly in accented English. He handed over his passport. "Kangaroo, kangaroo," piped the guards to each other in explanation.

My passport was handed back as focus shifted to the Australian. He seemed to be transporting all of his worldly possessions and attempted to explain that he was headed for Moscow. Finally deciding that he, nor anyone else on-board was a smuggler, the train pulled off and continued for another 3 hours to Minsk.


After 80% of Minsk was reduced to rubble during World War II, the Soviet Union used the process of reconstruction to stamp its ownership on the city. Walking the broad uniform boulevards today feels like treading in Stalin's bootprint.

The main avenue, pl Nezalezhnasti, is the city's spinal chord and runs from near the train station in a straight line probably all the way to Moscow. Along most of it, wherever an intersecting road caused a gap in the line of buildings, I could see my destination, the Hotel Belarus, standing out like a middle finger on the skyline.

With my navigation point fixed I couldn't get lost despite the best efforts of the cryptic Cyrillic street signs. Similarly easy to identify was the main square, Oktyabrskaya pl, one of these vast paved expanses ideal for incubating mass protest and attempted revolution. The square most recently hosted such a gathering around the 2006 election, when incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko controversially won 86% of the vote. Indeed, since then even Lukashenko himself has admitted the ballot was rigged - though he claims that to avoid suspicion, he altered the real result of 93.5% to a more realistic majority.

He still reigns from the Presidential Administrative Building opposite the square. Taking a picture of the bright pink yet somehow still austere office, a guard armed with a rifle and preposterously large hat barked something at me and marched over. "English English" I said, but not too anxiously. I'd just passed the British Embassy and knew it wasn't far to flee to seek asylum. He pointed at the camera and I showed him the picture I had just taken. He seemed satisfied that I hadn't captured his bad side. At least, he didn't shoot me in the back as I just turned and walked away.

I continued to my hotel along the narrow Svislach River which dissects the regimented streets in a defiantly meandering course. Not far away was number 4 vul Kamyunistychnaya, where Lee Harvey Oswald had resided exactly 50 years previously.

Oswald defected after serving in the US army and ended up working in a radio factory in Minsk. He changed his name to Alek, married a local girl called Marina, but according to letters he wrote, soon grew bored of the lack of nightclubs and bowling alleys so the young family emigrated to Dallas in 1962, where Marina still lives.

Apart from the shuttered windows, there was no sign that one of history's most significant figures had stayed here. A fancy clothing boutique 'La Dolce Vita' had opened next door. The apartment enjoyed views across leafy parkland to where the Svislach widens into a lagoon. Rowing boats could be hired and a couple of fishermen were casting off. Undoubtedly there would be great ice skating in the winter. It was a truly idyllic setting. No wonder Oswald had trouble readjusting to American life becoming both assassin and assassinated by the age of 24.

Already 25, I was feeling quite the underachiever as I approached my lodgings. The Hotel Belarus looked like it had been carved by a hammer and sickle from one giant block of concrete. The lobby was all brown leather and minimal lighting. Changing money at the counter felt like dealing in international espionage. My room on the sixth floor with its marmalade coloured sheets and paper lantern lampshades was a perfect time capsule from the Cold War that instinctively made me want to sweep it for hidden listening devices.

Outside you could see Oktyabrskaya pl in the distance, follow the grassy banks along the Svislach, and look down on the cars that swung into the hotel plaza. I aimed my camera and opened the window to take a better shot.


In Tallinn, the former KGB office is identifiable from the bricked up basement windows that breach street level. During the Soviet occupation, locals joked that it must be the tallest building in the world since you could see Siberia from the cellar.

In Vilnius, the tundra is tangible. Lithuania's KGB headquarters has been renamed the Museum of Genocide Victims. With interiors untouched since the Russians withdrew in 1990, there are displays and videos on the thousands of dissident men, women and children who were deported to Siberia. They were the lucky ones.

Downstairs is a city centre concentration camp. An endless corridor of cells, each revealing a different horror when you crouched to peer through the chest high hatches on the doors. Sacks of documents, shredded by the Russians to cover up the fate of countless missing persons. Interrogation rooms. Solitary confinement cells not much bigger than upright coffins, others with a small elevated platform in the middle barely large enough to stand on. The rest of the cell would have been flooded with water. As the prisoner tired and lost balance, they would collapse into the freezing water, or in winter through frozen ice, before having to climb back up for the the process to begin again. The heaviest door belonged to a soundproofed padded torture cell. A straitjacket stretched into a crucifix hung on the back wall. Most disturbing of all, a cell with a mirror that reflected the face of the visitor behind the bars, reminding you that the prisoners held here had not been dangerous criminals but only political dissenters.

At the heart of the complex, an cramp execution chamber hardly high enough to stand upright in where unknown numbers were shot or knifed through the skull. Bullet holes remain in the walls. A sign explains that there are thought to be at least 18 mass grave sites lying within 30km of Vilnius still to be uncovered.

In Minsk, the equivalent branch glows golden in the sunlight on pl Nezalezhnasti. Across the road is a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Bolshevik secret police - which evolved into the KGB - and proud son of Belarus.

Minsk - Edinburgh

In my nightmares, the writing is in Cyrillic and the currency is the Ruble. Belarus has a crazy exchange rate with one Belarusian Ruble worth around two pence and so every trip to the supermarket requires the numerical dexterity of a darts player to keep track of the thousands being spent.

Notes stuck to car windows advertising them for sale have figures that could easily be the contact telephone number or the asking price. Every purchase gives back reams of paper money in change. Thankfully there are no coins to further weigh down your pockets and in some water fountains, notes float on the surface like rich, dead fish.

I spent my time walking the streets of Minsk with a quarter of a million Rubles in my pocket but living on Pringles and water because I didn't know how much I would need to save for my train ticket back to Lithuania.

Breakfast at the hotel was a revolting affair. A choice of stale rolls, warm yogurt or a selection of hot dishes under silver platters that seemed to be consist of varying proportions of cabbage and potato. I went for the stale rolls and smothered them in watery butter, hoping it would last me the day.

That afternoon, once I had successfully bought my train ticket using no English, only charades, I couldn't get rid of the rest of my money away fast enough. I exchanged 200,000, getting one measly 20 Euro bill and even more Belarusian notes back to make up the remainder.

Gallantly, I looked for souvenirs or postcards but there were none. Not even any beggars or magazine vendors around the train station. There were only kiosks to buy food, but with every purchase my wad of change just grew thicker.

At the last confectionery stall before the train, I handed over my last thousands and motioned that the girl should give me as many pick 'n' mix sweets as I could afford. Grabbing my handfuls of brightly wrapped chocolates, I headed past Miss Knee High Boots, and onto the train.

I had the same money problems in Lithuania the next day, unable to buy food in case I needed the cash to get a taxi to the airport in Kaunas. For breakfast I was forced to eat one of the chocolates that I had aimed to keep as presents for my colleagues. The dark chocolate shell held a strange mixture of truffle and boozy fondant. At least I didn't feel like eating anything else after it. I knew my colleagues would be appreciative of their gifts.

I had not needed worry as the tourist bureau pointed me in the direction of the service bus that ran from the historic old town to a poorer suburb of the city that lies next to the airport, where every house has an old woman with a stall of vegetables out front and an old man watching them grow in the back with a goat keeping him company. A peaceful life interrupted only occasionally by the roar of a landing aircraft.

At least I was sure I was on the right bus when a few stops after I got on, a pilot with Ryanair togs got on and stood next to me. Before I could ask whether he was flying us to Edinburgh, I detected the distinctive smell of alcohol. Why was the pilot swaying even when the bus had stopped at lights? It didn't look like he had shaved today either. Whether it was a burst Belarusian chocolate liquor in my rucksack or a hungover pilot I never found out. All I know is we arrived back in Edinburgh half an hour ahead of schedule.


Flights (Ryanair) Edinburgh - Kaunas ?35.29

Hostelgate Vilnius - 36 Lithuanian Litas / ?9.45 per night dorm

Train from Vilnius to Minsk - 20,66 Lt / ?5.09

Visa - ?75 plus $15 processing fee, arranged by Belintourist

Hotel Belarus - ?35 per night twin room (breakfast included)


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