From the moment I contacted the tourist office to book my accommodation, to the moment I left for Kiev the local folk of Belarus were fantastic. Actually that’s not entierly true but there were two exceptions…
Getting a visa is far easier than I had been led to believe. With the correct tourist voucher (provided by the Belarus Tourist Agency) two trips to London and 34 pounds you’ll be in Business.
I arrived at the Belarussian border at 7am on Thursday morning to find a bunch of small huts and a bunch of large guys wearing impossibly large hats.
Admittedly, having read too many horror stories about border crossings in this corner of the world I was a bit nervous. However, there’s a certain buzz to that feeling and it makes traveling that little bit more exciting. Also, the feeling is almost always misplaced and this was certainly the case here. Yes they did insist on checking all our bags but, these guys weren’t in the mood for detaining balding English travelers and after patting my bag, a few words in Russian (or Belarusian?) followed by “OK!” and I was back on the bus and heading to Grodno.
Grodno is a regional center situated in the north-west of Belarus. It’s also one of the few places that has some buildings that survived the second world war. The journey there took me past many small villages and Fields with Christmas tree hedges and we arrived exactly on time and the bus station was exactly where it shows on the map.
Unfortunately for me the local populations grasp of English is no better than my grasp of French. What’s more, my ‘centrally located’ hotel was anything but centrally located and I had no idea where it was. nlike the bus station it was not on the map. However, a quick call to Svetlana at the tourist agency soon had the girl in post office onside and 5 minutes later a taxi arrived to save the day. The driver was old but very funny, he cranked up the funniest pop song I’ve ever heard and dropped me off with a big handshake and a tiny fare.
Hotel Tourist in Grodno is a beauiful concrete affair about 2km out of town and not really close to anything of use or interest. The receptionist were failrly friendly though and, we managed just enough hand gestures and face expressions to get me my room and a cold drink.
My two days in Grodno were good but not great, they also caused meto re-think my stay in Belarus and cancel my two days in Gomel in the south. Whilst the place is OK and the cathedral is well worth visiting the lack of tourists and therefore any tourist infrastructure does make life slightly difficult, especially when traveling alone. I also felt like a dumb illiterate since I can’t read Cyrillic and couldn’t talk to anyone. It’s a friendly place though and it is good to see an average Belarusian city in action. I also enjoyed Russian dubbed Postman Pat, Inspector Gadget, a documentary about ‘Planes that never flew’ and an embarrassing documentary about the British drinking culture!. Enough to make anyone need a beer.
Food was normally accompanied by George Michael and Whitney Huston and each night I was treated to a random phone call from a local girl who, I guess wanted to offer a few local services. That is until she realized she’d have to offer them in English! Repeat Hello three times and I guarantee they’ll hang up. Also, check the pictures (when I put them up) of my telephone – it was great.
So, on Saturday morning I left for Minsk and the journey therewas an experience in itself. Unsure what Svetlana meant by “Maxi Taxi” I happily accepted an offer from the first shady looking guy who whispered ‘Minsk?’ in my ear. I managed to negotiate a 15 dollar price which rested on him finding another 3 people to fill his taxi (aka personal un-registered car). Thankfully he found 3 others. A big old guy and his wife and a young guy in a tracksuit. The big guy spoke a little English and they all seemed confident that our driver was OK. They were right and after two hours of questionable driving I was dropped off on the doorstep of Hotel Orbita – another concrete beauty 🙂