May 8, 2014
Saturday I had breakfast in the hotel as I had every other day. The buffet was included in the room rate, and there was a wide variety of things to eat on it, so I saw no reason to venture farther afield. I usually stuck to the fresh fruit and yogurt section, supplemented with the cheese and cold meat section and perhaps a “5 minute egg” (what I’d call hard boiled). A couple times I had “health flakes with nuts” and “pillows with filling” from the well-stocked cereal section. There was also an omelet station, a salad section, baked goods, hot meats, juices, and probably a few other things I’m not remembering.
After a leisurely breakfast, I met my guide for the day in the hotel lobby. He was the same guy who’d taken me around Wednesday night; this time he’d brought his wife along. They’re moving to the States this summer, and he wanted her to practice her English. Our first stop was an open air aircraft museum on the outskirts of Minsk. The weather was quite pleasant, so it was a nice day to walk around. I couldn’t read any of the signs but it was interesting nonetheless to see the various Soviet and other aircraft. I even got to sit in a helicopter.
Then we were off to the Hill of Glory even farther outside of town. I was told the manmade hill this monument stands on includes earth from various cities and battlefields important in the Great Patriotic War (what a Westerner such as myself might just lump in with World War II). It’s quite an impressive sight, with four massive bayonets topping the monument. The stairs that wind around the hill would not pass muster in the litigious U.S., what with having no handrails at all, yet everyone seemed to be able to get up and down them just fine, even the children. Imagine that. We spent a little time at the top, admiring the monument and the view, before heading back down to the car. We ended up getting trapped in the parking lot for a few minutes due to the arrival of a motorcycle rally, one of the support vehicles for which was a Cadillac Escalade kitted out with Harley Davidson graphics. That’s something I didn’t expect to see in Belarus, for sure.
Asked what I’d like to do next, I mentioned the Stalin Line, which seemed like a nice companion piece to the memorial and which I’d heard the guys from Purple Systems talk about, but my guide wasn’t into it. He said we’d seen planes and tanks already and asked if I’d like to go to the zoo. I hadn’t even realized that was an option, focused as my research was on the things that make Minsk different from other places I’d been. But I like animals, and figured the zoo would give me a peek into a different part of city life, so the zoo it was. We picked up my guide’s two youngest children on our way back to the city, so it was quite the family outing, with special bonus foreign lady. The kids spoke just a little English, so I didn’t get to interact with them very much outside of smiling and pointing at the exhibits. I was taken aback by how many people were feeding bread to the animals; I understand it’s not technically allowed but the rule against it didn’t seem to be enforced at all. At least I didn’t see anyone giving the animals cotton candy or other sweets. At this point, it was getting rather warm, so we didn’t try to see every last corner of the zoo but stuck to what the kids most wanted to see, which was fine by me. On our way out, we went through a hall of mirrors, a fun added attraction.
At this point, my hosts offered to take me out to lunch, but I begged off, saying I would like a rest and besides I’d already taken up so much of their weekend family time. I think they were okay with that; at any rate, they dropped me at the hotel, where I did take a short rest and have a snack before changing into serious walking shoes and heading out to explore on my own. I walked up to one of the main streets and explored some shops, including the GUM department store, where I failed to put my bag from another store into a locker before I entered one of the secure areas and had two security guys swoop in on me speaking Russian very fast. I apologized fast in English and opened my bags for their inspection and they talked to each other and then waved me on. I put my bag in the next locker I saw, that’s for sure. After shopping, I walked some more, admiring the architecture old and new.
I happened upon a metro stop, and since riding that and checking out the station decor was on my list, down the steps I went. I found the token window no problem and held up four fingers to get four tokens, but didn’t know how much they cost and there was no cash register display to read, so there was some confusion until the token seller typed what I owed into her calculator and held it up for me to see. Transaction complete, I proceeded to the turnstiles and put one of the pink plastic discs in the slot and the light turned green and I was through. (I’d already studied other people going through so saw there was no need to retrieve the token to get out at the end of my journey.) I didn’t realize it at the time, but this particular station was the one where both metro lines cross, so it was mostly luck that got me on the train heading in the direction I’d decided I wanted to go—out toward the office I’d been working in so I could check out that neighborhood some more. I actually managed to get off at the station I wanted to, though I wasn’t entirely sure until I came up from underground and saw familiar buildings. I stopped at a little shop to get a snack, then walked and walked—first in one direction past apartments and some sort of military barracks and a forest and a church, then in the other through a large park and more apartments and then an office complex. I had the idea there was a cemetery farther in that direction that I wanted to see, but there was a big construction site in the way with no clear path around it, so rather than get lost and possibly end up walking somewhere I shouldn’t, I went back to the metro station I’d originally gotten off at.
Since the main train station was not too far from my hotel, that’s where I took the metro to. I arrived just after sunrise, which is too bad from a photo taking perspective but the station still looked pretty lit up against the night sky. I walked back to the hotel and dropped off my bags, then headed back out for a little while more; I made a stop at the mall, and the grocery, and just soaked up more of the sights of Minsk at night. As I had all trip, I kept seeing banners and signs and other tie-ins with the International Hockey Championship, which Minsk is hosting in May.
Next time, as you probably already guessed: Sunday.