September 3, 2003 - Minsk 150k/93m***

4 September 2003
Minsk, Belarus
150km, 93 miles ***

Well, the crime in Belarus has been a bit disappointing – we haven’t been robbed or shaken down at all, except for the theft of my cell phone – but the “sex worker” thing seems for real. In relatively rural Barnavicy and even at the Minsk Hotel, where we’re staying tonight and arguably the nicest hotel in Minsk (and by extension Belarus), a guy is not safe. It’s probably safer to be a woman around here. More on this maybe later, for now it’s back to the bike action…

Today is organized by a few themes rather than in the usual sequential order.. To start the day thought, we had to roam Baranavicy to find an ATM as the hotel (the biggest and best in town) did not accept credit cards. That handled, we left Baranavicy in the cold on wet surfaces (again) and headed back to the M1 highway to Minsk. After a while the sun came up and the road dried, but there was not much of interest to photograph, so we took some of ourselves.

That’s Yuri (driving) and Alexandr in Yuri’s Lada along the highway.

Both Alexandr (ex-nuclear power plant technician, now bike shop worker and club VP) and Yuri (former captain in the Russian Army, served 20 years, now a pensioner) are nice guys. They want to take care of us a bit more than we want to be taken care of – especially Charlie. They have their ways, we have ours, and then there’s the language barrier. Yuri is lots of fun. He drives his Lada like a hot rod, listens to loud music and enjoys every moment of life. Alexandr is more serious. He understands some English, but he pretends he understands when he doesn’t so you’re never clear on the communication.

Here is Alexandr, close up. The red in his glasses is the reflection from my jacket. I was teaching him to use my camera so he could take action shots of Charlie and me. Mine didn’t turn out, but Charlie’s did:

One of the interesting things we’ve noted about Belarus is the truly small scale, rural nature of some of the capitalism. We’ve passed maybe a dozen people, usually little old ladies, sitting by the side of the road selling apples, potatoes, mushrooms and other produce from small baskets or buckets by the side of the road. Here’s one guy:

The next lady was at a rural bus stop with her commodities.

At an intersection in a forest by Stovicy (50km SW of Minsk) there was a mall – 3 ladies together. They turned away when I pulled out my camera – the first people to do so.

Note their bikes. Virtually all these roadside vendors rode to their chosen location.

Some other sights along the way…

This is the second major accident we’ve seen since entering Belarus. This one is on the M1 – the main/only significant road from Minsk to Moscow.

Now a rural village.

The homes in rural Belarus are mostly all single story, older structures, many of them made from logs with tin roofs. Tertiary roads (into the villages) are usually dirt, and except for immediately along the road, the houses seem somewhat randomly organized.

This is a typical road sign – virtually useless to me. It’s on the M1, the road we’ve been riding on much of the time – not bad, but a highway with little chance to experience local Belarus stuff. We get off it whenever we can.

That’’s a gas station from across the road at our lunch break at Stovicy – a central concrete strip with old pumps and old cars. Charlie and I also took a break when he got a flat. Here he is fixing it, with the road maintenance guy looking on.

The other bike in this photo, with the broom on the back, belongs to the road maintenance guy. I’m not clear on how much road he covers, maybe just the rest stop we were at and the one across the street, but he seems diligent about his work. This country may not have much money, but they don’t have much litter anywhere.

We also took a quick break at a bus stop on the P1, a 2 lane road that parallels the M1 much of the way between Baranavicy and Minsk.

That’s Yuri walking over to take a picture of me taking a picture of the break. The M1 is a 4 lane divided highway of varying quality – from world class to passable. The P1 has the same characteristics on 2 lanes. Much of it was very pretty.

Belarus is poor: the average monthly labor wage is $95, and given the 30% unemployment rate it barely adds up to a cash economy for most people. Everyone in the country seems to have fences around their property with gardens and animals inside.

We entered Minsk around 3:30PM. Here’s Charlie looking at the Minsk sign on the P1 SW of the city.

The place is clean and neat and VERY different from the rest of Belarus. It’s the only place we’ve seen with nice cars, nice hotels, nice stores, etc. Entering the town you pass dozens of absolutely huge (hundreds of feet long) 10 story tall apartment buildings. Then it gets to a more mixed environment, with old homes and buildings mixed in with newer ones. We came in and will leave on the same diagonal SW-NE road which in the center of town is called Praspekt Francyska Skaryny – named after the “national hero” who was the first printer to utilize a printing press in the old Slavonic and Belarus languages – hard not to like the value in that.

Minsk is the capital of Belarus and has 1.7 of the country’s 10 million people (for reference, Moscow alone has over 9 million). The city was completely, make that completely, destroyed in WWII and half the citizens lost their lives (including apparently every single Jew) when the Germans took the city and then the Russians took it back. It has some great museums and sights – unfortunately we will not get to see them this trip.

Charlie and I did get a chance to do a little walking tour. In the rebuilding, Minsk became the paradigm of soviet urban architecture. Every public building is imposing. Here are a few:

This is the President’s administration building and we have been encouraged not to take pictures too close by. Note that no one appears to be entering or leaving this massive 3 block by 1 block structure.

That’s the KGB building. They still call the building that, but I’m not clear if they call the “secret” police in Belarus that anymore. Again, no one seems to be coming or going

This is the Minsk Hotel, where we’re staying. This is a first class hotel, the best we’ve stayed in on this part of the trip. It is located mid-way between the two buildings above. I could go on here with another half dozen buildings, but everything on the main street is of grandeur. We didn’t get to explore the neighborhoods.

Walking just a block away from this main boulevard the city is much more approachable. Oh well. We did stop at the GUM department store and bought a couple shirts, some shoes and socks. By American standards, this place has 14 times (at least) the number of necessary employees. The men’s shoe department alone had more than a dozen – each one responsible for certain sizes (go to your size and pick the show, don’t go to the shoe and pick your size) plus the sock counter (2) and the 2 registers (2 each).

Last shots of the day: As mentioned in the Brest update, the department stores here are truly divided into departments, with all the merchandise behind counters or in little room-like merchandising areas. The GUM store even has a God department, staffed by a nun.

Here also is the cosmetics department, for interested female types (Alex?).

That’s it for Minsk, Belarus. Tomorrow is the shortest distance scheduled riding day in my touring history – about 45 miles.

9/4 11:31PM

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