Minsk!

Minsk, even the name sounds exotic faraway and Russian, as though it needs a journey full of adventure just to arrive at its gates… Sadly the roads in Belarus are so good the only adventure you’re likely to have getting to Minsk is trying to read the signposts, well that’s what we thought….

We decided to take the back roads from Mir to Minsk and as our map lists all the tarmac roads we chose a tarmac B road that went through the beautiful countryside. The road was virtually deserted and wound its way through hamlets full of wooden houses, wells and vegetable and flower gardens, much nicer than following the motorway. It gradually got narrower and narrower and then, turning into a dirt track, entered the gates of Mordor with the rain pouring down and the light fading as we started into the forest. Taffy rolled like we were at sea as we crawled along the now muddy track and the trees started stroking the sides of the van like Goblins reaching out to snare us. By now turning Taffy round was nearly impossible and Linda valiantly counted down the distance remaining inside Mordor before we hopefully hit the asphalt again. We were only a few hundred meters from emerging when a car came the other way, he bumped off into a small clearing and waving us down said the road was flooded further on and we’d have to turn back! Easier said than done!

Mike turned Pearl around in the clearing and then we reversed back toward it and did a 10 point turn with Mike and Linda checking the ground clearance and trees for me. Our helpful motorist was a teacher who had been trying to get to the nearby town and he now insisted we follow him setting us on a more solid gravel and sand road which was slow and noisy to drive on but wide enough to land a small plane on! The detour took us about an hour and when we eventually joined our original road less than a kilometer from where we turned around the rain was pouring down and I’d hate to think what state the first road, let alone email the flood was in by then.

We joined the M25 equivalent around Minsk to be treated to some seriously stupid driving, crowned by the car that careered along a slip road to join the motorway before losing control on the bend, hitting the crash barrier and bouncing back into our lane directly in front of us. We’d actually anticipated this as waterlogged roads, bald tyres and mad drivers are not happy bedfellows so we’d slowed down to give him room to crash without taking us with him. Fortunately he only seemed shaken up.

Adventure over then, errr nope. We arrived at Andrés house who is one of the Perestroika agents here and had kindly allowed us to use his garden as a campsite and Taffy promptly disappeared into the new laid sand on his drive. Que a 30 minute dig in the now torrential rain for Linda Mike and Jon and we eventually emerged and parked up on his brickweave drive instead being immediately treated to his homemade moonshine which was delicious and just what the doctor ordered. Andréa works in the city and the next day took us on a whistle-stop tour of the main sites before dropping us off to explore on our own. Minsk is not what you’d call picturesque, it has a tiny old town which is mainly a church and a few buildings around it, but is largely a fine example of soviet city planning – wide streets (full of noisy traffic), huge imposing buildings and sadly we thought little warmth or character. It does boast some nice eateries though and we had lunch at the Grand cafe, a sort of Ritz of Minsk and then an evening drink at bar London, a quirky little Vegetarian bar with, unsurprisingly, a London theme.

The Minsk environs are actually more interesting than the city and we visited a fascinating rural life museum and The Stalin Line, not some offshoot of the metro but a pre war fortification full of tanks and planes etc as well as numerous trenches and bunkers. In true Russian style you could fire all sorts of guns some of which were so loud they set car alarms off everytime and made you jump out of your skin. This seemed to appeal most to the small kids, some of whom were smaller than the guns that they fired. Interestingly enough you could also drive a tank, but this seemed less appealing to the visitors, mind you the thought of some of the drivers here being let loose in 28 tonnes of T34 tank is not pleasant to say the least.

Having spent a couple of days parked up by a lake we moved on to Katyn, not the infamous Katyn where 30000 Polish officers were massacred by the Russians, but a namesake memorial created by the Soviets (possibly to distract the world from their crime) to the thousands of Belarussians who perished at Nazi hands. The memorial is moving as it’s set in the grounds of one of the numerous villages the Germans wiped out completely leaving only the brick chimney stacks remaining standing and one survivor, who is portrayed carrying his dead son away in a huge sculpture at the centre. It is horrific and superb reminder of the horrors of war as well as being one of the few monuments in Belarus that don’t seem to glorify “The Great Patriotic War”. We actually camped in the car park here overnight and it seemed to me an earie and sad experience.

Our final farewell to Belarus was a quick overnight stop in the lovely city of Vicebsk where the centre is a mix of Stalinesque squares and an old European style pedestrianised street lined with bars and cafes. The Cathedral dominates the city from a hilltop overlooking the river and seemed to have a conveyor belt of weddings pouring out of it every 20 minutes or so, great fun to watch!

We’ve really enjoyed Belarus, the people are friendly, the main roads excellent, it has a few lovely towns, some very interesting historical sites to visit and the countryside is gorgeous. Its not a popular choice for Brits with only 4000 of us going a year, but if they could sort out the border crossing and add a few camp sites this could become a very popular place with motorhomers.

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