It so happened that I had one-day stop in Minsk, Belarus. Located in-between Warsaw, Poland and Moscow, Russia, it has been a trade and transit route for centuries. Belarus is the only remaining post Soviet-block countries to run KGB, home to the ‘Silicon Valley of the Soviet Union’, and, it’s my home town.
Let’s go for a run? :)
Once, in the movie Swordfish (1999), John Travolta had something to say about Minsk
-- What country will harbor terrorists when they see the consequences?
-- Did you know I can buy nuclear warheads in Minsk for 40 million?
-- Hell, I buy half a dozen, I even get a discount.
While being utter nonsense, Belarus often ranks in top-10 world weapon exporters. In 1999 it ranked number three, after US and Russia, and that’s what compelled Hollywood to reference Minsk.
Mensk, Měnesk, Minsk - capital of Belarus. First recorded mentioning - 1067 AD. Population - 2,5 million or 30% of country population. Due to it’s location, every war and military conflict wiped the entire city out. Only a few historical landmarks remain intact today.
Word 'devastation' suddenly has absolutely different meaning. Minsk post-WWII.
Today, Alex my nephew, is accompanying me on this run. He is excited to go for a run with his ‘uncle Dennis’. I’m excited that I can pass the running bug to the next generation in the family.
Today we are testing these gadgets and gear:
- Older model of Garmin Forerunner 210, which I gave to Alex as a ‘starter-gps-watch’ for him to learn art of pace-keeping. Not the latest model, but its robust and proven.
- Newton Running shoes for both of us - best running gear to my knowledge. I’m using Gravity IV, Alex - Motion Stability.
- Fitbit Charge HR - my faithful companion in everyday life.
- Apple Watch - just because I gave it last chance in outdoor running on this trip. For music, mostly.
Our route will start near old Minsk Airfield, thru Independence Square and onto WWII Stella Monument. Yes, we’ll hit KGB buildings and other ‘classified buildings’ on the way.
Every time I visit Minsk I feel as if I travel back in time. Yes, many things have changed for better over the years. Streets are clean, you won’t see homeless in the city center, but the entire place resembles pre-Perestroika period. Military Academies, statues of Lenin and other political figures, references to the latest Second World War, which indeed shaped, both culture, and mindset of modern Belarus.
Belarus - remained an island of Soviet History in the heart of Europe with a glimpse of modern technologies.
First thing you notice - infrastructure. It is not as developed as anywhere else in the world. Your global coverage mobile plan is useless here. You’ll need to roam at a high surcharges or get a local carrier pay-as-you-go contract, which will require you to sign service agreement and present your passport data. Non-citizens pay elevated high rates.
If you want to connect to public WiFi at the Minsk-2 International Airport you’ll be asked to buy WiFi access card at a local post-office. You’ll need to have your passport with you. No passport - no WiFi.
Wonder why? Don’t ask. Many things in Belarus are over-regulated, and are not particular tourist-friendly. If you are a software developer - you’ll be in heaven, many things will remind you of code. But for the rest - procedures will exhaust you very quickly.
Want to get tourist visa at the airport? Get ready to cash out 250 euros for 2-week stay visa, and make sure you file your paperwork way in advance (what’s the point?). This is double the normal rate.
On top of that, all-non-citizens are required to purchase local medical insurance and register at local authorities as non-residents. For each day you stay - you’ll pay a fee or ‘tourist tax’. This tax is automatically included in all local hotel surcharges. Get used to paying ‘special’ rate for every service in Belarus.
No speeding! Very mindfull.
So, here we are. First stop - the outskirts of the city center, next to the main (and only) train station. The sign reminds us to watch our speed - this is very wise recommendation at this point. I gently remind my younger friend to keep it at 5 min/km or 8 min/mile. He’ll thank me for that later ;)
Several kilometers down the road and we hit what used to be called Lenin’s Square. Subway station still carries that name, but on the surface - its Independence Square, guarded by the statue of Lenin.
I don’t have time to take a picture of Lenin at first. Parliament building and statue are highly guarded even though you don’t see anyone. By the time we ran 200 yards, there were 2 guards right in front of us, asking - where are you going? Nice smile, polite ‘dzień dobry’ and pointing into the direction of the main road does the trick (I frequently speak Polish when I’m in Eastern Europe. Polish - is polite form of English in this part of the world. Works every time.) And we are free to continue.
It may seems funny, but people can get arrested at this very spot for trying to take pictures\selfies when being too close to the statue. Disrespect to the President (yes, President, not president) and state symbols is considered felony and punishable by imprisonment.
But my nephew and I are not into politics - we are runners. So, we carry on (later in the run, at night I had my second chance ;) ).
We cross the ‘ploscha’ and we are at the main strip of Minsk. It goes from Independence Square all the way toward International Airport, which is 40 km away. Its the longest strip of the city tarmac you’ll find in Belarus. But don’t be surprised - midnight racers are rare visitors here.
I notice how empty the place is at this arly hour. Its close to 9:30 pm, sunset is another 40 minutes away (we are up north, compared to Bay Area), outside temperature just dropped to comfortable 70F, yet - not many cars or people. Let’s see if this changes on our route.
I often tell my friends - Minsk is the birthplace of KGB. Of course it is not. But it is the only state of the Soviet block that kept the name and tradition intact.
Here, I give you - KGB Headquarters of Belarus. Does anyone has any desire to walk up those stairs and ring the bell? I hear the entry is free of charge ;)
History of KGB in Belarus has been quite eventful in the past 80 years. It is the place many consider an honor to work for and it is a privilege if you’re invited for an interview. Back in 1995 I passed on this opportunity. Till this very day I wonder at times, what my life would be like, if I took an offer from KGB, after Soviet Union collapsed and Belarus lived thru it’s short renaissance?
We are approaching GUM. Not gum - GUM. Government Universal Marketplace. GUM. These were built in all 15 capitals of the former Soviet Union. For decades it was the pinnacle of soviet commerce. GUM in Moscow - is must-to-see attraction, placed right next to Red Square. Shopping Mall Soviet style.
We turning from the main strip to what used to be called Masherov Prospect. Masherov was the most memorable mayor of Minsk in 197x-8x. His life ended when his limousine collided with a truck under strange circumstances. Years later, his daughter ran for President, at which time the name of this street was changed to Prospect of Freedom. However she now holds position in Parliament.
McDonald's with classic non-domestic ‘green’ logo. Don’t be surprised - McDonald's outside of US are like that. Green vs red.
Prospect of Freedom - used to be my favourite promenade. Today it is popular place for various activities, such as bike and roller skating meetups. Belarus is pro-Sport in a major way. Biatlone, skiing, tennis, hockey - just to name a few of many other disciplines where Belarus athletes excel.
And we pass a lot of youngsters on skate boards, roller skates and bikes.
Palace of Sport - an old building from the Soviet days, surrounded by newly constructed ‘skyscrapers’.
Minsk sits on soft clay, so you won’t find ultra-tall buildings. Anything above 30 stories - is a skyscraper here.
Another example of mordern box-like architecture. Red accents.
We are at the mid-point of our run - WWII Monument ‘Heroic City of Minsk’ and WWII Museum. This landmark - is the place where most wedding processions stop to take pictures. Behind this 40-year old monument - modern, dome-shaped WWII Museum. But tonight - BMX bikers rule the place.
Plenty of parks and bike routes in the city center. Nice!
Few know - during cold war, behind these buildings millitary deployed radiointerference systems to prevent people from listeing to the western radio stations. We listened anyway - but had to get away from this location as far as possible.
Here we take another turn - via electronic assembly plant (Minsk used to be known for its micro-electronics) and directly to the Victory Square.
Happy and not tired yet ;)
The toughest part is ahead of us, it’s uphill from here to the finish line - I hope my young runner has plenty fuel in his reserves!
Thru the Circus Arena, directly to yet another ‘box’ building - Palace of Republic. Place, where zero-kilometer mark, geographical midpoint of Europe, is placed. Of course, Minsk is not in the center of Europe, not even Polotsk. Back in 1990ies - it was a way to attract tourists and raise awareness about Belarus in the world.
Many surrounding countries claim to be the ‘center of Europe’, but I’m not convinced in the entire concept.
Another turn, and we are approaching Presidential Palace. Surprised? Don’t be. Presidential Palace, Palace of Republic, and Parliament form ideal triangle and are within walking distance. This is what forms ‘City Center’ and here we are, running thru most guarded place in the entire country. Zero traffic. Zero people. But fear not - we are being closely watched.
Central Soccer Stadium “Dinamo’, and cheerful ad alongside the road - ‘Your safety and security is in the right hands’.
Belarus is absolute world leader when it comes to militia and police personnel - 1,500 per every 100,000. US, for example, is 250 per 100,000. Number of militia and police is twice the size of Belorussian military and army forces. I should feel safe back home.
Beautiful example of Stalin’s architecture style. These buildings were the first ones to be restored post-WWII. Just like in Warsaw, Pałac Kultury i Nauki, locals rarely talk about these structures.
In post-war period, when many people were affected by food shortages, these iconic communist buildings served as propaganda.
Many jokes floated around - that every person who arrived into Minsk via train was photographed from these towers. Undoubtedly, not true. But you won’t trust me on this. Right? )
But at night, it sure look cool.
Several more turns and we are back at the Independence Square - now I can take a shot of Vladimir Ilyich. Statue of Lenin was originally placed here in 1934, prior to Stalin's repressions. And sure enough - it is here today. Next to it - State and Pedagogical Universities.
Minsk is home to 31 universities and colleges. So, don’t be surprised when you see Belarus in top 3 Google Code Jam winners by country, right next to China and Russia.
Last few kilometers, last overpass. Alex is low on fuel. Me - I was glad I had a chance to run with him. We had lots of fun together. People are friendly. Sites are beautiful. If you like travel back in time - come and visit Belarus. It won’t be an easy travel, but you’ll learn to appreciate this place and its history. Bring that passport with you! )
As for me - I was glad to board the plane next morning, while looking at the aging aircrafts next to Minsk International Airport.