Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Trip to Minsk, Belarus

The small country of Belarus is a neighbouring country of Russia and a member of the ex-Soviet Union.  Now a close trading partner with Russia, the culture of Belarus is closely interwoven with that of Russia.  People here speak Belarusian (pronounced "Bella-Russian") or the language of its neighbour, Russian.

I had a unique opportunity to visit the city of Minsk, Belarus this past month.  A part of our companies software team is located there and the door was open for me to visit.

A visa is required for Canadians to visit Belarus.  With an invitation letter in hand, a completed business visa application form, my passport and $60 Euros, I submitted my visa application.  In less than a week I had the visa in hand.

It's a bit of an intimidating experience going to a country where everything you're accustom to is foreign.  Language, currency, cultural customs, even the alphabet!  Forget about trying to read street signs, or trying to direct a taxi driver to an address...the Russian alphabet is completely different.  Communication is almost impossible.  Fortunately, my colleagues in Belarus read, write and speak almost perfect english and could bridge the gap.

After a very long set of flights, I arrive in Belarus.  Ottawa -> Toronto -> Amsterdam -> Belarus.  Approximately 24 hours of travel.  A long layover in Amsterdam makes for a few minutes of shut-eye in a coffee shop.

Belarus is an interesting place.  Like any culture, the people are friendly when you connect with them.  But like some places, there seems to be an outward culture that is very cool.  It's a place that some might find unfriendly.  People in the streets don't smile as they pass.  Faces are stern and seem quite abrupt.  Even hotel staff seem abrupt.  If I were to have experienced only the outward side of this place, I would walk away with a feeling of being unwelcome.  Fortunately for me, that was not the case.

Over the week that I was there, we worked long days in the office but had plenty of time to socialize with lunches and dinners.  My host and friend, Alexei introduced me to the many varieties of Belarusian vodka and cuisine.  In that order!

Minsk, a city of about 2 million people, is one of the cleanest cities I have ever visited.  I thought Canadian cities were clean but in Minsk you will be challenged to find a cigarette but on the ground, never-mind garbage.  People just don't litter.  Everywhere you might be walking you'll find a garbage pail and a receptacle for cigarette butts.

During my stay in Minsk, I am told stories of a frightful past.  The world's worst nuclear disaster happened only 400kms from here at Chernobyl.  While the world was focused on Chernobyl, the winds spread radiation over the southern portion of Belarus.  Today, this land is a nuclear wasteland.  Cities stand in ruins, completely uninhabited.  Safe passage is declared on some roads but citizens are not to wander off the "high ground" or else risk suffering radiation poisoning.  Many who failed to leave this area died of various forms of cancer.  On my next visit, I hope to photograph the area.

The city is growing rapidly; construction is everywhere.  I expected to see a somewhat depressed economy by world standards, but what I found was something that was thriving.  The signs of communist poverty are still present and visible in the buildings and infrastructure, but one can see that change is afoot.

Religion and the bonds of marriage are strong here.  Mostly a mix of Orthodox and Roman Catholic, people can be seen in any of the open churches, praying by candlelight.

Stepping out of the city, the countryside of Belarus is very similar to that of Eastern Ontario.  Roads cut between acres of green farmer fields creating beautiful open vistas.  Blue skies, warm sun, and a cool breeze made touring this area a pleasant way to spend a Sunday.

A trip to a historic village gives us a chance to experience the Belarus of the past.  One where everything was prepared by manually by crude machine or by hand.  Alexei tells us that in many of the rural villages it is still done this way.

A great visit, a great team and I look forward to a return before long.

1 comment:

  1. Don't you ever stay home??
    Really liked the shots of the old guard which is what we would have pictured during the cold war when the Russians were supposedly the evil empire (guess not). The farm land pics are similar to Ontario and believe it or not some of the farmers around still like to do things the old fashioned way!! Please take me instead of Barb when you get to go to the moon ok? Tom W