Minsk and the Rest of the Trip
Our perhaps most exotic destination (if anything in the former Soviet Union can be defined as exotic) was probably Minsk. At least Belarus was the only country that we needed a visa for. I did not really know what to expect from Minsk. I heard very different views from people who have been there, both that it was quite sleepy to that it was far above expectations. What I did not expect however was the quite beautiful city that we met. I think I had pictured more of a fairly grey city with post War communist buildings. Minsk was however a mixed city in terms of architecture and a very green and clean city with many nice areas. Even the suburbs that we went through were well maintained and did not the give the depressing impression that so many of the suburbs from the Soviet era do.
Basically, we spent the entire day just walking around the city and looking at different sites. Unlike most other places around the former Soviet Union, Minsk has kept all the names of place and all the statues from before the independence, and hence, we found both the Communism Street, the Engle Street and a Lenin statue. We ate well and the local beer was good. The only bizarre thing were prices, which due to inflation now reaches quite high numbers, and thus we had dinner one evening for over 100.000 rubles (about € 30).
The people we saw seemed to do ok, though I have to say that the EU fashion has not really come to Minsk yet. It reminded me a bit of Finland in the early 1990s, with kids in heavy metal t-shirts and torn jeans. Quite a few Western brands had however reached Minsk (including Mc Donald’s of course), but there were less adds and billboards and smaller, more discrete signs on the shops. Jonas and I agreed that it was really nice to see the actual city instead of it being covered with names of brands and shops. People, especially adolescents) seemed to meet up by the river in the evening with a couple of bottles of something and just hang out. We saw some restaurants and bars, but there seemed to be less than in Chisinau for example, so I guess having a few drinks by the river was a good alternative.
Except for the limited advertising and the overly clean city, it was difficult to see the impacts of the political system during the short time that we spent there. In the kiosks, I saw some of the foreign magazines such as Elle, Cosmo and National Geographic, but I am not sure if they had any of the more political magazines. I also wanted to use the internet at the hotel one day and even though I pre-paid for the internet time in cash and I could only access the wireless in the lobby, they still wrote down my room number very thoroughly and saved it on the computer. I couldn’t help but wondering if they traced that traffic. And speaking of traffic, there was very little traffic on the roads outside of Minsk, and especially on the way up towards Lithuania, where we barely saw any cars at all.
A somewhat more patriotic poster than we are used to in the EU…
During the drive between Minsk and Vilnius, the country changed a bit. It seemed poorer and the houses and the grounds were less maintained, but I haven’t verified if this was a correct observations. Just before the boarder, we stopped for coffee in a little town. The town seemed lively enough, but we could not find a single restaurant or canteen, even when we asked people there, and the closest thing to a café that we found was a mini-market that served coffee and that had a few tables inside. People were really nice and asked us were we were from, but I have never seen a place in Europe were time seemed to have stand still in the way that it did there. Though people did not seem to wear old clothes, I got flashbacks to the 1980s and it was like the past 20s years had completely escaped this part of country – like modern communication had not quite reach all the way there. The town itself did not seem to have undergone a lot of changes either. A Lenin statue was still standing outside the Town Hall and the small stores probably looked exactly like they did during the Soviet Union, though with a bit more products on the shelves.
Crossing the boarder to Lithuania was easer than expected. Above all, I was really surprised that no-one checked our trunk neither when we left Belarus nor when we entered the EU. We could have brought whatever we wanted across the boarder. For the trucks trying to drive across the boarder, it was a different story, and we passed kilometres of trucks standing in a non-moving queue, waiting to cross. It is insane!
Entering Lithuania was like coming home. Everything seemed so familiar. It is quite interesting that so much in the EU is being harmonized and how visible this is, in everything from infrastructure to brands and chains. The flows of goods and services across the boarders help this mainstreaming of course. And I have to admit that it was a relief to return to the use of the Latin alphabet!
Vilnius was very nice; beautiful and with a nice pace. We enjoyed it very much, and walked around the city the whole day. I would like to go back one day and spend some more time there.
The morning after we drove up to Riga, had lunch and a two-hour walk, and then took the ferry back to Stockholm in the evening. And Tuesday morning, we drove ashore in Frihamnen in Stockholm. After over 4000 km in Eastern Europe. Though it will probably take a while to process all my impressions, I have to say that it was probably one of my more interesting journeys that I have done so far. It was fantastic to discover another part of Europe, especially one that is so close to Sweden.
On our way to Stockholm