Thursday, June 26th, 2014: Considering the night before, the rest was glorious however with Rita’s father already on his way over to the hotel to pick us up, we quickly took a shower, got changed, and headed out to the lobby where we saw once more the familiar SUV. The day’s plan was mainly to do sight seeing however this would primarily entail one location in particular: the Mirsky, or Mir, castle. And so driving along the seemingly endless highways and roads, along with the quick stop to purchase wild mushrooms and blueberries, we eventually made the hour long journey to the castle. Overlooking a small village/town, the castle remained somewhat quiet to the extent that we were not even entirely sure if the location was in fact opened. Luckily, especially considering the long distance, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was indeed open and so after casually strolling through the gift shop along with some of the towers and even the dungeon, we began our guided tour of the castle. Now keep in mind the tour is an hour and a half and it’s all in Russian so graciously Rita’s father, Vitali, got me an audio guide which did account for much of the information in English, a tool which at least partially helped me to follow along.
Essentially while the castle was initially commissioned and began construction under a rather successful noblemen and commander, his family, the Ilyinichs, died out before the actual completion of the castle and so was passed down instead to the Krzysztof family which began the long back and forth between different warring kingdoms. It is in this way that perhaps Mirsky is a good example of the history of Belarus as a whole: whether it was the Polish, the Latvians, the Germans, or the Russians, the castle for nearly three centuries appeared to exchange hands numerous times. This included, by the way, World War II, whereby the Soviet Union grabbed hold of it, followed by the Germans in 1941 which in fact used the location as a ‘ghetto’ for some of the local Jewish population, only to be reclaimed once more by the Red army. And considering such a turbulent history, like much of Belarus, a great deal of the castle had to be rebuilt however as the tour guide let us know, since the ‘sheep head’ (which was actually just a rock which looked vaguely like a sheep head) was still in its rightful place within the walls, the castle would continue to stand. And so a long hour and a half later we recollected ourselves, quickly grabbed some souvenirs, and once more hit the road, this time for some lunch.
A small road side restaurant was our destination of choice and so after placing our order (primarily Shashlyk, which is very similar to kebabs), we took a site in small cabin like booths which looked out into the woods and forests beside us. A very scenic location, Vitali began showing some pictures of his family before I tried to reciprocate by pulling out my phone and flipping through some of our photos during the course of our trip in Moscow & St. Petersburg. Amused and always smiling, the meal eventually came to which I gladly stuffed myself with (after all, I was basically ravenous after having little to nothing to eat for breakfast) before loading ourselves into the SUV once more and driving back into Minsk. Apparently some automated toll roads had been recently set up by a Swiss company, an annoyance which particularly frustrated the family because while the roads appeared to remain the same quality, now the costs were far greater, a thought which appeared to emerge several times during my trip. Whether it was inflation or even just basic services like the highway, it seemed as though all too often things were becoming ever more expensive yet the quality of services provided by the state or the economy remained the same, if not worse. Now beginning to reenter the city, we make our way back to the hotel where I decide to stay for a bit, not only to work on this blog but indeed to watch a bit of the US-Germany game (which, while a loss, definitely did not disappoint). Yet the time quickly grew upon me to go and meet up with Rita as well as her old high school friend, Ksenia, and so gathering myself together, I marched out of the hotel. The military parade, or at least practise for the parade, had just begun.
Without really planning for it, our trip was taking place about a week before Independence day. The holiday marking the end of WWII and thus independence of Belarus, it is particularly important not only because it was the 70th anniversary but indeed, as briefly mentioned before, Belarus had been occupied by the Germans followed by the Russians, a struggle which had greatly devastated and nearly razed the city of Minsk as a whole. It is perhaps this history which makes accusations of fascists in Kiev all that more pressing for indeed, between Russia and Belarus, millions of soldiers let alone families were maimed and killed. This included Rita’s own family as the grandmother apparently accounts a story of hiding from Nazi’s in the woods with her little brother however the parade itself was both impressive and disheartening. Indeed I have definitely never seen anything like it as tanks rolled down major streets, soldiers lined just about every 10 meters, and even jets flew overhead however such an expense, especially for a country like Belarus, seemed like a poor idea. With an average monthly wage of about $600-$800, there surely must be better ways to utilize this money, from updating infrastructure to investing in further education or human capital more broadly. I was running late however and so walking as quickly as possible without attracting people’s attention (after all, at least from what I had heard, you really did not want to get noticed by the military during these events, particularly as an American), I made my way to the central square and once more met up with Rita. After waiting a bit for Rita’s friend, the meeting location was changed and so after hopping into a cab and getting ripped off on the price since we had spoken english in the taxi, we eventually reach ‘Friends’ where Ksenia was smiling and waiting for us.
A gigantic restaurant/brewery/bar, it was the first place either in Russia or Belarus that I found where ‘craft beers’ could be found. Indeed even asking Toly about craft beers in Moscow had slightly confused him and so delighted by the rather delicious hefeweizen, we began to catch up and become acquainted over some herring as well as a traditionally Belarusian soup. It was a long night so perhaps going into all of it here is probably not the best use of time or space (just feel free to ask me in person) however Rita’s friend worked as an economist for an energy firm, whereby she was well acquainted with Russia frequently providing funds to build power stations in Belarus and in return, being able to utilize them for decades to come, a mixture of intentions which seemed not quite generous so much as self interested. Furthermore I learned a bit about Belarusian cigarettes: basically, about a year or two ago, Luschenshenko (the ruler and “Last Dictator of Europe”) had wanted Belarus to become more independent and so had proclaimed that all cigarettes needed to be made within Belarus. Thus when I offered her a pack of Marlboro Lights, she appeared thrilled and quickly paused from her usual cigarette of choice, ‘Glamour’. And so, after watching Russia tie with Algeria in the World Cup, we eventually settled our bill, even discussed Crimea for a brief second, before finally grabbing a cab and making our way back to the hotel. And so ends day 8 of this 10 day travel blog, almost done (thank God, this has been charming and all but definitely ready to be done). Thanks for reading and be sure to catch day 9, featuring the actual birthday party for Rita’s father, sight seeing in Minsk, and discussions on Slipknot. Till then.