Thursday, September 29, 2016

Stalin Line Tour, Belarus

After Zaslavi, we drove 6 km (3,5 miles) near the village of Loshany to visit the Stalin Line.

This is an open-air museum that opened in 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, or what here is known as the Great Patriotic War.

The Stalin Line was line of fortifications built in the 1920s along the Soviet Union's western border.  The concrete bunkers and pillboxes were meant to defend against an attack from the west.

When Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland, the USSR's western border expanded westward so the decision was made to abandon this line and create another along the new border.

Most of the guns were removed and placed in storage while the construction on the new line commenced.  Big mistake... because when Germany invaded in 1941, the new line wasn't completed and with the Stalin Line in disrepair it provided little defense.

There are several tanks, helicopters, and other military vehicles on display.  There's even an ICBM.  The museum is popular with the kids.

It's also popular with the big kids because adults have the opportunity to fire weapons.

Here's one thing that I didn't expect.  While we were waiting for the tour to start, I noticed a few chaps who gave off a certain "KGB wannabe".  They just had "that look".

Go figure that later on we find out that the Belarus KGB was having a function here.  Who would have thought that I would get to witness part of a Belarusian KGB graduation ceremony?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Zaslavi, Belarus

On the way to the Stalin Line, our tour group made a stop at the small town of Zaslavi.  It is about 20 km (13 miles) northwest of Minsk.

At more than 1,000 years, Заслaўе is one of the oldest towns in Belarus.  It was founded in 985 and has a population just over 15,000.

Dima talking about the town's history
The town was founded by Vladimir the Great when he banished his wife, Rogneda, and son, Izyaslav, to live here.  The town's name comes from the son.

During the Reformation, this was a hub for Calvinists.  The town's main site is the Saviour Transfiguration Church.  It was built in 1577 and was the primary Calvinist church.
Ruins of the old castle gate

Like most towns in Belarus, all of the old Soviet-era statues and monuments are still visible.  Here, Lenin still stands in front of the town hall.

St. Mary's Church

Our guide today was Dima.  He studied in Prague for a couple of years so I actually got to speak Czech today.  I think it really confused some of the Russian tourists today why the Belarusian guide and the American were speaking Czech.  I have to say, it did feel good to be able to speak it.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Mir Castle & Nesvizh Palace Tour, Belarus

Today was a ten tour day trip, around 270 km (168 miles), to Mir Castle and the Nesvizh Palace.

Mir Castle is in the town of Mir, southwest of Minsk.  Some duke began construction in the 16th century.  The castle changed owners several times over the years.  It had been abandoned for more than 100 years until 1895 when renovations began.

A chapel behind the castle

In 1921, and until 1939, the castle actually sat in Poland.  The Svyatopolk-Mirsky family owned Mir Castle until 1939 which is when the Soviet Union invaded and occupied eastern Poland.  When Germany invaded in 1941 the Nazis used the castle as a Jewish ghetto.  After the war, the USSR used it as a housing family from 1944 to 1956.  I don't know when modern reconstruction began.  However, in 2000, the complex was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nesvizh Castle is 29 km (18 miles) south east of Mir.  This castle was completed sometime around 1604 by the Radziwiłł family which was one of the most powerful families of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Like Mir Castle, from 1921 to 1939 it was in Poland.  The Red Army expelled the family when they invaded in 1939.  I don't know what happened to the place during WWII but I believe the Soviets later used it as a sanitarium.  In 1994, Belarus designated the it a national historic and cultural reserve.  It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

I did manage to get English audio guides at each castle but the vast majority of the day was entirely in Russian.  A few of the Russian tourists were also on the previous day trips and they are starting to warm up a bit.  I think it seems very odd to them that an American is travelling to these places alone.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dudutki Tour, Belarus

Today's Belarus adventure was a trip out to Dudutki.  Дудуткі is an open-air folk museum about 45 km (28 miles) from Minsk.

The first stop was the windmill.  It was built from 1903 to 1905 and was functional until the 1970s.  It was originally located in the village of Berezovka but when the owners were exiled to Siberia it was allocated to a local communal farm.

To the right of the windmill is the miller's house.
Actually the miller's guest house.

When people would bring grain to be ground, this is where they could have a meal and rest before their journey home.  The inside is decorated as a traditional Belarusian peasant house.

Near the entrance of the complex is the St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church which was built in 2007.  The wooden church was consecrated in 2008.

The leaves and the top part of the doors are made from straw.  Not quite sure how, but that's what I understood.

The complex has a number of craft exhibits with traditional artisans, everything from straw weaving, to pottery, beekeeping, woodworking, and masonry.

There's even an exhibit of vintage cars.

We were given samples of the homemade rye bread and cheese, plus tea.  Most people were more interested in the shot of traditional vodka we were given.

The whole tour, including the return trip from Mink, was about 4,5 hours long.  I was proud of myself for managing another day with my poor Russian.  Fortunately, I was provided a headset with English language commentary during the tour otherwise I would have been lost during the craft exhibits.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Brest & Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park Tour, Belarus

Going to Brest was my main reason for coming to Belarus. Брэст sits just across the Polish border but of course it's not as simple as just catching a train from Poland because I needed that tourist visa.  So today's adventure was a 16 hour, Russian language road trip (800 km / 500 mile) from Minsk to Brest and the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park.

In medieval times, Brest was part of the Kingdom of Poland before becoming part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania followed by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, until it was incorporated by the Russian Empire in 1795.  After WWI the city as again part of Poland until it was taken by the Soviet Union.  Today, Brest is firmly a part of Belarus and is home to over 310,000 people.

On 22 June 1941, the German Wehrmacht attacked the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa.  The 19th-century Brest-Litovsk Fortress was home to one of the first battles.  The Germans expected to take it in a few hours.

The Soviet army managed to hold out for over a week before it was taken.  It became a symbol of Soviet resistance and in 1965 the fortress received the title of Hero Fortress.

In 2004, it was placed on the tentative list for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

In 1971 the memorial complex was opened.  The museum tells the story of the defence and is very interesting.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

Aside from the monuments and museum, you can walk around to see the barracks, bunkers and forts.  There is also the St. Nicholas Orthodox church.

The Russian film Брестская крепость, Fortress of War, released in 2010 is about the battle as narrated from the perspective of a 15-year old boy.  Here's the English language movie trailer that I found out on YouTube.

Here's a RT broadcast about the battle as part of their series on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.  In former Soviet republics it is known as The Great Patriotic War.


After touring the fortress we went to the city and had lunch.  Then it was off to Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park.  The park is 70 km (43 miles) north of Brest.  It is a biosphere reserve with a museum and a small zoo.

European bison
The park was established in 1932.  It is 1500 km² (579 square miles) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The forest is home to Wisent, the European bison which is the continent's heaviest land animal.    

The tour at the park was supposed to include a visit to see the residence of Ded Moroz.  Grandfather Frost is the Eastern version of Santa Claus.  I wasn't able to understand the reason why we didn't go but I was fine skipping it as it had already been a very long day.  Plus I was mentally drained having to do the entire day in Russian which now is pretty much rubbish.  Fortunately most of the museum exhibits did include English titles and/or descriptions.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Finally Made it to Belarus

I finally made it to Belarus which is the only country in Europe that I haven't been to.  It took just over seven years but now I've done the 50.

I thought once I had my Belarus visa that the hard part would be over.  Of course not!  So here's a bit about my travel adventure today.

I took the Student Agency bus to the Vienna Airport.  No problem.  I was supposed to catch a Ukrainian Air flight to Kyiv and then a connecting flight to Minsk.  Sounds easy enough.  I checked in, dropped off my luggage, and went to the gate.  Then my flight to Kyiv gets delayed.  And then it gets delayed again to the point where I won't make my connecting flight to Minsk.

My name is called and I'm told that I will be rebooked on a later flight with Austrian but it's a direct flight so I should arrive two hours later.  The catch is that I need to leave the security area and go to customer service in the main departure hall.  I will have to reclaim my bag but I'm told it will be easy so off I go.

Once at the customer service desk it took a while before the clerk could figure out what was going on.  He did manage to rebook me on Austrian.  He should have given me an airport food voucher but he claimed that it wasn't required.  I however know the rules and his supervisor agreed and I received a €10 voucher which isn't a lot in Vienna Airport because a latte runs €5 but at least I got it.  Now about my luggage...

The clerk told me that I had to reclaim my bag at baggage claim.  However, that is back behind the security area.  I had already passed security once so my boarding pass wouldn't work a second time.  He told me to go to the security kiosk, explain everything and that they would let me pass.  Fine, that worked.  But at the luggage claim my bag wasn't there.  I was told that it would be about 20 minutes or longer but that it would arrive.  Meanwhile, I checked in online for my new Austrian flight and selected my seat.

An hour later and still no bag.  They can't find it.  They "expect" that it went to Kyiv on my original flight and that "it should" make it to Minsk.  Between the service desk and the baggage claim departments it's a good thing that I speak German because who knows what I would have been told.  So I then had to exit the baggage claim area and go through security again, with my online boarding pass, and find a place that would accept the €10 voucher because of course it is only good in select places.  I managed to grab something for dinner and made it to my gate.

I was among the first in queue to board the flight.  But the Austrian gate agent would not let me on the plane. Although I had an Austrian boarding pass she said that there was a problem and that I had to step aside.  She boards every other passenger and I'm left standing there.  By the way, the flight is a few minutes delayed and they're rushing to close the gate.  The gate agent checks her computer and makes two telephone calls to her supervisor about me not having a valid ticket.  Again, a good thing that I speak German so that I understand exactly how rude she was.  Apparently it was my fault that Austrian had not properly internally billed Ukrainian Airlines and my fault that the Austrian computer system issued me a valid boarding pass.  It was also my fault that the delay was causing the flight to be delayed and that she would have to issue me a new boarding pass and a new seat.  Bitch!

I used to like flying Austrian until I had that glitch flying to Brussels.  I think it's time for a break and it will be a long time before I fly with Austrian Airlines anywhere.

I finally made it to Minsk.  Fortunately my suitcase was there waiting for me when I arrived.   I've made it to my hostel and they registered me with the foreign police.  Now it's time to catch some zzz's before my early morning tour to Brest.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Nat's Visit

Natalie's back in Europe!  Well at least for a visit.  She needs to go to Italy which means that she's made sure to spend a few days here in Brno.  Which is great for me as now I don't need to wait until November to get my Nat fix when we go to New Zealand.

Tünde loved spending time with her godmother.  I see Tünde about every week so I know how much she has grown.  For Nat it was a surprise to see what a big girl she has become.  And that she speaks English, German, Hungarian and Czech.

It's been so great having Nat back in town but her visit has been way too short.  At least it won't be long until we visit her in Kiwiland. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Brno Water Crisis

Since Thursday, Brno residents have been advised not to drink the water.  Due to the recent hot weather there have been high levels of bacteria detected in the local water supply.

The problem was detected in the water outside of Brno in Žebětín and Komín.  The city advised boiling tap water prior to drinking it.

During the school year Brno has a population of 410,000 which meant that every store was completely sold out of bottled water.

Tap water in Czech Republic is safe to drink.  I do find it a bit chalky though which is why I use a Brita filtration pitcher.  During the ban, I boiled water prior to using the pitcher and I didn't have a problem.  I use my Brita everyday.  I always get my replacement filters in either Germany or Ireland because they are much cheaper than buying them locally.

The ban ended this evening at 6 PM.  Aside from a lack of bottled water in shops the biggest inconvenience for me was not being able to get coffee or tea at work but I probably drink too much caffeine anyway.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Czechland Ranks #9

Back in February, GoBankingRates published a list of the cheapest countries to live in / retire in.  Based on various indices they ranked Czechland as the #9th best country.  While I do find this a great place to live I'm not quite sure I buy in to how accurate these rankings are.

First of all, every place was compared to New York City which is among the most expensive places in the world.  Virtually everywhere is a bargain compared to NYC.  Here are the four indices used.

1.  Local purchasing power index:  how much one can buy with a typical salary compared to NYC.
2.  Rent index:  compares the typical rental prices to NYC.
3.  Groceries index:  compares typical grocery prices to NYC.
4.  Consumer price index:  compares the the costs of local goods and services, including restaurants, utilities and transportation.

Here's how Czechland scored.

Local purchasing power is 8,4% lower.  Rent is 87,8% cheaper.  Groceries are 63% cheaper and local goods & services are 57.7% cheaper.

GDP here per capita is around $19,500.  Due to lower costs and a higher local purchasing power, Czech Republic came in 9th.  Though compared to New York City of course Czechland scored well.

According to this study, South Africa came in #1.  Local purchasing power is 26,9% higher, rent is 87,5% cheaper, groceries are 71% cheaper and local goods & services are 65,8% cheaper.  So while South Africa may be the cheapest country to live or retire in I certainly wouldn't recommend it.

Though it may be cheap it is certainly not one of the safest countries to live in.  South Africa has been on my list of places to visit for years but I also have too many friends, including South Africans, who have a long list of reasons not to live there.

But still, kudos to Czechland for coming in at #9.