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Belarus is a country in Eastern Europe. It is bordered by Russia to the East, Poland to the West, Lithuania and Latvia to the North and Ukraine to the South.
This review is mainly about the city of Mogilev (pronounced Mogilov!) which is situated about 180k from the capital, Minsk. It is Belarus' fourth largest city and the one I know best.
When I first started visiting Mogilev, about 10 years ago, it was a very depleted and run down city. It had some beautiful buildings but it was obvious that a lot of them were in a sorry state of repair.
It was very Eastern European in appearance. Lots of grey blocks of flats, massive holes in the roads and pavements, a very depressed economy. Very little in the shops.
In the intervening years, the City seems to have come alive again. Not least I suspect because the President of Belarus was born in Mogilev and he has seen that money has been poured into the infrastructure.
There is a buzz about the city centre now that has long been absent. The citizens are quite rightly proud of the improvements that are being made. Although there is a long way to go before this is carried over to the outlying residential areas. A lot of the population are still living in less than comfortable accomodation to my Western eyes.
Some of the city Streets have been pedestrianised.
In Zorak square a wonderful huge statue of an astronomer (The stargazer) has been erected in front of the Raszima cinema. The ingenious sculpture is also a giant sundial and 12 oversized chairs in a circle mark the hours. The sculptor Vladimir Zhbanov marked each chair with a sign of the zodiac and folk like to go and be photographed in their zodiacal chair, particularly on their birthday.
Leninskaya street has been completely revamped and that is where you will find a couple of brand new good hotels, some fairly expensive eating houses (for Mogilev) and lots of new shops. It is a lovely place to walk and meet friends, perhaps have an ice cream.
Gymnasium 3, the school that I visit in Mogilev is situated there and it was good to see that one derelict wing of the school had been restored and put to use with shops and small businesses occupying the once empty wing.
Mogilev has two beautiful large fountains and quite a few smaller ones. One of them is worked by a man under the fountain altering the water jets etc. (At least I think that's what the interpreter told me!) I wouldn't like that job, it seems a bit damp and claustrophobic to me.
That particular fountain is in a large leafy square. One time I was there, there was a dance held and it was lovely to see the inhabitants dressed in their overcoats against the bitter wind dancing traditional and modern Belarussian dances. Old and young together.
The fabulous Regional Drama Theatre has been fully restored and is now open for business. It's roof was to be restored to it's former golden glory but they ran out of money so only part of it has been done. Time will tell if it will ever be completely regilded. (Every year I have a look to see how much farther they have got with it.)
Of course, if you are in Belarus you have to drink Vodka! So no visit is complete without visiting the famous 'Crystal Vodka' shop. Handily situated nearly opposite the theatre.
I was amused one time when I was in there to find that the carrying boxes were in such short supply that they cost more than the bottles of vodka!
Belarussian vodka is cheap and plentiful and it is much smoother than any I have tasted in England.
If you carry on along the main street you come to a large square with a monument of a running torch holding woman. She overlooks the city's war monument. Looking out from this high prospect you are greeted by the sight of the industrial zones below, where many of the regions tractors are made and metals forged. The joke in Mogilev is that the statue is running away from the pollution. (If only it was that easy!)
On the same square is a lovely little museum which is worth going into just to see the magnificient chandeliers made locally in a town called Goose. (I think it was Goose, occasionally things get lost in translation!)
The Gum store on the main street is now a bustling department store. When I first visited there were yards of shelving with the odd objects for sale spaced out amongst them. Now it is thriving and it's possible to buy clothing, household goods, food and drink and local Belarussian handiwork. The shortages seem to be easing.
Many of the old churches and monasteries have been restored and it is now possible to visit and admire them. It is also possible now for the population to attend church services. A thing that was unthinkable once in the communist regime. One of the wonderful people that look after me when I am in Mogilev told me of her Babushka (Grandma) secretly taking my guide's baby son to be baptised and not telling the parents until many years later. As his parent's were Party members the child could not have been baptised openly so the Babushka 'borrowed' him and had the deed done anyway! It was hard to believe that such an innocent act as baptism was punishable.
The city is built on the banks of the river Dnieper. There is a huge port just outside the city for industrial shipping which is not a pretty sight!
However, in the last few years lovely walkways and parkland has been developed along the riverside just close to the main hotel. (The Hotel Mogilev) It is a great place for a picnic or to sit in the sun and watch the world go by. Dances and folk music can be seen and heard and it's good to just watch the locals enjoying themselves.
There is lots to do and see in Mogilev. I won't bore you by listing them all. In fact I couldn't list them all! What I can do is tell you that whenever I have been there I have been met with unbelievable hospitality and generosity. People with virtually nothing were anxious to share what little they had with us. Their pride humbled me.
I visit to represent a Chernobyl Children's charity. We give respite care to the kids, one month in the West puts about 18 months onto their life expectancy. Cancer is rife amongst the kids because Mogilev received a huge percentage of the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. Despite this incedible calamity the people of Mogilev are still warm, welcoming and exceedingly good company.
(If you aren't bored to tears by now and want to read more about my exploits in Mogilev, read my 'Disaster dinners' review.)
Even if the city of Mogilev was a complete tip (which it certainly isn't!) it would be worth visiting just to be with these extraordinary loving people.
The fairground in Chelustintsev Park evokes Fellini-like dreams. Go see it when you are in MINSK. Also in MINSK: 1. Shop in the GUM department store at Skoriny 23, and imagine you are agent 007 on a little mission. Prices in Minsk vary. Inflation is 0ver 180%. 2.The First Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party Museum may not be on your list of must-sees. But, the Great Patriotic War Museum (at Skoriny 25a) may be of interest as it reminds us about concentration camps and the many deaths on the Eastern Front in World war II. 3.Then there are lots of lovely old Orthodox cathedrals such as the 17th century Cathedral of the Holy Ghost, at Kirilla and Mefodiya 3 and the Cathedral of St peter and Paul built in 1613. The cathedrals and churches have that exotic feel that you get in places like St Mark's in Venice or churches in Naples. 4.Want to row a BOAT? Go to lovely Park Janki Kapaly. GORKY PARK, next to Pobedy Square and the river, is a good place for walks and picnic. 5.Fancy a daytime drink? Head for the cafes and shops and rebuilt 17th century buildings east of the Svislach River. 6.Strolling: Minsk is like parts of East Berlin, back in the 1950's and 1960's. Big concrete buildings, clean streets, and not too much traffic. Take your camera and photo this workers' paradise. RESTAURANT: NOSTALGIA, Ivanovskaya 43, has a nice fireplace and good Belarussian food. MILK and MUSHROOMS should be avoided because of Chernobyl contamination. NIGHTLIFE: PARADISE, Masherova 13, Moskva Cinema, has music and a risky show. At your own risk. COSMOPOLITAN, Kommunisticheskaya 86, near the Belarus hotel, has youthful local bands. Ever been to a concert in a scout hall? It's not as bad as that. WEST END CLUB, Storozhevskaya 15, next to Hotel Belarus, is a disco for the well
-heeled. There is a show which might shock your mother. MiLord, Skoring 25, Trade unions Culture Palace, has a restaurant, disco and unusual atmosphere! Decadent. THE PEOPLE: very friendly (mostly). Very musical. Lots of music! HOTELS in Minsk: Recommended is BELARUS, which is well equipped, although not perfect! Singles around £30. Nearest METRO Nemiga. OUTSIDE MINSK: KHATYN: Khatyn is 54km North of Minsk. During World War II the Nazi Germans were here. Many villages were wiped out. Many concentration camps were set up. In 1943 the Nazis burnt the small village of Khatyn. 149 people, including 75 children, were burnt alive. Only one person survived. You can visit the memorial and see the statue of a villager carrying his son. Haunting. Tears may come to your eyes as you glimpse yet another sign that fascists fail to see that they reap what they sow. KUROPATY: This is 15km North of Minsk. This time it was the Russians who did the killings. Around 250,000 people from Belarus, the Baltic States and Poland are thought to have been shot in the back and dumped here. BREST, on the border with Poland, has the 19th century Brest Fortress, almost destroyed in 1941, during the war. Not really worth a detour. BELAVEZHSKAJA PUSCHA NATURE RESERVE, reached by bus from BREST, 25 miles journey, has wild boar, elk wild horses etc. there is a nature museum if you like that sort of thing. WARNINGS: Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB, came from Belarus. Belarus still has its own KGB. This is not a democracy, so they say, so watch your step. Typhoid is not unknown, and, tick-borne encephalitis and hepatitis can be problems. Typhoid kills. Medical insurance is compulsory. "Visitors should bring essential personal medications." Chernobyl: 70% of all the fallout from 1986's Chernobyl nuclear reactor explos
ion landed in Belarus! Up to 40% of children who were exposed to the fallout are expected to get thyroid cancer. Thousands of children already have it. The British Foreign Office has a warning about muggings, pickpockets and thefts from hotel rooms. It warns against 'attracting unecessary attention.' In particular, visitors should avoid demonstrations and rallies. FLIGHTS: Austrian Airlines will fly you via Vienna to Minsk, capital of Belarus. You must get your visa before you go. (www.fco.co.uk) The British Foreign Office warns: "Proper maintenance orocedures are NOT observed by some local airlines. On arrival, visitors must fill in a currency form and KEEP it. Regent Holidays (www.regent-holidays.co.uk) does 8 day holidays to Belarus via Vilnius in Lithuania (3 days in Belarus. The rest in Lithuania). Wallace Arnold Holidays does an 18 day coach tour, called Magnificent Russian Experience, which includes one day in Belarus. Cost £1067 plus single room supplement £250.(www.wallacearnold.com) So, if you fancy a Soviet sort of experience, give it a go!
"Belarus (Belarusian and Russian: Беларусь) is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordering Russia to the east, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the north. Its capital is Minsk and other major cities include Brest, Grodno, Gomel, Mogilev and Vitebsk. One third of the country is forested, and industries such as agriculture and manufacturing are staples of the Belarusian economy. Belarus is one of the countries that was affected by nuclear radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident from the neighboring Ukraine."