White Russia (Bel -a – Rus) – Where the hell is Bobruisk??
The short answer is Bobruisk is a very sublime and extremely bizarre city in the eastern part of Belarus (White Russia). The real answer is that the day I left Moscow for a flight to Minsk (which I favoured due to money and time constraints over the train option), I had no idea how on earth I would get from Minsk airport to Bobruisk, or indeed where the hell Bobruisk actually was. Buying a map or planning my journey had never been my intention. This was as spontaneous and unpredictable as life could get. Nothing was booked, and I wasn’t even certain if there were cheap trains or buses to take me to Bobruisk. I was alone and certainly if I was scared I didn’t show it. It may seem very strange for me to add Belarus to my world tour. However my reason for going to Belarus was actually to support the Northern Ireland ladies football team, who were due to play Belarus on the 1st August 2007.
But also that my round the world trip had to be nuts and random, in line with my lifelong loves and beliefs. So once I had booked China, Russia and Poland, I wanted to do Belarus as well, as it was in between The Russian Federation and Poland. I just loved the sound of it, plus I had worked with young Nattalia in Tesco in Poole some years before and she was a lovely, quiet Belarrusian lady. I wondered if she was representative of her nation. If it hadn’t of been for the football, it was either Belarus, Lithuania or Ukraine, so I picked the one I could watch a NI football match in, and the one I definitely needed a VISA for. There is something awe-inspiring about decorating one’s passport. Trips to the Belarus embassy in London were needed! I still smile when I see my Minsk passport stamp. How many British people have ever been to Bobruisk? (Answers on a postcard, which incidentally I didn’t find in Bobruisk)
The question is, who would really want to go to Bobruisk? I was certainly the only tourist, in this location some 40 km north of the Chernobyl disaster of the 1986, a nuclear accident which affected the lives of people living in an area known as “Mogilev.” If that’s not enough to put you off, there are barely any English speaking people there, very slow and infrequent public transport options and relatively peaceful, dull surroundings. Sometimes this makes travelling all the more beautiful. So I arrived in Belarus!
Originally when I planned to go to White Russia/Belarus, I knew I would be in Moscow a few days before and was planning on a direct train Moscow – Minsk. However, the train would have taken 10 hours, the flight was only a tenner more and would save me about 5 hours. A spanner was then thrown into the works when I found out that the Northern Ireland ladies football match was to be played in Bobruisk (where?) which is some 240 kilometres from Minsk. It never stopped me wanting to go, though if it had been too far and hard to find, I’d have just spent two days in Minsk, checking out Victory Square and the remnants of the USSR communist regime. Or not…
So I got off my plane in Minsk Airport (40 km from Minsk, just to make things harder) and noboby spoke English! However…as luck would have it, on the plane somebody had taken my seat and the only ones left were in first class. So I sat in first class after some blagging to Air Steward A and was rewarded with some free food, tea and a brandy shot (ouch! – you mean you’ve no beer?). I sat beside a Russian guy called Dimitri, who spoke English (how rare is that?!) and after getting off the plane, we decided sharing a value taxi to the centre of Minsk would cut both our costs! Dimitri invited me someday to the city of Yekateringburg in mid-Russia. Excellent, so I got a lift via some Russian tanks, and Victory Square to the Central Train Station in Minsk.
Now all I had to wish for was a train to Bobruisk! If not, I’d be relying on a bus and who knows how dodgy that would have been in Belarus, especially for the only tourist in sight. I don’t blend into crowds, I stand out from them. I was a blatant westerner with a commercial football shirt, faded Irish eyes and a bright smile. Luckily for me there was a train, and it was relatively cheap (with an over-elaborate yellow and gold ticket;
I keep souvenirs and this is one of my favourites) and wasn’t due to leave for 3 hours or so. That time seemed to pass by so quickly as I enjoyed some lovely pork type roll and a few local beers, whilst trying hilariously to communicate with Taisa, an older Belarussian Lady, who instantly recognised the fact that I was foreign! She happily minded my bags while I grabbed a few beers (Greyneetska I believe, but spelt KpbIHiua on the bottle).
I then boarded a beautiful light blue train with full bar and nice seats with my lovely yellow, gold white and grey train ticket. As souvenirs go, I keep lots, this train ticket will forever remind me of an amazing day. It was a lovely picturesque journey through Belarussian (White Russian) countryside. The people were almost all from Belarus and very nice and reserved, so I kept myself to myself, though kept enquiring how far to Bobruisk. It would appear that my friend Nattallia was representative of her nation. After about 2 and a quarter hours, the train arrived at a yellow building with Belarussian writing.
This was Bobruisk Train Station, and with no tourist information available and poor knowledge of Belarussian, I had no idea where the Hotel Tourist was. The Northern Ireland ladies team and officials were staying there, and I had booked in, a four star hotel!! (I had to get my Mum to book this for me, as they wouldn’t accept my credit card via e-mail when I tried to book it in New York and LA. A lesson to book in advance) How crazy for a traveller on a budget to be staying in a four star hotel, though to be fair I didn’t fancy my chances finding a hostel in this town, and the luxury of a hotel with a bar, restaurant and right by the Berezina River gave me a pleasant change.
The shower with fresh towels and shower gel was a Godsend. True to my alleged beliefs as well, I did pray during my trip, feeling for the first time, most at ease with my Presbyterian Protestant religion for once. This torn apart world could shed a tear for Belarus. The place left something in me forever. I love telling people I’ve been to Belarus. (Ironically my next job – working in a theatre in Bournemouth, saw me meet a Belarussian lady who was impressed and surprised I had gone there all on my own).
Anyway to find the Hotel Tourist, I flagged down a few local cars (I don’t think taxis exist in Bobruisk – people give each other lifts a lot…) and found a family willing to help me and take me to my hotel. I never got their names or understood their language, but I will forever thank them for what they did. The son of the family recognised my Northern Ireland football shirt, he himself was dressed in a rather old Barcelona shirt.
Being middle class Northern Irish, I was seeing a life of people here who cling to what they have and don’t look at what they can’t. From the outside, the hotel looked like a prison, but once I got inside I knew I was in the right place and after a hot shower and a pint of local brew, I was feeling fresh and ready. There was me, in Belarus. Without a doubt, the most bizarre product of the former USSR, even the lonely planet cited this in its guide to the country. Also, while youre there, check out the wonderful political table tennis that Belarus was involved in post- World War I.
Interesting to say the least, this could have been part of Russia, Lithuania or even Poland. Borders create problems. There is a real need to constantly remind you of the war while in Belarus. Many military statues, tributes, very traditional clothing, impeccably dressed armed guards and them hats we see in old filims. This surprised me since over 25% of Belarus’s population was wiped out during the second world war. Statistics are interesting reading. Belarus remains a bizarre country.
Enjoy White Russia!
Bars Visited – The Blue train bar(!) Minsk – Bobruisk, Minsk Train Station Bar, Random Pub in Minsk, Hotel Minsk Bar, Hotel Tourist Bar – Bobruisk.
Beers Tried – KpbIHiua/Greyneetska, 6O6PoB – KPENKOE.
Transport Used – Family Car (!), Blue Belarussian Train, Aeroplane, Taxi, Coach.
Nationalities Met – Russian, Belarussian, Northern Irish, Australian, Republic of Irish.
Strange Currencies – Belorussian Roubles (4,500 odd make a quid).
Where I Stayed – Hotel Tourist, by The Berezina River in Bobruisk (and in Minsk the Hotel Minsk)
Average Price of a Pint of Beer – 32 p was the most I paid and that was in the hotel (1,420 roubles). I’m sure I got a beer for 8 pence at one point as well, but I couldn’t work it out at the time.
Favourite Food – Porridge with coloured sweets on top…oh really!
Favourite Drink – Orange Juice…
Favourite Thing about Bobruisk – The family that took me to my hotel. They knew I was a total stranger and they took me straight there, no questions asked!
Moving Moment – Sitting one morning staring at the Berezina River at the bottom of the steps. Peace and love to all in Belarus.
Key Song – Bernard Butler – Not Alone…these days.
FACT – Belarus literally translated means White Russia. But also, Belarus was named “Belorussia” in the days of Imperial Russia, and the Russian tsar was usually styled “Czar of All the Russias — Great, Little, and White”.