July 12, 2012 Bialystok, Poland to Grodno, Belarus
We’ve been warned again and again about travel to and in Belarus. The last remaining Stalinist holdout from the era of the Soviet Union, Belarus, in many ways, is more Soviet than even today’s Soviets (er Russians). The process of securing a visa is arduous, requiring an official letter of invitation from someone in Belarus. Since we know no one in Belarus, they accepted a confirmation letter from the hotel in Grodno. If you are a US citizen, they charge a whole lot of money ($600 for our family of 4) for the privilege of entering their country.
Three themes emerged when we spoke to fellow travelers to Belarus (I know my dad got that pun. Did you?): food, currency, and the border. On the food front, forget about kashruth. Not only is the main food pork, but pork is added to dishes even when the menu lists it as vegetarian. Add to that menus in Russian only and… Currency. The official exchange rate is 8,250 crowns to the dollar.
The smallest currency is 20 crowns, equal to 1/20th of a cent!
The currency is not accepted outside Belarus (use it or lose it) and I was nervous about placing my ATM card into a machine here for fear that they won’t offer an English option (to know how to cancel the transaction and get the card back!). There’s a bank next door to the hotel so I handed over a $100 bill and hoped it would last for 2 days. Border: could be an hour….could be five hours…never know… Its up to the whim of the particular border guards…and with no incentive to welcome American capitalists, we packed lots of food, charged up the electronic devices, and took to the road.
Before we left, Lucy stopped by to deliver all the Bialystok promotional stuff.
We all have new T-shirts, pens, coffee mugs, books. One challenge: the only Tshirt large enough for me is bright red. With the exception of my parents 50th wedding anniversary, when I wore a Stanford sweatshirt to honor the place where my dad (class of ’56) proposed to my mom, I don’t wear red. Go Bears! While I thought wearing it in Belarus would be appropriate…we just made it part of Jakub’s Bialystok gift package. Enjoy, Jakub.
As we approached the border, we saw hundreds of big rigs lined up along the side of the road, waiting in line…even to get to the border complex. The line lasted over a mile. Not a good sign.
As we approached the Poland side of the border, NO LINE. How cool is that. Jakub was surprised…especially when the guard just waved us through without needing to check the car.
On the Belarus side, only four or five other cars. A m’chayah! We’d be through in minutes.
2 and a half hours later….
Turns out there are many different pieces of paper required to get through, including:
1. passport check
2. visa check
3. insurance check
4. a second insurance check for health care
5. rejection of second insurance check
6. waiting in line to buy 2 days worth of health insurance (at $2.25 per person), which includes another passport and visa check
7. Jakub going through half a dozen different lines and forms to confirm, among other things, ownership of the van.
We are on our way…
Just like Lutsk, we were booked into one of Grodno’s best hotels, with three separate buildings, a pool and spa, a restaurant.
The reception people spoke English and the porters hauled the suitcases up three flights of stairs (OK, no elevator). Rooms had satellite TV, air conditioning, little refrigerators. Though, no mini-safe and no desk. Check out the website.
We met our Belarus guide for a late afternoon walking tour of Grodno, the regional capital and our base for visits to two ancestral homes.
We learned that Belarus stayed within the Soviet sphere even as so many other eastern European countries, including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, moved to the West, at least economically, if not politically. The guide explained that Belarusians need no visa, nor even a passport to travel to Russia, which supplies most of the country’s imports. Almost all industry is stilled owned by the state, which Jakub tells us resembles Poland a generation ago.
The entrance to the Jewish ghetto
Tribute to firefighters..
The Great Synagogue, under restoration
The former Yeshiva, next to the Great Synagogue
I had a few observations on the walking tour:
1. No retail. Street after street and no stores, no restaurants, mostly no signage at all. Our guide told us there was a souvenir shop (which we couldn’t see). She walked us through a non-descript door, down an alley, and sure enough, a souvenir shop. If you look closely, you realize that there is retail…just no advertising and no marketing. The locals know which doors lead to what…and since there’s really no tourism industry….nor any real need for competition between stores…there’s no need to spend money advertising.
2. No community. That is, most people were walking alone and even those walking in pairs weren’t talking to one another. It seemed as if each person was in their own world. A few times we saw groups of teenagers congregating and they, at least, were relating to one another. Late at night, on the main pedestrian street with all the restaurants (even if you couldn’t see any of them), the 20something crowd did come out and we could see some socializing).
3. Dress. Two kinds, t-shirts and work pants (or no shirt) for anyone over 30. High heels, scantily clad young women for the 20something crowd. It was a great teachable moment for Dad to SHOW Shayna the kinds of clothes she should not consider wearing. (Knowing full well that can be an incentive, I’m figuring that Shayna still won’t be wearing mini-skirts that barely cover her butt with 4 inch heels).
The main street of downtown... Few people and no signage. Believe it or not, you are looking at numerous restaurants, beer halls, discos, and cinemas.
We toured a magnificent church, visited a castle, and got an overview of Grodno’s history.
We went next, by van, to the Jewish cemetery, closed since 1967 (in retaliation against Israel for the Six Day War). Through the gate we were able to see the headstones, as well as group of Belarusian youth who hopped the fence to hang out in the cemetery.
The cemetery through the fence.
Back in Grodno, we went back to the main pedestrian street downtown for dinner. The first restaurant was all pork so we kept going. The next restaurant had a pizza oven and two English menus. Done!
One mediocre chicken dish later, we’re back at the hotel to sleep.