The Last Trip of 2019 (Minsk)

Could someone like me – a linguist and a traveler– have asked for a better way to wave goodbye to 2019 than suddenly getting a chance to go on a little trip? With only one day at my disposal, I could have chosen to enjoy a quick break exploring more of the beauty and glory of our capital city. Sounds pretty amazing, right? There are tons of absolutely wonderful things you can do in Moscow. But too much work and self-reflection pushed me into being a bit more adventurous. That was when I remembered my quick trip in 2013. Have you ever travelled abroad for a day and got back home a little over 24 hours later? That was exactly what I did back then. Instead of taking two trains and spending a total of 20 hours on the road, this time two short flights were all it took me to get to a neighboring country – not foreign enough for a Russian to have to get a visa, but still different enough from Moscow to please both a linguist and a traveler.

As someone teaching and attempting to do language research, I knew on this trip I would be able to reflect on the uniting and divisive power of Russian (my mother tongue) as well as to ponder on emerging national identities in what used to be the immense Soviet Union (my country of birth). In the attempt to become a more mindful traveler, I was also hoping to treat my eyes to an engaging mix of the Soviet and European architecture and my palette to familiar but remotely foreign food. Sounds like too much for a day, right? Well, in a nutshell, that was exactly what I had enough time to do in mid-December in the capital city of Belarus. That trip was also short enough for an aspiring writer to describe on a reasonable number of pages. Also, with this story I am going to wrap up 2019 hoping for more work, self-reflection and a few engaging trips in 2020!

That was how I conceived the beginning of my Minsk story if I had got to write it in 2019. I’ve read a few books on travel writing telling me how powerful those opening lines and paragraphs should be to draw my readers in. This hook wasn’t meant to come about in 2019… So, as I am writing this in 2020 already, I am being reminded of how life has a way of changing our agendas, travelling plans, story beginnings and so much more. About two months ago those first news reports on the rapidly spreading virus didn’t disrupt my life at all. A few weeks later, scaremongering in the media culminated into a mix of confusion and despair. Finally, it all seemed disturbingly real as so many trips (including my own) had got called off and whole countries (including those I was hoping to travel to later this year) had gone into lockdown. As reports of growing numbers of people affected by the virus kept coming in, travelling was already the last thing on almost everyone’s minds. I think the moment I knew I had to start this travel piece was when my own country had got shut down. Amidst the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, I am starting to realize that my own quick trip to Belarus would be off the table now. Sadly, we have been isolated not only inside our national borders but also inside our own homes for a while now. Anyway, I would like to think of that last trip of 2019 as only my latest one. I just don’t want to give in to panic and call it the last opportunity I’ve ever had to travel!

Of course, like a drug that one can never go off, travelling has a way of giving us withdrawal symptoms. As it is no longer our choice whether to go anywhere or not, it might feel as if we had never set foot too far from our homes. With this story I am also going to remind myself (and a few readers if I am lucky) that travelling is a privilege. In order to celebrate the fact I’ve had it multiple times, I might finally get to write about all those trips I’d had before the day I boarded a plane for Minsk, Belarus. Just about 20 hours later I was to land back into the comfort on my own bed…

Unlike a lot of places in the world, travelling to Belarus is a breeze for a Russian thanks to the Commonwealth between our countries launched in 1996. Even though you are actually travelling outside Russia, there is no need to worry about getting a visa or forgetting your foreign passport at home. Well, in Russia we all have a “domestic” passport and a “foreign” one for travelling overseas. The only issue I had on my way was finding the security-check point (there is a special entrance for those travelling to Belarus which took me a while to locate). After I had finally made it to my gate, there was some time to do what any traveler loves – people-watching. As crowds of passengers around me were lining up for their flights, without even looking at the flashing flight information screens, I could see and hear that a lot of people weren’t probably going anywhere outside of what used to be the immense Soviet Union. In fact, my country of birth only lasted till I was around 3 years old. In 1991 the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed as if in the attempt to piece together whatever was left of that shattered glass. Certainly over the years there have been disputes about the membership in the organization as some states were not willing to join or withdrew their participation later. Despite a few wedges between all of our nations that are still tangible to this day, there is some sense of commonality that explains why people from the CIS countries who might look and sound different are quite familiar rather than foreign to a Russian. I might get to one of these countries one day as most of them don’t require a visa either – that for sure would make for another story!

My capital

The way to the dream wasn’t going to be a short one… First we needed to take a train to Moscow which is about 500km away from Voronezh. In the capital we would meet our travelling guide and the rest of the tourists who would join us on our journey. We would then set on a train trip from Moscow to the city of Brest, Belarus which would take us about 14 hours. This is where our coach trip would get underway. If all went as planned, then we would cross the Belarus-Poland border and… would actually be in the dream (i.e. in Europe)…

Actually for me the trip started as we got on a train to Moscow… This was when it finally dawned on me that that was it, there was no way back and what seemed an alluring dream, then a beautiful plan was now my reality… It felt really scary to get on the road, to feel the way travellers do, experience life in the way they do… As I was looking at my city through the windows of the train, I was wondering whether I would be ever coming back again… It wasn’t that I felt homesick before I actually left but the thought of going on such an extensive trip for the first time ever was incredibly overwhelming… Maybe in moments like these you really need to be secure in the knowledge that there is a place where you belong and you would definetely be back whatever trips and journeys life takes you on… Anyway, firsts always feel scary and cause one to think in quirky ways…

I always feel uncomfortable and quirky on trains (which might effect my thinking as well)… I was on a sleeping car only a couple of times and I knew this could well be my least favourite part of the trip… I just hate to be on a sleeper with a bunch of other people… It feels much like an invasion of privacy (in Russia we don’t make much of it, though) with all these people going about their daily routine in the space of a small sleeping car… It might look like the Big Brother Show or something… It’s just something I can’t explain because even though I’m not used to having a lot of space to myself in my day-to-day life, being on a train and sharing this space with other people makes me sick… More like emotionally sick with me having to watch these people and them watching me… It just makes you wonder how fate works bringing together all these different people travelling for their own different reasons… It feels like so many lives and fates are cluttered here… Were we all really meant to be at the same time in the same place like that?

So our trip officially started as the train set in motion… The only thing I like about trains is to hear the sound of a train’s wheels touching the rails… This rumbling sound alone is so serene and calm and so Russian to me… (I know it should be pretty much the same in the rest of the world)… So here we were listening to this sound and basically doing nothing apart from playing cards (this is what Russians do if we have some time to kill time on a train…). I was getting my head around how on earth I was going to sleep on this terrible, revoltingly pristine lining on this bunk bed a countless number of people had laid in… On the plus side, I knew I was this one trip away from coming back to Moscow… It’s been a long long time and I was eager to experience my capital again… I was on a brief visit there about twelve years which was actually the only trip I had been on… So coming back to Moscow was like revisiting this time (not that I miss it but I just enjoy letting my brain take me down a memory lane which is always an interesting and in a way self-indulging experience) and see how the city had changed or I had changed in the way I see it… Lying on a bunk bed felt like lying under the train itself with the wheels beating in my temple… I was tossing and turning and let my imagination take me far far away, to all these places where a dream becomes a reality, where I see, feel, hear in a new way… I was wondering where exactly we were as the train took us further and further away… I need to remind myself that I was still in Russia and my actual trip hadn’t started yet… But our country is so big and diverse that travelling from its one end to the other would be a journey in itself and who knows – it might even teach one to see, hear, feel differently… I might someday find that out but only after I get this dream of mine come true. I was certain I would change in the process…

As a matter of fact, a trip to Moscow might feel as a trip abroad for some. It’s a fact that a capital and all its grandeur and magnificence don’t really sum up the country… Neither does Moscow sum up Russia… If Moscow is the heart of Russia, it means that it has so much more different kinds of blood pumping through it thus making it work with twice as much effort… This is how I see this difference between Moscow and the rest of Russia… It’s like Russia on an exaggerated scale blended with glamour, prosperity and pursue for the dream of prosperity for thousands of people coming here daily… I know it’s wrong to begrudge Moscovites their right to take this place for granted because it makes us seem truly provincial and makes them treat us in a patronizing way but it’s something that we can’t help really…

This is how I felt as I got off the train after a sleepless night and started taking in the capital and listening to the big heart of Russia beating with twice as much effort. I was ready to experience new things and even my bag that was heavy as much as I tried to empty it of all the things that I decided I could do without as I was packing back home did not stop me from feeling all these emotions… To my disappointment, things seemed the same as I left them back at home – people, streets, even the overcast sky seemed to follow us all the way from Voronezh…

I was terrified about the trip on the Metro (underground or tube depending on where you are in the world). We don’t have it here in Voronezh and the thought of travelling from home to work which seems so habitual to many people in the world was overwhelming…. But it wasn’t that bad after all and I even managed to do some people watching and wondered whether they could say that we were not locals or not and whether I could guess which of them were locals…. It was again fate bringing people from different background and sometimes places together in the same space… The Metro proved to be a quick and comfortable (something we are not used to here) way of travelling which took us to the centre of the big heart of Russia… I felt like the grandeur and beauty of Russia’s large heritage was within an easy reach as we were approaching the building of the Bolshoy theatre and seeing to the monument to Karl Marx on the way (which I remembered seeing in a travel guide book when I was small).

 

It felt like some opera music was about to play with people in fancy clothes and big smiles appearing from everywhere to get swept away by the power of art… I wanted to take a mental picture of everything – fountains, people, the vibe of the early morning capital.

I felt my heart trembling as I saw a glimpse of the Red Square from far away. This is sure the place not to be missed if you are in Moscow. It’s like travelling to London without seeing the Big Ben. The hotel where top celebrities stay at, the building of the Duma – everything felt surreal… The highlight of the trip was definitely the Red Square. The word “Red” means “beautiful” in old Russian. I virtually had to hold my breath before actually stepping in on the Square… It was like getting ready to take a dip into the ocean of emotions… Standing there I could actually feel the sound of blood pumping through the heart of Russia… It’s the image of Russia that we are grown up… It’s not the Russia that we see through our windows, it’s the Russia as an entity, as something massive both politically and geographically. It’s the place we remember from historical footages where so many crucial decisions were announced to the whole country listening in…

And, of course, it is the place for Victory Day parades with soldiers rumbling across Red Square bringing together people with a living memory of the devastating war and the emotions of people like myself who were lucky enough to be spared the sufferings of the time. There was so much history there that it made me want to cry… As I was walking down the square, I felt like it was a safe place to feel proud to be Russian and embrace a Russian in me. I felt privileged to be standing there and to be a sort of a memory card connected to all the variety of the feelings ranging from joy to sorrow felt here, all the events taking place here. It was a vague feeling but intense enough to make me emotional and say to my sister and friend who didn’t seem to be as impressed as me “Look around you!”. I felt incredibly proud to see all those people from around the world (especially from Asia) taking a guided tour of the square. I couldn’t believe that all these people came such a long way to experience the capital. It was incredible to look at their faces, hear them speak other languages. I knew I would be like one of those tourists the next day if (fingers crossed) I arrive safely in Poland. I had a feeling that here (in what I had to remember what was my own country) my first international got to a good start. It felt like Russia on the grandeur scale with me suffocating with history and seeing Russia the way people in the rest of the world see it. It was an iconic image of Russia. It was like a mirage to me which I felt physically. I wanted to come up to these foreigners and say “Love or hate it, this is Russia. We are ready to share it with you!”. I really felt like sharing just the way I’m sharing my feelings now…

I remember throwing a coin near the monument to Zhukov when I was to Moscow twelve years ago to come here again… And I did… I remember taking pictures of these places on our old photo camera which is now history… A lot has changed in the city itself or it’s rather me and my perception of the world around that changed…

I have one more thing to remind me of Moscow… It’s my Cheburashka T-shirt. Cheburashka is a character in a very popular Soviet cartoon. I have several Cheburashka toys at home as well. Cheburashka always brings out a child in me. And it was how I felt in Moscow, like a child who was so excited to see, feel, hear things…

It was an emotional day in Moscow and I think that it really got me ready for what would be my first trip abroad… It made my feelings more acute, enhanced my vision (the contact lenses were on of course). I was longing for more and said goodbye to Moscow only to come back here again as I got on the train to Brest… It was all REAL…