Monday, July 05, 2004

Trip report - Belarus

6/29/04 –7/4/04

Photos may be viewed at

Where to start? This is the first of three trip reports to be written on my 3-week trip to Eastern Europe. There were three ex-Soviet countries in E. Europe that I needed to run in my ongoing quest to run a marathon in every country in Europe.

I had met some good contacts last year while running the Belgrade Marathon in Serbia and this spring decided to follow up to see if they could help me. Out of four contacts -only one responded to my emails – a runner in Moldova who worked for the Moldova Sports Federation. He promised to help me find marathons in Belarus and Ukraine and confirmed that there were no ‘official’ marathons in Moldova but he would help me run a solo marathon in that country. When we moved to our summer home in Colorado in early May I got real serious in my efforts to arrange a single trip that would complete all three countries. A friend/runner in Latvia informed me that there was a marathon in Minsk, Belarus in early July and my friend in Moldova was able to find a small marathon in Rivne, Ukraine in mid-July. I had enough general information to start planning the trip.

But then the problems and worries began. All three countries do not make it easy for tourists to visit. They require a visa to enter the country and in order to get a visa you must have a ‘letter of invitation’. The letter of invitation is typically from a local citizen or the hotel where you are staying but it must be submitted on the appropriate ‘official’ government form. If you have lots of time it may be easier to obtain a visa but by now it was the end of May and I had to leave at the end of June for the first marathon. I was almost ready to give up because of all the problems I was having trying to book hotels, etc. when fortunately I found a travel agency in Atlanta that specialized in travel to Russia and the former Soviet countries. In desperation I handed the whole trip over to this agency including the visas. It cost me a lot more money because the agency charged a fee to process the visas. In fact the three visas cost me about $550 (US) which would have killed the trip if I did not need those countries to complete my goal.

However the agency did earn their money by getting all three visas in a very limited time and they were able to make all my hotel reservations and even book and purchase train tickets between and within the countries – and that cannot be done from the USA. The tickets must be purchased in the specific country where the train ride begins. Two days before I was scheduled to depart my passport finally arrived with the three visas but I still did not have confirmation of some hotels and train tickets for the final few weeks of the trip. The travel agency assured me that the train tickets and final itinerary would be waiting for me at my first hotel in Minsk? Hey! I had visas to get into the countries and I had dates and places for three marathons – so I left on June 29th!

After 24 hours of airplanes and airports I arrived in Minsk, Belarus. Since the airport is located about 45km outside the city I had arranged for a private car to pick me up. I did not want to hassle with a Russian taxi driver than spoke no English and would be trying to screw me. Smart move! Because July 3rd is the National Independence/Victory Day for Belarus all the hotels in the center of the city were booked and my hotel was on the far side of the city. I would have been easy prey for a taxi driver!

The driver of the private car did not speak English so it was a long boring ride to the hotel since he couldn’t answer any of my questions about what I was seeing? The hotel was a one-star hotel on the north east side of Minsk that was used by local businessmen. Bad news – nobody in the hotel spoke English. Good news – the hotel was located right next to the last metro station of one line so I had easy access to the city. And cheap – a metro ticket cost 250 rubles (about 12 cents) to go anywhere in the city. Now I only had to figure out how to use it and where to go. With limited Russian and a lot of sign language I was able to ask the front desk clerk who spoke limited English which metro stop I needed for the city center. Since all the signs and directions were in Russian/Cyrillic that I could not make any sense of I just counted the number of stations to my destination(s) and made sure I didn’t fall asleep or get distracted. After a few days I was able to navigate my way around the metro and city with ease although I still couldn’t read or make sense of any of the signs.

Since I had arrived around 4pm on June 29th I forced myself to stay awake until about
9 pm and then I went to bed and crashed for 12 hours. On Thu morning I wanted to do an easy run to remind my legs why we were there. Since I couldn’t ask the front desk where to run I just took off from the hotel in the direction of a river I had seen and in spite of some very strange/curious looks from the locals I enjoyed a pleasant 5-mile run! Then it was time for breakfast – oh yummy – the standard European breakfast – pickled herring, assorted meats and vegetables and bread. The bread was wonderful and fortunately there was some cornflakes and milk which was all I needed. I could never get used to eating that other stuff!

Now it was time to explore the city. My guidebook indicated that there was a tourist office in the city center. Hopefully someone there could speak English and give me some help? After taking the metro to the city center and much walking around I finally found the tourist office – and there was one lady who spoke English. She sold me a city map for $2 and gave me lots of information. The banners plastered all around the city with ‘1944 –2004’ were for the 60th anniversary of Independence Day. There is no tourist infrastructure in the city or the country and no ‘canned’ city tours but I was able to book a private guide and car for Fri. Then the last and most important question – the reason I was there: “How do I get to the Olympic Sports Center for the race registration”? Unfortunately the Sports Center was located in the eastern suburbs and the metro didn’t go that far so she told me which tram to take from the city center. I figured I might as well get the primary task over with so I found the tram and headed east. After 30 minutes I was getting concerned that I had missed the Sports Center? But the worst thing that could happen is that I loop back to the city center and try again? Fortunately about 5 minutes later I noticed a huge sports complex and decided that had to be it and got off the tram. Another 5 minutes later I found the small room in the center where race registration was held. It was staffed by one volunteer who couldn’t speak English so I showed him my passport and he gave me my race number. I then paid him 10,000 rubles ($4.50) for the entry fee that included the race number, a T-shirt, finisher’s medal and diploma! Wish the race directors in the US would take note – instead of the $50 to $100 they charge here?

I had many questions to ask about the logistics of the race but the volunteer could not answer any (since he couldn’t understand me) so I left him with my phone number and asked that the race director call me. I also got the home number for the race director (Aleksandr Kizil). I called him later that afternoon and he advised me that he spoke very limited English and asked that I meet him at the Sports Center on Fri at 2 pm when he could bring along a translator. The rest of the day I spent exploring the city on foot and shopping for my standard souvenirs. There is not much to see!

The tour guide and driver picked me up at my hotel on Fri morning to tour the city. We drove past many of the buildings/sites that I had explored on foot. The guide was a university teacher (English) and spoke good English so I was able to get answers to a lot of my questions during the tour. Minsk and most of the cities/towns in Belarus were completely destroyed during WWII and 25% of the population of Belarus was killed by the Germans. Thus there are very few ‘old’ buildings in Minsk and the Belarusians have very little love for Germans. After the war Minsk was rebuilt by the Soviets in the ‘grand’ Stalinist style with large, ubiquitous gray concrete high-rises. The apartment buildings are called ‘Khrushchev apartments’ – 4 to 5 story ugly concrete buildings with no imagination and very small apartments. Most of the residents bought their apartments from the government when Belarus declared independence from the USSR in1991. The economy is in bad shape and many of the citizens long/wish to go back to the ‘good old days’ and become part of Russia again. The government is communist and corrupt and in fact the guide was very upset by a declaration in the paper that day that the KGB was being given an ‘open door policy’ i.e. they could enter any home or building in the country without any notice or a warrant? “Where is our freedom and independence”? he asked.

The guide showed me all the important sites and buildings in Minsk: a few old churches that survived the war, the Hero-City Monument, the Island of Tears (an island/monument/memorial for the vets of Afghanistan) and Victory Square –“the holiest place in Minsk”. It is a monument and square in the center of the old city dedicated to the victory over the Germans. He also showed me an old farmhouse near the city center where all the charter members of the USSR met in 1922 to form the USSR. Right next to that museum is an apartment building where Lee Harvey Oswald lived. Like most people I thought/assumed that he lived in Moscow? Although there weren’t many ‘touristy’ things to see in Minsk I appreciated the history lesson and cultural information provided by the guide.

Later that day I had to make my way back out to the Sports Center to meet the race director. He had asked a friend who worked as a translator for a local company to volunteer to translate for us. The race director welcomed me to Minsk and informed me that I was the first American to run the marathon. I had several logistical questions such as: “where does the race start, when, how I do get there”? etc. He answered most of them but I was concerned because his standard answer was to show up at the sports center at 2 pm and he would make sure I got to the start line at Victory Square at 4 pm. Right? He doesn’t speak English and he will be very busy? But at least I had a good idea of what was happening, where and when. Time to find a restaurant for my standard pre-race pasta dinner. Easier said than done. I had already learned that the standard food in Belarus was meat and potatoes – there was very little rice or pasta on the menu – when I could read a menu.

But I was lucky to find a small pasta restaurant near the city center that served pizza and spaghetti. However the race didn’t start until 4pm on Sat so that meant I would have to eat lunch the next day before the race. And what would I do until 4 pm? No problem. Both the guide and translator had told me that Sat was Independence Day and the whole day would be filled with parades, concerts and celebrations. The marathon had originally been scheduled to start at 9am but was changed to 4 pm because of the morning parade.

So on Sat morning I got up – had another wonderful breakfast – and took the Metro into the city center. All public transportation was free on Sat so that all citizens could enjoy the Independence Day celebrations – and the metro was packed! When I emerged from the metro there had to be a least ½ million people making there way to the hill where the Minsk Hero-City Monument is located. The parade was a typical Communist/Soviet military parade. Half (or all) of the Belarus military marched by the podium with all the dignitaries and military brass followed by military equipment – jeeps, tanks, missile launchers, etc – while Migs , attack helicopters, etc flew overhead! After a few hours I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to find the pizza restaurant and have a pizza for lunch.

Then it was time to go back to the hotel to pick up my bag and gear and head for the Sports Center. I arrived at the Sports center at 2pm as requested and eventually found Mr. Kizil who showed me where the men’s locker room was. However by the time I changed and came back up to the lobby he was gone? I wasn’t surprised. So I approached another runner/marathoner and asked him where I could store my bag. He didn’t understand me but he understood what I needed and kindly led me to the equipment room. I then asked him how he was getting to the start. Again he understood what I needed and indicated for me to follow him and a few friends. We walked about a mile through alleys and side streets to the nearest metro station and took the Metro to the start line at Victory Square. In very limited English he told me that he had been in the same predicament last year when he ran the Toronto marathon and some kind runner had taken him under his wing and guided him to the start line. He was returning the favor. We tried to converse but I think he knew about 20 words of English and I knew about 5 words of Russian so the conversation was short.

When we emerged from the metro at Victory Square there were about 100,000 people gathered around the square. Our fans? Hardly! There was a concert in the square. There were 130 runners in the marathon and about another 100 in the Half so we gathered together off to the side and waited for the start. There were only two port-o-potties for the runners (and 100,00 party goers) so I found a tree in a nearby park for my last minute duties. The good news was that it was the hottest part of the day so I wasn’t cold waiting for the start. The bad news was that the first half of the race would be very warm. The race started promptly at 4 pm. The traffic was stopped and one side of the main street was closed down. 100,000 fans cheered us on as we started east on the main street and out of the city. The road was closed down for the first 5 km but around 8km the road became a 4-lane divided highway to goes east to Moscow and at that point we were required to move to the shoulder of the highway and the traffic resumed driving by at 100+ kph. And there was very little (or NO) traffic control beyond that point. I was concerned about safety so I decided to stay with a small group of runners in front of me – safety in numbers? They were running faster than I wanted to but I still felt that I needed to stay with a group of locals that hopefully knew the rules of the jungle?

I also hadn’t seen any water stations or distance markers at that point and began to think that perhaps they should have doubled the entry fee to provide some water, markers and traffic control? Finally we reached the first water station. A sign said 10km – but my time was only 45:30 and if the marker was correct my pace was much too fast! Took my first gel and washed it down with – sparkling water! I hate sparkling water! But at least it was bottled water and I had no choice – other than to die from dehydration. The course was much hillier than I expected. There were several long rolling hills but I managed to stay with my little group. We reached another marker (15km) and water at 1:12:05. That seemed more reasonable so I decided I would stay with my group though the first Half at least. There was no marker for 20km or the Half so I stayed with my group as we made a turn in the middle of the Moscow Highway about 23km and finally there was another water station and marker at 25km. Time 2:03:10. We were running a sub-8 minute pace so I decided that I needed to back off for a few miles because I didn’t think I could hold that pace for another 17km with the hills and the heat.

So I backed off to an 8-min pace for the next 5km and kept the group within sight. Reached 30km at 2:28:57. I was feeling better and it had finally started to cool down so I was thinking that I would stay behind the group until 35km and then make a push to catch them. But at that moment a runner blew by me and he looked like he might be in my age group! Crap! If he can run that fast so can I. So I picked up my pace and dropped in behind him. Damn – this guy is moving! We passed my old group and reached 35km in 2:51:10. No way I can hold this maniacal pace for another 7km so I reluctantly decide to let him go and try to keep him in sight. Fortunately it started to rain lightly which helped to cool down the temps so I was able to stay close but I knew I couldn’t catch him unless he faded badly. Around 37km we turned off the Moscow Hwy and headed into the suburbs towards the finish at the sports Center. I was hurting badly myself and almost got run over by a car as a crossed the road in a curve to shorten the course. “Pay attention Maddog” – you do not want to spend time in a Belarus hospital!

I still had my competitor in sight as I reached 40km in 3:16:13. But I was really hurting. I probably would have walked at that point except that I knew a sub 3:30 marathon was in the bag if I just kept running. So I used every last once of will power to overcome the pain in my body and the ‘deadness’ in my legs to keep the old bod moving. Finally I could see the Sports Center and the old bod gave me a final jolt of adrenaline as I entered the stadium and sprinted a final lap around the track to cross the finish line in 3:27:00. I finished about 30 secs behind that guy who I later learned was in the 5-54 age group. I had actually won my age group by more than 20 minutes which is surprising because the European runners are good!

After a quick shower I retraced the path to the metro and took the metro to the city center. My plan/idea was to find a nice sidewalk café in the city center, drink a few beers, eat dinner and watch the celebrations. Yeh- right! When I emerged from the metro there must have been a MILLION people in the city center. It was wall-to wall people on the streets. Even the beer kiosks had lines a block long! I wasn’t in the mood for lines and crowds so I decided to walk a few blocks and if I couldn’t find a seat in a cafe I would go back to the hotel to eat. Luck was with me as I found a nice café on the main street with one small empty table outside. Unfortunately the restaurant didn’t have an English menu and the waitress and I had great difficulty trying to communicate. This problem was a source of laughter for a couple of young beautiful ladies at the next table who finally came to my rescue. They were university students and spoke excellent English so they helped me order my beer and a steak dinner.

On Sun I had to catch a train at 12:40pm that would take 25 hours to travel from Minsk through the Ukraine to Chisinau, Moldova. Since the train ticket was in Russian the travel agent had written the pertinent information in English for me – train #, coach #, seat # and departure time. All I needed to know was the track #. Thus I took a taxi to the train station about one hour before departure time so that I would have lots of time to find my train. Should be simple? Wrong! When I looked at the station monitor (all in Russian except numbers) there were two numbers beside my train number? One should be the track number but what the hell is that other number? I tried to ask a few young people in the hopes that they would speak English – no luck! Finally I found a young teenage boy and handed him my ticket and pointed to the monitor. He didn’t speak English but he understood my need and led me over to ‘gate 1’ and pointed to ‘track 1’. Sure enough my train pulled into that track about 15 minutes later. I found my coach – showed my ticket to the conductor who didn’t speak English but she nodded that I was in the right place. I found my first class sleeper cabin – put my baggage away – and waited for the train to depart and start my next adventure.

Stay tuned! (It will be shorter – I promise!)


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