Mir, Navahrudak & Brest

Well this is it. The last email before I get my flight back to Birmingham tomorrow from Warsaw. Yesterday and today have been by far the best 2 days of the holiday so far, if very strenuous.

The first day was an early start from Minsk at 07:50 for the 2 hour coach to Mir. This has an old castle set in the middle of a lake once again. This however, has been extensively renovated and some of the work is still being done. Belarus sees this as one of its main tourist sites so they are doing their best to spruce it up a bit, along with the town centre which has all been renewed. As it is one of the only remaining old buildings left standing after the ravages of time and war, I can see their point. What a castle though, a fantastic setting in a mature leafy wooded park that you can walk around and just chill out. There is a huge lake in front, which the locals seemed to enjoy swimming in. Lots of photos and wondering around the castle and a chat with the young lady and her son who run the ice-cream stall in front. A fridge, a generator and a 50M cable strung along the pavement, very simple, but effective.

Next up was the journey to Navahrudak. This was made all the more difficult but the lack of buses. Not a problem though. After I took the advice of an elderly lady and moved up the road I managed to hitch a lift to the next village which was about half way. Another trek in the baking sun 29 to 30 degrees with all my kit and I managed to get a lift to Navahrudak. Even though it is not even in my guidebook and the only reason I wanted to go there is that I saw a photo in a book. I was just delighted at what I found. An old town which still retains is old charm with many old buildings freshly painted and looking neat and tidy. The castle remains (the photo I mentioned) were superb. Two brick towers on magnificent defensive earthen banks that have stood the test of time and the original designers plan. The village is situated on the only bit of high land for miles and miles. As the weather was clear I just sat they relaxed and took in the view and watched the elderly lady round up her goats that were grazing the bank.

After a bit of organizing I decided to get the bus to the main train line and then a train to Brest. Time was moving on at this stage and I considered I would not be in Brest until midnight (as it happens it was 01:30 the last bit is another story for another time). The bus journey to Baranovichy was straight forward, then a mad taxi dash across town at warp factor 8 to the train station. The train was at 22:36, when I got there it was 20:00. A long wait but I thought I could have more time in bed in the morning and I would be set up for the day. The guy next to me then spotted me writing my diary up in English. We got chatting and I find out his name is Alexi Stankevich. He was one of only a small number of “first class” fighter pilots who helped develop the Sukhoi su 27 fighter plane. I could not believe it . You could have knocked me down with a feather. Just when I had spare time on my hands I meet a one in a million bloke who speaks perfect English. We had a fascinating chat about life, politics, travel and flying a SU27 (that was him mainly). Tales of one of his pilot friends doing a low fly past in a small town in Siberia as a favour for a “young lady” who had helped replace on of the engines that had failed. He blew out all the windows in the street. Lost his license but he did not seem to care, he had flown an SU27. Alexi said the SU27 was the perfect plane and flying it was the best feeling in life he has ever had, one day he hopes to return to flying but at the moment he is a business man importing walnuts from Kyrgyzstan, and owns a company making rubber motor drive belts. I will recount all the other stories he told me over a pint or 2 at a later date. One of the most enjoyable evenings ever. Worth every mosquito bite I got.

Today I have been around the fortress monument at Brest, a super place that is on a huge scale with a magnificent vast concrete Soviet statue entitled “valour”. It pays tribute to the men and women who held out for 1 month whilst trying to stop the advancing German army in 1941. As a hero monument it certainly hits the spot. Lots of poignant photos, exhibits, statues, pictures etc… . Belarus will never forget the people who fought here or the stoic attitude which still remains in certain Belarus attitudes to life today. As their saying goes “the last thing to die is hope”.

Any way it is off for another beer and a wonder around the town before my train at 23:55 to Warsaw tonight.

I have as usual had a fantastic holiday. So many things appear to have gone right thanks to travel gods. The cleanliness and hospitality of the country is just astonishing. Minsk is a gem of a place, I would recommend it to anybody for a weekend break. It has class and lots of it.

It is the people that have made it though; Mikail and Sergai the security police in Vitebsk, Olga the English student and the Balsam in Braslav, the numerous Babushkas with a fearsome exterior but a heart of gold who will always look after you no matter what and last of all Alexi, one of the original SU 27 test pilot who is one of only 4 remaining, boldness was a strong point.

During the conversation last night between Alexi and I, I mentioned about my extensive adventurous travel and he said “you must be very brave”. This coming from a man who helped develop one of the worlds best fighter aircraft and once pulled 9G for thirty seconds during testing. I was speechless… .

Long live Belarus and raise a glass to all of the people I have met over the past two weeks.

Thanks to Alie for being patient once again.

PS Did I here somebody mention Moldova?