On the following morning, we woke up pretty excited in anticipation of our flight to Belarus, a place that exerted a strange fascination on us after all the reading we made about it. A driver picked us up in the early morning at our apartment and drove us to Boryspil airport through the wide Mykola Bazhan Avenue (lined with tall residential buildings) and the Boryspil highway.
The current iteration of Kiev Boryspil airport comprises 3 main, unconnected terminals which are linked to each other by a shuttle bus. I have lost track of which is which exactly, but here's a very brief summary:
- Terminal B is a relatively old terminal which was renovated and expanded in phases and now serves a mix of domestic and international flights and carriers. This is the terminal we departed from, since all Aerosvit flights operate from there.
- Terminal D is the most recent of all terminals. Opened in 2012, just in time for the Euro 2012 football tournament, it's obviously state of the art and apparently much larger than other terminals. Most major foreign airlines operating to Kiev are based in this terminal. Terminal D is located relatively far to the north of the other two terminals.
- Terminal F was opened in 2010 and was intended to server as a low cost terminal. Today it is used for all Ukraine International Airlines' international flights as well as by some foreign airlines (mainly from CIS countries). I understand that as more flights are transferred to terminal D, terminal F will serve as a low cost/charter terminal.
- There's also a small 'Terminal C' between B and F, which I presume is used as a business aviation terminal.
The extremely outdated domestic 'Terminal A' that I used in 2010 is now out of service, which was definitely long overdue.
As we entered terminal B, we were greeted by a crowd of passengers sleeping on seats and directly on the ground.
The place did not feel crowded and we soon got checked in for our Aerosvit flight to Minsk.
Once again, passing security and immigration was as easy as it gets. Interestingly, a man in front of us who was travelling with a large number of collector coins attracted the attention of the security screener, apparently not for security reasons, but rather because he seemed to be genuinely interested in the coins themselves.
We had a coffee near our gate and took advantage of the free Wifi in the terminal. I noticed a small reminder of the Soviet past of the place, which felt decent and modern otherwise.
Note the Soviet ornament on the wall.
It was definitely cold outside as we were bussed to our aircraft, Embraer ERJ-145LR UR-DNV (in Dniproavia livery), a frame which used to fly for Alitalia Express from 2003 till 2010 (some signs in Italian were still visible in the cabin). I had a brief moment of excitement as the bus slowed down in front of an Aerosvit Antonov 148, a very rare type which I thought for a second could have been a substitution for us.
The cabin of our Embraer was tiny but comfortable. The load appeared to be decent. Announcements were made in Ukrainian, English and Russian.
As we took off (like a rocket!) from runway 36R, I noticed an apron in the northeast corner of the airport full of Soviet metal (Il-76, Tu-134, Tu-154, Yak-40, An-12, An-24, helicopters, ...). Not sure what it was exactly, perhaps some sort of military/government apron?
Mr B and I both hoped to catch a glimpse of the Chernobyl power plant from above since the logical route from Kiev to Minsk passes nearby, but it was cloudy for most of the flight.
Filling the 'landing card'...
We were served a decent sandwich with coffee and as we emerged from the clouds, we noticed that the ground was completely covered by snow.
Not long after, we landed on Minsk airport's runway 31.
Wow! What a time machine it was! This airport looks so 'Soviet' from inside and outside! All the Soviet-era planes (mainly Il-76s) parked in the snow added to the overall impression of having landed in a very 'different' place.
It's also the first time that I saw an Il-76 connected to a jet bridge:
We were bussed to the terminal, first to a gate where we were apparently not expected, then to a second one where our small group of passengers was directed to immigration through dark and outdated corridors. We bought the obligatory medical insurance just before going through immigration paying the small insurance premium with euro coins... My passport was thoroughly checked by the immigration officer using a magnifying glass and I was accepted into Belarus without any questions or other hassle.
We then took the 'nothing to declare' lane at customs, only to be told to get back to the other lane where our bags were put through an X-ray scanner. I was asked whether I had cash and credit cards, but all in all the process was fast and we soon found ourselves in the dark arrival hall where a (very attractive, if I may) representative from the car rental company was waiting for us. Mr B withdrew some Belarusian rubles from an ATM and instantly became a millionaire, which did not require too much hard work at about 11000 rubles for one euro (he was kind enough to share part of his new wealth with me...).
After having put my signature on at least 10 different places of the 4 examples of the 1 day car rental contract (no kidding!), we started our exploration of the strange but fascinating country that Belarus is.
We first drove to the small city of Nesvizh where an impressive Unesco World Heritage listed castle is located:
Nesvizh left us with the impression of an interesting but sleepy town (especially outside the compact city center):
A somewhat related feeling that we acquired during most of our Belarusian driving is that many roads, even main ones, are hauntingly devoid of traffic. On the other hand, and perhaps unexpectedly, we both agreed that road signage was excellent along all the roads that we took. With a standard road map, it's impossible to get lost (provided you can read Cyrillic characters, but this should be an absolute minimum if you consider visiting Belarus). The following photos, taken at various times during our stay, on main and secondary roads, are meant to illustrate the general lack of traffic:
The above pic was taken as we entered Minsk, the capital, on a main highway...
Anyway, we enjoyed our visit of Nesvizh as well as the simple but tasty (and cheap!) lunch that we had there, in a very Soviet looking restaurant.
We then drove to the larger city of Baranovichi where we spent the night.
It was very interesting to spend the evening exploring a secondary, non-touristic Belarusian city to taste its particular atmosphere.
At first, we had planned to stay at a decent hotel, but as we wanted to book it, we were told that it was not possible since we were two men and they only had rooms with double beds... So, we opted for the other option in town, the (very!) decrepit 'Soviet' Horizont hotel, a large 1979 built concrete block right at the very center of the city (Lenin Square, of course).
At the end of the day, we did not regret the switch since that hotel was quite an experience in itself (the front desk staff was at first surprised to see two guys arriving with a Belgian and American passport, then the expression on their face turned into embarrassment as they gave us the key to our room...). Would not recommend it except to those who want to know how a Soviet hotel whose maintenance evidently stopped with the collapse of the Soviet Union would look like in 2012...
View from our room:
On the other hand, I should mention that, even though restaurants are not easy to find in Baranovichi (and the rest of Belarus, apparently), we had a tasty dinner of Belarusian cuisine at a very decent place near the hotel.
The next day, we drove back to Minsk via some villages and small towns like Novogrudok:
As we neared Minsk, we decided to have a look at the old 'Minsk-1' airport (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minsk-1_Airport) right in the middle of residential areas.
Soviet mosaic on the way to Minsk. Nice model of a Belavia Tu-134 somewhere in Minsk.
Featuring that neoclassical terminal architecture that is so typical of early Soviet airports, Minsk-1 was opened in 1933 and served as Minsk's main airport until the opening of 'Minsk-2' in 1982.
The last scheduled flight (UTair to Moscow-Vnukovo) operated until a few days before our visit. We noticed a couple of parked general aviation aircraft as well as at least two Antonov 12's, of which one was seemingly prepared for departure. So, despite the lack of scheduled flights, it would seem that the airport still sees some activity.
We decided to enter the terminal building which was obviously very quiet and reminded me of my other experience with the same type of terminal in Lviv, Ukraine. I was instructed to not take pictures by a security agent.
After that interesting visit, we drove to the northern suburbs to visit Minsk's main aviation museum (apparently another small aviation exhibit exists at Minsk-2 airport) at Borovaya. I'm glad that we found about it on Google Earth before our departure, because we did not see any mention of it anywhere in Belarus, and no signs on the road leading to it.
It's actually located on a small airfield with a grass runway (Borovaya airfield, sometimes referred to as 'Minsk Northeast'), which appears to have an active aeroclub (parachute jumps, flight school, ...).
We were about the only visitors but we met a seemingly motivated guy who, despite speaking almost no English, guided us around (and in) the museum artifacts and told us about some new arrivals to the museum and pending aircraft restoration.
Yours faithfully, at the controls of a Mi-24 helicopter!
He mentioned that he often practice parachute jumping from one of the club's Antonov 2's and invited us inside one.
Very appropriately, we witnessed an Antonov 2 taking off almost at the same moment, and dropping a load of parachutists not long after.
While military aircraft constitute most of the collection, the museum has a couple of interesting civil machines such as Ilyushins 14 and 18, Lisunov Li-2, Yak-40 and Tupolev 134.
The Tupolev 134 (RA-65038) arrived at the museum in 2010 after having last served for Tyumen Airlines and was beautifully restored and painted in Aeroflot colors.
I was pretty excited when our guide invited us on board, since I've never been inside a Tu-134. Unfortunately, after multiple attempts at opening the door, he gave up and just said: "It's winter. Door blocked.".
So, my only experience with a Tu-134 cabin remains limited to a look through the window:
The remaining of our stay in Belarus focused on exploring Minsk. Note how light traffic is in the very center of the capital:
Minsk is a real showcase of Stalinist architecture and city layout concepts and is definitely very interesting (and impressive) in that respect. Of course, the actual beauty of it depends on the individual tastes of the visitor and most will agree that it carries an intense feeling of austerity, especially when the weather becomes dull and rainy like on our second day there. Soviet symbols like stars, hammers and sickles are still visible on most buildings, and a large statue of Lenin is still doing strong on the city's main square (Independence Square), which in itself is probably the quintessence of austere architecture.
Beside that Stalinist central core are numerous parks, a tiny but neatly renovated old town, a couple of interesting monuments and memorials and endless Soviet looking residential blocks. I apologize again for the high number of pictures, I thought they might be interesting to some of you since Minsk is not exactly a frequently covered place on this forum:
This is the presidential palace, if I'm not mistaken.
There was a holocaust memorial near our hotel:
The city is generally pretty clean and safe and boasts a small but effective two line metro system:
We also paid a quick visit to the main railway station:
Our hotel (Yubileiny Hotel) was very decent. This is the view from our room and the adjacent hallway:
Overall, I would say that Minsk is definitely a very special place, as they say, the closest you can go to being in the Soviet Union while actually being in 2012, and we enjoyed visiting it. It could feel somewhat oppressive for the unprepared traveler though. Interestingly, I found that it looks somewhat less austere at night, with all the illuminated buildings:
Forum member FlyingFinn76 did an excellent job of describing and illustrating (under more clement weather!) Minsk so I will direct interested readers to his recent report here:
I absolutely agree with all he says about the place (and yes, I'm a big fan of all his reports...).
Here's a quote from his report that I shamelessly took to illustrate my own photo:
this is actually a circus - many ex-Soviet places have these fixed circuses as opposed to the big top tent kind of things we westerners associate with the word
And another one, while I'm at it:
So, those two days in Minsk marked the end of our trip. We still had to go back to our respective countries, which started with an early morning Aeroflot flight from Minsk to Moscow. We took an expensive taxi to Minsk-2 airport where we arrived at about 4:45am. The impression of an old and dark building, coming straight from the USSR, that we had had on arrival was confirmed.
I was checked in all the way to Brussels (but I had problems with the agent and her supervisor who had apparently never been confronted to a two-entry Russian transit visa), while on Mr B's side only the boarding pass to Moscow could be issued. The baggage handling system was very interesting, with a kind of 'lift' taking bags down in a noisy jerky movement.
The landside part of the terminal has limited amenities to say the least. Only a small, basic café and one of those baggage wrapping machines that seem so popular in CIS countries.
To be fair, it's possible that some other services were closed at that early time. Mr B looked for a currency exchange counter but the one he found was closed.
After some time, we saw a queue forming in front of an opaque door with a 'Gate 2' sign. We joined it and realized that behind that door was the security checkpoint where they would only let one or two passengers in at a time. One of the liquid containers in the plastic bag that I spontaneously exhibited was 150ml, 50 more than the allowed limit, which prompted the security agent to send me back to check-in where I was supposed to ask for my case back and put that small tube of gel in it. No thanks, you can just keep it for yourself or throw it in the bin. The fact that I was willing to abandon that thing that had cost me something like 3 euros seemed to be a shocker to the agent, who eventually let me through with it with a "next time..." that was supposed to mean that I should be more careful next time (which I promised).
After that security check we entered directly into the gate waiting lounge which had an interesting layout, with multiple circular sofas surrounding clothed tables.
I did not see any passage between gates so we were basically stuck in that lounge waiting for our flight. I understand that gate 2, where we were, is used for domestic and Russia flights and is not connected to gates 3 to 6, which are the international gates, for a total of 5 usable gates (gate 1 being a VIP lounge). I also understand that international gates are better equipped with shops and bars.
As of November 2012, no scheduled domestic flights operate in Belarus, even though the country has a couple of civil airports in cities like Brest, Gomel or Grodno, from which Belavia operates seasonal flights to Kaliningrad in Russia. Interestingly, the political closeness between Belarus and Russia means that flights between both countries are considered as domestic (hence our use of the domestic gate and lack of immigration check), in addition to them using a common 'arrival card'. Visas for both countries are still distinct, though.
Back to our gate. The waiting lounge featured a small bar and an even smaller 'duty free shop', actually just a couple of shelves with limited items. There was a small separate waiting lounge for business class passengers with a funny 'Business Gate' sign. Boarding started at 5:30. Unless my memory plays tricks on me, I seem to remember that we used a jet bridge to enter VQ-BIU, a relatively new (1.5 year old) A320 named after Kliment Timiryazev, a Russian botanist and physiologist (1843-1920 - apparently he also has a station of the Moscow Metro and a lunar crater named after him...).
As we took our seats, I observed a Belavia Tu-154 being prepared for its upcoming charter service to either Aqaba, Jordan or Hurghada, Egypt (as I understand it, Belavia's Tupolevs are restricted to charter routes nowadays). We took off from runway 13 and flew the short hop to Moscow following what was basically a straight line over Orsha, Belarus then Smolensk, Russia. We were offered a tasty sandwich for breakfast, along with a choice of coffee or tea.
The plane was definitely not full, I wonder whether the initially assigned Sukhoi SuperJet could have been enough for the light load...
It was still dark, and pretty rainy, as we landed on Moscow Sheremetyevo airport's runway 25R. We were bussed to terminal D where we arrived just as we would have on a Russian domestic flight.
As we were walking toward the exit, an Aeroflot employee, who was apparently waiting for Mr B, asked "Connection? America?". After the positive response of Mr B, he directed him to a transfer corridor. This is where we said goodbye to each other after 10 days of a fantastic trip, and before our respective returns to home, thousands of miles apart.
As Mr B was about to leave to New York on Aeroflot flight 100, I took the AeroExpress train once again to continue my visit of Moscow, this time in daylight but under rain.
When I decided that I was wet enough, I took the AeroExpress back to Sheremetyevo airport and proceeded to terminal F after a basic first security check. As I said before, terminal F is the original 'Sheremetyevo-2' international terminal that was built for the 1980 Olympics, and it definitely feels very outdated when compared to the beautiful terminals D and E. Although I was many hours in advance, I decided to go airside and spend a part of the afternoon there eating, drinking and watching traffic. The way to airside was quite interesting: first, customs control, then check-in counters, then you basically pass behind check-in counters to immigration before emerging in the airside lounges.
Since I was very early (which confused the lady at customs as she could not see my flight on her list), no check-in counters were assigned to my flight so I just picked a random one and passed it much like you would do at your local supermarket when you pass the cash desk to exit without purchases. In front of the check-in agent's confused look, I just showed my nice Belavia branded boarding pass (which she did not look in detail) and said 'Already checked in!'.
Terminals D, E and F are connected airside, so I spent most of my time in E, where the views on the apron are the best, and went to a restaurant in D. I also decided to check whether beer would taste different in D, E and F (it doesn't...).
Terminal F became a bit of a mess in the evening as multiple long haul flights departed to places like Hong Kong, Bangkok and Phuket, evidencing a clear lack of seats.
We were bussed to a remote parking stand where VP-BWJ, an 8 year old Airbus A319 named after Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (the captain actually mentioned this during his welcome announcement...). It was again close to a full load tonight, with both seats on my row occupied. We received the same meal options as on the previous Aeroflot flights: choice between 2 hot meals, cold drink round, hot drink round. After the meal, I slept most of the time since there was nothing to see in the dark outside. The skies cleared as we entered Belgium and I enjoyed the spectacular views of Antwerp all lit up.
We landed on Brussels airport's runway 25L with only a minor delay, but this meant that I had just missed the last opportunity to get home by train. Since I was exhausted, I decided to spend the night at the Sheraton Brussels Airport which is extremely conveniently located across the street from the terminal.
As always, I will appreciate all your comments.
Do not hesitate to have a look at my other reports if you're interested:
knightsofmalta From Malta, joined Nov 2005, 1416 posts, RR: 17 Reply 1, posted (6 months 2 weeks 12 hours ago) and read 2063 times:
I greatly enjoyed both reports you posted on this trip. They were both fascinating to read and the pictures you took are stunning. The former Soviet Union was never much top of the list for me. But seeing your pictures I think I may want to visit Moscow some time soon.
AirAfreak From United States of America, joined Apr 2012, 244 posts, RR: 0 Reply 3, posted (6 months 2 weeks 9 hours ago) and read 2063 times:
Thank you so much for this report! I have never flown to Minsk and I like the idea of how "this city is the closest you will get to the Soviet Union in 2012," so you have given me a new destination to add to my list! Your photos are great and well-documented! Excellent!!!!
BrusselsSouth From Belgium, joined Aug 2001, 598 posts, RR: 5 Reply 5, posted (6 months 1 week 6 days 2 hours ago) and read 2062 times:
Thanks for your nice comments people.
Since I was in a hurry when I posted this report, here are some comments that I meant to add to some of the photos:
At Kiev Boryspil airport
- The pic of the 'Bon Voyage' bar shows what was actually a Belgium-themed bar. In Kiev, of all places...
- The plane with the 'MAY' (actually Міжнародні Авіалінії України - Ukraine International Airlines) sign on the engine is an Antonov 148, produced in Ukraine. A rare type with about 16 examples in service.
Kiev - Minsk flight (ERJ-145)
- There's a pic of Mr B with his favorite IFE: a map on his knees Baranovichi photos
- The 'mosaic' picture (from the white church with blue roofs) is that of a mosaic that was salvaged from the destruction of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Warsaw.
Minsk-1 airport photos
- The last pic (with the two tower-shaped buildings and the green bus) was taken from the airport terminal door, to illustrate the airport's location in the city center.
Minsk city photos
- The strange diamond-shaped building is the iconic Belarusian National Library.
- The small green wooden house with white windows surrounded by trees was the place where the Social Democratic workers party that became the Bolshevik party was founded in 1898.
- The blue train car (with a '8' sign on the window) was part of a train that was about to leave to St Petersburg, Russia.
FlyingFinn76 From Finland, joined Jun 2009, 1705 posts, RR: 41 Reply 7, posted (6 months 1 week 4 days 16 hours ago) and read 2057 times:
Good to read this second part too. Everything I said about the first part applies also here. I'm quite surprised to see snow in Belarus this early, though! But I guess it isn't called "White Russia" for nothing...
Lots of familiar sights there from my short visit to this most obscure of European countries this summer, indeed it is a very interesting and different country and a definitive blast from Soviet past.
Good to see your trip ended well too.
Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter): The following photos, taken at various times during our stay, on main and secondary roads, are meant to illustrate the general lack of traffic:
Hah, noticed exactly the same during my bus rides to and from Minsk-2 to the city. Very deserted roads - the poverty of the average citizen is quite in your face there.
Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter): Forum member FlyingFinn76 did an excellent job of describing and illustrating (under more clement weather!) Minsk so I will direct interested readers to his recent report here:
I absolutely agree with all he says about the place (and yes, I'm a big fan of all his reports...).
Here's a quote from his report that I shamelessly took to illustrate my own photo:
Thanks for the name dropping, honorable mention and the kind words!
sultanils From Belgium, joined Mar 2010, 1188 posts, RR: 29 Reply 8, posted (6 months 1 week 4 days 1 hour ago) and read 2057 times:
Hello again BrusselsSouth,
Thanks for this equally nice and interesting sequel of your Russian and beyond roadtrip. A fascinating destination it sure looks like. Minsk airport looks indeed very Soviet-like, to me it is just an UFO that has landed. Complement that with some old russian jetliners and you have the complete picture. Good to see you flew one of those nicely coloured Dniproavia jets. On the apron there was apparently some more of that odly coloured stuff (Donbassaero?).
9w748capt From United States of America, joined Feb 2008, 409 posts, RR: 0 Reply 12, posted (6 months 1 week 1 day 7 hours ago) and read 2057 times:
Wow - what a great couple of reports! I became hooked right away and read all the way through. What an interesting adventure to drive through Belarus and Ukraine! Great stuff. And don't apologize at all for the number of photos - they were all fantastic! And as you said, covered two countries that are rarely shown in such detail here.
Thank you again for taking the time to put these reports together - what a great read!