Russian Around Russia, Belarus and Poland

Day 165 (22nd of August, 2016) – Moscow, Russia

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Moscow.

I’m becoming addicted to this place. Russia is absolutely stunning. My usual answer to the question “what’s the best place you’ve ever travelled to?” is Japan, but Russia is quickly becoming a genuine challenger to that title.

Let’s begin with the drive in yesterday. The outskirts conformed to the stereotype of Moscow being grim and industrial. But even those bits I enjoyed. Russia pulls ‘grim’ off really well.

But as we approached the centre of Moscow, it became as stunning as St Petersburg. Here was my first glance of the famous Bolshoi Theatre.

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In the morning of our first full day, we drove directly to Lomonosov Moscow State University. More commonly known as MSU, this school claims the highest educational building in the world and is amongst the most respected universities.

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Just adjacent to this monument is a spectacular view of Moscow’s CBD. This economic powerhouse is the centre of a country which churns out a whopping $3.685t in GDP, the sixth highest in the world. Moscow itself accounts for 22% of this figure, and has a population of 16.8 million… just think about that.

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Perched at the top of this viewpoint are two ski-jump ramps which are used by local daredevils in winter.

If only it was snowing – I could have shown off my signature backflip.

A few minutes’ drive away was the Moscow Fallen Monument Park. This park contains dozens of Soviet Era monuments which can no longer call the city home. It is the largest open-air sculpture museum in Russia with more than 700 artworks currently on display and another 200 in storage. The park was formerly referred to as the “Park of the Fallen Heroes”, and when you see pictures of who is depicted in the statues, you’ll work out why that name was changed.

Of the most famous statues are Stalin:

Marx:

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Lenin:

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And Peter the Great, which stands at 98m tall:

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The most interesting part of the park was not the statues themselves though. Rather, it was the stories given by our guide, Golena. Golena grew up during the Soviet Era, and her recounts of her career as a high school teacher provide a lot of insight into was life was like.

She told us of the fear which shot through her veins when she would be called into the CCCP (Soviet Union) office of the school and questioned about a politically ambiguous line which she said and was reported by one of the students.

She recalled her tears and borderline uncontrollable rage when the officer told her, “Remember your young daughter. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to her.”

She told of the strict food rations even during peacetime. One of her most entertaining stories was actually about the very first McDonald’s opened in Moscow. She waited in line for three hours only to get to the front and realise that there was no limit as to how much she could order. Like the other people in the store, she ordered as many Big Macs as she could afford and hid all but one in her clothing because she was scared that she would be judged for using up the country’s resources. She told of her suspicion at the smiles of the McDonald’s staff and their wish for her to “have a good day”.

It was very fitting that Golena then took us to the Red Square – the centre of both Russian Tsarist leadership, the Revolution and resulting Communism.

While the rest of the group went to the Kremlin Armoury to see the treasures of the Romanov family, I decided to explore the Red Square on my own and take in a period of Russian history which fascinated me more than their monarchist past.

In order to reach the Red Square, you have to walk along the exterior walls of the Kremlin.

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The walk takes you past dozens of fascinating sights and beautiful Russian buildings.

The main entrance to the Red Square is marked by the Monument to Marshal Zhukov.

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Zhukov was the most successful Russian General in World War II who led the successful attack on the Nazis in the Battle of Berlin in 1945.

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Reaching the Square itself, it seemed smaller than I expected it to be. This as largely because most of it is closed off to prepare for upcoming military parades in October.

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Nonetheless, the Red Square is the second largest public square in the world only to Tiananmen in Beijing.

The space is lined by some of Moscow’s most famous sights. I found the most beautiful building to be this one.

I sat for some time admiring its beautiful cream colour and clean European look before I found out that this was actually a shopping centre. I couldn’t believe it. I decided to continue walking in case there was more to see and then return to the building later to explore its interior.

Down the end of the Square is St Basil’s Cathedral. This is the icon of Russia, and a building which I have dreamed of visiting since I was very, very young. The Cathedral was built from 1555-61 on orders from Ivan the Terrible and commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan in the Russo-Kazan wars of the 1500’s.

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Just look at the colours of each of the domes. It’s like a collection of bubblegum flavoured ice creams at a fair. It was designed to resemble flames of a bonfire rising into the sky.

It was outside the Cathedral that I also took the last of many calls from Topdeck regarding the calamity back in Jordan and missing out on a night in Jerusalem. We settled on compensation of just over AU$200, so it didn’t end up working out too badly.

The group was spending some time at the Armoury and I figured out that I had quite a lot of free time, so I embarked on a big walking journey around the surrounding districts. I took a particular fancy to the Tverskaya neighbourhood. The streets here were dotted with cottage-like cafés and high-end boutiques. Suspended above the streets were different sculptures.

I spent some time roaming the area and admiring the street art.

I logged in to Tripadvisor to find a good eatery to have a lazy lunch at. One of the top rated places was a Russian dumpling house. This suited me since I’m yet to taste the famous dumplings of Eastern Europe.

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I ordered pork dumplings as well as basil and chicken ones. They were doused in oil and melted in your mouth in a way that their Asian equivalents just don’t. It reminded me of tortellini.

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I called a few people at home and spent the afternoon relaxing with different Russians who would come and go after trying out their English on me.

Afterwards, I returned to the Red Square to take a closer look at the GUM shopping centre. While standing outside it, I came to appreciate different things about the view (similar to when you watch a movie for a second time). This time, I found it particularly attractive how the beige mall was just a few dozen metres from such the striking blood-orange of the State Historical Museum.

The inside of GUM was unbelievably luxurious. It almost looked like two separate buildings had been joined together by a glass ceiling.

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The fountain within was full of floating watermelons and filled the enclosure with the pleasant sound of rain.

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At 4:30pm we were able to follow on a tour of the Kremlin. This is another one of the monuments which drew me to visiting Russia, and so I excitedly joined the group. The Kremlin includes five palaces, four cathedrals, and the enclosing Kremlin Wall with Kremlin towers. It serves as the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation, Monsieur Vladimir Putin.

You had to cross a bridge to reach the inside of the citadel at which point the space opened up and you could enjoy the relative peace in the centre of what is a bustling city.

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We walked through this grand gate to get in.

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The government buildings range from European-inspired Russian architecture to more modern (and greyer) buildings.

When the occasional tourist ignorantly stepped onto the cobblestone roads reserved for government vehicles and personnel, the police would whistle two piercingly high notes. This happened a few times during our visit, and every time the tourist hurried back onto their designated path. We were told, though, that if these whistles were ignored, three more would be blown. After that, the marksmen perched at the top of the buildings (I decided not to take pictures of them) would fire a non-lethal shot. I didn’t believe that it would escalate so fast to be frank, but I also wasn’t willing to test it out.

The military buildings in the Kremlin displayed prized cannons from Napoleon’s defeated army.

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One Russian cannon, the Tsar Cannon, was also displayed. This behemoth weighs 40 tonnes and takes 28 horses to move it.

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This Tsar Bell is of even grander proportions with a diameter of 6.6m and weighs almost 202 tonnes.

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Perched in the middle of the Kremlin is Cathedral Square. Lining this Square are five Orthodox churches.

Despite being exhausted beyond belief, I decided that I would join the rest of the group in going out in the evening since it was the farewell party for the people who were only doing the Russian leg. I didn’t budget properly for going out so often, so I decided to skip the 30 group dinner (which ended up being a burger and chips… that must be how Contiki makes their money), and eat in with a few other people from the group.

On the way back to the hotel, I spotted this pigeon and decided to take a picture of it.

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The picture wasn’t worth the AU$1 that I ended up having to pay its owner who was hidden nearby.

I caught the metro back to the area we’re staying in which is called “Dinamo”. Here, I got my first taste of the metro tour which the group is taking tomorrow morning.

The group made their way to Coyote Ugly Bar in Ubers. The warning from the bouncer that “only girls are allowed to dance on the bar tables” already had me suspicious as to what I was getting into. I spent the next half an hour sitting awkwardly at the back of the club with my good friend Tash and some others witnessing what was one step below a strip club. After collecting enough people who weren’t interested in the body shots and overpriced shishas, we moved on to the English pub next door. To my delight they sold Guinness (a rare find in most of the countries I’ve been so far), which is my favourite beer. The rest of the night was enjoyable, and we ended it with a walk back to the Red Square.

We passed GUM on the way.

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Unfortunately, the Red Square wasn’t as much of a spectacle at night. None of it was lit up, and so we decided to catch Ubers back to the hotel and call it a day.

Day 166 (23rd of August, 2016) – Moscow, Russia

We woke up early to see Moscow the way that the locals do – by metro. The Moscow metro is particularly famous because it was used as a propaganda tool during the Stalin Socialist government. The stations are incredibly deep, reaching up to 84m underground to go under the city’s extensive canal system.

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Each of the stations contain tunnels full of Soviet Era art most of which remains today (but it is currently in the process of being cleared out).

On the ceiling of this particular station was mosaics displaying the glories of the Soviet Army in war.

At the end of the tunnel was one of the few remaining public statues of Vladimir Lenin.

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I really, really enjoyed seeing these. I find political propaganda to be extremely fascinating, and seeing it still displayed in a public forum really gave me a feeling for what daily life under such a government would have been like.

In the next station, I found myself transfixed to a basic sign pointing out the different stations. In Russia, unlike in all of the other countries I have visited, there are no English translations anywhere.

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English is only taught sparsely in schools, and none of the transport systems are very tourist-friendly. I enjoyed this more, though. It added to the experience.

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The sign reminded me of a section of one of my HSC texts called The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. A significant part of a chapter was spent describing Alain’s fascination at the slight but noticeable differences of daily items in different countries. He particularly liked how he could observe the curvature and aesthetic appeal of a foreign language since the words are completely separated from their meaning.

The next station, Ploschad Revolyutsii, opened in 1938 and features no less than 76 magnificent bronze statues of soldiers, farmers, schoolchildren, workers and a whole host of other characters who helped “defend the Soviet nation”.

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Pictured on the ceiling were mosaics bearing CCCP symbolism as well as the iconic hammer and sickle.

Next up was Kievskaya Station, one of Moscow’s most decorated metro stops. The mosaics here celebrate Russo-Ukrainian unity.

At the end of the platform is a portrait of Lenin.

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And Novoslobodskaya Station, whose signature feature is the stained glass windows. Each panel is surrounded by an elaborate brass border and is illuminated from within the pylon.

The Komsomolskaya Station was the last one which we visited. The lead designer of this station, Alexey Shchusev, designed it as an illustration of the historical speech given by Joseph Stalin November 7, 1941. In this speech, Stalin evoked the memories of Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy and other military leaders of the past, and all these figures eventually appeared on the mosaics in the station.

The metro tour along with my exhaustion from the previous night out meant that I was keen for a lazy day in the centre of Moscow. I teamed up with a few of my closer friends to go for a wander and find some restaurants to sit down in. They were all taken by my recommendation of yesterday’s dumpling place and I was happy with repeating that meal, so we decided to go back.

The restaurant blew my expectations yet again. The black prawn dumplings were out of this world.

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Afterwards, we walked down to the bridge behind St. Basil’s Cathedral and managed to get a better view than yesterday.

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Near here was Bosko’s bar and we settled in for a juice to get out of the heat. The others continued onto the Contemporary History Museum while I decided to swing by the Bolshoi Theatre for a closer look before a nap at the hotel.

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The Bolshoi is Russia’s most famous ballet and opera theatre. It was built at a time when all productions were Imperial property, and therefore has the grand architecture typical of that period of Russian history. The Bolshoi Ballet and Bolshoi Opera respectively are among the oldest and most renowned ballet and opera companies in the world. It is by far the world’s biggest ballet company, having more than 200 dancers. The theatre is the parent company of The Bolshoi Ballet Academy, a world-famous leading school of ballet.

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After my brief nap, I went back out to the city to meet up with the group for the Moscow Aquamarine Circus. This show is geared towards children and is meant to be a bit of a laugh.

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It was all in Russian, and we mainly laughed at the excessive giggling of all the children rather than the jokes themselves. The show also featured well trained monkeys and dogs playing instruments and doing tricks, which was very funny.

Day 167 (24th of August, 2016) – Minsk, Belarus

The harshness of the 6am departure time for Minsk in Belarus was softened only by the surprisingly good sleep which I had on the bus. Stopping in small Russian towns and the bright green views along the way made the drive a spectacle in and of itself.

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On the way, I suffered through blog writing with a broken keyboard. Two of my keys have gone missing and the ’s’, ‘w’ ‘2’, ‘tab’ and ‘esc’ keys only work intermittently, meaning that I’m often needing to copy and paste them from other words. I’m keenly awaiting being able to get it fixed in Shanghai (hopefully that’s not too expensive).

It was afternoon by the time we reached Belarus. I could feel my adrenaline shooting through the roof. Belarus is one of the primary reasons I wanted to do this tour. Belarus only gained an embassy in Australia last year, and relatively few Australians have visited the country. My interest in the nation was first sparked when I met some Belarusians at the Chinese Bridge Competition in 2013 and learned about their Soviet history and strong ties with Russia.

It was only in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution that Belarus declared its independence in 1917, but subsequent conquering by Soviet Russia meant that Belarus wasn’t truly independent until 1991 just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Belarus is the last standing dictatorship in modern Europe. Its leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has been in power since 1994 and has implemented sweeping reforms. He is largely criticised by the international community since any domestic political opposition has been violently suppressed. Due to strict regulation by Lukashenko, Belarus also ranks lowest in freedom of the press out of all countries in Europe.

One of the most devastating facts about Belarus is its damaged environment. About 70% of the radiation from neighbouring Ukraine’s 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster entered Belarusian territory, and about a fifth of Belarusian land was affected by radiation fallout. The government simply blacked out a lot of these areas off the official political map to avoid having to pay costs to repair the land and reimburse the people.

Despite all of this, my first impressions of Belarus were very positive. Just inside the border was extensive greenery and cute, isolated cottages. Over 40% of Belarus is forested, and evidence of this was seen on the way to Minsk.

Coming into Minsk, I was astonished at how sleek and modern the city was. After being razed during World War II, only 10% of its buildings remained. Despite being a city with over half a millennium of history, it seems like it was built up in the last decade. It is incredibly clean and ordered. Even the traffic lights are flat screen TVs! This was the view from my hotel room.

The hotel was very luxurious for a budget tour. That’s likely because the limited tourism in Belarus doesn’t inflate prices, and a five star room in the capital costs the same as a three star one in a place like Moscow.

We only had an hour in the hotel to acclimatise before catching a public bus for a walking tour in the historical centre of the city. Getting there involved navigating the confusing two-tiered pricing system of a country which is undergoing a transition to a new currency.

I found myself smiling uncontrollably when getting out of the bus, and many of the others were the same. Peoples’ expectations had been firmly smashed – this is an incredibly beautiful and friendly little country. I was becoming sad that we are only here for a night. It is high up on my list of countries to return to.

These are the sights we saw when leaving the bus:

The buildings pictured (city halls and Roman Catholic Church) were all rebuilt as exact replicas after being destroyed during the war. They have a quirky youth to them.

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My mates and I made sure to grab a photo to remember the times when we were together.

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Despite the official religions of Belarus being Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholicism, the majority of people aren’t very devout. Therefore, many churches such as this one have been transformed into concert halls or other cultural hubs.

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The streets certainly seemed fairly empty, but it had a nice peaceful atmosphere to it.

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We took a stroll down to the river through public squares and churches.

By the time we reached the river it had become dark. Unfortunately, I forgot to take the good camera. You’ll have to ignore the bad quality of my phone’s camera.

In the background of a lot of photos you’ll notice the numerous sporting facilities. Belarusians are mad sports fans and it is a cultural activity which draws them together more so than in other countries. They pride themselves on having some of the best sports facilities in the world.

On the shores of the river is a monument dedicated to the lost soldiers in the Iraq War which was paid for by the mothers of the victims.

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As the walking tour drew to a close, I joined my friends Jack, Hannah, Tash, Sash, Niall and Shelley to go and find a pub for a drink. We took some extra time to navigate the cobblestone streets first.

We also took time to see the main park and (ironically named) Liberty Square on Trinity Banlieu hill.

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In the middle of the park is the National Academic Grand Opera and Ballet Theatre of Belarus. Its architecture, especially in the top cylinder, is beautiful.

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Eventually, we found a superb joint with cheap beer towers and a cozy feel where we settled in for the night.

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On the way back home after the pub’s closing, I caught one last glance of the building where the walking tour began.

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Day 168 (25th of August, 2016) – Warsaw, Poland

Having done more than my fair share of tours which mainly use buses, I’ve become quite used to getting some shuteye in a vertical seat. It was no different this morning during the long drive from Minsk to Brest, the second biggest city of Belarus.

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By the afternoon we had arrived in the city where our stop was at the Brest Fortress. This site became famous during World War II when it was the location of the first Soviet Resistance to the unexpected Nazi invasion.

The main path into the fortress was the funnel where the front line lured Nazis into the city to be killed. The entrance is marked by a star representing both the birds-eye shape of the fortification as well as the well-known red star of Communism.

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Inside the fortress are restored tanks and other weaponry from the Soviet army.

I’ve never felt so well endowed.

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Similar to China, the rivers here are lined with willows. They make for a tranquil setting – such a relief considering the place’s bloody history.

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The main area inside the fortress is marked by a stone carving of the face of a soldier from Brest. His sternness represents the discipline and anger of the men facing the threatened destruction of their hometown.

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Another stone carving is that of a wounded soldier continuing to crawl into battle despite imminent death and defeat.

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And shooting up directly from the centre is an obelisk.

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Despite Brest’s absolute obliteration, the fortress still contains some remains of the original walls.

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Brest is located just on the border of Poland, meaning that it was only a five minute drive to customs. The whole process took just shy of three hours, with most of the time being spent exiting Belarus. A lot of the group indulged in the €1 bottles of vodka being sold in the duty free zone.

Only minutes inside Poland, the country already felt brighter and happier.

It took another couple of hours to arrive in Warsaw, but we spent that time learning about the city’s history and position in the world today.

Warsaw  is the capital and largest city of Poland with 2.6 million people in its broader regions. The most recognised part of Warsaw’s history was its role in World War II. The city’s prewar Jewish population constituted 30% of the whole city – amongst the highest proportions of all global cities. After Nazi occupation in 1939, these people were all relocated to the Warsaw Ghetto. This place would become the centre of urban resistance to Nazi rule in occupied Europe. When the order came to annihilate the ghetto as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution” on 19 April 1943, Jewish fighters launched the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Despite being heavily outgunned and outnumbered, the Ghetto held out for almost a month. When the fighting ended, almost all survivors were massacred, with only a few managing to escape or hide.

My friend Natasha knows someone in Sydney from Warsaw, and they sent her a message recommending a restaurant in the Old Town where we could get a good feed. I followed along and was not disappointed.

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We didn’t arrive at the restaurant until 10pm, but that seems to be quite normal in this part of the world. Coming from a country with one of the earliest average bedtimes (with Brisbane having the earliest bedtime out of any city), in only makes sense that Eastern Europe would seem to come alive very late. It also turns out that Moscow has the latest average bedtime.

The food truly lived up to the stereotype of large Polish servings.

The atmosphere was warm and happy. Just behind our table was a band playing the double bass, horn and accordion. The accordion player would come behind Tash and scare her with a few loud notes every few minutes.

But best of all, a stein of Pilsner was the standard serving of beer.

Day 169 (26th of August, 2016) – Warsaw, Poland

The Best Western we are staying at beats any other budget hotel I’ve ever stayed in, but perhaps that’s because its buffet breakfast only has to compete against the bland alternatives in Russia.

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After breakfast, we were introduced to a local guide who would give us a crash course of the city over the morning.

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Not too far from the hotel was Chopin Park.

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Named after Poland’s most proud export, Frédéric Chopin, Łazienki Park is the largest park in the city at 76 hectares. It was designed in the 17th century in baroque style. Right in its centre is a reconstructed monument of Chopin under a willow tree which is designed to look like a pianist’s hand.

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Also in the park is a statue of Józef Piłsudski, the man most responsible for the creation of the Second Republic of Poland in 1918, 123 years after it had been taken over by Russia, Austria and Prussia.

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We then boarded a bus to drive towards the Jewish Ghetto, passing the many buildings of Warsaw’s Old Town along the way (a taste of what was to come later in the day).

As you approach the Jewish Ghetto, you also pass the Supreme Court and monument commemorating the soldiers who fought in the Warsaw Uprising (yet another taste of what was to come later).

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The Jewish Ghetto contained many of the Jews would later be murdered in the Nazi death camps. Many of them were sent to Auschwitz, which will link in to my Sunday visit nicely.

After our visit to the location of the old ghetto, we were led to the Old Town from where we we were allowed free time for the rest of the day.

The Warsaw Old Town is one of the most romantic districts I have ever visited in a European city.

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Woven throughout the area are cobblestone alleys which sew together grocers and boutiques.

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Although the Old Town has been mostly rebuilt, the scar of its destruction during the Nazi invasion will never disappear. 85% of the city was destroyed, but the occasional original building still stands.

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Buried in one of the narrow streets is the Cathedral of St. John.

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For lunch, I went with Tash, Niall and Shelley to eat some perogies. This food, also known as Polish dumplings, is the country’s culinary trademark.

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The restaurant where we ate them, Zapiecek, is also a bit of an institution.

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From the Old Town our group caught a tram to the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

This Museum is rated very highly for its interactiveness and hard-hitting exhibitions, and it lived up to its critical acclaim. Inside were dozens of insightful interviews with Warsaw’s residents from the war-torn period. The most confronting thing, however, were videos sourced from the Jewish quarter of people collecting the dead, starved bodies off the street and dumping them into wheelbarrows to dispose of in mass graves. It truly showcased the worst of humanity.

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The museum also bridged to a modern history of Poland’s armed forces.

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We returned to the Old Town to walk to a Frédéric Chopin recital. We passed yet more fascinating sites along the way.

The concert itself was performed by one of Poland’s best modern day pianists pianists. It was a privilege to have been able to see such a talented musician perform the works of one of music’s greats.

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The performance was very intimate. The sound filled every crevasse of the small room. The instrument itself was also remarkably beautiful.

I spent my time in the recital closing my eyes and appreciating how each note was joined to the next in such an ordered fashion. Many of the songs also sounded familiar from having played simplified versions of them when I learned the piano and violin.

After the recital we walked to dinner where we were served mushroom soup and duck.

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The tour ends tomorrow, and so the group is going out this evening to celebrate one last time. Their plan is to begin at a shot bar before continuing on to a nearby club. I decided to be honest with myself in that I really didn’t feel like going out, and so this time I decided to stay in and avoid all of the goodbyes. I’m glad I did – I don’t think I would’ve been happy had I just followed along.

A picture which was later posted on the group Facebook page gives you some insight into what the bar was like, though.

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Day 170 (27th of August, 2016) – Kraków, Poland

I checked out of the hotel this morning and made my way on the tram to Warszawa Centralna. This is the main train station in Warsaw where I had a train booked to Kraków. I quickly discovered that I need not have booked a ticket in advance – Europe works very differently to Asia and Australia. I could have just jumped on the half full train and bought a ticket on the way there.

I also took the opportunity to buy a SIM card and some bananas as a snack for the ride.

I exchanged my Russian Rubles without closely analysing the rate. Later analysis showed that I had been hit with a 25% markup from the market rate, costing me AU$30. I can’t begin to tell you how much money I’ve lost through currency exchange places. I’m beginning to think that it’s much easier and cheaper to just use a debit card for everything.

Following that incident, I embarked on the twenty minute hike to my hostel in low spirits. My mood quickly changed. On this walk, I got my first glimpse at what was to be the most beautiful city I have ever seen in Europe (yes, that’s right, every place I go just keeps on topping the last).

Arriving at the hostel, I immediately began drawing up plans to cancel the rest of my reservation and move to a different lodge. The hostel is called “Little Havana Party Hostel”, and I must have booked it when I was in a party mood. I instantly came to regret this when not even being able to hear over the music and drunken hooligans to check in at 3pm in the afternoon. I was told that I would have to pay for my first night’s accommodation if I left now, so I made the decision to stick it out for the night and then try and find another hostel tomorrow.

The first thing I did was go and find a place to hire a bicycle so that I could explore this beautiful town on wheels.

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I got riding, dipping and dodging my way through a long strip of greenery. Kraków is designed so that its old town is encircled by a beautifully peaceful park.

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I made my way to the Main Market Square which was simply magnificent. I began dreaming up plans to revisit this place with Dad – I think he above others would really enjoy the atmosphere here.

The town has a very Assassin’s Creed feel to it, but in a good way.

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I researched an English bookstore and rode to a nearby district to search for a good novel.

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I came out having purchased a book which someone recommended to me while in Jordan: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

It went well with a meal of perogies and salad at the highly rated Glonojad restaurant.

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After lunch, I continued my bike ride through the historic Old Town.

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Along the way, I passed all of Kraków’s most famous monuments.

Jagiellonian University (Collegium Maius):

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The Wawel Cathedral:

The Wawel Royal Castle:

The Church of St. Adalbert:

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The Church of the Virgin Mary:

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There was so much, in fact, that there was even a few buildings which I couldn’t identify:

In the evening, I marched to the outskirts of the Old Town in a bid to find the Fergburger of Kraków, Moaburger. On the way, I passed through the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), an indoor bazaar in the centre of the Market Square.

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Day 171 (28th of August, 2016) – Kraków, Poland

I arose at 6am after a surprisingly pleasant sleep. Staying at a party hostel came with a silver lining – most people still weren’t back from their night out when I woke up. I slept in a 12-person dorm completely on my own. Counter-intuitively, it was one of the most peaceful hostel experiences I’ve had.

The reason I was up early is because today is my full-day tour of Auschwitz. I decided to book a six hour study tour rather than the standard three hour tour because this is an experience which has been on my bucket list for a long time, and I figured that I may as well explore the camp  fully since I have come all this way already.

I scoffed down some bananas and pears on the way to the coach station. As I walked through the club-lined streets of the Old Town, people were only just starting to emerge and stumble their way home. At 6:30am!! Talk about a late nightlife. It only made me feel better about myself.

After a bit of confusion, I found my bus to Oświęcim and claimed my territory along the back seats for a nice nap. An hour and a half later, I awoke and shot up to realise that I was the only one on the bus. Even the door was locked, so it took five minutes of pounding on the glass for the bus driver to return and let me out. We had a laugh over the fact that I had dozed off and I made my way to the museum entrance.

I was glad that I had booked a study tour because it meant that my group was comparatively small with only five people. Two were French Canadians, one was from Russia and the other from England. We strapped in for what would be one of the most moving experiences of our lives.

Auschwitz, as it is commonly known, actually refers to a collection of concentration camps. The two main ones are Auschwitz I (the original camp), and Auschwitz II – Birkenau (a combination concentration and extermination camp). Birkenau is the much bigger of the two, but our visit there was reserved for later in the day.

The first thing which greets you upon entering Auschwitz I is the steel sign atop the entrance. It reads “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”, meaning “work will make you free”. What a cynical, condescending load of crap.

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That pretty much sums up my feelings for the first hour. Genuine, unbridled anger. I wanted to hurt the people who thought it was OK to systematically exterminate a group of people arbitrarily, and to mislead them on the way to their death.

I can only imagine the faint glimmer of hope that these cold steel letters inspired in the Jews, Gypsies, Soviets and Poles that marched beneath it each morning at 5am to go to work. It tugs at my emotional chords to think of how that spark would have gradually faded as friends and relatives slowly disappeared around them.

We entered the barbed wire barrier which marked the border between hell and Earth.

This was a constant symbol of oppression throughout the camp.

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The first thing you see on the inside of the entrance is the spot where Jews were publicly hanged as a warning to others to not attempt an escape.

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The buildings and trees have a melancholy feeling to them – there’s no forgetting the dark events that occurred within those walls.

Each street is marked by a watchtower or guard post – an omnipotent surveillance which suppressed any free will of the prisoners.

Let’s introduce some figures to give you some perspective. At least 1,300,000 people were deported to Auschwitz from around Europe of whom 1,100,000 perished. Approximately 90% of these victims were Jews, the majority of the rest being non-Jewish Poles or Gypsies. Most were murdered in the gas chambers, with other common causes of death being shooting, starvation or an injection of poison to the heart. 900,000 of those who perished never slept a night in the camp. Instead, they were ushered directly to the gas chambers.

These numbers and facts didn’t get to me, though. They shocked me, but it was nothing I didn’t already know.

What did get to me was seeing the faces of the victims.

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Just look at the fear in those eyes. That’s when the tears started rolling for me.

Or here. You can see where he has been beaten by the SS. Treated like he was an ant on the ground. He’s a living human being with feelings and a future, and a group of people decided that it was OK to strip that off of him and laugh while doing it.

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Unfortunately we don’t have all the faces. After 1943 there were just too many Jews coming in by the trainload that it didn’t make sense to keep extensive records of them.

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And the children. Oh, their faces were difficult to look at.

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Look at how their heads are propped up by a stick like they’re just there to be poked at. Only the girl at the very top left of that picture survived.

Here’s a baby girl who was stripped from her mother and triplet siblings for experimentation.

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And some Gipsy children who were also experimented on by Josef Mengele.

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And here are some women four months after liberation by the Soviets with a little more meat on their bones than they had at Auschwitz.

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Some of these women would have lived here where they were the subjects of sterilisation experiments.

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Just next to this block is the shooting wall where prisoners’ naked bodies were executed in public view.

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One of the things which really sent tingles down my spine was noticing the ventilation holes in the shooting alley which lead to the prisoners’ cells. They would have been able to hear their fellow prisoners scream and be shot all while trying to get to sleep.

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Among the more touching exhibitions in Auschwitz I was one which displayed montages of Jewish culture across Europe before the Holocaust. Videos were shown from community events such as Bah Mitzvahs and feasts, and everyone looked so happy. The exhibition suitably didn’t descend into a display of the horrors which awaited them, but rather, it ended with the “Book of Names”, a book which contains the names of 4 million of the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

As I was leaving the room, the unmistakeable shriek of a teenage girl rang out through the room. She was here with her Israeli tour group and had spotted the name of one of her relatives. She cried loudly until her friends brought her out of the room to comfort her.

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Just outside was one of the rails from which prisoners were executed by hanging.

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Next in the tour was a walk through one of the blocks which is in its completely original form. Only two groups tour this block per day, so I’m very glad that I chose to take the study tour.

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In here, you could see the living conditions of the prisoners. They slept in triple bunks which were stacked in cramped rooms.

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Survivors told of the woes of getting one of the bottom two bunks. Since the prisoners were only allowed to use the bathroom twice per day, those on the upper bunks would often relieve themselves in bed and the excrement would leak onto the people below.

The tiny bathroom and washroom was used 2,000 times each day.

The next exhibition began to hint at the methods of genocide which we all know so well. Most people were ushered into killing factories which were disguised as washrooms through the fitting of false shower-heads. Zyklon B pellets (a deadly pesticide) were then dropped into the ceiling vents and the people inside would die within 15 minutes. The Nazis could tell when the job had been done because the victims simply stopped screaming.

Here is a model of one of the gas chambers. The people were packed so tightly that the Nazi guards would often find the victims still standing in the crowd after their death.

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In an adjacent room was a display of the hair of women who were murdered. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, but in the room was 20 tonnes of human hair which had been discoloured over time. It was shaved off the women when they entered the camp, and much of it was shipped off to Germany for use in factories.

At the edge of Auschwitz I is the residence of Rudolf Höss.

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This man was SS-Obersturmbannführer and the longest-serving commandant of the concentration camp in World War II. He tested and carried into effect various methods to accelerate Hitler’s plan to systematically exterminate the Jewish population. He was the one who introduced Zyklon B to the killing process, thereby allowing soldiers at Auschwitz to murder 2,000 people every hour. This was the technological development which created the largest installation for the continuous annihilation of human beings ever known.

He lived in the pictured house with his wife and five children. His wife only realised what was happening some years into Auschwitz’s operation. Höss was so psychotic that he would often bring his children to swim in the river where the ashes of exterminated Jews were dumped behind his house.

After being captured by the British after the war, Höss’ comments during the Nuremberg Tribunal summarise his apathetic attitude towards his war crimes. After being accused  during his trial of murdering 3,500,000 people, he instinctively shot up and shouted:

“No. Only two and one half million – the rest died from disease and starvation.”

He ultimately came to realise his faults, but one struggles to ever forgive such a monster. He was hanged outside his Auschwitz residence in 1947.

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Nearby is a reconstruction of one of Auschwitz I’s chambers. This was one of the more harrowing experiences of the day.

The pesticide pellets were dropped into these vents in the ceiling. It immediately revived images from the execution scene from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

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Later, the bodies were burned in the nearby ovens.

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This angered me the most. Something about the word “ovens” instinctively doesn’t match with human bodies. How absolutely disgusting.

It was good timing that we were given a break before catching the shuttle bus to Birkenau. I needed to process everything while I munched down on my homemade sandwiches (try making them at a party hostel – it was a nightmare).

Auschwitz II – Birkenau is the bigger of the two main camps. It was much more of a “death camp”, and is where most of the extermination took place. Its entrance is the iconic image which springs to mind when someone says “Auschwitz”.

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The main watchtower lurks eerily in the corner of many pictures of this camp from when it was operational.

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All prisoners would arrive on trains. Each one of these carriages held over 60 people and their luggage. Nobody could sit except in the corner to go to the toilet in a bucket.

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Further up the tracks is where the trains would stop and the passengers would approach the Nazi guards for “selection”.

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From here, depending on the information provided by the new entrant, the guard would direct the person in one of two directions.

If they were sent this way, they lived (temporarily). Most of these people were physically fit and of working age.

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These people suffered horrendous living conditions and diseases.

These toilets were also used 2,000 times per day. People were filed in on schedule to defecate in full view of other people and they weren’t given any toilet paper.

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Each of these beds slept 6 people, including the one on the floor.

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This particular stable was home to 52 horses before the War, but under Nazi occupation, it housed over 900 prisoners.

If after selection they were sent in this direction, they were facing gassing within the next 30 minutes. This was the destiny for 70% of new entrants. Children were almost guaranteed this path.

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However, if a child was a twin or triplet, they would be sent to a building for experimentation. Their block supervisor is considered to be one of the few officials who held any sort of parental feelings towards the children, and this is shown by the paintings lining the walls.

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Further down the path of death are the remains of the destroyed crematoriums and gas chambers. The Nazis attempted to remove any traces of evidence of their war crimes before fleeing from the Soviet attack.

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This is the hallway where hordes prisoners would be told to undress. Many of them carried soap and towels into the chambers proving that they were truly unaware of the horror that awaited them.

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Regardless of the fate of the prisoners, all were given a number and had their clothes disinfected in these steam chambers.

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At the very back of Birkenau is the “Canada” site. This place contains all of the belongings left behind by prisoners after their murder. It was named so because “Canada” was rumoured to be a promised land of paradise during those times.

The last room which I explored before leaving was a mural to the victims of the Holocaust. Included in it was pictures found in their luggage.

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Yet again, the faces got to me. To think of the individual stories and happiness once experienced in each of those lives is truly heartbreaking.

But now, my overbearing emotion was less raging anger and more a hope for a peaceful future where these atrocities will never be repeated. These sentiments were well summed up in an inscription at the memorial.

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I stared out the window for the whole bus ride home while I thought about what I had seen. I would end this section by saying that I think Auschwitz is compulsory viewing for anyone who is of a mature enough age to fully understand it. It is important to know fully what humanity is capable of in order to recognise if a line like this is ever crossed again.

A brief pitt stop at the hostel was only interrupted by my hunger for calzone and my new favourite drink, a chilli coffee.

Another few days in Kraków before a return to Shanghai for a couple of months. Eastern Europe has certainly been an adventure.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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