After flying for a day and then a drive through Minsk, I was finally reaching my hotel where I could rest a little before dinner…
Finally my host proudly announced “There is your hotel.”
There on the top of a small hill was a tall building, at least twenty floors. The exterior looked like stainless steel and glass, much like modern buildings in the US. A road wound up the hill from the street we were on and stopped under a large decorative overhang protecting the entry. This looked like it would be very nice; I was happy.
I walked into the beautiful hotel building and stopped in my tracks. The lobby was immense, three stories high and covering the entire front of the large building. The floor was black and white granite and huge granite pillars rose on regular intervals to the ceiling. There were large windows covering the entire front wall, yet the room seemed dark and depressing. Long curtains hung on the sides of the windows, some of them partially covering the windows. They looked like they had once been white but now they were a dull grey.
There were no guests sitting on the many sofas placed around the lobby, there was no one in the gift shop, there was no one running to pick up my bags and there was no one at the reception desk. Far down at the distant, dimly lit end of the cavernous room two women appeared to be mopping the floor with hand mops and buckets of water.
Our Russian host walked up to the reception desk and thumped his ham sized fist on the counter several times. A woman slowly walked out from a doorway behind the desk and spoke to him in Russian. After a brief conversation with her he asked me for my passport. Prepared for a typical check in, I handed him the passport and my credit card.
He handed the credit card back to me saying, “They don’t like to take
these. I will prepay
the bill and you can repay me later.”
I looked at Boris and he reassured me that everything is fine, this is normal.
Our host completed our check in and we walked over to one of the sofa and chair seating groups to wait for him. The sitting areas looked rather elegant from a distance but when we got there we could see tears in the leather upholstery and the cushions were lumpy and badly worn.
When we sat down, Boris told me, “I told you to bring US currency and this
is why. My
friend Andre has millions of rubles but they are losing value so fast that he will soon be poor if he can’t exchange them. I told him we would bring US currency to repay him when he paid in rubles.”
“But you didn’t tell me about this. I only brought a few thousand dollars.” I answered. “Ten days in this hotel will probably eat that up.”
“No,” he reassured me again. “The room rates here are based on the old value of the ruble. At today’s exchange rate the rooms will cost us only about fifty dollars a day. And by the time we leave it may be only twenty-five per day.”
“Fifty dollars a day?” I said incredulously “A hotel like this is only fifty dollars a day?”
“They charge about five hundred rubles a day and before the collapse that
was officially five hundred dollars. Now it’s only fifty and the value is
falling so fast it may be half that before we leave. And Andre will not
cheat us. I grew up with him and I know he’s honest.
He hopes to make lots of money working with us but he won’t cheat us.”
Finally Andre walked over to join us, “Your rooms will be ready in a moment, someone will come and get us. Boris told you about the payment arrangement I set up with him didn’t he?”
“Yes.” I answered. “But I didn’t work through the details. I expected
to use a credit
card for the larger payments and cash for lunches and taxis and things like that.”
“There will be no taxis and almost no meals. You are not in the US now. I will have someone drive you and we will eat with my family and have some meals in the homes of my colleagues. The hotel will be the main expense for the trip unless you get crazy with drinking or souvenir shopping.
“They have you in rooms across from each other on the embassy floor.
You should be
“What is the embassy floor?” I asked.
“Oh, when any embassy here needs a room for a visiting guest, they always put them on that floor. It has a bar that is only open to the guests on that floor and the rooms are nicer.”
The sullen desk clerk walked over and spoke to Andre in Russian.
“Your rooms are ready.” He told us. “I’ll go up with you to make sure everything is ok.”
We all walked to the elevators and rode up to the embassy floor, fifteen
The doors opened and we stepped out into what appeared to be another reception area except there were people here. There was a large desk with racks of keys and pigeon holes for mail behind it. A bar off to one side was open and serving clients. And our bags were there waiting for us.
Andre stepped up to the desk and spoke to the clerk in Russian. He
took two keys from
the wall behind him and handed them to Andre. Another person came out from a door behind the desk and the two men picked up our bags and walked us to our rooms. They opened the doors and set our bags inside. Andre passed each of them some rubles and they walked away smiling. At last we could take a shower and get a little rest.
I stepped into the room and, once again, I stopped short in amazement.
I was on the
embassy floor of a hotel that charged the equivalent of five hundred dollars per day just a few months ago; I expected a large plush room.
The entry to the room was a short hallway with a door on the left going into
the bathroom and the main room straight ahead. The entire room, including
the bathroom, looked like it was about ten feet by twelve feet with a single
small window on the far wall. A very small
television (maybe a ten inch screen) sat on a rickety looking table in the corner and a small writing desk with a spindly chair took up the remainder of the wall on my right. On the left, beyond the door to the bathroom there was a largish low edged box with sides a
few inches high and an open top attached to the wall at about the level of a chair seat.
The box was the bed. It was at most six feet long and little more than two feet wide. I am six feet four inches tall.
The bathroom was so small there was barely room to change your mind. There was a short tub on the left wall with a shower curtain that pulled across it. The narrow walkway along the tub ended at the toilet but I had to dodge around the tiny sink on the right hand wall to reach it.
It was certainly Spartan but I could live with it for ten days. I
opened my suitcase on
the tiny bed and looked around for a place to put my clothes. There was a narrow door, about a foot and a half wide, on the same wall as the bed that looked like it could be a closet. Opening the door, a saw a pole across the top that had room for a few hangers and three shelves below it for anything else I wanted to put away.
I put things away as well as I could and went into the bathroom to take a
had brought a towel from home on Boris’s advice and I now saw why. There were three towels on the single eighteen inch towel bar in the bathroom. They looked like they had been terrycloth at some more luxurious time in the past but now they were basically three rags you might use to wash your car.
I took a shower and thankfully, the water was hot. Feeling refreshed,
I stepped out of
the shower and used my huge decadent American towel to dry off. Then I attempted to shave. The walkway between the tub and the wall was only slightly wider than the toilet, maybe two feet maximum. The sink, where I was going to shave was mounted on the wall across from the tub in this walkway. The sink was about two feet along the wall and extended only about ten inches out. The basin was about eighteen inches by six inches. A tiny mirror on the wall was about chest high for me.
So, standing with my heels against the tub and squatting down over it with my calves braced against the side of the tub I could look into the mirror and try to shave. I managed to complete the shaving ordeal without cutting my throat but my legs burned from the effort. Shaving had never worn me out before.
I decided I would try to take a quick nap before we all went to eat so I tried to lie down in the bed. This diabolical bed was several inches shorter than me and the little edges that went around it ensured that I couldn’t hang over the side in any direction. I had to coil up in a near fetal position and lie on my back; it was the only way I could fit on the bed.
After just a few minutes of futile effort, I gave up on the nap. I
dressed and went
out to the ‘exclusive’ bar on the embassy floor. There I found Boris waiting for me.
“I was wondering how long you would last.” he said with a laugh.
It was only midafternoon but the bar was full of drinkers, some of them already intoxicated. I sat down at the table with Boris and asked for one of whatever he was drinking.
Boris laughed and said, “I’m drinking water.”
“That’s fine, my body is telling me it’s early morning anyway. I would really like a coffee though.”
Just then one of the other patrons of the bar got a little too enthusiastic and sloshed a beer across his table, himself and the men sitting with him. Boris suggested that we go downstairs to wait for Andre and I quickly agreed.
The main entry area was still as empty as it was when we arrived. The floor moppers had almost reached the other end of the hall, leaving a uniformly smudged and gritty film over the entire floor. I think they must have used the same bucket of water for a week.
We walked into the gift shop and looked at the typical souvenir junk sold everywhere, shirts with images of Vodka labels on them and shot glasses with Minsk written on them and on and on. They also had some marushka dolls (the dolls that are nested one into another) that I told Boris I might want to buy.
“Oh no,” he warned me. “You never buy anything here. The prices are set to take as much money as possible from rich tourists and party members. We can get better ones for much less money.”
I looked at the price and did a quick mental conversion to dollars. “Wow, this works out to something like $300 even at the ridiculous conversion rate we have now.”
We wandered back out and found a sofa that was in better condition than most and sat there to wait for Andre. Both of us had just completed about twenty hours of travel and had no sleep so conversation was limited. I think we both quickly dozed off.