The Mysteries of Minsk, Belarus
I’m really not sure what our expectations were of Belarus. As a former part of the USSR and still maintaining extremely close ties with Moscow, I guess I had some stereotypical images in the back of my mind. Drab grey communist block architecture, poorly stocked supermarkets and a dearth of Western influence, brands, and media. Perhaps we’d see dour citizens waiting in queues with the strains of Chopin’s funeral march blaring to set the scene. And, of course, KGB agents watching our every move. OK, I’m exaggerating here. But I guess I equated it to Turkmenistan with a high degree of official paranoia and plenty of officials around to stop us from taking pictures of anything even remotely official.
Obtaining our Belarus Tourist Visas in Vilnius certainly didn’t dispel these notions. (See how we did it HERE) It’s one of the few countries around the world that still require you to have an official invitation; OR to have booked your accommodation in one or more Government approved establishments before you can apply. We had also read that we couldn’t cross the border by bicycle and couldn’t get confirmation from anyone to the contrary. The bureaucracy and uncertainty prompted us to shelve any ideas of riding through to Moldova. Especially now we had decided not to go to Ukraine because of the expense and length of time to obtain their visa,
Our Airbnb hosts in Vilnius kindly agreed to mind our bikes and most of our gear if we wanted to make a side trip to Minsk and back. Once we’d made that decision, it was an easy matter to book reasonably inexpensive tickets for us (and the bikes) on Baltic Air to Chisinau via Riga. All said and done; that was a much easier prospect than trying to push ahead with our original plans. The total cost was not much more than the Ukrainian visas if we’d expressed them and a damn sight cheaper and quicker than three weeks completing the journey overland. Train tickets to Minsk were easy to purchase at the international ticket counter in the main Vilnius train station and very reasonable at about 35 USD return. The whole change of direction and plans is a testament to the need to plan ahead but to remain extremely flexible when on any long term trip.
It was odd traveling so lightly again, and we found ourselves constantly checking ourselves as if we’d left something behind. The train only takes about 3 hours. It rambled through rustic villages and countryside that had long been cultivated. We couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to cycle through the area and try and source provisions..
The outskirts of Minsk were semi-industrial and drab, but once we were in the city centre, the typical European grandeur returned with the classical facades and well-dressed inhabitants to remind us that we weren’t all that far inside the old Iron Curtain.
It only took us about 20 minutes to walk to the area where our Hostel in Trinity Hill right near the Svislach River. Unfortunately, it then took another 45 to find out exactly where it was. (Tucked up in the buildings behind the esplanade. First a group of school girls led us astray. Then a couple tried to help with Google maps on their phones. None had any English. Finally a local lady, who seemed familiar with rescuing strays, signalled us to follow her and delivered us to the door. We weren’t the only ones that have trouble and rescued several lost souls ourselves over the subsequent days..
Handy Hint: For those trying to find it. Walk along the Esplanade until you see a sign for a hair salon on the right, above some stairs. Take the next arch and head straight through and up a small set of stairs stairs. By this stage, you should see the Trinity sign sticking out above your head. There’s a map and picture of the sign on their contacts page HERE, but it’s still confusing on the ground.
Once inside the Hostel we were greeted by the lovely Yulia, who answered all our questions in perfect English, something we’d been assured we wouldn’t hear much of in these parts. The hostel is basic but perfectly adequate for a short to mid term stay. There is NO air-conditioning though so the nights can be a little hot and sweaty. But, it’s soo much cheaper than hotels in and around town that are accessible to foreigners, it’s a small inconvenience.
Despite the fact we always try to enter a new location without any preconceptions, Minsk was a classic example of us not succeeding and being quite off the mark. We were immediately impressed with how clean it was. Absolutely NO rubbish on the streets, and no graffiti on the walls. People divert 30 metres to place their rubbish in a bin. There were very few beggars and no public inebriation (we’d heard common in Russia itself), even near the railway station where we usually expected to find those down on their luck. There was also a complete lack of visual pollution, signage and advertising, You needed to walk past a place to see what they are and what they sell. The sidewalks are wide and empty. In fact, you could fit two cars side by side on them. Definitely no parking your scooters “a la Saigon”. And besides, there are no scooters to see anywhere!
“What a strange place,” we thought. We were a little like fish out of water. Belarus was about as different as you could get to the crazy place we’d called our home for the past 12 months. At first, we missed the vibe and the hum of a big city. Minsk did not express itself outside – we could need to go indoors to find the heart of the place. We finally discovered the main square had three levels of shopping beneath it, and we had to go underground to see the locals doing their thing. Topside, the city, lacked the organised chaos that crowded places have. It was attractive but a little soulless.
Lenin Square beside the St Simon was deserted, except for a lone sentry, guarding the front of what we think is KGB Headquarters. There’s a large statue of Lenin right in front, but we’d been told that while you’re fine to take a photo of the statue itself, don’t go pointing any cameras at the building itself. Tim had the zoom out from the street opposite and was quietly signed that he shouldn’t be doing that. No one said anything though a silent but meaningful shake of the head and index finger by a lone citizen left us in no doubt that it was a no go zone. Everyone else was busy avoiding eye contact. Perhaps they were just focussed on their thoughts. But, I tend to think everyone keeps to themselves out of habit, not wanting to engage with others in case it left them in hot water.
We discovered a busy intersection was on the opposite side of the bridge to Trinity Hill and promptly arranged our days so that we could have a late lunch in a cafe/bar that overlooked it and enjoyed a beer or two while we engaged in some people watching. We learned a long time ago that you can learn more about a place and its inhabitants by just sitting in a busy spot and letting it all walk past you, instead of tearing about the place trying to see thing son the go. You can learn more in an hour by staying put and paying attention than in one day pounding the pavement all over town.
Much to Tim’s delight, it seemed that all the women are tall, slim, blonde and beautiful. Well, maybe not all, but a good proportion of them!! They highlight all their qualities with ample make-up, perfectly coiffured hair and very short skirts! Another notable trait though was that hardly anyone spoke to each other. The constant chatter that can drive you nuts some days in other cities was almost entirely missing. If it weren’t for the traffic honking horns and skidding into intersections, it would have been spooky.
On the other side of the river, nightfall would bring the riverboat restaurants to life with their obscure English pop music from the 70’s. Songs we hadn’t heard in 30 or 40 years echoed across the water as the alcohol began to loosen the lips of the locals and the whole complexion of the city changed.
Eating and drinking are quite cheap, as long as it’s local fare. Imported beers, which are popular, are expensive, even by Baltic standards. Local food is very cheap and filling. And, if you showed and interest and asked for advice on what to eat to find the specialties of Belarus, people were more than accommodating.
Our advisors were right, and there’s not much English spoken around town. But don’t let that stop you from getting out and about. With a little sign language, it’s pretty easy to get what you need. Once the locals found out we were from Australia they were a little perplexed, but extremely proud that we’d come to visit their country. Both local markets and mini-markets are well stocked and, although you can’t read the labels, it’s still not that difficult to negotiate your purchases. Public transport is plentiful. The subway is easy and cheap (buy a token at a kiosk above the line) and many things in the city are walking distance.
Our nearest traditional Belarusian restaurant was just around the corner from Trinity Hostel. It had a terrace with large umbrellas and was right across from the marriage registry where all the couples getting married had to come for the civil part of the ceremony. We got to see dozens of brides and grooms and wedding parties celebrating Minsk style. Lots of whooping, doves flying, mum’s crying, horns blaring and us staring. We always get good value at weddings, even those we’re not invited to!
Lots of whooping, doves flying, mum’s crying, horns blaring and us staring.
Unfortunately, the Belarus circus had taken leave for the summer, and we couldn’t see a show. We’ve heard it’s second only to the famous Moscow Circus. We’re not usually circus type of people, but when you have access to something that famous for a fraction of the price you’d pay at home, it’s something we would have liked to have seen.
About the most touristy thing we did was to take a ride to the top of the viewing tower above the new space age library. The view is interesting if only to show the extensive building projects going on right across the city. Belarus is definitely open for business, as evidenced by some international conventions we saw in our explorations, including a large delegation from Pakistan at the library complex. There’s considerable development going on along the river to the West of the old town. New modern restaurants, shops and bars selling all manner of luxury goods and Western fare. Thankfully, with all this development they still retain acres of green space, which is used enthusiastically by the locals and us on a hot day. It was 40 degrees Celsius most days we were there, but there are lots of shady, tree-lined streets and some great parks to hang out in, many with small fun fairs, as only the communists can do. Ferris wheels, archaic adrenalin pumping rides and lots of fairy floss/cotton candy. It’s like walking into a time warp although there was a 5D movie theatre that had us wondering. Dr Who, eat your heart out!
Other than that we walked all the areas of interest, took photos of the rather grand architecture and tried our best to determine the character of Belarus. After a week, we’d have to say we succeeded in that just a little. By returning to a few establishments and trying to engage the staff, we managed to crack a few smiles and have some conversations that enlightened us and answered some of our questions. Those that did speak English were more than happy to show off to their contemporaries and had a chat. Once they found out we were from Australia (not Austria) they were a little perplexed but extremely proud that we’d come to visit their country.
We can’t really say we’ve “done Belarus”. After all, we only visited its capital. But, we definitely enjoyed it and recommend you visit. If you’re into museums, churches and historic monuments, etc., there’s more than enough to keep you occupied for 3 or 4 days. Johnny Ward from OneStep4ward has an excellent article HERE on what he did on his visit. There’s also more than enough Western eating, drinking and shopping options if you don’t want to go local, but they will cost you a lot more. A few days will give you a glimpse of the surface, but you really need to spend some time here to crack this hard nut and find the rewards inside.
What we recommend doing in Minsk:
- Walk around the Esplanade on Trinity Hill and visit the Island of Sorrow (If you stop at Trinity Hostel it’s almost on your doorstep). Head further on this road and you’ll come to the lovely Orthodoxreasonable Church
- Visit the restaurant behind Trinity Hostel on a Friday or Saturday in summer and watch the antics of the wedding parties. After your meal/drink, head on up to the Opera House just up the road and take some more pics of the happy couples and their entourages. Head back to the restaurant early evening for some BIIIG glasses of local brew at reasonable prices, in pleasant surroundings.
- Take the metro (or walk) out to the new Library complex and head up to the viewing tower for a look across Minsk.
- Get tickets to the Belarus Circus if they’re performing. We didn’t get there but wished we did.
- Visit a fun fair in one of the larger parks around the city to see how the locals enjoy their leisure time.
- Take in a meal at Talaka restaurant. The owners and staff are lovely, and you’ll get an authentic, rustic experience.
- Take in a meal and a few drinks on the Esplanade at Trinity Hill. The service isn’t all that crash hot in any of the places we tried, but put that behind you and soak up the atmosphere.
- Find a bar/cafe/restaurant in a busy location and watch the world go by for a few hours to try and understand the city and its people.
Note: I do not receive any payment for this post (or any others on the site for that matter!). I do receive a small amount of money by allowing advertisements on the site and any purchases made through those links.