As another sign of how wholly unprepared I was for this trip, I hadn’t even looked into visa requirements for Belarus before I was in Lithuania. If I had been travelling only last year, such ill discipline would have been the end of any aspirations of coming to Europe’s last dictatorship, but as luck would have it, said dictator had recently issued a decree allowing me five days visa free travel to Belarus. The catch being that I had to enter and leave from Minsk airport, which is how I ended up on my shortest international flight of my life, a 25 minute hop from Vilnius to Minsk in a Belarusian national airlines Antonov aircraft.
Minsk airport is 35 km out of town, and so it was with a sense of irony that my taxi took longer than the flight, but it was a highly entertaining drive as my taxi driver who spoke no English tried to get drivers in neighbouring cars at red lights to spend 30 seconds translating for us. Seeing as English is almost nonexistent in the country this was met with limited success. Eventually after a late night tour around the town centre where he tried to point out sites and/or a translator, he mercifully dropped me off at my hostel.
The hostel was full of Russian tourists, and my dorm was full of what looked like Russian gangsters, covered in tattoos and shaved heads, which was not the most welcoming vibe. It was already past midnight and the gang seemed settled in with lights blaring, conversation and music. Not wanting to press my luck I decided to head out for a walk and to get my bearings, hoping that they’d settle down by the time I got back. At night the city looked soulless, lots of hulking communist style apartment buildings, with a smattering of over the top and blingy modern buildings. Minsk was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War, which never bodes well for cities that ended up on the Soviet side of the wall.
This all probably contributed to my immediate impressions of Belarus, which were far from positive and, while drinking a beer in a deserted bar, I was seriously thinking I’d made a serious mistake allocating my full allotment of five days to the country. Eventually I figured it was time to check whether the mafia had either gone out or gone to bed and headed back to my hostel, where I had a terrible sleep wondering why I’d come to this god forsaken country, or at least just got an airbnb and at least been comfortable and not at risk of having my kidneys removed in my sleep.
But, as they say “the darkest hour is just before the dawn” and the new day showed a whole other side of the city that had been hidden by the dark. A few things struck me immediately in the light of day - firstly Minsk has got to be the cleanest place on earth! I had heard this was the case, but you really can’t comprehend how clean the place is until you arrive. Every sidewalk is spotless, every building is shining, every park is pristine, it’s kind of eerie. Secondly, was confirmation that language was going to be an issue, no English text, only Cyrillic, and no attempts to accomodate the western traveller. It struck me that there were only a handful of places I have been where I have truely been lost with communication, Eastern Turkey and southern Laos springing to mind. These occasions are always a good check on my western white privileged, but confronting nonetheless. Thirdly, this place is dirt cheap, cheaper than probably anywhere I have ever been (including Asia), which is saying something! We are talking $1.50 for 0.5 litres of beer in a bar, a full meal in a restaurant with wine no more than $10, subway ride around 10c, a show at the national opera $3 (largely explained by the national average income of less than US$6,000/year). Fourth, they (well at least the President) hold onto their Soviet heritage like I have never seen, Soviet flags everywhere, Lenin statues (including new ones erected in the last few years) and other Soviet statues, spotless and taking pride of place (including my favourite KFC in the world hidden beneath a large and imposing concrete Soviet mural) and the city’s largest and most impressive museum being dedicated to the heroics of the Soviet army. Fifth, this is one extremely ordered society, jay walking is unheard of, queues that would make the English proud and a raft of bizarre laws that could only come from a country ruled by an iron fist President with a penchant for issuing decrees for the most bizarre things (my favourite being a law that forbids more than five people clapping at any one time). These laws are ultimately enforced by a huge and visible and invisible police force, soldiers who’s most important job seemed to be standing guard at every bush at the beer festival I went to for the explicit purpose of preventing public urination, and the KGB, the only state security apparatus in the ex Soviet Union still going by its original name, with a reputed network of 200,000 informants (one for every 10 citizens) and occupying one of the biggest and most impressive buildings in the city.
There was a free walking tour though in English, so I headed there hoping, at the very least, that I’d meet up with some other western travellers to at least have someone to talk to over the next 5 days. It was a small group, but the well worn strategy paid off again and on top of a number of great tips about how to spend the next few days, I hooked up with Mike and Jo from the US. The tour guide told us about a beer and food festival being held that day in a park just out of the city, so after lunch and a few errands, including picking up an invaluable SIM card, we jumped into an Uber and headed out the most socialist beer festival I have ever seen. 54 stalls all selling the same three beers and the same repeating selection of food options, attending with two Americans, this was a bit of a culture shock, but the beer was cheap and quite tasty and a festival is still a festival. The headline act happened to be Sophie Ellis-Baxter, summing up the general feeling that Belarus was still stuck in a time not long after the wall fell.
It was incredibly busy and by late afternoon the orderly lines for the beer and toilets were becoming unbearable, so we decided to head back into the city for dinner. While waiting for our Uber at the entrance, another truth became evident, Minsk local are incredibly friendly. This just backs up my working theory that the best and most friendly people are those living in the most repressive regimes and in the most poverty. A couple of locals, in broken English, approached us asking where we were going and asked if they could join as they were running late to their favourite Russian singers concert at a bar in the city. So we joined them, meeting up with a larger group at the concert, who were all young professionals and had a basic level of English, and spent the entire evening asking endless questions about life in Australia and America. Thus backing up my other theory that the best places to visit are those where tourists are still a source of curiosity and good. We are now Belarusian social media famous (they have their own version of facebook), being featured in a number of photos from the night posted the next day. After the concert it was off to see some bars, including an awesome mad men themed one, before finishing the night at the most quintessential Eastern European karaoke bar, the kind of place you could imagine my hostel room mates would hang out.
And thus, Minsk got well and truely under my skin. I had had plans to head out of Minsk to do some day trips, including to Mir and Brest, but in five days I never left the city, beguiled by its weirdness, beauty and hidden secrets. Having a group of locals to show us around turned out to completely transform the city from a, seemingly, soulless Soviet utopia of broad boulevards, imposing buildings and endless suburbs of concrete apartment blocks, into a city with so much soul. A place where entire neighbourhoods of abandoned Soviet factories have been turned into hidden labyrinths of courtyards full of food trucks, performance spaces and the cleanest and most pristine street art I have ever seen (not one tag to be seen), huge featureless walls, turned into amazing, bright and fantastical scenes. A city full of ordered and impeccable parks, beautiful old Soviet metro stations (photos unfortunately being a big no no!), little pockets of original colourful neighbourhoods that survived WW2 and endless pockets of Soviet murals, mosaics and statues. Much of this would have been missed if not for our awesome local guides, who took an inordinate amount of pleasure showing us around their town. Even while they were at work, we would get a constant stream of messages telling us where to go next, where to eat and what to see.
Minsk may not have the same charm as the capitals of Lithuania or Latvia, but it’s easily more imposing and, most importantly, different. This for me is the most important thing about travelling and Minsk encapsulated the adage that travel is “that glorious feeling of teetering into the brink of the unknown”.Read more