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Published: December 13th 2018
Soviet War Sculpture
About as Soviet a sculpture as I have ever seen. On top of a KFC, no less. There are many war memorials similar to this all over the city.
Belarus: the final frontier. The last vestige of the former USSR, the last bastion of Soviet Communism. Located far behind the old Iron Curtain, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled here since 1994, the country known as Europe's last dictatorship. Isolated from the world, Belarus is a place most average people have never heard of and a place seldom in the news.
But what kind of place would it be?
Exactly the kind of place that fascinates me apparently; exactly the kind of place I had to check out.
Belarus is also a final frontier for me
The first time I tried to go there, things went horribly, horribly wrong
. About a year later, a second expedition had to be prematurely abandoned. It has been one of the most difficult countries I have tried to get to. Therefore it was fitting that Belarus should mark a personal milestone; the last country in Europe I had yet to visit. There could be no more appropriate a country with which to complete the European set.
Belarus's mystery and isolation had piqued my curiosity like no other country and I developed an obsession about eventually visiting Minsk, its capital. I remember having a conversation about cities that
Modern Minsk Skyline
The tall buildings along Peremozhtsau Avenue loom over the frozen Svislach River.
you have a weird obsession about visiting with an Irish lad in Belgrade
that has always stuck with me. He was obsessed about visiting Odessa
, so I had fulfilled his obsession for him - now it was time to fulfil mine. With Belarus only opening its borders to visa-free travel at the start of this year, I thought it was high time for me to finally get this monkey off my back.
Despite visa-free travel for most foreigners landing at Minsk National Airport, my previous experiences with Belarusian authorities and the advice of Scott - my friend and flatmate who had visited Minsk a few months earlier - meant that I was still a little worried about getting into the country and made sure that I was fully prepared to present my return flight and a fistful of euros to get past immigration.
Scott had told me that there is a desk as soon as you enter the terminal where you can buy obligatory medical insurance - one of the prerequisites for entering the country - but saw it was closed as I entered. A little puzzled, I had no choice but to approach the border officer. After carefully
Presidential Administrative Building
Alexander Lukashenko's ominous seat of power.
scrutinising my passport, she then immediately asks me for my - you guessed it - insurance papers.
"Ah...I thought I could buy it?" I reply, pointing at the closed insurance desk.
She looks at me, baffled.
I then give her my German health insurance card - which I am pretty sure doesn't cover me overseas - and she examines it, looking rather suspicious of it. She asks her colleague a question...before stamping my passport. As she hands me back my stuff, she smiles at me flirtatiously. I smile flirtatiously back. I think she fancied me - maybe that's why I got through much easier than I was expecting...
Even after getting through, I was still a little nervous as there were officers in green crawling all over the airport; there were more of them than passengers.
Scott had told me to look out for a taxi desk but I couldn’t seem to find it - there were however, loads of official-but-still-looked-like-they-would-rip-you-off-looking taxi drivers milling around in the arrivals hall.
"Taxi?" asked of the drivers.
I reluctantly agree.
Telling me the price by kilometre, it seems way too expensive.
"What price you want, what money?" he asks me.
Holy Spirit Cathedral
Landmark church atop a hill that looks like it was the city's historic centre.
know, about 30€?" I reply, which was about what I was expecting.
"OK, how about 25€?"
Seemed like a fair price - we had a deal.
The world of the ex-USSR held much more intrigue the first time I tried to come here and since then, I have visited a few former SSRs - Ukraine
among others and indeed Russia
itself. However the place that most-fulfilled my Soviet expectations was the non-country of Transnistria
. Would Belarus be like that?
On first impressions, it looked a lot like I thought it would - very Communist. The clean straight roads, the brutal architecture, the giant dreary apartment blocks, a light dusting of snow on the ground. It obviously looked a lot like Russia or Ukraine yet still with its own unique character and atmosphere.
I was surprised to discover that Minsk is actually two hours ahead of Berlin so I had lost two hours in getting here and thus I had about an hour of sunlight left by the time I arrived at the hostel.
Luckily my hostel was located in one of the prettiest areas in town and one of the city's main sights; Traetskae Pradmestse.
Recreation of an 'old town' with buildings built in the style of those that existed before WWII destroyed almost the whole city.
has a pretty sad history which included Minsk being almost completely destroyed during World War II. This explains the relative lack of historic buildings in the city however in lieu of this, this small but pleasant re-creation of an old town has been developed right on the Svislach River. Almost right opposite the hostel is the Island Of Tears, a memorial dedicated to Belarusian soldiers who died during the Soviet Union-Afghanistan war between 1979 and 1989. There are some nice views here, including that of the modern Minsk skyline along Peremozhtsau Avenue, on the other side of the frozen river.
And it was farkin freezing alright, cold enough for my camera battery to run through a full charge after less than an hour. It didn't take long for feeling to leave my hands either. All weekend I was fighting a battle to keep my camera battery warm, keeping it in my pocket and only taking it out when I needed to take a photo. Tell you what, it made me pretty selective about the photos I was taking and I was resorting to my iPhone camera a lot more than I normally would.
Having to take regular breaks indoors
I was not expecting to see a shopping mall this swanky in Minsk.
from the cold made me wonder whether this was really a good idea to have come here at this time of year but I had days off that I needed to take before the end of the year and the temptation to complete Europe before the end of the year and tick off Belarus once and for all, was in the end too much.
It was fair to say that even after just a few hours in Minsk, I knew that it wasn't the capital of the oppressive, isolated international pariah of years gone by. There has definitely been some foreign investment here and the country's economy has well and truly really opened up to the rest of the world; I certainly wasn’t expecting to see as swanky a mall as Galleria Minsk, which I ducked into to get a reprieve from the cold. Far from being stared at as the only Chinese person in town, I was surprised to see many a Chinese tourist - and many a Chinese resident - walking around the streets of Minsk. China, like it has with many countries around the world, looks to have been the main source of capital influx into
Minsk, perhaps unsurprising given the two countries' shared Communist history; perhaps there is still a bit of the old comradeship between the two countries.
While all the familiar brands in the mall made me feel sadly and oddly comfortable thanks to their familiarity, at the same time it is sad that these symbols of capitalism and consumerism are slowly homogenising every big city around the world.
I had left dinner pretty late that night so I ended up stumbling awkwardly into a restaurant near the hostel. The maitre'd had that typically stony, Eastern European expression on her face and she seemed a little exasperated that she now had to serve a foreigner she couldn't really speak to properly. Thankfully I got a table and a younger girl who could speak some English ended up serving me.
The source of the maitre'd's exasperation wasn't really with me but with the fact that they were already busy hosting a private function upstairs. It seemed like fun up there with loud music and lots of cheering along to bad Belarusian dance hits. It reminded me of a similar experience I had when I was in Tallinn
The food itself was similar to
Minsk's main square (complete with Christmas tree) although covered in snow, you wouldn't know it.
Russian cuisine and was warm and hearty - just what is required when it’s -10 degrees outside. I had the "grandmother’s soup" and Belarusian-style stuffed chicken with potato pancakes. Naturally, the food was served with healthy dollops of sour cream and dill (even in the soup).
The next morning I woke up to find everything blanketed in snow! It was still billowing down as I set out for the day too. While it made the city a bit prettier than it already was, I was nursing a football injury to the back of my knee so I had to be really careful walking around. My sneakers weren't the best for trudging through snow and the footpaths and steps were all treacherously slippery. I thought that my feet would get soaked and cold, but got off pretty lightly in the end as it was so cold that the snow on my shoes wasn’t gonna melt anytime soon.
Minsk is surprisingly pretty in places and you could tell that the hill on the other side of the bridge from Traetskae Pradmestse was the historic centre of the original town, where the Holy Spirit Cathedral is perched. Continuing through the streets
Belarusian State Art Museum
The museum had an impressive collection of affecting works. This is the new wing out the back.
behind the cathedral eventually gets you to the city's modern centre and Oktyabrskaya Square. The square is of historic and political significance and is where protests against Lukashenko's rule are regularly held and sadly, violently broken up; but you wouldn't have guessed it as it was completely covered in snow and just looked like an empty lot with a gigantic Christmas tree in the middle of it. Tsentralny Skver is a supposedly pleasant park right opposite Oktyabrskaya Square but again, the snow made it look like it could have been any small reserve anywhere in the world.
Right behind Tsentralny Skver is the ominous-looking, Soviet style, Presidential Administrative Building, where Lukashenko calls the shots from. It brought to mind the Great Hall Of The People in Beijing
I then decided to take refuge from the cold in the Belarusian State Art Museum. There is quite a lot to see here and I managed to get a decent idea of Belarusian history from my tour through the museum. Featuring mainly significant Belarusian artists and works depicting the country itself, there were more than a few decent pieces on display. There were many paintings of the Belarusian landscape which gave me
The Champs Elysee of Minsk.
an idea of what the countryside is like here, in lieu of not being able to actually get out of Minsk during my short stay here; it looked a lot like what the countryside looked like in neighbouring Ukraine. I also got an idea of what the country looked like back in the day too.
Wandering down and around Minsk's main boulevard of Nezalezhnastsi Avenue, I thought that although the buildings were grey, they were stately and imperial and frankly, aesthetically pleasing. Important buildings on this street included the Soviet-era GUM department store and the still-active KGB Headquarters.
I then decided to jump on the city's metro.
Riding a city's public transport is always a great way to get up, close and personal with locals and I certainly did that as my carriage resembled a tin of sardines. Despite the generally grave expressions, the locals seemed reasonably happy with their lot; they certainly didn't look as suicidal as their Moscow counterparts as I rode the escalator down to the platform. While the faces didn't match those on the metro in Moscow, neither did the metro stations themselves match the splendour of the ones in Moscow either. The system
National Library Of Belarus
Despite being opened in 2006, this rhombicuboctahedron-shaped library has a distinctly 80s look and feel about it.
worked in the same way though, with plastic tokens slotted into the ticket barrier granting you entry.
The reason I decided to get on the metro was more practical than simply people-watching; I had to take it to get out to the National Library Of Belarus. You're probably wondering why I'd go an visit a library while on holiday; this was because the library in question is an 80s-style monstrosity bringing to mind the Shanghai's Pearl TV Tower
, Osaka's Umeda Sky Building
and Hong Kong's HSBC Building
. The building is described as "a ghastly piece of Lukashenko-approved hubris" in the Lonely Planet and the shape of the cube-like structure is known as a rhombicuboctahedron
. All glass and steel, the building reminded me a bit of the Nakatomi Tower in Die Hard and you could go up to top of the building for views over the city. It was a dark, gloomy day however and from the cold outdoor observation deck, you couldn't see too far. You got a great view of Soviet architecture and urban planning however.
For dinner, I ended up at a typical Belarusian restaurant decorated like a medieval inn you might have stopped at in the Belarusian countryside. I was promised that the wait
Belarusian potato pudding with beef.
staff would be wearing traditional garb but the maitre’d was disappointingly wearing a suit; the other waiter was dressed like Marty McFly. I ordered the mushroom soup served in a bread bowl to start - the bread ended up absorbing all the soup which left a rather nice mushroom pudding in its wake - and a Belarusian potato pudding called babka,
which was served with beef strips, mayonnaise and of course, dill. All washed down with a dark and bitter Belarusian beer. It was pretty good food - the meal complemented the beer perfectly although I was well full afterwards.
As I was on my own on this trip, I had decided to stay at a hostel to increase my chances of meeting people.
A pub crawl was advertised but it unfortunately wasn't on that night; however the girl working the reception, Veronika, invited me out for some drinks and dancing with her friends instead. I didn't want to impose on her night out but Veronika was totally cool with it and made sure I went out with her. It would've been remiss of me not to have had a night out in Minsk.
Along with Veronika's housemates Oksana
Rock bar with a live band and a super-lively crowd that rocked out at!
and Yulia, and Hakan, a Turkish guy staying at the hostel, we hit up a place called Doodah King, where after a few drinks, we rocked out to a live band banging out Belarusian rock and the odd English rock cover. Rage Against The Machine's "Killing In The Name Of" was an obvious song to play in a place where you might normally expect to see everyone wearing black denim and leather but I also pogoed to The Subways' "Rock N' Roll Queen" which I hadn’t rocked to in years but are seemingly quite popular in Belarus!
The girls and Hakan were good chat too, the girls being normal millennials studying at university while working jobs to make ends meet, all with big dreams to realise; Hakan being more established and using his spare time to travel around like I am.
We moved on to a more conventional mainstream club in the nightlife district behind the cathedral that I didn't even know was there despite walking through it in the morning. I was done by about 4 or 5 in the morning although Hakan somehow stayed out by himself until about 9am!
Thankfully we were close to the hostel and
Second bar I went to on my night out in Minsk.
a beer/rum/vodka blanket did wonders for the walk home!
I was a little hungover the next morning, but with feelings of regret having been replaced by feelings of wistfulness. The vast majority of my weekends away from London had involved at least one big night out and waking up hungover in a hostel in a foreign city again on the day of my flight back home, brought back good memories and a familiar feeling. Perhaps for the first time in my life, a hangover was making me feel nostalgic rather than nauseous. It also proved that I've still got it!
The best cure for a hangover - blue Powerade apart - is a good pie. I had been intrigued about the Russian-style pie shop Stolle, so I made my way there before heading to the airport. The chicken and mushroom number hit the spot - although Russian pies are a bit different to their New Zealand, Australian, British or American counterparts in that the pastry is more like a sweet bread, rather than traditional or flaky Western-style pastry. Perfect after a night on the piss.
Sampling a Russian pie was the last thing I had wanted to
One of the biggest squares in Europe, it was hard to tell with all the snow on top of it! The tower of the Roman Catholic Red Church is visible.
do here in Minsk and although I had seen and done everything I wanted to see and do, as I passed through the city one last time in the taxi to the airport, I thought perhaps it would’ve been nice to have spent one more day here to walk around a bit more, perhaps photograph a few more of the Soviet monuments dotted around the city. Locations such as Victory Square and the Museum Of The Great Patriotic War, which I hadn't realised had been relocated from it's former spot on Oktyabrskaya Square.
I did unfortunately however, leave Minsk on a sour note.
The pie shop was near the Doubletree hotel - perhaps the city’s swankiest - which I thought would be the best place to pick up a taxi and indeed it was. I didn’t negotiate the price beforehand so I was a little concerned about what the driver might charge me at the end but thought that even if it was a little more than the expected 60BYN, that it wouldn’t be too big of a deal considering I still had quite a few leftover roubles
to get rid of. I certainly didn’t think it would be
Soviet-style apartment blocks as far as the eye can see near the National Library Of Belarus.
the 240BYN (100€!) that he did charge me! Looking at the price list, even though it was in Belarusian, I deduced that he was probably right and that I should’ve at least found out what the price was beforehand. I didn’t have enough roubles to pay him so I had to give him an extra 50€! It was a large people mover I had taken a ride in so perhaps that was why it was so expensive but it was also perhaps a luxury service (which wasn’t really that luxurious). Perhaps he ripped me off a little too. In my backpacking days I definitely would found out the price beforehand but I was in a bit of hurry so I might’ve been forced to take this fare anyway as there weren’t any other taxis around. Luckily I’m relatively well off with money these days so it wasn’t the end of the world but it was still a kick in the teeth. Up until then, I had thought that Belarus was reasonably cheap. I was fuming but not as much as I would’ve in my backpacking or London days. I’ve had my fair share of avoidable, travel-related, overspending mishaps over the
Yulia, Hakan, Veronika, me and Oksana.
And that brought down the curtain on my adventure behind the old iron one.
Overall I found Minsk much more westernised and liberal than I was expecting, even after being told by many beforehand that it would be like this. Old preconceptions die hard, I guess. I was told to be pleasantly surprised and I certainly was. If the country is being ruled by a dictatorship, then it definitely didn’t feel like it. It seems that iron curtain is well and truly open.
In a way it was also sad however, that I had missed out on seeing how different things would have been before Belarus had come in from the cold. If I had managed to visit the country five years ago as planned, it would've been very fascinating indeed.
Having not gone anywhere for most of this year, it seems I have picked up the travel habit again. I still have one more trip to make this year to somewhere I have been wanting to visit for some time now and that promises to be just as fascinating as what I had just experienced.
Да хуткай сустрэчы! (Da xutkaj sustrehchy!)
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