Belarus 2016 Text and Photos: Tony Steurer
I arrive via Vilnius in Lithuania; very convenient with a modern Eurolines bus and a ticket price of 13 Euro. Travel costs can be very low in parts, but the language barrier without speaking Russian can be significant: hardly any western tourists, even before the political uprising of 2020. Mobile reception and fast, free Wi-Fi is available everywhere. Significantly less shops and billboards than in western Europe. Petrol averages about 0.50 to 0.70 Euro per litre. It is very safe to travel in Belarus (country code BY).
City Gate. Minsk
The border post is about a 30 minute drive from Vilnius. Formalities take about one hour. In the small building I notice a multi-language sign posting that according to the UN-Charter it is possible to claim political asylum here! However hardly anybody seems to take this chance, as I soon discover. This must be one of the most homogeneous nations on the planet. Only in Minsk can you find a small community of Arab people who went to university here, and then never found a reason to return.
St Simon and Helen Church, Minsk
Belarus means ‘White Russia’ deriving from the fact that invading Mongols in the 13th century never settled in the area. Hence, the term ‘white’ refers to the presumed ethnic purity of Belarusians who – unlike their relatives in Moscow - never intermarried with the invaders from the far east.
Scenic drive through pastures, wide open fields, mixed forests, and rather extensive rural farming. Colourful meadows full of wildflowers, storks, and big sky horizons. The E-28 feels like a motorway but is also full of bumpy stretches with continuous road work going on.
along Nezavisimosli Avenue, Minsk
The capital Minsk (2.1 million inhabitants): Miles of very modern high rise houses, like a phalanx. The train station is built in a modernist style, right next to the biggest shopping centre in town. The place is very clean (even underground passages); not a single piece of trash around. No graffiti either. The big supermarkets and gaming casinos, beloved in eastern Europe, are open 24/7.
Palace of the People, Minsk
Minsk is more than 940 years old but got under heavy fire right at the start of WWII. It then housed one of the biggest Jewish ghettoes with more than 100, 000 people. At the beginning of the war more than 50% of the population of 300, 000 were Jewish. Today the figure is less than 0.5%. During the war Minsk became a centre of resistance against the Nazis. By 1944, 80% of the city was destroyed, and the population was decimated to 50,000.
Orthodox Holy Ghost Church, Minsk
After the war, the city was rebuild, and the architecture in the city centre is mostly Stalinist. A fast industrialisation process led to rapid population growth.The impressive high-rise city gate is also a Stalinist piece of architecture with plenty of stylistic details. Behind lies a massive square and the beginning of the mighty boulevard Nezavisimosti, stretching for many kilometres. Dinner under awnings in the best location, with local Beaver draft beer (0,5 l for just 1,70 Euro).
There are posh art deco restaurants like the Cafe de Paris in 8 Karl Marx Street. No ideological collision here! Also beautiful: The Grand Cafe, on 2 Lenin Street.
In July 2016, a new set of currency notes was printed. Four zeros were cut off; an obvious sign that the country suffers from high inflation. The introduction of the new notes took seven years in total, meaning the notes were printed back in 2009 but placed in storage. The old notes however were still accepted and in circulation until January 2017. Initially I worried about being taken advantage of by getting cheated with an old 100,000 Rubel note, complicated by the fact that everything here in written in Cyrillic; not an easy read. In reality though, the situation was straightforward. Everywhere prices were shown in old and new, and when I asked in a pub for some small denominated old notes for my collection the waiter hands me a bunch of old, now worthless notes next to my change. His comments: I have no use for these anymore. They’re garbage
Radzivil Palace, Niazwizh
Tube ticket cost 0.22 Euro. Big sparkling stations, some deep underground, long rides. People appear distanced but are eager to help when approached. Only older women who were socialised under the former Soviet regime, sometimes demonstrate a brash and unfriendly attitude. Life has a relaxed vibe; everything works out in its own way. Only some drivers with bigger western cars often display a more rushed and aggressive style. Cars in general are modern, of western or Japanese origin. I only ever saw one Russian.
The almost total lack of western tourists raises the question whether Belarus is the last unknown spot on the European map? Getting a visa was a real hassle but I had worse experiences. The few foreigners that I encounter are embassy staff and very few Asian tourists seem to have discovered this clean and safe country where I can roam freely and undisturbed.
Sightseeing along the 70 m wide Nezavisimosli Avenue with numerous palaces and mighty facades. Clean-cut Soviet style par excellence. Huge public places such as Independence Square have underground, multi-storey shopping passages and direct metro access. Above ground are water fountains and tended greens. The Roman-Catholic St. Simon and Helen church church in flaming red.
Orthodox Holy Ghost Church, Minsk
On Kastrychnickaja Square is the the huge palace of the people that harbours a concert hall with 2,700 seats. Along the concrete embedded Svislac river are forest-like parks, the opera house is on a hill. The Trinity quarter looks like a Franconian small town with some historic waterfront houses, cafes, and restaurants. Up on a hill the orthodox Holy Ghost Church (baroque style, 1642-87), next to a chapel. The City Hall dating from the 16th century burned down in the last century and was rebuilt in its original style in 2003.
Trinity Quarter, Minsk
Overland tour of the south-west of the country. Bought bus tickets the day before, every bus on time like clockwork; 90 minute drive (3,70 Euro) to Niasvizh (15,000 inhabitants). The Corpus Christi church has blood-red frescoes, was built by Jesuits (1587-1593); many people named Radzivil are buried here. This once mighty family also built an architecturally harmonious palace (UNESCO site) on a peninsula surrounded by big lakes. Construction started in 1583 with a water moat, high earthen walls, and fortified towers. Drawbridge and a three-storied, multi-winged main building. Inside, opulent stately rooms which appear eclectic with a mixture of renaissance, baroque, and classicist styles. A big park and alleyways complete the residence.
Thunderstorms: some waiting time and being confronted by the massive language barrier. Somehow found the connecting bus to Mir (30 km, less than 1 Euro fare). A very pretty fort (UNESCO site), playful appearance with six towers and coloured walls. Belonged to the Radzivil clan as well. In the villages, traditional wooden houses, lots a fruit trees.
Back in Minsk a 180 degrees rainbow, fills the sky. Signpost 770 km to Moscow.
The modern airport is 42 km outside the town. Massive building sites along the road, mostly apartment towers.