“You came here just to see the country? I can’t believe it. Outstanding!”
I’d just arrived at Minsk International Airport, and my Uber driver didn’t quite know what to make of me. Though it was May, the car heater was on; snow was predicted for the following morning. We zoomed past fields of bright grass, farms, and dark, coniferous forests.
The astonishment at my visit was for good reason. Until recently, travel to Belarus involved an expensive visa with a complicated application process, so most travelers through the region simply skipped the country. It was only in February 2017 that the country announced a new policy allowing citizens of 80 countries (including the United States) to visit visa-free for up to five days. Always one for an adventure, it wasn’t long before I was wandering the streets of Minsk.
Before my trip, I’d researched things to do and brushed up on the Cyrillic alphabet, prepared to explore the city solo. Then I met Sergei.
Sergei was at the apartment I’d rented when I arrived. He was there to translate for the owner, his mother. Before he left Sergei turned to me and asked if I knew anyone in Minsk. “I’m happy to take you on a walk in the city,” he offered.
“I don’t—that would be great!” I said.
We met up the next afternoon. Sergei grew up in Minsk and had just returned after spending several years away, studying at a university in Lithuania. As we strolled around his favorite parks, we discussed Belarusian history and politics.
“Why did you come here? I think it’s not so common, right?” Sergei asked. Like my Uber driver, he was bewildered by my choice of destination.
The truth is that Belarus has fascinated me since I was a teenager when I started traveling solo. But as a budget traveler, the old visa requirements kept me away. I’d read about how difficult it was to get in: tourists turned away at the border even though they had all the proper paperwork, rejected for a mismatched signature or a single mistaken digit on a form. So when I read about the relaxed entry requirements, it wasn’t long before I bought a plane ticket.
Sergei and I walked through Gorky Park and rode to the top of a rickety Ferris wheel for a view of Minsk: a sea of crumbling Soviet apartments peppered with historic buildings reconstructed in the wake of World War II and sprawling squares. Glass skyscrapers shot up all over the city.
Though recent protests and policy changes, like the new visa, point to a shifting political climate, Belarus is still, on the whole, an authoritarian state. Sergei told me that clapping as a form of protest was outlawed in 2011. As we stood in front of the Victory Monument, a 38-meter tall tribute to the soldiers of the Soviet army in World War II, Sergei explained the two versions of his country’s history he had learned: one in elementary school in Minsk, the other at a university abroad. Hearing about a country’s history from its natives is one of my favorite things about traveling, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak openly with Sergei and listen to his intriguing dual perspective.
As we crossed Kastryčnickaja Square in front of the Palace of the Republic and walked past the old KGB headquarters downtown, Sergei pointed to a grocery store. “Are you hungry? Want to have a picnic?” he asked.
Belarus is cheap — think Southeast Asia prices. Our entire grocery picnic — Belarusian sweets, local cheese, seafood-flavored potato chips — cost only a few dollars. It was hard to believe I was in Europe, but in a country with a minimum monthly wage equivalent to around $120 in the U.S., cheap prices are to be expected. Local specialties like blini, crepe-style pancakes with fillings ranging from salmon and smetana (Belarusian sour cream) to strawberries and cream, cost just a few dollars.
Even touristy activities are cheap: museum passes and gallery entrance fees were about $2. A metro token cost $0.30, and a 45+ minute Uber to the airport ran me less than $9.
Sergei bought local berry-flavored liqueur and vodka for me to sample — it wouldn’t have been a complete trip to Belarus without at least trying it, he told me. It wasn’t hard to find; corner stores in Belarus stock shelves of vodka how a 7/11 in America stock refrigerators full of beer and soda. A 750ml bottle of vodka cost less than $1.
No matter your travel style, you’d be hard pressed to overspend in Belarus. There are plenty of budget accommodation options, from ideally located Hostel Trinity, to the city’s many short-term, newly renovated apartment rentals that go for a fraction of what they would cost in other European capitals.
The new visa-free visit policy requires tourists to fly in and out of Minsk’s international airport, which can be frustrating since overland transportation from neighboring countries is so cheap. But Belavia, the national airline, offers flights for under $100 round trip between Minsk and Vilnius, Moscow, Kiev, and elsewhere.
After our picnic, Sergei and I walked through Minsk’s Old Town, down cobblestoned streets lined with replicas of 17th-century churches built in the 1980s. We crossed a bridge over the Svislach River onto the Island of Tears, which is crowned by statues of weeping women and angels in remembrance of the 1980s war in Afghanistan.
Although I didn’t get a chance to check out Minsk’s museums, ranging from traditional to downright bizarre, they’re at the top of my list for my (fingers crossed) next visit. Visitors can play feline-themed chess at the Cat Museum, learn about the German-Soviet War at the Great Patriotic War Museum, or wander through a field of boulders mirroring the country’s unique topography at the Park of Stones.
For our last stop of the day, Sergei and I made the trek out to the National Library of Belarus. The library was one of the strangest buildings I’ve ever seen: a 22-story, glass-walled rhombicuboctahedron-shaped structure, with an observation deck offering an unbeatable panorama of the city. I traced our walk crisscrossing the city, and turned to Sergei. “I’ll be back,” I promised him. “Five days wasn’t nearly enough.”
“If you say so,” he said, shaking his head. The Belarusians I met may not have understood their country’s off-the-beaten-path appeal, but I have a feeling that’s all about to change.
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