I remember the very first time I ever heard of the nation of Belarus. I was on a cruise ship many years ago, long before I was a serious traveler. Most of the staff were foreigners, with their country listed on their name tag. I remember asking my Mom, “Mom, where’s Bell-ARE-us?”
“It’s pronounced Bella-RUSE, and it used to be part of the USSR,” she said.
I didn’t give it much more thought for a while, but here I am in 2020, getting closer and closer to completing all 193 countries on this earth, and Belarus, you’re up!
I actually hadn’t planned on hitting Belarus until 2021, but the Corona virus took all my 2020 plans, put them in a shredder, and three months later I’m left with the “shreds” – a small handful of countries that are open for tourists…and only a small percent of those that will allow Americans in (Our country is surging with the disease at the moment, so I understand why so many doors are shut). For whatever reason, Belarus was open for business and didn’t include that pesky 14-day quarantine requirement. It only seemed like a natural choice for this July 2020 European patchwork of an itinerary.
My trip started with a flight on Lufthansa from LAX to Hungary and I was almost denied boarding because my connection was in Munich and the Germans were not allowing Americans in. I had to beg my way on to the plane, and it was still no guarantee I wouldn’t be send back to L.A. once I landed in Munich. Luckily I was stamped into the EU there and then on to Budapest, only because I’d applied for and been granted special permission to enter by the Hungarian Police. Next was Kiev, Ukraine, where I came with a burner phone in-hand and all sorts of stress because apparently anyone from a “Red Zone” was ordered to quarantine by law, including installing a government app on your phone that monitors your whereabouts (see my Ukraine piece for more on that.) So while I was really happy that my third country on this journey was completely open with zero restrictions, I was, at the same time surprised that I received such high scrutiny trying to pass through immigration in Belarus.
(Not So) Warm Welcome
First of all, the officers were not friendly whatsoever. The entry forms weren’t in English and the lady at the booth did not give any f**ks that I needed help filling out the form – basically, she just shooed me away. (Note: I don’t expect things to be in my language when I travel, but some assistance and kindness is always nice). When I came back to another booth—after finding and filling out the English version of the forms—this guy told me he needed two copies and to get lost. Okay, third time’s a charm: This time I picked a girl that looked like she might be a tad bit friendly, but boy did I miscalculate that one. She spent ten minutes examining my passport, including looking at some of the pages under a microscope. Did she think it was a fake? She asked me some questions about why I was visiting and didn’t seem to like any of the answers. Then it was back to the passport again and finally something that always stresses me out – the phone call. Who did she call and what could was she possibly saying? Soon a man approaches—an official—and asks me the same questions she’d already asked me. Interestingly enough, he started flipping through my passport and asking me about some of the countries I’d had visas for.
“What did you do Uganda?” he asked?
“I built wells for villages without water,” I replied.
He seemed impressed with Somalia, commenting, “Somalie???”
“Yeah, that one was crazy,” I said.
He asked how much money I’d brought with me and I guessed $500, to which he asked to see. I dug deep into my bag and pulled out my cash envelope. He finally said thanks and “have a good day,” and the lady behind the glass finally (and begrudgingly) stamped me in. It didn’t bother me as much I was just interested on why I got the third degree. Do I look like a spy? A drug smuggler? A money launderer? I was just curious – I sure wish I knew what they were thinking. It’s almost kind of cool if I can pull of the “spy” look, although I ‘m probably more Inspector Gadget than Jason Bourne.
It was about a 45-minute drive into downtown Minsk and my driver didn’t say one word the whole drive there. I really wanted to like Belarus, but the first impressions were cold. As we arrived into downtown the first thing I noticed were the very wide streets and sidewalks – probably half a football field if you measured the distance between the buildings across the road from each other. And it looked like Christmas time. Festive red and white lights adorned light poles and white lights that twinkled like stars were strung over the roadway. The buildings were old, grand and monstrous – it reminded me a lot of Vienna.
First Night, Alright
My host met me to check into my apartment and it was the first smile I’d see since arriving. He was very friendly and welcoming, as he should me my full, fifth-floor walk-up apartment, complete with a living room and full kitchen. I told him about my airport interrogation and he admitted that kind of treatment is normal and that I was in a police state…and not to be offended by it. He gave me the rundown of the apartment and the building; I paid him the $100 for my two nights (what a steal!) and we said goodbye. I was tired and needed sleep for my big (and only) full day in Minsk tomorrow, so I dashed out the door to find food before crashing out. It was nearly 11PM and I didn’t have the time nor the energy to find something authentically Belarusian, so I settled for some kind of Arabic burrito at Döner King. It wasn’t bad, plus it was cheap and fast. I ate my meal on the street while watching big fireworks explode over the city. It was the Fourth of July, so I appreciated the reminder of home. Soon I was snoozing, but not before doing a load of laundry in the apartment’s mini washing machine. This was a lifesaver, for this was the lightest I’d ever packed for a trip like this: one regular-sized backpack with about three changes of clothes inside for the two-week voyage. I was overdue for some stank-removal!
Taking on the Town
I was finally in bed by 1AM and enjoyed a great night’s sleep; up and out by 10:30 to take on the town. This was my first time downloading a paid guide/tour map on the maps.me app and well worth it. For $1.99, the app gave me a complete and complex walking tour of the city, complete with step-by-step routing directions and details for each stop. It would be a brilliant tour to see just about the entire city in the one full day I had, or at least the most important parts. Here’s what the day looked like…in pictures!
Treat Yo’ Self
Wow! What a day! 20,000 steps and six hours later, I was back at the apartment. My feet we’re achin’ like Kevin Bacon, but what a day! I relaxed for a couple hours before heading out for dinner. This time I made sure I tried a real Belarusian dinner – no fast food for me tonight! Plus I’d walked so much today, I felt I deserved a treat: a nice, sit-down meal at an authentic restaurant. I jumped online to browse my options and decided on a place called Kamyanitsa. It looked super authentic, I read that it wasn’t too touristy (a local spot) and the prices were moderate. I’d walk a full mile to get my dinner, and a mile back home, so I was comfortable in indulging in some extra calories…I was working for it! (I gained 15+ pounds during quarantine and was on a mission to drop some el-bees!)
Oh man, this place was a total score! I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decision, but decided on an entrée called Granny Dunya’s Meat Pot and it was a bull’s eye! This piping hot crock of stew included pork, ham, tomatoes, sweet peppers, onions, apple, pickled cucumbers, boiled potatoes, sour cream, prunes, cheese and herbs—yum!—all served in a bubbling little clay cauldron. It was such a memorable meal and it wasn’t too big to handle. Truth is, I probably could’ve eaten three of these babies. The price for my meal, plus a juice, water and the tip: $25 rubles, which worked out to be about US$9.60 – unbelievable. I enjoyed the stroll back to the apartment as the sun set on Belarus. It had been a very productive day.
The Morning After
I only had a few hours to enjoy the city before my noon airport transfer would arrive, so it was out the door to grab breakfast at Union Coffee right at their 9AM opening. It was an awful breakfast: they were out of almost everything so I settled on a plain omelet (they never asked if I wanted anything in it) and a cup of coffee. The fact that the whole meal turned out to be just two bucks helped me forget about how bad it was. Maybe it was my fault for not ordering something else, or not requesting that they put anything in my eggs…oh well, the price was incredible!
Next, a subway ride over to Čaliuskincaū Park to visit the Botanical Gardens. What a pleasant walk I enjoyed through the trees, with not another soul in sight, enjoying the sounds of the morning birds. Boy, am I turning into an old man! My favorite part of the property was seeing a swan and her three babies in the lake. Another swan must have really liked me – he followed me all around the lake…wherever I walked, he (or she) paddled right after me. Such beautiful creatures!
I literally spent my last 70 (Belarusian) cents on the subway ride home. Usually I’m left with way too much foreign currency when I leave a country, but this time, the $20 I took out of the ATM was spent right down to the very last cent…it was perfect! I had just enough time to run over the Cat Museum, which was just a block away from the apartment. I was excited to visit this place, which apparently is just a café with a bunch or real cats walking around – you get to pet and cuddle with them, etc. Not the most hygienic, but I love me some kitties and this sounded like a pretty cool (and weird) stop. Sadly, the doors were locked. Either they were closed for Corona virus, or someone was just sleeping late on a Sunday morning. Next time. I did run into the corner McDonald’s to try their Lemonade Santorini that I saw advertised on the side of the building. It’s not that I’m a huge McDee’s fan, but I do enjoy seeing (and trying) their regional specialties from country to country – there’s usually some pretty odd stuff on the menu.
My driver was right on time for my noon ride to the airport and my 3:45PM flight to Moldova. Once again my passport was checked numerous times with a magnifying glass as I exited through immigration. I sure wish I knew what they were looking for!
Minsk Don’t Stinsk
All in all, Minsk was a success. I saw a ton of stuff in a short period of time and I didn’t feel like I missed much, nor did I feel rushed. As you can see, most of the sites are walkable and you can take the subway for long distances. Belarus was one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever been to – I don’t remember seeing one piece of trash anywhere, and I saw street sweepers washing the roads. I can tell they take a lot of pride in keeping Minsk so pristine. The streets were so wide and the giant buildings all around made the people walking next to them look like toy soldiers. Many of the women look like supermodels…so many in high heels, makeup and dressed to the tee. The people in town were pretty nice and one of the best parts: the city is sooooo cheap. I’d read Belarus is one of the cheapest places to live as a foreigner, and I got a taste of this first-hand. Overall, Belarus gets a high score from me. Now if we can just work on the personalities of those immigration officers, that would be great.