Impressions from a week in Belarus
26.02.2013 - 01.03.2013 0 °C
I’m actually not sure whether the term ‘dictatorship’ fits on Belarus or if ‘pseudo-democracy’ or ‘authoritarian regime’ would be better. For once though, I won’t bother you with the usual social-science-student stuff about how and why this is bad. Instead I’ll try to look at Belarus from the view of the naïve traveller.
This might not be all that politically correct, but then: isn’t all that political correctness a bit boring?
First of all, given that Belarus is a dictatorship, it’s very much off the beaten track for ‘tourist’ (not that I would define myself as such, but that’s another story). It is so, for – at least – two fairly obvious reasons: 1) It is kind of a hassle to get in (e.g. get a visa), but so is Russia, 2) the country lacks obvious sights and tourist infrastructure.
Just the fact that you need a visa, and can’t get it on the border either, is off setting for a European country and would through most people off. The fact that you also need to book your stay in advance or have a letter of invitation from a tour company just to apply for a visa doesn’t make it any easier. And register with the local authorities if you stay in a place for more than five working days… Then again – it’s the exact same with Russia.
But Russia got Saint Petersburg, the Kremlin, the Red Square, the Trans-Siberian, world class art and so on – plenty of interesting stuff known to everybody!
Belarus got none of that, and even less ability to cope with foreigners that doesn’t speak Russian (more about that in the next blog entry). Especially budget travellers have a hard time since hostels are almost unheard of, only Minsk got a handful and just one of these is in the centre of the city. International student cards are useless most places and cheap eats (in the form of old Soviet-style canteens) are almost impossible to locate.
All information about buses and trains are in Belorussian or Russian and there is no one around to translate. Even most museums have 95 % of their explanations in those two languishes only.
So why go?
Exactly because it’s off the beaten track: It’s challenging, it’s untouched and it’s less crowded. And the country isn’t without interesting places to visit, though they aren’t of the usual kind.
Entering the country is like stepping into a melting pot between the Soviet Union and Western consumerism. The last part has reached Minsk in particular, but the hammer and sickle, the propaganda and the red stars are still flying high and proud across the country.
Minsk is the uncontested centre of Stalinist architecture. Levelled by the fighting in WWII, Stalin decided to make the city an ideological statement in stone and concrete, rebuilding almost every building in this heavy style that bear his name.
The second city is Brest, home of one of the most impressive (even if it’s a little shabby) memorial from WWII – or the Great Patriotic War as it is known in the Russian speaking part of the world.
But old Soviet memories can’t be the only attraction in Belarus (even though it’s a big one in my book), and it isn’t. As almost any off the beaten track destination, the local hospitality hasn’t been ruined by the introduction of mass tourism. There’s no-one around to buy all the tacky souvenirs or overpriced tours, no-one who doesn’t respect the local population’s culture or think they are just around to make your holiday easier. People here are just fantastic.
This illustrated best by my arrival to Minsk with the train from Vilnius: I had shared a compartment with an English speaking couple and had spoken a bid with them on the way. Arriving 23.30, without any local currency (or open exchange booths) I had a 2 km walk to my hostel – not unusual or trouble if the hostel is actually there… Yet, this couple insisted on driving me there from the station, and even called for directions to be sure to end up the right place. Just fan-fucking-tastic!
Last thing about dictatorships*: They are safe! And Belarus feels and is safe. Heavy military and police presents – KBG still exists in Belarus (!) – means the population simply don’t dare to commit the slightest piece of crime. Such a supressed population is normally a thing to celebrate, but for a traveller this is great news. No need to worry about walking around with your backpack or being out alone late at night – just don’t begin to break any mayor laws and you’re fine…
*This goes only for dictatorships and authoritarian regimes where the dictator or armed forces actually have genuine control over the country – it doesn’t count in all those failed states.