A Quirky Country

Trip Start Dec 12, 2010
Trip End Dec 16, 2012

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Flag of Belarus  , Minskaya Voblastsʼ,
Saturday, March 9, 2013

When travelling around the world, most of the time travellers are eager to research places, culture, and in turn usually have some expectations when visiting somewhere new. But sometimes, the unknown is better. Well, certainly not knowing what to expect can have its advantages. Things can go wrong and things can happen for the better. But as we learnt, if you don't visit these places for yourself, you will never know what it is like. And if you have limited expectations, you are guaranteed to get a surprise. Both good and bad, we definitely got surprised when we visited Belarus, a quirky country.

When discussing our possible visit to the soviet style country of Belarus, a fellow traveller warned us 'it is a failed country’, ‘it is a dictatorship’, ‘you will hate it’. When we asked if he had been there, he replied ‘no, it is a failed country’. With his warnings, it just made us more eager to explore this little known soviet country of Belarus.

Getting a visa to Belarus was another thing. First we needed an invitation letter. To get that, we had to book through a local agency. Looking at the price of tours and other sightseeing, we opted just to book accommodation and trains through the local agency to get our invitation. The rest we would do ourselves. One hundred pounds later, and we had our visa. Whalla, we were off to Belarus.

As we arrived in the ghost town type airport from Moscow, we were eager to get stamped in to this weird country, and besides we had the visa, so now we wanted the stamp, right. Wrong, as we arrived at Minsk international airport, we strolled through passport control, if that’s what you can call it, and there were no officials in sight. We asked some people if our passports needed to be stamped and they all said no. Wow, this place was weird, but we just went with it.

Next stop, we arrived at our hostel in Minsk. Well, according to the website, and the ‘In your pocket’ guide, our hostel was meant to be great and in a good location. Wrong!!! The place was deserted, falling apart, and we were the only ones there. It was way out of town, and definitely not what we had expected. Crap, things were not looking so great so far for this weird country.

After a 45 minute journey into the centre of Minsk, we were still very confused. No one spoke English, all the signs were in Russian, and our Russian wasn’t great. We would try and ask people stuff and all they said was ‘nyet!’ We were starting to wonder what we were doing in this country of Belarus, totally on our own, no guide, no clue, no luck. Oh, but things always have a way of improving. So when we entered a ritzy hotel, our luck changed. Someone actually spoke English and gave us directions to the Information Centre. We were previously told there wasn’t one.

At the tourist information centre, we were given a hard copy of a ‘In Your Pocket’ guide for Minsk, and were given guidance in what to see and do in, as the staff spoke great English. Woo hoo, we were set. We were ready to make our time in this weird country work! We were ready to prove some people wrong.

With our ‘In Your Pocket’ guide in hand, we headed out onto the streets of Minsk to get amongst it. We strolled passed the massive KGB building that had a weird tower, that the head of the KGB demanded to be built, even though it wasn’t symmetrical. We admired the impressive buildings that were built after the city of Minsk was demolished due to World War II. We checked out the confectionary shop that had assistants still wearing bright coloured uniforms with hats. This gave us a feeling that we had just stepped back into the 60’s or 70’s. We checked out the old soviet GUM department store. And as we continued down the wide streets of Minsk lined with a couple of bins on fire, we started to feel that this country wasn’t weird, it was actually really quirky.

The more we explored Minsk, the more we discovered the never ending soviet reminders. Lenin statues, paintings of soviet life, the hammer and the sickle imprinted into the city’s grand buildings, grand, neat soviet architecture, and of course the red soviet start. This country was living in a soviet dream, and yes it was quirky.

On our second day in Belarus, we ventured out of Minsk and journeyed to the town of Mir, home of the UNESCO world heritage site, Mir Castle. The castle itself was impressive, but the situation was quirky. We were pretty much the only tourists, but the amount of staff in the castle was crazy. As we explored the castle, every corner we turned, there was another worker, ready to point us in the right direction for the exhibition. It was weird, but it was a pleasant castle, and the weather was amazing. The sun was shining, the ground was covered in snow, and there wasn’t much happening as we strolled around the town of Mir, taking photos of the houses that time forgot. Quirky, but cool.

More time in Minsk took us to the many monuments around the city, that mainly had a soviet feel. We were intrigued at the Great Patriotic War Museum, where we learnt that like Poland, Belarus was devastated by WWII, maybe even more so, yet we never hear about it. Around 2.5 million Belarussian people were killed in WWII, approximately one third of the total countries population, a vast majority being women and children. We were also overwhelmed at the world class brilliance at the Belarusian ballet. The theatre was magnificent, and we weren’t at all surprised when we realised the beautiful gold decorations on the walls were actually soviet hammer and sickles incorporated into the design. Typical, but this was Belarus, a quirky country.

Via an overnight train, we ventured to the south west city of Brest. It was here that we came face to face with the bureaucracy. Once again our accommodation organised by the local agency was in a terrible location, but oh well, we would work around that. But when we went to check in, we were told that we needed Belarusian health insurance. This we couldn’t comprehend as we had travel insurance that covered all of Europe. But no, we needed Belarusian insurance. After a few frustrating moments, some very friendly local people took us to a place where would could buy insurance, and we were told it would cost a grand total of one euro. You have to be kidding. This was ridiculous, but oh well, it was only one euro, and we just had to jump through the hoops, after all this was Belarus, a quirky country. Shaun then realised he had been given the wrong change. He worked out the change once we had left the office, and he realised he had been given too much change. Woo hoo, screw you Belarusian bureaucracy, we won this time!!!

In Brest we visited the Brest Fortress which was under siege during World War II (the Great Patriotic War). It was massive and so soviet, which was obvious as we entered through the massive soviet star at the entrance, to the tunes of a very soviet marching band.

We were also lured to Brest as it was close to the UNESCO world heritage Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park. We made our way there, walked around the ‘animal enclosures’, strolled through the museum with our Russian speaking only guide who insisted in guiding us through, even though we didn’t speak Russian. We also got the all important nudey shot of Shaun in the National Park. This excursion wasn’t your usual visit to a National Park. But of course this was Belarus, such a quirky country.

After reading this blog so far, you may be thinking that our experience in Belarus was a frustrating one. Indeed you are right, and yes Belarus was a weird and quirky country. But what really made this country for us, was the people we had met. We recently had discovered couch surfing, and were lucky to meet some locals in both Brest and Minsk. They helped us get around the language barrier when booking tickets etc, but most of all, we were given an opportunity to meet Belarusian locals who spoke English, and gave us their view on their quirky country. We spent time with these locals chilling out with a beer, chilling out in front of a movie, and just having a normal day In Belarus. This is something special that we don’t often get to experience while on the road, and to Slava, Roman and Kseniya we thank you. Apart from the couch surfers, most Belarusian were actually friendly and tried to help us. Belarus might be a quirky country, but it is a friendly country, even for a dictatorship.

The moment when we got stamped out of Belarus, even though we never got stamped in, we reflected on our time in Belarus. Yes we received some surprises, some frustrating, some great. We encountered many soviet reminders, felt like millionaires as we carried around wads of local currency that really wasn’t worth much, but above all, we really had a great time within this country with its friendly people. Belarus is a weird and quirky country, but it you never see it for your own eyes, you will never know!   
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