I didn’t have much expectations before I went to visit Belarus. Actually I had no expectations at all! Even if it’s a neighbour country of Poland and it takes only few hours to get there we don’t know all that much about it – all news that reach us are mostly on political level only. I didn’t have any image of Belarus in my head, didn’t read much before trip, had no idea about things to do in Minsk and, like it often is in such cases, the place just blown me away and this very trip turned out to be among my top 3!
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How I had a chance to visit Belarus
In May 2014 Belarus hosted Hockey World Championships and everyone who had a ticket for any game could visit Belarus visa-free (the cheapest ticket was 10$!). Normally getting a visa can be pretty difficult and time-consuming with all the invitations, reservations and insurance. So when the opportunity like this occurred lots of Polish people, me and my friends included, used this chance to go to our neighbor country. Actually Poland was the 3rd country when it comes to the number of sold tickets – but we are terrible at hockey and didn’t play in the championships ;)
I’m very well aware that what I had seen might not be a real Belarus, it was probably polished in a way for the championships so foreign visitors could see how amazing and wealth the place is. But still I could have a proper look at the country and experience it in a way, talk to local people, try the food, observe the place and just enjoy it.
Belarus is so clean!
First of all Belarus is crazy clean! I’ve heard about that before but what I’ve seen just exceeded my expectations! Neither in pretty Grodno nor in Minsk I have seen a single paper kicking around, there were no illegal posters randomly stuck to the walls. The streets, squares and parks were extremely tidy and clean, the same goes for public buildings. I had no problems with sitting on the floor at the train station in Grodno as it looked like it was just cleaned (and it probably was). The same goes for public toilets, even if they were mostly squat they were very clean and not gross at all! But cities aren’t the only clean places in Belarus – so was the countryside! I traveled by day train from Minsk to Brest and every village and city we passed looked that neat too!
Visit Belarus – country of millionaires
It’s so easy to be a millionaire in Belarus! Their currency, Belorussian Ruble, has a lot of zeros – for example 10$ = 100.000BYR. Everyone was constantly confused with money, we felt we are so rich but as it quickly turned out we weren’t. Before every payment we were counting and counting and still couldn’t find the right amount of money. To make everything more complicated there’re no coins in Belarus and the lowest bill was 50 BYR. In a grocery shop in Grodno a cashier felt sorry for my friend and so she organized her whole pocket! The other friend had to deal with the anger of toilet lady when she paid 250BYR instead of 2500BYR. But then on our first night out in Minsk we got a bill for over 1.000.000BYR (for 10 people), that was really exciting. Well, usually you first need to earn the first million, we just spent it!
Belarus is safe!
I also felt extremely safe in Belarus! We took a night train from Grodno to Minsk in the cheapest class (~20PLN / 7$ / 5€ for the ticket) and even if there were no compartments, just beds on one side of the carriage and corridor on the other, it was a very smooth ride and I slept like a baby. The fact that each carriage was looked after (in ours there was a young yet kind of scary girl) definitely helped! The train we took from Minsk to Brest was constantly watched by the police too – two guys were walking around every half an hour or so. Cities were totally fine too! In the evening they were really empty and looked kind of spooky but still safe. I walked quite much around Minsk at night and even if there were not many people around I felt really good. That’s something I don’t think I would do in many other cities yet in Belarus I had no problems with late night walks. Actually I don’t think I’ve ever heard from fellow travelers of any safety accident there!
Visit Belarus to enjoy the nightlife in Minsk
Minsk had a surprisingly good night life! Thanks to a fellow travel blogger and a friend of mine Megan, who joined me and my friends on this trip, we ended up in a great small pub called Hany Bany. When we came there on the first night it was already almost full but very soon the tables were rearranged, other guests changed their seats so we could all squeeze in. It took maybe one beer for the whole pub to integrate, everyone was talking to everyone and it was one of the best nights out ever! At some point I was sure that soon someone will start dancing on the tables! Officially the place was opened until 11pm but I think we left around 3am or so! We came back on the next evening too, this time there were even more of us (one of my friends randomly meet his friends on the street) and again we had a great evening, from the very beginning we were welcomed like old friends! It was more of a hidden, alternative place, so was the clientele – definitely not a place I’d expect to find in Minsk and definitely one of my finest memories of Belarus!
Hospitable people of Belarus
When it comes to people I was sure most of them will be reserved, strict and focus on work, not wanting to interact and minding their own business. But it wasn’t really like that! I always heard that when crossing the border, especially in the post-Soviet countries, you need to be calm and serious as it’s easy to get in trouble even if just for a smile. So I was behaving at my best manner but already there people were really friendly and chatty, one of the border guards told me all the places we should see in Grodno, regretting we’re not staying there longer. And it was just the beginning! A lot of the people we had to deal with were super friendly and curious, chatting with us right away. On top of that there were our nights out in Minsk that were all about hanging out and befriending with locals! Of course we also encountered grumpy people, also young ones (that was kind of disturbing) but they were the minority. Oh, and knowing basic Russian definitely helped here, traveling around only with English would be difficult I’m afraid…
Food in Belarus
Then there was the food which was pretty disappointing. I had no expectations here, except of potatoes, potatoes and maybe some more potatoes and I was actually right. There were some good pancakes too, with both sweet and salty fillings, but that’s about it. I can’t say the food was awful because it wasn’t, it was just ok but kind of bland, I didn’t fall head over heels for it. The beer however is a different story! One of the best wheat beers I’ve ever had, Lidskae Biloe, was there! Cold and served with a slice of lemon was a pure heaven! But don’t ask me how many of these I had when in Belarus ;)
Prices in Belarus
When it comes to prices Belarus, unlike other post-Soviet countries I’ve visited, wasn’t all that cheap. The regular lunch in Lido, probably the cheapest and most popular bistro-alike restaurant, was usually around 100.000 BYR (vegetables were crazy expensive!), the beer was around 25.000 BYR. Prices in shops weren’t very decent too. I think Belarus was actually slightly more expensive than Poland. The only cheap thing was transport, like the night train from Grodno to Minsk for around 60.000BYR or the day train from Minsk to Brest (around 350kms) for 35.000 BYR (though it wasn’t the most comfortable journey ever), one public transport ride in Minsk was 4.000BYR.
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I expected Belarus to be a remote, undeveloped country that looks much like Poland 20 or so years ago. I was so wrong. The buildings in the capital are a great example of Soviet architecture, true, but there are lots of modern places too! Some of the best known fashion label shops can be found on the main street in Minsk, young people use iPhones and Belarus is just a normal country like any other, only with the crappy politics. I just wish it was much easier to travel there as I wouldn’t mind going back, experiencing it some more and get to know it better. The country surprised me big time, but in a positive way and I wish for myself, for you and for people there that eventually we will all be able to travel freely around!
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