After forking out $225 for a 10 day visa I was determined to give Belarus a serious sightseeing and cultural effort, after all, I certainly paid for it!
Belarus is Russia’s little brother, and of all the former soviet states it’s the one that still maintains the strongest ties to Russia even now. It’s leader, Lukasehnko, has been in charge since ’94 and has done his utmost to alienate himself from the rest of the world thanks to his dubious human rights record.
All that being said, backpacking through Belarus has really surprised me. It’s capital seems to be thriving with wide highways, nice cars, parks everywhere and quite a happening bar scene. The poverty I was expecting to be greeted with has been a lot more subdued, and although my trips further inland did show a different financial reality, all-in-all the country is a lot more developed than my expectations.
Backpacking in Minsk has been awesome, not only thanks to my great couchsurfing experience (more on that tomorrow), but also with the sights to be seen, the great food, and the cheap, cheap prices.
When you make it to Minsk, give yourself 2 days to explore the city. These are the best things to see in Minsk, Belarus:
The State Library:
Strangely missing from my guidebooks was the state library. It’s a huge, modern building built in 2001. The building itself is quite impressive but the real draw is the observation tower on top ($0.50) where you can see the sunset on the sprawling Capital.
I already went the circus in Moscow, which was a pretty cool experience even if I do have reservations about the treatment of the animals. If you’re trip doesn’t take you all the way to Russia however, this is the next best thing. Tickets start at $5 and run only on the weekends. Even if you don’t go in, the building itself is nice to look at.
If you needed any reminder that Belarus used to be an integral member of the Soviter union, just check out their Parliament, complete with huge Lenin statue outside. In a city where modern buildings are shooting up faster than bamboo, this area is a real call to the past. Blocky, square and very, very Soviet.
Presidential Administration Building:
Where the bigman himself ‘works’. Lukashenko’s office is right downtown, walking distance from everything. I actually saw him in his limo driving out of the building when I was here, pretty cool huh!?
The building is no great sight but it’s an important part of Belarussian culture, whether they like it or not. And when finally our friend Luka is deposed, this place will be world news.
Island of Courage and Sorrow:
A very small island but one with an exceptionally quirky feature, one which you don’t find listed in the guidebooks! First of all the large monument is an Afghan War Memorial.
The quirkier side of the island comes 20 metres from there, there’s a statue of a Cherubic little boy in all his nude glory. Nothing special there, you might think, seen it all before, adorning buildings all across Europe. In Belarus though, most weddings pay a visit to the island, where everyone strokes the angels penis, especially the bride who upon touching the penis gets photographed 1000 times by the entire wedding party, bringing good luck to the marriage. Right.
This has been done so many times that the boy little fella’s little fella has turned a different colour, thanks to all the attention he gets. Beat that Justin Beiber.
Belive it or not, Belarus still has the KGB, no name changes, no modernizing, it remains the gold old KGB. It’s office are slap bang in the city centre so go and take a look, unsurprisingly you can’t get inside though.
The official ‘city centre’. A huge square indicative of the socialist movements from the 20th century, seen across North Korea, Vietnam, Russia and most former Repbulics of the Soviet Union. You can also check out the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (read: beating the Nazis), but be warned, there is ZERO English in the museum, now why did the lonely planet fail to mention that? Hmmmm.
A large column celebrating defeating the Nazis between 1941 and 1945, which is pretty much a recurring theme through all of Belarus! Below the column is an eternal flame.
Minsk is certainly a city of contrasts, with many of their main sights representing a time when they were under Soviet rule. They bask in their victory over Nazi Germany a lot, but aside from their Soviet sights, the city is buzzing. The people are completely Westernised, more so than eastern Russia, that’s for sure. It’s a great place to backpack in, and I was the only tourist I came across in my entire time in Belarus, which is always a great experience. Happy travels!