Motorcycles, Soviet Iconography and Street Art in Minsk
So. Belarus. What do you know about Belarus?
Probably not much. It’s a bit like Moldova, isn’t it?
Where is it again..?
All I knew about Belarus hinged on 2 nuggets of info. One involves bikes and the other Steven Seagal.
Firstly, in Vietnam there was a brand of old motorbike popular with people who get enthusiastic about old bikes. The brand was Minsk and presumably came from Minsk and ended up in Vietnam through some communist connection.
Then there’s Steven Seagal. The old mulleted Dracula-esque ninja met the Belarusian president and ate a carrot from him. It was on the news. Google it.
So that was it. Not exactly enough for an edition of Lonely Planet, is it? So, as the Women’s Day long weekend came around we started planning to take a step into the unknown and visit Minsk.
This was the reaction of Ukrainian friends and students. Interestingly there seems to be some snobbery over this country. No one was impressed.
We were told it would be like travelling back in time to the USSR.
We were told there’d be no internet.
One student of mine looked at me in shock and just said “I don’t understand why people from England want to go to these places” then he shook his head and said “I suppose it is for the women”.
Which leads us to the airport….
In the departure lounge, right by our gate in Kiev airport we were sitting next to a man watching Youtube videos at full volume on his tablet. He was watching a rundown of, what may have been titled, ‘The top 10 countries with pretty women who might marry you’ or maybe something more catchy. It was hard not to eavesdrop really.
Anyway, I seem to remember the Philippines was around number 9 and then we basically homed in on Eastern Europe, with Russia and Ukraine in the top 5. And there was Belarus at number 4.
Apparently, Belarussian women are marginally less attractive than Ukrainian women who are a little more attractive than Russian women. The montage also informed us that Ukrainian women are ‘often educated and happy to discuss religion or philosophy’. Hmm. I can honestly say I’ve never discussed religion or philosophy with anyone from Ukraine, man, woman or expat. I clearly move in the wrong circles.
Sadly, the flight started boarding so we missed the top 3. Presumably, Moldova was in there somewhere.
You can come in, but don’t stay for long.
So, to visit Belarus for more than a week us Brits need a visa – presumably because we’re top hat wearing, steam engine driving capitalists – but, if you fly in, you get 5 days visa stay. So we did that as we were only there for 4 days.
You also have to take out medical insurance. We have medical insurance, but it seemed too much hassle to provide the relevant documents on entry so we bought Belarussian health insurance at a kiosk in arrivals before we went through immigration. Two Euros each. Not bad.
Brandishing our new health insurance certificate in hand, we breezed through immigration and stepped out onto Belarussian soil, much like Steven Seagal must have done, knowing that somewhere out there in Minsk there’d be Belarussian carrots to eat (see previous reference to the ninja Steve Seagal and do keep up).
From the airport, there is a bus that takes you to the railway station about 50 minutes away from frozen icy fields. So we did that. And from there we walked to our apartment for the weekend.
We stayed right in the centre by parliament and near the red church if you’re in the know. After dropping off our stuff, we headed out, much like Steve Seagal would have done…. Okay, I’ll stop now.
Imagine there’s no Lenin…
As you might know, if you’ve read our other blogs, one thing we like to do when we arrive in a new city is walk around. That’s our main pastime really. Walk around. Look at things. Then stop and have a pint. And Minsk offered the perfect opportunity for this, despite the snow and biting cold.
Anyway, one of the main things you notice on such a walk is the amount of Soviet symbolism. It seems there are hammers and sickles everywhere and also an imposing statue of Lenin. The interesting contrast is that now, on the main street, a hammer, sickle and Soviet star is now complemented with the golden arches of McDonald’s.
The old new town
We were surprised to find so many tourist maps in the city – annotated in Russian, English and Chinese. They were really helpful and not only pointed us to museums and areas of interest, but also to pubs! Which is nice of them.
Something worth noting if you’re going to Minsk is that the street signs are all written in the Cyrillic alphabet and not also in the Roman alphabet as they are in Kiev. Lucky for us, we can read those back-to-front Rs and Ns thanks to our time in Ukraine, but it may prove a little problematic to those less proficient. But then, I guess there’s always Google maps…
Anyway, slap bang in the centre of the city there’s this kinda ‘tourist area’ with loads of bars and restaurants by the river. It looks kinda old fashioned, but not really as it’s actually quite modern. This isn’t making much sense… Basically, it’s been maintained in the old-fashioned style, but is clearly there to attract tourists to those nice bars and restaurants that Ukrainian friends told me didn’t exist.
And yet there I was one frosty afternoon, sitting at a bar drinking a pint of Newcastle Brown Ale and thus hurling myself whole-heartedly into the local culture…
“Did you eat lots of potatoes?” – Ukrainian student inquires about my break in Minsk.
Belarus produces lots of potatoes and they’re quite proud of this. As a result, there are a lot of potatoes in the food. There is even a special Belarussian potato cake called draniki that everyone loves and one night we had a draniki burger. This involves a hamburger served between 2 potato cakes – sort of the burger and fries combined, without the bun. Saves time, I guess.
There was also an evening, just after the pint of Brown Ale, that I decided to order a traditional meal of Belarus sausages and potato….and suddenly realised I was basically having bangers and mash…
Potato cakes are a feature of Ukrainian cuisine too. Read our post on Ukrainian food to try.
A free walking tour of Minsk
Minsk has free walking tours, similar to ones we’ve taken in other places around the world, so we took advantage of this on our second day and set off with a local called Yulia and took in the sights. These included….
The opera house, war memorials, parks and even the place where Lee Harvey Oswald used to live. Yes, did you know Lee Harvey Oswald who killed (or did he..??) Kennedy used to live in Minsk? Apparently so when he defected to communism. I had no idea about this so there’s another ‘fact about Belarus’ to file away for a future pub quiz.
A very moving example of the things to see in Minsk is the Isle of Tears. In the river, there’s a small island with a monument dedicated to the Belarussian soldiers who died during the 1979-1999 war with Afganistan.
We like museums and Minsk has a lot of them. Some of them, admittedly, a bit weird.
There was the bicycle and motorbike museum. This consisted of a large room with some bikes in it and some scary children mannequins and no further explanation.
Then, across a courtyard was the horse-drawn cart museum. Which consisted of a smaller room with horse-drawn carts in it.
Then, around the corner, there was the horse-drawn tram museum. Yes, horse-drawn trams. I’d never heard of this, but apparently, it’s a thing. In a recent trip to Odessa we found they also used to have them there.
Don’t think Minsk has the only weird museums. There are some great ones in Ukraine too. How about a museum where you can visit a real nuclear missile base? Or the museum of sex in Kharkiv?
But it wasn’t all about transport.
There was also the national history museum, showing Belarussian castles using the latest Virtual Reality technology! A few of them were closed because of the Women’s Day holiday, including the Police Museum, but we were able to see the Lada police cars outside.
And of course, finally, there was…
The Museum of the Great Patriotic War (World War 2)
This museum is immense and has lots of tanks – which is always good. Unfortunately, the story of the war told here is a little hard to follow and interestingly mentions no one but the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. If you took World War 2 history based on this museum, you’d assume no other countries were involved. Obviously, all representations of history are biased by the authors, but it was just an interesting observation that other countries involved weren’t much mentioned. (But maybe I’m only saying this because I’m British and was viewing it through biased eyes…)
The only suggestion of the Allies came in one room where there was a massive vase with the Yalta Summit picture on the side showing Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.
After that we passed more guns and military hardware and came out into a grand hall with a huge soviet stained glass window, thankful that the Red Army had defeated Nazism.
The museum was 7 rubles to enter, but we didn’t pay to take photographs so, unfortunately, no pictures of tanks.
Street Art in Minsk
“It’ll be grey and like the Soviet Union 20 years ago…”
Well, apparently not! Would you believe there’s a whole area devoted to abstract street art? Well, there is! I’ll let the pictures demonstrate this, but needless to say, it’s very cool. Head to Oktjabrskaja street
Ukraine also has a lot of great street art. Kharkiv has its own version of Banksy, which you can read about in our post on unusual things to do in Kharkiv.
Nuts and Bolts
How to get to Minsk from Kyiv
We flew to Minsk with the Belarussian airline Belavia. It’s barely an hour’s flight, but they give you a sandwich and drink, and 20kg of baggage free. This is in comparison to Ukrainian airlines, who make you pay extra for bags and don’t give you any food.
When you arrive, there are two desks selling health insurance. You hand over a tiny fee – we paid 2 Euros each for four days, and they issue you with their insurance. This is compulsory to get the 5-day visa-free entry to Belarus. You can use your own health insurance, but it has to say that Belarus is covered. Honestly, we couldn’t be bothered to check.
You then go through the immigration desk, where a smiling official checks your insurance, asks you when you are leaving and then stamps your passport.
At the airport, there is a bus to take you to the city. There are signs to the bus stop. You have to buy a ticket from the machine, which only seems to take credit cards. It was 4 roubles and 40 kopeks each for our bags. The bus took us to the railway station which is near the centre of town.
Where to stay in Minsk
There are a few of the old Soviet-style hotels in Minsk which people seems to like, and then a lot of swish five-star chains. we wanted something a bit more budget so we rented an apartment from Booking.com. The Apartment on Myasnikova had a living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen and included things like towels, tea and shower gel. It was basic, but fine. We were a short walk from the centre and the landlady spoke English.
Where to drink in Minsk
Zybitskaya street, down by the river, is a whole area of bars and restaurants, and quite the party area. A few we recommend are 4-4-2 football and rock bar, where Kris had a Newcastle Brown Ale for 9 rubles, and the Malt and Hops English pub. Just off this street is Staromestnyi Pivovar, who brew their own beer (there are three branches of this). Another good street for bars is Revaliucyjnaja, which has TNT rock pub with great live music, and Dom.
The website Visit Belarus has some great advice for visiting Minsk. For more personal ideas about Minsk, and other places in our region, join the Facebook Group: Travel to Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former USSR.
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