Inaccessible. Difficult. Unwelcoming.
Before moving on to Minsk I read a few travel guides and this was the consensus. If you don’t speak Russian then Minsk will be difficult. The lack of tourist infrastructure makes it difficult to see much and the people don’t go out of their way to help visitors. What’s more, if you’re seen taking photographs with government buildings or officials in them, you face the risk of arrest.
My welcome into Belarus was memorable but not the most pleasant. The bus stopped at Brest on the Belarusian side of the border and passengers alighted to go through border control. At 2am a fair number of cars were passing through but the bus was directed to a different area. I’ve never been through an international border that I would describe as welcoming. The approach tends to be barbed wire fences, guard towers. Even at the nicer international airports, the border checks aren’t the most friendly places. In this case picture the usual large hall with border check desks, but make it 1970s décor, some Belorussian insignia dotted around, and just one border guard.
He’s overweight, the military uniform bought when he was a few pounds lighter. And he’s wearing the slightly oversized, Soviet-style military hat, pointing upwards at a daft angle. He looks angry. It’s 2am, I can understand why he might be angry.
The queue moves slowly but consistently. Every person I overhear is speaking Russian (or perhaps Belarusian) and I’m getting slightly nervous as I approach the front, hoping the border guard would take pity on the dumb foreigner with the British passport and make it easy for me.
I have no idea what he shouted. But it was clear he certainly wasn’t happy and I was directed to the back of the queue. So I did just that. With no-one around who could speak any English, and my lack of Russian being now quite evident, this could have been an awkward situation. Had I done something wrong? Was the visa incorrect? Did I fill in the customs form incorrectly? I have no idea. But when I reached the front of the queue for the second time he was in a far happier mood.
The second part, the bag search, was much more straightforward:
Back on to the bus, with a bus conductor looking relieved that I had made it through without any issue or delay, and it was onward to Minsk.
With the amount of travel I do I can generally sleep in any situation and catch a snooze when needed. Long-haul bus travel seems now to be the exception to that. In the five hours or so from Brest to Minsk I dozed through exhaustion but wakening up in the capital at 6.30am, having obviously no chance of getting a shower anywhere, I felt knackered and truly rotten. The bus station is next to the main train station in Minsk, a nice point to be dropped off, and this is opposite the City Gates. These are two imposing towers, favoured by Stalin as an imposing entrance to the city to show off the Soviet might. They look fantastic and serve as a nice landmark for the city.
Around 50 yards to the left of these, I spot a McDonald’s and hatch a plan.
When attempting to learn Russian, aside from learning pleasantries I perfected one of the most important phrases: “One black coffee, please.” At 6.30am after a terrible overnight bus ride, the idea of breakfast, coffee and the free WiFi I was confident every McDonald’s offered seemed like a good way forward. One coffee, a Bacon and Egg McMuffin and some free Internet later, I was ready to see what was in Minsk. I have to admit to feeling a bit weary after reading the travel advice, particularly about taking photos, so my camera stayed in my bag and I used my mobile phone to snap some quick photos now and again.
Wandering through a couple of parks towards the river, around the Island of Tears and the wide open Praspiekt Niezaliežnasci, Minsk didn’t give the impression painted by the travel blogs I had read. The city is immaculate, with beautiful architecture, a friendly atmosphere and it felt relaxed, safe, everywhere. Many of the younger generation clearly do speak good English, are happy to chat, making grabbing lunch, dinner or a drink in the right place easy enough. Far from the “difficult, inaccessible, unwelcoming” I had read about.
Of all the places I’ve visited I haven’t often felt totally foreign. As an English speaker, travelling around so much of the world is instantly easier. But it was immediately apparent that this wasn’t the case in Minsk. And I loved it. It is fair to say that the city isn’t particularly geared towards tourists. One of the few things aimed at visitors is the city bus tour, which departs every 2-3 hours and has recordings available in a few different languages. Other than this, there isn’t a great deal for anyone who isn’t willing to make a fairly big effort.
My visa for Belarus was a transit visa which meant a well-timed overnight visit, ensuring I crossed the border from Poland and onward to Russia at the right times to get a reasonable amount of time in Minsk. On my walk to the station I passed through Lenin Square, which has several government buildings and some police standing guard, and saw a small group of Japanese tourists stopping here. They were snap happy and I watched as two border guard looked at them and… … … did absolutely nothing. Figuring the travel advice was over the top, I stopped for a few quick photos myself.
My exit from Minsk was a train from Central Station to Moscow, the first of the long, overnight train journeys I had coming up over the next few weeks. Given the comparative ease of gaining a Belarus visa compared to a Russian one, I expected another midnight border checkpoint but it turns out this isn’t the case.
The quiet train meant a kupe to myself and after a bit of chat with some others on the train I tried to get some sleep.