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Europe's last dictatorship

Mattg

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A couple of months ago I visited Belarus. The country is sometimes known as "Europe's last dictatorship" and still has very close ties to Russia, so I was really interested to find out what it would be like there.

In a move to increase tourism and open up the country a bit more to the West, Belarus introduced visa-free travel for Australians (and various other nationalities) a couple of years ago. Originally this was only for stays up to 5 days. This has since been increased to 30 days, although you have to register if you stay more than 5 days. (If you stay at a hotel, they can do this for you.) There are a few conditions for visa-free travel, e.g. you must fly in/out of MSQ (Minsk) and you cannot be in transit to/from Russia. It is also mandatory to have travel insurance.

In many respects Belarus still has many vestiges of its communist/USSR past. On one hand, the architecture in the capital city Minsk is unmistakably Soviet and there are tractors driving through the city streets. The KGB still exists and there's even a huge statue of Lenin in the main square. On the other hand, there are western fast food chains all over Minsk.

I flew from Amsterdam to Minsk and back with LOT Polish Airlines, via Warsaw. I'd flown with LOT just a month previously, so knew pretty much what to expect. When flying short-haul on this airline you don't get a lot of service (pardon the pun), but at least it's consistent.

On every LOT flight you'll get served a choice of tea, coffee or water and the same chocolate wafer bar. There are other items available for purchase (I've never seen anyone buy something) and then the crew will come through offering duty-free (again, I never saw anyone buy something). You'll then land at your destination behind schedule and the purser will apologise for the delay. I think the apology is part of their standard script.

In this instance I allowed about ~3 hours for the layover in Warsaw. So even though we arrived predictably late, I still had time to visit the LOT business lounge at WAW. This was almost empty during mid-morning and had quite a nice selection of food.

The document checks were more thorough than usual when I boarded the next leg to MSQ. The guy scanning my boarding pass looked at my passport and yelled out to his colleague "Australia! A-U-S!" His colleague typed away and after a minute or so I was given the all-clear to board.

When I checked in for the flight, it was showing as a Boeing 737-400. So I was a little surprised to walk onto a brand new Boeing 737 MAX 8. (This was back in February, before the groundings.) The flight was uneventful.

Taking off from Warsaw:

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And landing in Minsk:

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Arriving in Minsk was more straightforward than I expected. I did not have to fill out any forms, and the only questions they asked me were "visa or without visa?" and "travel insurance?". I showed them my Australian travel insurance policy and it was accepted. If you didn't have insurance, you had to buy a policy from a special counter just before the immigration desks. I believe the price of the insurance was less than $2 a day, so not unreasonable.

After a quick trip to the ATM for some Belarusian rubles, I ventured outside the airport and found the bus stop. There's an hourly bus into the city and the price is 4 rubles (~$2.50). The bus driver did not speak a word of English and would only accept exact change in cash.

I would estimate that 90-95% of the population don't speak English. I did meet a few people that could speak German, but otherwise it was mostly just Russian and Belarusian.
 

Mattg

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I spent the next day touring around Minsk...

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There was a procession of people heading over to the island of tears carrying flowers. It just so happened to be the 30th anniversary of the end of the Soviet-Afghan war in which thousands of Belarusians died. The chapel on the island commemorates this war.

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Mattg

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There was no shortage of statues and monuments around Minsk. This one inside a metro station was commemorating the Great Patriotic War:

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This memorial was for victims of nuclear disasters...

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Lenin:

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This mural says “USSR”. The memorial beneath it is for the 2011 Minsk metro bombings.

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I got the feeling that some still have fond memories of the Soviet Union. I even spotted a lady proudly waving a USSR flag on the metro.

I visited the Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk. I’m not usually into museums but found this quite interesting.

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Right outside this museum were... yet more memorials.

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Mattg

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There is virtually no graffiti or street art around Minsk, except for this where street where it is tolerated:

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The metro system was pretty good. There were a couple of lines and the trains came every minute or two. To use the metro you had to buy a token from the window and they did accept credit cards. The fares were not expensive and the stations were typically Soviet in style.

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Mattg

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On my last day I joined a tour to Mir and Nesvizh castles. They were both beautiful and well-maintained.

Our driver/tour guide did not speak any English so at each stop would just drop us off at a castle and type "come back in 2 hours" into Google Translate! At each castle you could pay a small fee to go inside and see the museum displays.

Mir Castle:

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Nesvizh Castle:

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The lake outside Nesvizh Castle was frozen and a few of the locals were partaking in some ice fishing.

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Mattg

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After a few cold but really interesting days it was back to the airport. At Minsk I had access to the "Business Lounge", which had the look and ambience of a hospital waiting room. The food was also not great and, despite the poster, there was no Heineken. There was plenty of vodka though.

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An interesting concept at MSQ - sleeping rooms.

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My LOT flight to Warsaw on an Embraer E170 had about 15 passengers on board and J was completely empty. The purser spent most of the flight catching up on some reading in row one. (I'm not suggesting she was being lazy, there was literally nothing else for her to do!) We departed Minsk at 7.40pm and landed in Warsaw a bit over an hour later at 7pm, local time.

My scheduled connection time in Warsaw was just 50 minutes, so I didn't expect to make my connection back to Amsterdam. Even though the flight was empty, we had a bus bay and arrived right behind a bunch of other non-Schengen flights. There was just a single security checkpoint for screening all of the transit passengers. There were literally 200-300 people waiting to get through this one checkpoint and the line just wasn't moving. After 15 minutes of waiting there my flight was already boarding, so I decided to just leave the airport and then re-clear security upstairs through the regular Star Alliance fast-track lane. There was no queue upstairs and I did make the connection... but only just. I was the last to board. When I sat down they made an announcement that they were still waiting for some more connecting passengers. They never made the flight; I assume they were still downstairs waiting to clear security. Other than that, the last flight was uneventful.

Minsk may be two hours ahead of the rest of Europe, but I felt like I'd gone back a good 20 years. And I think that's why I personally found Belarus really interesting. I would recommend visiting if you're interested in history and culture - just don't expect to have a relaxing beach holiday! In general I found the people friendly enough (once you got past the language barrier), it wasn't expensive and the food was great.
 

love_the_life

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Thanks for the TR; fascinating to see a place so different. It’s a great advantage being based in Europe :)
The woman with the Russian flag reminds me of a passenger on our Antarctic cruise. She was from the old East Germany and didn’t seem really convinced that unification had been a good thing.
 

RB

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Thanks for another report. You seem to be making good use of the "easy" accessibility of Europe
 

OZDUCK

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Thanks for an interesting report of a place that I have never seen much, if anything, of before.
 

ozmatt

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Great trip report! I caught the train to Minsk from Vilnius and back again. That was an adventure! Enjoyed Belarus immensely :) Very clean and safe.
 

clipped_wings

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@Mattg you continue to amaze me with your quest for the road less travelled. Your trip reviews are always full of humility and matter-of-fact honesty. The photos aren't bad either :)
 

henleybeach

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I seem to be following your destinations matt, got Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan next month And We are heading to Warsaw for a wedding in August and have booked plane tickets to Minsk for 3 nights before
Coming home. Thanks for the report perfect timing
 

kermatu

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Another wonderful report. Good on you, and thanks for posting.
 

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