Now that Belarus has loosened the red-tape a little, you can now get a five-day visa on arrival if you are from a list of 80 eligible countries. When this was announced I was rather excited that I could finally tick off another place that has unfortunately been sitting around waiting for me to visit, I just didn’t wish to go through the hoops that were previously in place. However, finally they have now seen sense and you can visit for five days, BUT only if you fly in to Minsk, you cannot arrive overland or to/from Russia.
One thing I was surprised, or maybe just stupid, was to learn was that there is officially no border control between Belarus and Russia as officially it is still part of the Russian Federation, as you’ll notice when you receive you immigration card.
When I said I was going to be visiting Belarus most people looked at me incredibly confused as to why I would want to come, and IN WINTER!? I mean, nobody really could possibly enjoy being in a cold climate in the snow, no? Sadly for me, Minsk and Belarus was experiencing warmer than usual weather and so sadly for me I didn’t get any snow and the temperature didn’t fall below zero, yet it snowed back in London. Typical!
I’m pretty certain that most Belarusians only survive on coffee, vodka and cigarettes – My experience of them is that they are definitely friendlier than Russians, they are intrigued by foreigners, although some may look at you with suspicion – which is a relic of the Soviet days. Anyone who has moved abroad and then returned to Belarus will understand you much easier and will be determined to make sure you have a good time whilst visiting. Whilst taking an Uber one day in Minsk, a professional hockey player who was back home for a short time whilst sorting a visa out for the U.S was driving the car, he invited me to a game. How amazing and friendly is that? Sadly I wasn’t able to accept the offer due to travelling to Brest that day, but I would have jumped at the chance to see this national sport being played.
As of 1st January 2017, the Belarusian government finally approved a visa on arrival for a maximum of five-days for citizens of 80 countries/states. To be eligible for this you must have medical insurance before you arrive, or you will be charged at immigration. As of 1st January 2018, the visa on arrival scheme has been extended to ten days but only if you visit certain regions – very clever Government!
It certainly wasn’t the worst welcome I’ve ever had at an airport, I even received a smile from the immigration lady, always nice to step into a country and be made to feel at home!
My adventures in Belarus
I’m sure most of you have heard of Belarus, but what on earth is there to see? It doesn’t really have any world-famous sites, however it does surprisingly have one or two (four to be exact) UNESCO World Heritage sites to check out. The one that I really wanted to see was Mir Castle, sadly for me I don’t drive and it was going to be quite costly and time-consuming to get to from Minsk so I had to abandon this idea but here’s a lovely photo of it I found online for our visual pleasures.
So, onto what I did actually get round to seeing… Well I spent four days in the capital Minsk and then travelled towards the Polish border to visit the wonderful city of Brest after a four-hour train journey.
Everything that I had read online about Minsk before I arrived was sadly pretty much negative, this is a huge shame as what I found was a city starting to attract foreign investment, tourists and most importantly jobs. As 80% of the city was destroyed during World War 2, sadly it was redesigned to Stalin’s requirements and as such it does suffer from Communist-block heaven. Thankfully though, this is now starting to change with major hotel chains including DoubleTree and Hilton opening hotels within the last five years.
Every city needs a subway, right? Well, thankfully Minsk has its own Metro system that was completed in the 70s and is rapidly starting to expand thanks to its 800,000 people who use it daily. Believe me, all ex-Soviet Union countries I’ve been to who have rapid-transport systems are typically overcrowded, and Minsk was no exception. However, at 0.60BYN (£0.22) per journey who can blame the locals for using it to the max.
Due to a bombing that took place several years ago no photography is allowed, I didn’t see any security but decided to respect this decision and not to offend the locals.
Speaking of the Metro, if you take line 1 heading east towards Uručča (Уручча in Russian) and get off at the third last stop called Uschod (Усход) you’ll be able to visit the National Library of the Republic of Belarus. Modernised in 2006, this building can seat about 2,000 readers and its main architectural component has the shape of a rhombicuboctahedron – a what? Like we all know what one of those is, well after Googling it I can confirm that it is in fact an Archimedean solid with eight triangular and eighteen square faces. So there we go kids, you learn something new every day on Travel Geek!
Whilst walking around the centre of Minsk you’ll notice a rather large police presence, I don’t know if that’s to make you feel safe, uncomfortable, watched or all three but I went through all of these emotions. I believe it’s also because it is a police state and you can easily walk past the State Security Committee of the Republic of Belarus without realising. Oh, if you don’t know who they are from that name then it might be more relatable when I say the KGB. Yes, that’s right folks the KGB are still well and truly present in Belarus. In theory, you can be arrested for taking photos of this building, so here’s three!
Opposite my hotel I noticed a rather curious island sticking out of the river Svislach, it’s called the Island of Courage and Sorrow but is referred to as the Island of Tears on Google. It features a memorial to the Belarusians who took part in the Soviet War in Afghanistan and is one of the most famous sights in Minsk.
The last place I checked out in Minsk is the Mound of Glory, which was in fact located 21km away from the city centre, so I first had to figure out how to get there. Sadly there’s no local buses that stop anywhere near (even though the airport bus goes straight past) and the Metro doesn’t come out this far, but you can get off at the very last stop of Line 1 called Uručča (Уручча in Russian) and take an Uber from there, it cost me about £4 for a return journey. Be aware though, this monument isn’t around anything except the main road and you might find it difficult to get an Uber to come back to Minsk.
When I arrived, I noticed the welcome sign (thankfully in English) which told me I had to pay an entry fee, I walked towards the registration office to check with a man there (who initially thought I was asking for the toilet) only to be shooed away and told that I didn’t need to bother?! Sweet, so thankfully I had the place to myself, for free.
This Second World War memorial complex, commemorates fallen Soviet soldiers and is still used for military parades. The actual mound of earth was created in 1969, with scorched soil from the USSR’s ‘Hero Cities’ and battlegrounds. On its summit, four towering titanium bayonets pierce the sky. It’s absolutely amazing and standing in the middle of the monument looking out over the landscape helps remind me of how fought over this land has been.
350km west of Minsk you’ll find the border city of Brest, proudly sitting opposite the Polish city of Terespol. It’s easy to get to from Minsk, there’s a regular train service throughout the day and night. One of the major sites to see is Brest Fortress, it’s a contender to become an UNESCO World Heritage site and this place is absolutely massive! If you are interested in Soviet history then you could easily spend hours exploring all of the buildings. At first I wasn’t sure whether I needed to pay an entrance fee as you can easily just walk in/around the site, but I found an office and paid my 2BYN fee. From my understanding this place was the site of many battles during World War 2 when the Germans attacked without warning and sadly as expected it was a bloodbath. According to information I read on-site, both Hitler and Mussolini visited the fortress at various times. Believe me this place is well worth the trip from Minsk just to see here.
I’ll admit it, I’m not only a travel geek, I’m also a bit of a train geek! When I was a kid all I wanted to be was a train driver; blame Thomas the Tank Engine. So, when I found out that Brest had the first outdoor Railway Museum in Belarus, I was right there! This place is Soviet train heaven, there’s currently 56 locomotives/units and it has even been featured in several films.
It thankfully only costs 2.50BYN to get in and although most trains aren’t open thankfully I made friends with an engineer who was on site and was more than happy to take photos and encourage me to go into some of the locos.
Traveling in Belarus
With some countries it is almost impossible to get around if you don’t drive, thankfully this isn’t the case in Belarus as you have a fantastic and cheap train service, although some tourist sites will require a drive/bus ride. I was sad to realise that there weren’t any domestic flights, this would have made my trip much easier and have enabled me to see more places but I’m sure this will happen in time.
Belavia Belarusian Airlines
OK, I’ll be up-front and honest, I was expecting something absolutely horrendous. What I was greeted with was a recent addition to their fleet with new livery, a decent meal that was included in the price and even free check-in and carry on luggage. What more could I ask for? Well, I was disappointed not to be greeted with a welcome vodka or be offered any alcoholic drinks throughout the flight, however that is just down to me being a bit pickled most of the time.
Passenger numbers on Belavia from 2016 to 2017 have risen more than 20%, this is a significant increase and I’m certain that it has something to do with the relaxing of the visa entrance requirements, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what the Government wanted/did. I read in their onboard magazine that Belavia has started its transition period from old to new branding, this includes an overhaul of the logo, colours, introduction of web/mobile check in and even the planes themselves. Out with old Tupolev’s and in with the new Embraer and Boeing jets, this is exciting times for a company that only started thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their plans are admirable and I sincerely hope they succeed.
One thing I was sad to see, like with many other police states there was simply no competition to Belavia – the national airline and flag carrier for Belarus, more than likely because it is a state-owned company and that wouldn’t be welcomed. I know that Minsk International Airport hopes to attract some new airlines, it will be interesting to see how they stand up against the competition.
Similar to Ukrainian Railways, I was able to easily book tickets with Belarusian Railways via their web-site, selecting seats and print off my boarding pass with ease. At the time I thought to myself this is too easy to be true, anyway there was nothing more I needed to do but turn up.
I travelled on two trains whilst travelling in Belarus, both were unbelievably on-time and although they mostly smelled of cigarettes, body odour and fart, I suppose that’s the pleasure of paying just £3 for a ticket! Thankfully on more pleasant subjects, all staff that I came into contact with were really helpful, they went out of their way to ensure I got to where I needed to be – even if they didn’t speak English, they would find someone or even call someone to provide the information that I needed. Amazing!
Uber in Minsk
Typically when I arrive in a new country I already know how to get to/from the airport to the city, usually I’ll haggle with a local taxi company or hop on a train/bus to a central point. However, in Belarus Uber is so cheap that I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I used it, so I’m not going to apologise for adding to their ever-growing list of successful capital cities using their service.
Unsure whether to visit? Yeah I know that feeling, I wasn’t sure what to expect before I arrived. After reading various blogs, horror stories and reports it was difficult to picture myself there, however as soon as I arrived I’m 100% glad that I made the visit here.
Yes it is still corrupt.
Yes, officially it is still part of the Russian Federation.
Yes it can look grey and miserable (but so can the U.K)
Belarusians have proven to me throughout my trip that they are opening up to tourism, they are definitely more welcoming and friendlier than any Russians I met when I travelled there. However, every individual experience is different but I hope that now the visa restrictions are easing, tourists will become a common sight and it will help to progress this country in ways beyond their wildest dreams. Before you leave, make sure you stock up on the booze, as vodka is C-H-E-A-P here!!
If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.
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