Clean. Vibrant. Friendly. These weren’t the words that came to mind as we imagined Belarus, Europe’s Last Remaining Dictatorship. But that’s what we were happily surprised to find as we rolled into Minsk on Christmas Day.
We had almost given up on including Belarus in our road trip because the effort to obtain visas for the five of us was considerable. Here’s Kate’s account of Preparing for Belarus. Even after we received our visas we had some lingering unease about the trip. Did we have the right paperwork to get ourselves and our car to get across the border? Could they simply turn us away? Would they solicit a bribe? Would anyone speak English?
Arriving at the Lithuanian/Belarusian border at around noon on Christmas Day after an hour’s drive from Vilnius, we were happy to see only a handful of cars separated into two lanes in front of us. We had been warned that the border crossing could take hours and we knew there were a number of housekeeping items that had to be addressed at the border.
After 30 or 40 minutes the two cars ahead of us moved forward and I approached the border guard with passports and a stack of documents. He spoke very limited English and he seemed to be looking for something related to the car. Eventually he was satisfied with little interaction from me and we were given a customs declaration form for each individual and directed to pull up to the next checkpoint.
We pulled forward and Kate attempted to complete the forms. They were in English, but weren’t clear on what we needed or didn’t need to declare. For instance, they asked about virtually anything of value—did we need to declare our cameras and computers? As it turned out, we needed to declare the car.
While Kate worked on the forms, I went into the insurance hut to purchase mandatory auto insurance. Most EU insurers won’t insure a car for driving in Belarus, even for an additional fee. Hence the insurance hut at the border. The friendly insurance broker spoke absolutely no English. We engaged in a weird game of charades that included him speaking in Russian and me in English, whilst waving our hands, writing down numbers and pointing to a calendar and parts of our car registration. After 15 or 20 minutes of this and my payment of 40 or so Euros for 7 days of coverage (I think), I had an insurance certificate.
It still took some time for the customs officials to clear us. There was a lot of confusion about the fact that we had a UK car but U.S. passports. What seemed to fix this was showing them our UK residence permits.
After about 2.5 hours, we entered Belarus. Our first stop after the border was at the first petrol station we saw in order to purchase the mandatory BelToll electronic pass to automatically pay tolls on the Belarusian highways. The BelToll requires a refundable €40 deposit and a minimum €20 top-up. Similar to the car insurance, the transaction consisted mostly of gestures and writing numbers on scrap paper. But we got there and we got back on the road to Minsk.
Minsk is nearly in the middle of Belarus and the road in from Lithuania is a well-paved, two-lane, and mostly straight stretch with toll collecting beacons every 5-10km. There weren’t many other cars, and most of the ones we saw were passing us, as we were being careful to stay within the speed limit.
We stayed at the Renaissance Minsk hotel, a mile or two from the town center. It was one of the most up-scale and modern hotels we stayed at on the entire trip. The staff were very friendly and seemed a bit curious as to why this group of five Americans were in Minsk. We had adjoining rooms and each had a large bathroom with a separate tub and shower. The shower had both a rain mode as well as a handheld nozzle with a number of high-tech options for water output. One setting was the water-equivalent of being repeatedly struck with a baseball bat, and James absolutely loved it.
After dropping our bags, we drove into downtown Minsk to find dinner and see a bit of the city. The city was absolutely electric. Christmas lights everywhere, people out walking. It was a striking contrast with our grey expectations. We found the big, open, October Square with a massive Christmas tree, huts selling Christmas knickknacks, snacks, mulled wine, etc., and where families and friends were walking, eating, drinking and laughing.
We spotted a nice looking restaurant called Gallery, and, upon entering, the hostess asked for our coats. I had Fiona’s camera, all of our passports, spare batteries, etc., all jammed into my coat pockets, so I told her I preferred to keep mine with me. She responded “no.” And it was clear that she meant it. So I transferred the important stuff to my then overflowing jeans and we were seated.
The food and the service was excellent and it all came in at a quite reasonable 2.1 million Belarusian Rubles. What the hell, it was Christmas.
On our way back to our car we found ourselves in a large crowd of people watching a video projected on the wall of a church of Santa Claus. He was telling some sort of story in Russian. It was a great way to get the feeling of what normal people in Belarus did on Christmas, and it was certainly festive.
For our one full day in Belarus, we decided to hire a private tour guide. We don’t usually do this, but we felt that it was such a foreign place where most people spoke Russian and everything was in cyrillic. So it was either hire a guide, or fumble our way from monument to monument with little context.
Our tour guide, Vlad, was an odd guy. I generally consider myself a master at sarcasm, but Vlad had me beat by a mile. As the van drove us from sight to sight, he would make tongue-in-cheek jokes about Belarus’s imperialist enemies to the west. And when I asked him about elections he said, “sure we just had an election. I’m pretty sure I voted.” As critical as he was of his country, he was also proud to talk about its large architectural projects, industrial truck-building industry and the various places “the hero” Lee Harvey Oswald resided or worked during his time in Minsk. His politics were complex. On the one hand, in a self-deprecating manner he laughed at the stereotypical communist view of western culture. But on the other hand, he had strong resentments against the west for Belarus having been left behind in the democratization of Eastern Europe, trapped in the embrace of its singular friend and protector: Russia.
We saw monuments, the massive library (see the picture below) and large government buildings fronted by statues of Lenin. We were told that we couldn’t take pictures of government buildings, but we could take pictures of the statutes in front of them…a great combination of bureaucracy and paranoia. Vlad dropped us back at our hotel and we began to plan for our last night in Minsk.
We decided to go see the Moscow Circus at a large arena in central Minsk. It was an interesting show, with a number of animal acts that would never get past the scrutiny of animal rights activists. In particular, they had some cheetahs or leopards, and a kangaroo with boxing gloves on. Some of the acrobatics were impressive and for the most part the kids enjoyed the show.
Mid-way through the show, however, I heard Kate yelling at me and I saw that James was choking. He was panicked and at first I tried to reach in to dislodge what I would later learn was a banana chip. I was unsuccessful and I think I tipped him upside down, but it was all so fast I can’t quite remember. In moments he vomited all over the empty row of seats in front of us. There was vomit everywhere, but the show was going on and the lights were out and we had nothing to clean it up with. So we accepted the dirty looks of the people in front of the empty row and simply went back to watching the show.
The next morning as we prepared to leave, I left my bank card in the ATM and the ATM ate it. Luckily, Kate had hers, so we shrugged it off. Before leaving we stopped at a pharmacy to get some cold medicine and the world’s worst tasting cough syrup for the kids, who each had some form of cold.
As we set off to the Ukraine, we were happy to have visited Minsk. All of the visa issues and border crossing communication troubles had been worth dispelling most of our preconceived notions of Europe’s last remaining dictatorship.