Updated: Mar 31, 2019
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true inspiration in art and science” – Albert Einstein
Belarus: An Idea That Grew “Belarus? at Christmas? You can forget it. No way!” – this was my girlfriend’s predictable response when I first suggested going to Europe’s least-known and probably least fashionable travel destination sometime in early 2012, perhaps fancifully imagining a romantic, alternative festive holiday to the usual over-indulgence. So, for a while, I forgot it. Slowly but surely, though, somehow, the idea grew and gestated, and by November 2012 we were well on our way to finalizing plans. I had acquired the only stand-alone English language guide to the country (the Bradt guide to Belarus), sent off for our visas (a lengthy and pricey process, only practically achievable from my base in Krakow by way of a travel agent), and had commenced research into what on earth we were going to find in this freezing, remote country in the middle of winter. Internet resources, in English at least, are still surprisingly scant. This was, to a large extent, a trip into the unknown. Belarus had long fascinated me, and I had regrettably aborted a trip back in February 2003 due to doubts about the sanity of a visit in sub-zero temperatures; additionly I was put off by the prohibitive visa price. Costing about 100 Euro today for UK citizens, it is the most expensive visa I have seen, and the only country outside Russia in Europe requiring a visa at all for EU citizens. On that occasion I ended up doing a tour of the Baltic States instead. Nine years on, and Belarus was the last country in the old Eastern Bloc that I had not visited. In that time, a lot had changed in Eastern Europe. Poland, along with the Baltic States, Czech, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and recently Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia had all joined the EU. I had seen rapid improvements in my adopted country of Poland, as shopping malls had sprung up, roads and homes had been built, flat prices had sky-rocketed, Poles had become better-educated and the economy had generally boomed.
Crisis? What Crisis?
The crisis in 2008 had barely made a ripple on most people I knew in Krakow. Even the Maluch (Fiat 126), a much-loved Communist-era institution on the roads in Poland well into the 2000’s, had practically disappeared. The story was similar over Central Europe, though Poland is perhaps the best example of post-Communist economic achievement. Meanwhile, Belarus remained, steadfastly and stubbornly, aloof; the so-called last dictatorship in Europe (as then-U.S Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice dubbed it in 2005), seemingly lurching from one economic crisis to another, permanently on the edge. Associated in the western mind, if at all, with Chernobyl (unfairly, as it was a victim of it), coldness, greyness and being a Communist time-capsule, Belarus was, and is, an enigma. Alexander Lukashenko remains in power, having ridden the storms of protest and near-revolution in Minsk in 2011 to emerge stronger and more consolidated than ever – a ruler since 1994, and seemingly, for life. Belarus, it appeared from the outside, was trapped in amber, like the insects found in the precious and beautiful stone along the Baltic shores north of its borders. I wanted to go to Belarus though not to ogle at the Communist relics that remained or to tut at the backwardness of it all – I had seen enough of these things on my travels elsewhere – but with the aim of trying to make sense of this strange world on the edge of Europe’s version of the VIP club, and, I hoped, to find a new way of seeing this mysterious land on the periphery of my vision.
The week before departure brought an icy Arctic blast of winter, as temperatures plummeted to -20C or lower in much of western Ukraine, Poland and Belarus. Several people died of hypothermia in Ukraine. On the day of departure, December 22nd, it was -10 in Krakow. I had prepared for this by stuffing my rucksack with thick socks, jumpers, vests and long-johns, and I looked like the Michelin man in my thick winter duffle coat as I alighted my train to the eastern Polish border town of Biała Podlaska. A night in this uneventful border town was necessary due to the vagaries of train timetables and the fact that Belarus is two hours ahead of Poland in winter time due to it sticking to Moscow times.
Is Brest Best?
Our first destination in Belarus was to be Brest, a mere 10km from the Polish border but psychologically on a different continent for me. Queues at the border check point at the train station were long, and people were carrying with them all manner of goods, from TVs and hi-fi equipment to bottles of liqueur and luxury chocolates – Christmas presents bought from Poland at, we were to discover, much lower prices than what they’re available for in Belarus, presumably due to high import tax levies. The train journey to Brest took approximately twenty five minutes as we took a local train; international trains are known to be stuck at the border for upwards of five hours, due to a different train gauge requiring trains to change wheels. More queues at the other side, a declaration to fill out, a few cursory questions from border guards enquiring where we were going with a raised eyebrow and we were in, with a friendly “Welcome to Belarus!” ringing in our ears. Not the stern welcome we were expecting.
We walked through the rather smart train station building – I had become accustomed to grandness and opulence in post-Soviet train stations; from Lviv to Tashkent, station buildings gleam and glitter, even in the most provincial-seeming town. Police officers were immediately evident in large numbers around the station, though we seemed to be watched with curiosity rather than suspicion. Crime rates in Belarus are said to be amongst the lowest in Europe, probably due to the ubiquitous police, so at least that felt reassuring.
Changing money wasn’t a problem – our Polish zloty were eagerly swapped for Belarusian rubles – which before devaluation in 2000 were affectionately known as ‘Rabbits’ due to some of the colourful animal pictures adorning the notes – and we were given large wads of notes in a perplexing variety of denominations. The country does not use coins, so the smallest value note is worth around a U.S cent. As is my habit on entering a new country, I
bought a beer in the train station café, drably decorated with cheap Christmas decorations. I was shocked to find that it was about $4 for a Baltika #7, a Russian brand; double what it would be in its Polish equivalent. My dreams of a holiday on the cheap diminished as I generally find beer prices a good rule of thumb as to the prices of things in general. And so it was to prove. Belarusian pricing for all things a foreigner might need – hotel rooms, restaurants, bars – are all at western European levels, and alcohol even in shops is more expensive than in Poland. Perhaps the economy is not the basket case it has been portrayed from outside though; Belarus has a relatively strong export industry, and its 2013 GDP level of around $15,000 is similar to Turkey’s, making it only the 11th poorest European economy. As we strolled to the hotel we had targeted for the night, the aptly named Hotel Bug, one cliché was ticked off the list: our first glimpse of a statue of Lenin. He stood by the side of the road, imperious and proud, pointing accusingly at the west, as if to say "Away with your Consumermas. I won't tolerate it here!"