Belarus: Reflections and Practicalities
Trip Start Aug 31, 2007
90Trip End Apr 19, 2008
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Belarus itself was about what I expected - filled with Soviet architecture in every conceivable state of repair or disrepair. What little of the countryside I saw from the train resembled Russian villages from the movies, and I got the distinct impression that all the money is in Minsk. Even Brest was markedly poorer.
On a Communist-dictator level, like Vietnam, Belarus didn't feel as though it were under a particularly different government from Canada, aside from the fact that I had to register myself at the hotel so the government could keep track of me. Unlike Vietnam, Belarus lacked any noticeable propaganda glorifying the current regime, which surprised me. My Russian's not that great, but I would have been able to pick out "Lukashenko." You certainly didn't need to know Vietnamese to understand all the posters of Uncle Ho around Vietnam.
As a final note, I found the role of young women in Belarus interesting. I had read that gender rolls were firmly in place in Belarus, and certainly found that to be true. While the women of Vilnius seemed stylish and confident, the women of Minsk seemed desperately stylish, trying way too hard to fit into what they perceive as their place in the world. Additionally, I got a marked impression that Belorussian men are the professionals, while the women work as salesclerks and spend their husbands' money. Not quite the existence I would choose.
Considering my expectations going in, Belarus almost couldn't help but be easier to travel in that I had supposed. Getting my visa was expensive, but straight forward, and the border beats the US for facility. Makes me wonder what horror stories they tell people about my native country's customs and immigration. On leaving the country, I went through customs at the Brest train station - which is important. You must arrive at least 20 minutes before your train for this. They weren't really sure what to with a US passport, but the lady found my name on a list (it wasn't very long) crossed me off, and stamped me out of the country.
Transport around Minsk was pretty slick (I love the metros!) and in Brest, I just walked. Between cities, the train is good, just try not to buy two tickets if you only need one! Transport is also cheap - especially if you never figure out how to pay for city buses. No one speaks English or French. My German didn't really get me anywhere either, and it's amazing how many people didn't seem to believe me when I said I didn't speak Russian. I never used a public toilet in Belarus. I drank bottled water. I hear lots of people drink tap and are fine, but I figured it was worth $5 to play it safe. I kept a low profile and had no issues with the authorities. I had no problems as a solo woman. If anything, people were more likely to take pity on me for it.
Food in Belarus is cheap. My three excursions to Lido (a cafeteria style place in Minsk) come to $10 total. Accommodation in Minsk is not so cheap if you have to stay at a hotel. I would highly recommend looking up Aleksandr on hostelworld.com. It's an authentic Belorussian experience and $20/night. Outside of the capital, it's much cheaper. Note that if you stay in the country more than 72 hours, you must register at a hotel. Mine in Brest charged me $7.50 for the service. They give you a sheet of paper with stamps on it. Customs never asked for mine, but better safe than sorry.
Finally, don't attempt the country if Cyrillic will leave you baffled. It really does only take an hour to figure most of it out. My guide had street names in the Roman alphabet, but all the signs are in Cyrillic. If you can't translate back and forth, you'll be lost. Besides, once you can pronounce Cyrillic, you'll be amazed at how much you can read. I was continually sounds out words and then finding I knew their meaning, e.g "sushi bar" and "TGI Friday's/"