Thinking of visiting the capital city of Europe’s least visited country?
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t either. Not until the opportunity arose to step out of my comfort zone and gain some real-world experience as part of my Specialist Sports Journalism course at the University of Derby.
It was announced pretty much out of nowhere that, as a group, we had the chance to cover the 2nd European Games in Minsk. Where? That was most people’s thoughts too.
The capital city of Belarus, an eastern European nation which was once part of the USSR, was to host the second edition of the European Games attracting athletes from all across the continent.
It was our job to work for the competition’s official news service, running around grabbing interviews, transcribing flash quotes and gaining some invaluable experience.
Throughout my stay, I worked alongside a team covering the shooting disciplines and some of the karate events at the Games, interviewing a range of athletes from young and upcoming debutants to professional veterans with Olympic gold medals in their cabinet.
However, if you’re anything like me and suffer from a severe case of ‘wanderlust’, then you’re definitely going to want to run off an explore all the secrets that Minsk has to offer, of which there are many.
But before you go off gallivanting through the city’s endless, vibrant streets, here are five things you should know before visiting Minsk.
1. Be aware of local laws and customs
The city of Minsk is an extremely clean, urban area with plenty of hustle and bustle. But this doesn’t mean that they appreciate loud and obnoxious visitors who seemingly care little for their strict and heavily followed customs.
One of the many rules that are followed absolutely is that of waiting at a traffic light. Although jaywalking isn’t strictly forbidden, it is frowned upon and being caught can lead to you being fined.
Be aware that taking pictures of certain government buildings can also lead to a fine and a stern telling off from a rather intimidating man in uniform.
It is no coincidence that Belarus is the continent’s least visited country. Thanks to restrictive Visa requirements needed to enter the former Soviet state, the country has sealed itself off from many visitors.
However, this has changed dramatically owing to a recent law that now allows foreign nationals from a large number of nations a visa-free entry into Belarus so long as their stay does not exceed 30 days.
Although this is undeniably a good thing for the nation, it now means that the country will see an influx of visitors across the globe which they are far from used to.
So don’t be surprised if you get some funny looks from the natives as this wave of tourists is new to them. With the country very much remaining as a conservative society, it is just a change in culture that you’ll learn to accept.
2. Familiarise yourself with the language
Due to the lack of foreign visitors, Belarus is one of a few nations in which English isn’t as widely spoken as much as some would hope.
The official language of Belarus is, of course, Belarusian. You will find that most people, however, will speak the nation’s OTHER official language – Russian.
Despite being mutually intelligible, sharing the same alphabet and being extremely similar to Russian, it is reported that just over 10% of the population actively use Belarusian as their first language.
Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear someone say spasibo the Russian word for ‘thanks’, rather than dziakuj, it’s Belarusian equivalent. And like myself, you have probably just absolutely butchered the pronunciation of those words, and that’s not even the worst part.
In Belarus, they use the Cyrillic alphabet as opposed to the Latin alphabet found in most countries across the globe. This means that spasibo becomes ‘спасибо‘ and dziakuj becomes ‘дзякуй‘.
I think complicated is the correct term.
And if that isn’t confusing enough, the Cyrillic alphabet does a great job of confusing non-native speakers with letters that look familiar but simply aren’t.
Take the Russian letter ‘Р’ for example. Looks exactly the same as the Latin letter, P. But in reality it means R. This is the case for many letters; C is S, P is R, Y is U, H is I and the list goes on.
As confusing as it is for those not familiar with the language, once you get a loose grip of what each of the letters means, you can begin to make out certain words. This helps immensely when trying to read signs or work out what sort of shop you’re about to walk into.
Many signs, especially those used for public transport, are accompanied by English translations. However, it is always a good habit to rehearse at least the basics of a language, just so you’re not completely hopeless when you get there.
3. Embrace the country’s culture
Despite speaking the same language, once being part of the same country and both being Slavic nations, Belarus and Russia are still two completely different countries and it’s important not to get them confused.
If you look past the similarities between Belarus and its larger, more famous neighbour, you’ll find a country rich with heritage and history which has been pretty much disturbed by Western civilisation.
One of the countries most famous and recognisable symbols, the Rushnyk, can be found almost everywhere, most notably on the hoist side of the nation’s flag.
Plastered on shop signs, lamp posts, flag poles and all sorts of media, the signature red and white knitted pattern is a distinct ritual cloth native to many eastern Slavic nations yet is normally associated with Belarus.
Experimenting with the local cuisine is also a must for those planning a trip to Belarus’ capital city.
As tempting as it is to wander into the endless number of McDonalds, KFCs and Burger Kings, to truly experience the culture of Minsk and more importantly Belarus, you need to try the food.
Whether it be one of the many pastries on offer in all the local shops or the somewhat unpleasant looking buckwheat porridge hybrid which is seemingly everywhere – they truly love the stuff.
My personal favourite was the national dish known as ‘Draniki’; a potato pancake served with anything ranging from bacon and eggs to applesauce and sugar but most often found with a healthy serving of sour cream.
4. Explore the city’s many wonders
Now, this one should come as a given more than a tip. Whenever you travel somewhere new it is inevitable that you’ll do a bit of exploring and looking around. But to truly find the hidden secrets Minsk has to offer you need to fully immerse yourself within it.
Using the one day off from my duties, I wanted to find out what the city of 1.8 million people could be hiding. Without planning anything, I left my accommodation and just walked.
What I found left me stunned.
As a result of the mass evacuation to Minsk during the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and the city’s location within a huge area of grass and woodlands, both human civilisation and mother nature have learnt to live harmoniously creating a very literal concrete jungle.
Huge parks can be found dotted around the city with gargantuan trees hugging blocks of flats as if they had been there since the dawn of time.
And that was just scratching the surface.
After an hour or so I stumbled across a tiny island in the middle of a lake which was known as the ‘Island of Tears’. The monument was erected commemorating Soviet soldiers from Belarus who had perished in the decade-long war with Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
Sculptures of widows, mothers and sisters – those left to mourn the dead – are found surrounding the sculpture with a fountain in the shape of a boy found nearby which cries tears.
After taking a moment to appreciate the monument for what it was, I could see the tip of a huge structure over the horizon.
The Great Patriotic War Museum is just as good to look at on the outside as it is on the inside. Beautifully sculpted statues can be found surrounding the museum with the huge concrete monument which acts as centre-piece to the shimmering, mirrored exterior.
Everywhere I seemed to look I found myself having to stop and stare. It was clear to me that my previous opinions about Belarus were wrong.
Here is a gallery of just some of the many sights I managed to capture during my visit:
5. Leave any preconceived misconceptions behind
If like me, you grew up surrounded by the views, beliefs and ideologies of Western civilisation, you probably think of Eastern Europe as this cold, harsh area of the word with concrete buildings full of people who hate those from the West.
I did too, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
One piece of advice I would like anyone travelling to Minsk to take onboard is to travel there with an open mind. Understand that their culture isn’t like ours, embrace the changes in their societal values and take in what is right in front of you.
What I found was a place with so much potential to amaze travellers from all across the globe. Immaculately clean streets, people who are more than willing to help in a time of need, stunning pockets of architecture and nature that seemingly live side by side.
The list goes on.
Don’t get me wrong, Minsk isn’t perfect and there are many things the locals would like to change. But the point is that Belarus isn’t the same country it was over 30 years ago.
Things change, people change, places change. The nation has opened its doors to visitors and is ready to show the world what Belarus is really like.
So if you’re not planning a trip to the least visited country in Europe well… maybe you should.