Attractive, clean, safe, livable. Minsk deserves those adjectives. I was surprised. My parents would have liked it.
I hesitate to flatter it this way.
“Inside Europe’s last dictatorship” cries the 2012 Guardian headline about Belarus. “Better to be a dictator than gay,” responded leader-for-the-past-quarter-century Alexander Lukashenko, when criticized for his rights record by an out-of-the-closet German minister.
The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index slots Belarus in a dismal 153rd place, behind Russia and Venezuela. How goes a scribe’s life in a 153rd place country? One example: in 2012, a Swedish pilot flew illegally into Belarus to air drop hundreds of teddy bears festooned with pro-democracy messages. A twenty year old student journalist posted snaps of the teddy bears online. Lukashenko chucked the kid in the slammer, fired a couple of generals and shut down the Swedish embassy. A fun guy, this Lukashenko. I suggest practical jokers vacation in another country.
Belarus also seems to have reaped good results with a smells-strongly-of-Soviet economic system. Lukashenko shunned the “wild capitalism” of post-USSR-break-up Russia, instead steered Belarus on a path of “market socialism.” Major tractor, truck and bus factories are state owned; High Tech Park and the Minsk IT sector — think Viber, Maps.Me — thrive with strong governmental support.
I squirm while contemplating successes achieved by such a top-down system in the absence of press freedom. I might feel reassured to write of a Minsk that is gray, dirty, decrepit.
I couldn’t do so honestly. Minsk impressed from arrival to departure. Clean, attractive airport. No issues with passport control. One major headache in acquiring Belarusian rubles, to be described at post end. I picked up a pre-paid MTS sim card in ten minutes, dashed out to catch a spiffy 3003 shuttle bus, marveled at Belarus’ pristine woodlands scenery while riding west toward town. (Over forty percent of the country is forested.)
I expected to see blight once we hit the city outskirts; in Kyiv, I’d seen plenty. Not in Minsk. Lotsa traffic on Praspiekt Niezaliežnasci (Independence Avenue), the city’s main drag, but the traffic flowed. Striking muraled towers on the north side of the street, a modern shopping center, a show-stopping national library. Gee whiz.
My hotel was near the don’t-ask-me-to-pronounce-it Prospekte Pobeditelei, close to the touristy old town, the Svislach river and Galleria Minsk. This ‘nabe is not inaccurately portrayed in the shot a couple of paragraphs above, or by this shot in the accompanying photo directory. It looks that good in 3D. (Admittedly, sunny 16 weather helped.)
I became skeptical, wondered if my pre-trip research had steered me to a pocket of unrepresentative touristy plentitude. “Where’s the ‘hood around here?” asked I of a native the next day. She suggested I stroll the working class blocks near the Uschod station. I ruled that out; I’d already been there the evening before to take golden hour snaps of the All Saints Church, remembered a pleasant park, a playground, nothing untoward. She suggested another working class neighborhood, near the end-of-line-2 Mahiloŭskaja station.
Off I went. Photo above. I had only a full day in Minsk, didn’t tarry long there. Maybe I missed something. Looked nice to me.
World War II razed central Minsk and destroyed eighty percent of its housing stock. The modern city that stands today may have far exceeded my expectations, but also offers nothing like Kyiv’s mighty backfield of historical landmarks. I’d have to rate this as the biggest knock against Minsk as a tourist destination: there’s not all that much to see.
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The Minsk metro is mostly straight out of the Soviet textbook, with subway cars, platforms, escalators and fare gates that reminded me of past trips to Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as what I’d just seen in Kyiv. The difference: everything in Minsk was in better shape.
Cars were clean, brightly lit, often sported new seating. A Minsk blog warns that riders may twiddle thumbs for as many as twelve minutes between rides, but I don’t think I ever waited more than three. (Less than I now often wait for trains during a summer metro slowdown in Madrid.)
I had no trouble buying a multi-day unlimited IC card at the Lenin Square station, the closest station to the 3003 shuttle’s end-of-the-line stop at the central Minsk-Pasažyrski train depot.
Can you take photos in the Minsk metro?
Score one for Andrei. Yes. I took many metro shots within a few meters of station security staff, obviously wasn’t breaking any rules.
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Practical tourist information:
(♦) Expect to meet few English speakers and you won’t be disappointed. Similar to Kyiv.
(♦) Americans don’t need a visa, not anymore, if:
– staying thirty days or fewer
– arriving and departing from Minsk International airport
– covered by adequate medical insurance.
I bought my insurance online before the trip for about 4 EUR, printed out three pages that I proferred without incident at passport control. I gather that I also could have paid cash on the spot without fuss.
(♦) Belarusians trade in Belarusian rubles, now going for about .43 EUR each. Not Russian rubles. You’d need seventy-three Russian rubles to buy a single euro coin.
Belarusian rubles. Different country, different currency, different exchange rate.
So I spot the bank of ATMs in the Minsk airport arrivals area, approach a big green ‘Bahkomat,” I think that’s what it was called, slip in my bank card, see an option to withdraw rubles. “I’m about to get Belarusian rubles,” think I. What else would I get? I’m in Minsk. Would I expect to pull Aussie dollars out of an ATM at LAX or SFO?
I should have felt suspicious when I saw 1,000 rubles as the minimum withdrawal. Fuzzy-headed ol’ Tim continued with the transaction anyway, was horrified to get … you guessed it … 1,000 RUSSIAN rubles. Of utterly no use to me in Belarus. Irritated me had to cool heels in an currency exchange queue to get rubles I could actually spend in-country. Maybe I picked the wrong ATM.
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Please have a look at the photo directory:
for high-res copies of the images above, and other shots.